Pittypat's Porch: Whistling Dixie

Atlanta's longest operating restaurant pimps nostalgia downtown

Remember singing "Dixie"? Not so long ago, it was impossible to go to a public event in Atlanta — such as the laser show at Stone Mountain Park — that didn't end with a performance of the song, punctuated by rebel yells in celebration of the glory days of slavery and secession.

The nostalgia wasn't even figurative. It had literal expression at Aunt Fanny's Cabin, where black women dressed as plantation slaves and sang gospel songs halfway through your dinner. At Johnny Reb's Dixieland, the well-known black musician Graham Jackson performed "The Battle of Atlanta" on the organ nightly, wrenching the hearts of sentimental white people.

Those two restaurants are gone. The only restaurant that even remotely recalls Dixie these days is Pittypat's Porch (25 Andrew Young International Blvd., 404-525-8228, www.pittypatsrestaurant.com). It has been open since 1967, and, according to our server there, it is the longest continually operating independent restaurant in the city.

I have spent the great majority of my life in Atlanta and I'd never eaten at Pittypat's before my visit last week. As a kid, I dined at Aunt Fanny's Cabin frequently, and, as my social conscience evolved, so did my disgust with the place. I never wanted to go near Pittypat's Porch because I assumed it would also provide a stage for racist performance art.

Pittypat's is somewhat different, though. It takes its name from Scarlett O'Hara's aunt in Gone With the Wind. As such, its nostalgia is not explicitly racist. It recalls Margaret Mitchell's fictional South. Indeed, it's hard not to find the place so anachronistic that it's almost campy. There are no costumed characters and there were plenty of African-American diners when I visited.

Nonetheless, the place is a nightmare of the Confederate imagination. The first impression of the South it delivers is the heat of summer. It is inadequately air-conditioned. When I remarked to the hostess how hot it was, she said the dining room itself was cooler. Well, sort of. There were fans set around the tables. I enjoyed watching the breeze stir the silver beehive hairdo of a woman whose adult son sported a fauxhawk whose height seem calculated to reproduce his mom's do. The Oedipus Complex flourishes way down south in Dixie.

You actually enter Pittypat's through a large room — a bar — built to resemble an antebellum porch. Rocking chairs surround the porch railing so that waiting diners can leisurely sip overpriced Mint Juleps while viewing the hostess space below. No such luck for us, though. A sign announced that the bar was closed. We did wander about looking at the pictures of celebrities and GWTW characters.

The downstairs dining room is enormous. Countless mangy heads of taxidermied animals watch over the sweltering tables. There are columns here and there. You know, like the columns on the front of Tara.

The restaurant was very busy. I later learned this is fairly unusual. But it was Downtown Atlanta Restaurant Week, and Pittypat's was offering a four-course meal for $25, a fairly substantial savings off its tourist-trapping prices. I'm not sure if it is a routine problem, but the service — provided by a very pleasant, smiling woman — was awful. She disappeared for so long that we had to ask someone to fetch her twice. But, never mind. Without warning, the restaurant added a 20 percent tip to our bill.

Perhaps we could have abided the heat and the bad service had the food been good. For the most part, though, it was just awful. Aunt Pittypat wouldn't wish our meal on Ulysses S. Grant.

We ordered both starters on the $25 menu. The South Georgia gumbo was the planet's worst. The "rich, savory broth" was unbearably salty and acrid. Its "fresh seafood, sausage and vegetables" amounted to three shrimp, some crumbled meat and some carrot slices — all tasteless. Neither of us could eat half of it. The other starter, black-eyed pea cakes, were mushy, also tasteless and served with a salsa of "tomatoes, onions and peaches," according to the menu. Apparently the peaches were ditched.

Meanwhile, we were directed to Aunt Pittypat's Southern Salad Sideboard.

"This place really does take you back to the old South ... of the 1970s," Wayne said, as we returned from the Shoney's-like salad bar. Our plates were loaded with chicken salad, rice salad, weird-tasting pickled okra, unidentifiable sweet vegetation, etc.

Our entrées were more palatable. Wayne ordered "the best damn Southern fried bird" with "mashed 'taters and gravy." It wasn't bad, but at $17.95 for three pieces of chicken on the regular menu, I'm sticking to Popeyes. My entrée, "a full rack of baby-back ribs slathered with Jack Daniels BBQ sauce," was the usual bland barbecue you find in chain restaurants. The sauce tasted like the bottled stuff.

Our entrées were accompanied by portions of collards and black-eyed peas. The collards were virtually candied. The peas were tasteless.

The best thing we ordered was dessert. Wayne got the key lime pie that looked decidedly like cake, but tasted good enough. I got a nicely made pecan pie à la mode. Granted, it's hard to screw up pecan pie, but, considering the rest of the food we ate, maybe the good pie means that, after 43 years, there's still hope that Pittypat's Porch will improve.

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