You Have Some Gall

Seeking succor at Grady's, plus feedback on Sundown's sea change

A few days after they rip your gallbladder out, you're not craving haute cuisine or exotic ethnic fare. "I want to go someplace really bland," I told Wayne. "One of those chain places where people aren't even tempted to look at the waiter and whine, 'Is it real spiiiicy?' Good old American pablum, that's what I want."

We landed at Grady's American Grill (2490 Briarcliff Road, 404-321-4663). It's been years since I dined here. The last time was with my former psychotherapist. He'd disappeared, leaving me and nearly 200 other clients in shock. Then, weeks later, I got a call inviting me to lunch at Grady's. To this day, I'm not sure why we lunched, but I remember thinking, "I guess any therapist who's heard so much weirdness would enjoy the comfort of uncomplicated food."

See, I can be nice, even with a trickle of bile now continually leaking from my liver, unregulated by the gallbladder. "The comfort of uncomplicated food," I repeated to myself magnanimously, as we walked through Grady's doors and were greeted by warm, woody but fern-less nostalgia ventilated by overhead fans. The bartender smiled behind his circular bar, at which a lone man sat, balefully picking through a salad. The large dining room, fronting an open kitchen, was fairly crowded and we were seated in a booth behind the bar.

Our server, a frightened-looking young woman with an indiscernible accent, handed us our menus and there it all was: the comforting, uncomplicated food. Burgers, steaks, grilled fish, chicken over pasta - just like ... somebody's mama use to make. Skipping over the broccoli cheese soup and pizza with "artichoke-jalapeno blend," we ordered the shrimp and artichoke fondue and buffalo tenders for starters.

As soon as the starters arrived, the illusion cracked. My liver roared. Honest to God, people need to stop worrying about Janet's breast and SpongeBob's homosexual inclinations and pay some attention to the degraded state of American culinary taste. The French, several years ago, began requiring public school students to take classes to formally educate their palates. It's time for America to follow suit.

What can be said of a plate of creamed spinach with sliced artichoke hearts and Monterey jack cheese with a few baby shrimp set over a candle to create the illusion of an actually warm fondue? Spoon the glutinous, gray substance onto greasy parmesan crackers and say "ooh la la." Buffalo tenders? What are those? Strips of fried chicken, utterly tepid and soggy, soaked in something like Texas Pete sauce. The strips are cast over a pile of fries with a few literally desiccated celery strips and blue cheese dressing.

Entrees are no better. You can't ruin prime rib, can you? Oh, yeah. Rub it with "Cajun spices" that taste bitter and roll themselves into little balls in the mouth as you chew the weirdly small portion, roughly the size of a slice of toast. Accompanying the meat is a gigantic baked potato "loaded" with fluorescent cheddar cheese and sour cream. More edible was my chicken picatta - pieces of chicken breast grilled to rubbery perfection, slathered in lemon-butter sauce and shot with capers. Slices of artichoke hearts - apparently the truffles of such places - joined bits of bacon and mushrooms in the buttery sauce anointing the chicken, which languished atop linguine that impersonated albino rubber bands.

The ticket for the comfort of uncomplicated food? Sixty-four smackers, including tip and a beer for Wayne.

Regarding SundownJeanie Velarde Brieske, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, with restaurateur grandparents, writes to lament the ending of Sundown's full dinner service and says she hopes that the restaurant will occasionally allow chef Eddie Hernandez to get his "creative juices moving in the kitchen at a later date."

Meanwhile, Jeanie recommends Taqueria Los Hermanos in Tucker on Lawrenceville Highway: "Their tamales are super as are their fish tacos. It's a bit different from Taqueria del Sol. ... Also, we find great plates in Decatur at Zocalo on the Square and the newly opened Coyote's on College Avenue, toward Avondale Estates. Zocalo has a wonderful menu from Puebla/Oaxaca and we believe the chef is a genius."

Tristan Andersen writes this thoughtful e-mail:

"You recently mentioned that only Nava has approached the quality of Sundown Cafe. How do you stack up Agave to these other two restaurants? I have found Agave to be more consistent than Nava with very comparable, if not sometimes superior, quality. I have enjoyed my visits to Nava but I have always come out a little disappointed that the meal didn't meet the hype. Jalapeno jack fritters that looked so good in pictures (in the Loaf and Buckhead Life's website) were huge crusty figures that we had to saw through in order to find a bit of tasty jack cheese in the middle. The signature Prickly Pear Margarita tasted like a margarita from any generic casual dining restaurant with too much sour mix. The suncorn-crusted snapper, however, was fantastic. My point is ... do you group Agave in a different category than Nava and Sundown?"

OK, I should be clearer about that. What I think is true is that Nava's kitchen approached the experimental verve of Sundown's - maybe even exceeded it now and then. Agave, I agree, is more reliable than Nava, but I have long felt its menu needs some jazzing.

"Richard" writes this:

"I'm pissed off that Sundown is turning itself into another taco stand, but the restaurant hasn't been very exciting for more than a year. The menu was shortened long ago and most of the classics, like 'Eddie's pork,' have kind of grown stale. What's the bottom line here? Is the failure the public's or the restaurant's?"

The bottom line is the bottom line. According to everyone involved, the decision is purely financial. Business was off while the two taco venues - Taqueria del Sol - continue to rake in big bundles of cash. As far as art goes, Hernandez and David Waller will continue to run the menu and produce specials. Perhaps this will actually turn out to be an opportunity for more, rather than less, experimentation.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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