First Look: Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall

The new Old Fourth Ward eatery creates a campout vibe on the Beltline

If you're looking for Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall, just head out, as their website directs, to "the Atlanta Beltline at mile marker 9.25." That's where you'll find a quirky bar and restaurant that borders on camp. And by camp, I mean a campy, summer camp, camping cookout for adults. The restaurant's logo designer, Juliana Lynch, described it as "Wes Anderson meets Bear Grylls ... elevated camping favorites along with farm-to-table local deliciousness," and that just about sums up Ladybird Grove's version of fun, casual dinner and drinks (plus brunch on Saturdays).

Though the mile marker directions might not help if you're arriving by car (the restaurant is located adjacent to the Sampson Street Lofts), its very mention shows an important aspect of two-month-old Ladybird Grove: It's the first bar/restaurant engineered specifically for people-watching and laid-back imbibing along the Beltline.

The camping theme at Ladybird goes far enough to imbue the place with plenty of character, but not quite so far as to make it a slap-you-in-the-face theme restaurant. Out front in the parking lot a vintage Jeep Wagoneer, emblazoned with the Ladybird logo and complete with "Scouting ... the better life" bumper sticker, sits resplendent in a shade of yellow that was discontinued from the color spectrum some time around 1979. Inside, a long, L-shaped bar bridges two dining rooms beneath lofty, 20-foot ceilings. The wall behind the bar is decked with topography maps, and another is covered in a massive mural of an owl and a ferocious bear beneath a full moon. In front of the mural sits a sawdust-covered custom shuffleboard table. Between the bar and the Beltline are a large screened-in porch and an even larger outdoor patio lit by twinkle lights overhead.

Ladybird's folded-up paper menu — labeled "Survival Guide" — includes clever graphic touches such as a maplike key with instructions to "open once for drinks dripping water faucet icon, open twice for food smoking charcoal grill icon." The kitchen is helmed by chef Kyle Schmidt, formerly of the Ford Fry empire. Schmidt wears a bushy beard perfectly suited to the Ladybird aesthetic, and he staffs the pass like a stoic lumberjack proudly serving up supper to his fellow woodcutters.

The hodgepodge array of dishes makes the food here difficult to categorize. Cutesy titles such as "Trail Snacks" for appetizers and "Base Camp" for large platters guide the way, but beyond the kitchen's gratuitous use of cast iron plating, most items have little in common. You wouldn't think that plates as diverse as Navajo fry bread, rice croquettes, shrimp and mussel shellfish roast, and country-fried ham steak could all happily coexist. Are we in the Southwest, the South, the Pacific Northwest, the Mediterranean? I guess this is Camp Anywhere. Kumbaya.

On one late night a friend and I sat at the bar and rolled through an array of small dishes — perfectly crispy and salty whole fried smelt ($8), heavily smoky but not-quite-spiced-enough merguez ($5), a peppery mix of mushrooms in a skillet ($8), a pristine dish of whole oil-cured sardines topped with bright and lively herbs ($9). None of these shouted "camp," but they all expressed a fairly straightforward focus on ingredients simply (and well) prepared.

Even better, and more obviously camp-inspired, was the "silver turtle" of braised goat ($18). Tender meat tossed with okra and tomato arrived wrapped up in parchment paper and aluminum foil, like you might find over many a campfire. The highlight of the dish, though, was the surprisingly perfect pairing of acidic pickled eggplant rounds next to the funky, delicious goat meat.

And though I resisted the very tempting house burger on my next visit, I couldn't miss the massive platter of spatchcocked chicken for the table to share ($38). First, skillets filled with spicy patatas bravas and a crisp mayo-free cole slaw arrived. Then came a thick slab of wood covered in a whole charred chicken chopped into pieces, a pile of grilled peppers and onions and nopales (cactus), large bowls of salsa, and a stack of grilled tortillas. It was a fun, messy border-hopping feast, centered on the simplicity of smoky, juicy, skin-on chicken. And while it may not remind you of your days at summer camp, it's the kind of offering that surely warrants emulation next time you have a grill at your disposal.

The bar has about a dozen beers on tap — all but one from Georgia — plus 30 or so more in cans. There are four eclectic and affordable wines on tap ($8 glass, $22 jug), served in plain old no-stem glasses. Ladybird's well-stocked bar offers a handful of classics and not-too-fancy house cocktails, like the Jamaica-Queens, which simply combines Blackwell rum and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram with a dash of bitters for a hearty blast of molasses and clove-heavy spice.

Even with its random food influences, Ladybird produces a fun, harmonious experience out of what could have been a cheesy, thematic disaster. There are some minor execution flubs — too much salt here, not enough spice there — but the camping vibe sets a relatively low bar that the kitchen easily surpasses. Ladybird won't necessarily take you back to your days at camp, but it is a place that lets you channel an adventurous, outdoorsy spirit in an urban landscape. Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like what the Beltline is doing for Atlanta, so kumbaya.

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