Grazing: McKinnon's and Petite Auberge

Revisiting two classics with fresh eyes

It's Saturday night and I'm sitting in a corner, dining alone in the piano-bar lounge of one of the city's oldest restaurants, McKinnon's Louisiane (3209 Maple Drive, 404-237-1313). I can't see much, but I'm feeling kind of bittersweet, listening to the singing around the corner. The crowd is older and everyone seems so sweet.

Then I startle myself. I realize I am moving my lips. Yes, I am lip-synching unconsciously: "Maybe I didn't love you quite as often as I could have ... You were always on my miiiiind ..." OMG! Elvis sang that when Priscilla left him in 1972 and I remember the freaking lyrics! Something terrible occurs to me: I now belong here.

Billy McKinnon, in fact, opened his restaurant the same year Priscilla left Graceland. A former stockbroker, he had the good heart and talent to escape Wall Street and pursue his passion for cooking in the late '60s. He interned at the ancient, still revered Galatoire's in New Orleans.

McKinnon's originally opened on Cheshire Bridge Road. In 1985, it moved to its current location in an inconspicuous commercial strip near the intersection of Piedmont and Peachtree roads in Buckhead. McKinnon sold the restaurant to its longtime manager Aziz Mehram when he turned 65 in 2002. He died three years ago in Darien, Ga.

Maybe 15 years ago, I visited the restaurant a second time and found myself in the same piano-bar scene as last Saturday. Back then, I described it as "surreal geriatric karaoke." Understand, the music is not a house band crooning for someone to send in the clowns. It's longtime customers picking up the microphone to sing, accompanied by Fran Owen, who has been tickling the ivories there for 30 years. She's joined by Bob Fountain on guitar, a mere novice of 11 years.

They do this every Friday and Saturday. More amazing, years-long customers stage an all-out cabaret in the restaurant's Grill Room on Wednesday nights. This performance art has been occurring for decades and it's not fading. Owner Mehram told me he's contemplating extending open mic to Thursday nights.

The food has not changed. Most of the menu is fish, of course. Oysters Rockefeller or popular shrimp grilled with red peppercorns might precede your choice of trout amandine, catfish Patoux with crawfish dressing, soft-shell crabs, shrimp Creole, bouillabaisse, plates of fried seafood, or ginger-crusted snapper. Some food is blackened. Some dishes get a dose of hollandaise, béarnaise, or beurre blanc. Portions are big.

I ordered a starter of creamy, blackened chicken livers nestled against thumbnail-size slices of grilled andouille sausage that, honestly, tasted like fried baloney at first. They did add a little chewy heat to the plate, but that's about it.

I performed my usual test of Cajun kitchens by ordering the crawfish étouffée. It's perfectly legitimate to make an étouffée this way — with so many tomatoes, it tastes a lot like a marinara to me. But I prefer étouffée made with a strong roux and very few tomatoes, if any. That aside, the bowl, topped with a scoop of white rice, was loaded with crawfish. The succulent little tails are flown in fresh every six days.

Dessert was bread pudding. The bread was torn into chunks and mixed with raisins and some pecan bits. It's not the prettiest version but, hey, you get more sides of bread to coat in the whiskey sauce.

Some important advice: Here, "casual attire" is meant in the '70s sense of not having to wear a tie under your blazer. This is especially true amid the main dining room's retro elegance. Imagine Blanche DuBois tipsy with nostalgia, her elbows on a white tablecloth.

McKinnon's, from the wackily wonderful music to the rarely encountered superb service and hosting, is a necessary Atlanta experience. My sampling of the menu was limited, so I'm not prepared to make any summary judgments. I do know I'm going back.

A few days later, I headed to lunch at another Atlanta classic I hadn't visited in years — Petite Auberge (2935 N. Druid Hills Road, 404-634-6268) in Toco Hills Shopping Center. Here, time has stood very still. The dining room is hung with chandeliers and lamps softly illuminate the outer ring of tables.

I have to admit that the crowd startled me. It was 85 percent elderly women. At a nearby table, a woman spent the entire lunch bent over, asleep. At the booth in front of me, a younger woman, maybe 60, lectured her mother, maybe 85, with ferocity. Mama sat quietly, then paid for lunch.

Petite Auberge opened in 1974, two years after McKinnon's. It was the first restaurant I reviewed for Creative Loafing, while I was still editor there, around 1986. I found the everyday cooking mediocre, but the restaurant used to do a monthly German menu I enjoyed.

There's a three-course lunch special every day. For $12, you get your pick of entrées and desserts. The first course is always the soup of the day. That meant I got a cup of turkey-and-rice soup with veggies. I'm sorry. It tasted straight out of a can. I couldn't get through it.

My entrée was a grilled "bistro steak" topped with herbed butter and served with crispy fries, dreadfully overcooked broccoli, and half a roasted tomato. Can I complain about a gray, virtually tasteless steak that costs so little? When I go back in 10 years for a nap, maybe I'll try the chicken cordon bleu or the Hawaiian chicken salad sandwich. Maybe I'll order à la carte and get a Reuben sandwich or an onion burger.

For dessert, I couldn't resist a comparison to McKinnon's bread pudding. This was prettier. The bread, soaked in a "buttery bourbon sauce" was baked with raisins in a loaf, sliced and dusted with powdered sugar. Vive la difference, y'all.

The staff here is wonderful. Maybe dinner is better. A cool aspect is the restaurant's boutique where you can sample 27 varieties of olive oil and vinegars. Many of these are weirdly infused with flavors like peach and pecan. At the very least, a visit just to sample these hallucinogens might be worth the experience.

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