Q. Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to talk with One Hundred Tables today. Do you have the coolest job in Atlanta or what? And what exactly do you do?
A. It’s funny you say that. I’m always telling my friends and family exactly that: “I have the best job in Atlanta.” My job description actually requires me to eat great food, drink delicious wine and socialize with amazingly interesting people. You simply can’t beat it.
As for what I do beyond that, I handle all the marketing activities for Fifth Group Restaurants including seven restaurants (South City Kitchen Midtown, South City Kitchen Vinings, La Tavola, Ecco, El Taco, Alma and Lure) and Bold American Events, our catering and design divisions. This includes traditional marketing, event promotion, community outreach, public relations, graphic design, copywriting and brand and community management (15 Facebook pages and 9 Twitter accounts!). I definitely wear myriad hats and juggle several projects at once, but that’s what makes it so rewarding and fun; no two days are every the same.
Q. How long have you been at Fifth Group?
A. I have been with Fifth Group Restaurants since July of 2006. In fact, it’s the longest I’ve been at one single job consecutively in my whole life and there’s good reason for that as I’m surrounded by amazingly talented, dedicated and funny people. I’m a lucky man.
Q. I remember when La Tavola opened years back. Today La Tavola is a mainstay in the Virginia-Highland area of Atlanta. How does the menu stay current over the years or does the clientele here ask for the staple dishes year after year?
A. We definitely have dishes that our guests would revolt if removed from the menu because they’re so beloved. The grilled calamari and spaghetti and veal meatballs (which was voted one of the 100 things to eat before you die by Creative Loafing) are perfect examples.
That said, because Executive Chef Brent Banda has developed a menu that is so completely on point, he’s been able to introduce a variety of new dishes that have been as equally embraced by the public; the black squid ink pasta being a perfect example. You have to be careful as Italian food is, at its core, comfort food and people don’t want their comfort food messed with. The current balance between traditional and contemporary is perfect.
Q. While I love all of your restaurants, I feel a personal pull to Ecco for some reason. I love the room, the bar, and the civil approach to eating simple honest food. Do you sense a different crowd in each of your restaurants or does the clientele crossover a lot?
A. That has always been one of my main goals: to reinforce the fact that if you love one of our restaurants, you’re sure to have an equally as enjoyable experience at one of the other six. Our approach to tangible, connected service is nurtured in all of our units, so you’ll notice small personal touches that run throughout and in between each concept. That said, we have die-hard loyalists, which is just fine with me, too. They are the cornerstones of what we do every day and we can’t be more thankful for their continued patronage.
Q. The room is Alma Cocina is beautiful. I love that high-end Mexico look. Who comes up with the designs for your restaurants?
A. It’s a completely collaborative experience. We have been fortunate enough to work some of the best designers around like Peace Designs, The Johnston Studio and ai3. Honestly, I’m not involved in this area of the business, so I see it as it develops just like everyone else, but I can tell you that it’s a passionate process that requires a great deal of compromise and ingenuity—it’s the ultimate marriage of form and function.
Q. Who are one or two of the more interesting bartenders across your restaurants and are they known for any particular concoctions?
A. We have such an amazing staff of passionate, dedicated people that I hate to single out individuals. But I don’t think it’s any surprise that Alli Royce Soble, who has been at La Tavola for over a decade, is a shining example of our efforts to cultivate happy, productive employees. She works the bar there like nobody’s business with a staggering number of regulars that come to sit with her as much as they do to enjoy the food. Also, Brent Gatehouse at Lure is doing some amazing work building a loyal bar clientele at a new restaurant. Thanks to his continued efforts to connect with them, these guests have become broadcast towers for us in the community, ultimately driving people in the door to experience the outstanding food Executive Chef David Bradleyis presenting.
Q. I recently had dinner at Lure - fabulous food and the room was packed. This looks like it was a very successful launch. How is the bar scene at Lure? Is it an early crowd, a late crowd?
A. To the point above, it’s growing dramatically every day. The beverage program that our corporate beverage director, Vajra Stratigos, and Brent have developed is, in my opinion, one of the most unique in the city. We are beginning to see the same faces for after-work cocktails and the bar fills up quickly every night, especially on the weekends. Midtown is such a melting pot and this is definitely reflected in the people we are seeing enjoying the shochu, house-bottled cocktails and, my personal favorite, the playful punch bowls.
Q. What are your one or two favorite restaurants in a city other than Atlanta?
A. SPQR in San Francisco and The Macintosh in Charleston, SC. Both have amazing food, but what always gets me is the service which is outstanding in both recommendations.
Q. A little fun – You have two nights in any hotel in the world all expenses paid. Where do you go?
A. Wow…that is a fun question. I’m afraid when it comes to travel, I have been less than adventurous (one of my great regrets in life), so my first choice would be Rome, Italy. I come from strong Italian roots and have always wanted to see if the cannoli there is as good as my Nana’s. I bet it’s not.
Q. From your perspective, where do you sense the Atlanta dining scene is going over the next 5-10 years?
A. Atlanta and the South in general are finally getting the culinary recognition they deserve—which is fantastic! We are more than fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits (although we make stellar examples of both South City Kitchen). I’m hoping we will begin to see more longevity, allowing concepts to grow and evolve over time. This is ultimately how you get the best out of any restaurant in terms of food, service and atmosphere.
This year, South City Kitchen Midtown is celebrating its 20th anniversary and that is something of which to really be proud. It’s not common but it’s what has allowed it to become the quintessential go-to restaurant for visitors and locals; I can’t imagine Crescent Street without it and vice versa.
I also hope to see places like Canton Street in Old Roswell continue to grow and attract people from inside the perimeter. The food being made up there right now between Table & Main, Salt Factor and Little Alley Steak is pretty amazing. There’s room for all of us and we need to explore a little more outside our physical comfort zones. I mean, have you had the ribs at Swallow at the Hollow? Crazy good.
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