In the mid-20th century, American diners sought escape. They visited tiki bars and dined at glamorous throwback restaurants where they could eat over-the-top meals and be transported away from their suddenly fast-paced, postwar lives. Today, American diners are struggling through their own identity crises, and maybe escape—done safely—is just what they need to get away from the stress and uncertainty of their mid-pandemic lives, if only for an evening.
That’s what the team behind The Betty is hoping at least. The marquee restaurant of the new Kimpton Sylvan Hotel, which opened in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood last week, is offering its own version of a modern-day escape—one that transports diners back to the 1950s.
“There’s definitely people who now more than ever just need to be out of the house,” The Betty’s executive chef, Brandon Chavannes, said. “And while there’s good reason to stay in the house, for sure, people need to have some semblance of life. The experience that having a nice meal and being carefree for a moment provides is something that is uniquely human and essential to the human experience.”
The Betty takes its inspiration from midcentury supper clubs. (Fitting, as the Kimpton Sylvan was constructed in a 1950s-era building and also reflects that design aesthetic.) The 175-seat dining room and patio are decked out with dark wood, black velvet, marble and leather. Duke Ellington croons overhead. The bar, helmed by beverage manager Trey Ledbetter, is backed with beveled mirrors and highlights brown spirits, cocktails favored in Old Hollywood and those popularized in the Midwest (where supper clubs were also widespread), like the Pink Squirrel and Rusty Nail.
And Chavannes (most recently of Ford Fry’s St. Cecilia) brings the food menu up to date by “refining and reimagining” staples with local, seasonal ingredients and fresh techniques. There are large-format dishes like whole, salt-crusted fish, tableside prep and a raw bar, all of which were trademarks of American continental cuisine.
But there are also whimsical takes on some not-so-beloved retro dishes, like the mayo-loaded Crab Louis salad.
“In my opinion, some of these [dishes] perhaps weren’t so awesome 40, 50, 60 years ago,” Chavannes said. “But they certainly could be. It’s not that the flavors are unsound. The elements just have an opportunity to be tightened up a little bit, to evolve.”
The Betty’s crab salad has an avocado-based dressing and is accented with local lettuces, tarragon, grapefruit and snap peas.
“All of these things contribute not only to a profound experience of flavors and textures and quality of ingredients, but to a more delicate and elegant presentation,” he said. “It’s craveable and approachable and it’s easy to understand.”
The same is true of Chavannes’s take on beef stroganoff; in the 1950s, it was often just dumped out of a can. The Betty’s refined version starts with domestic Wagyu beef cheeks, which are braised with veal stock, Madeira and red wine. Then, instead of spooning it onto egg noodles, it is partnered with black pepper-potato gnocchi that’s been dressed in house-made sour cream, Dijon mustard and sherry vinegar. It is finished off with little rounds of pickled kumquat and dill.
“That’s what’s so fun about The Betty, because you could have a very clear picture of what [a dish] is supposed to be, and it comes out and surprises you, or you have no idea what it’s supposed to be,” he said. “And now all of a sudden we have the opportunity to set that expectation for people moving forward.”
Think you know shrimp cocktail? This one is served with a lime-pickle cocktail sauce. How about linguini and clams? The Betty’s includes uni, garlic and lots of chilis. And for dessert, a classic coconut roll is anything but; this one is filled with South Asian kaya (coconut) jam and paired with caramelized cinnamon-miso ice cream.
The Betty also serves breakfast. In early spring, Chavannes will open two more eateries at the Kimpton Sylvan: a rooftop lounge, St. Julep, and a garden bar, Willow Bar. St. Julep, located on the hotel’s ninth floor, offers views of the city, guest DJs and “elevated party food” like Szechuan tater tots, Korean corn dogs, boozy soft serve and margaritas.
The 5,000-square-foot Willow Bar is built around a willow oak tree behind the hotel and offers soothing floor lanterns and a plant-focused menu. Food dishes include jerk cauliflower with tamarind, and smoked shiitakes with green tomatoes and walnuts. Drinks will include natural and biodynamic wines, botanical-infused spirits, spritzes, kombucha and mead.
Chavannes said opening in such uncertain times has been “scary and anxiety-ridden, but it makes all of the intangible reasons for becoming a chef that much more pertinent on a daily basis.”
“We’re lucky that we get to play with food and serve nice wine, but ultimately, being needed, potentially being needed right now more than ever, and having the opportunity to do that for people is incredible,” he said. “When the world goes to shit, we all got to give up a little bit and dig deep and help our neighbors. That’s the only way out of it.”