Sunday, April 25, 2021

[EXCLUSIVE] Buckhead Diner Remains Closed, Its Future Uncertain

It has now been more than a full year since the pandemic began, and most restaurants that closed "temporarily" at the start have reopened in some form or fashion.  Unfortunately, some restaurants have closed altogether.  Despite the fact that all other Buckhead Life Restaurant Group (BLRG) restaurants have reopened, Buckhead Diner, one of the group's oldest and most beloved restaurants, with premier visibility along busy Piedmont Road, has remained dormant with no indication that it will reopen anytime soon.  

According to the Buckhead Diner facebook page, the restaurant closed in early June 2020.  The still active Buckhead Diner website displays a message saying:

"Buckhead Diner will re-open once social distancing guidelines are lifted." 

While social distancing guidelines have not been lifted entirely, they have been lifted to the point where the restaurant could reopen, right?

A BLRG spokesperson had this to say when we sought an update on the Diner's status: 

"...There are a lot of little things that go into reopening a restaurant and the owners are still assessing what to do, however, I can say we will probably have a final decision made towards the end of the summer." 

I. Pano Karatassos, BLRG Founder & CEO, reportedly wants to reopen the restaurant, while his sons Niko Karatassos, BLRG President, and Pano I. Karatassos, BLRG Corporate Executive Chef, reportedly prefer to flip the concept and do away with the Diner as it was before.  

The Buckhead Diner (3073 Piedmont Road), first opened in 1987, and was at that point the second of what would become a diverse group of restaurant concepts.  The Diner followed the success of the group's original eatery, Pano's & Paul's, which opened in 1979 and closed in 2009 in the West Paces Ferry shopping center.  

Buckhead Life restaurants that have reopened in Atlanta include Atlanta Fish Market, Pricci, Buckhead Bread Co. & Corner Cafe, Chops, Bistro Niko, and Kyma.  

Described by many as "the Ritziest diner in the country," the Buckhead Diner was for much of its existence a popular celebrity spot with their entryway covered in photos of celebrities, athletes and politicians who have dined there over the years.  

In 2017, the restaurant celebrated 30 years in business with a call for patrons to share memories and pictures from their Diner meals.  

ToNeTo Atlanta's founder is a graduate of the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality at Georgia State University and as part of an assignment, prepared a lengthy research paper on the Buckhead Diner.  Maureen Baker, who managed the restaurant for nearly a decade, shared with us several interesting facts including that before the property was the Buckhead Diner, it was one of the first freestanding Gap stores outside of San Francisco, where the retailer started in 1969.  Additionally, according to Baker, the Buckhead Diner had a west coast "twin," then known as the Fog City Diner, which opened in 1985 and featured a similar design and interior as its Buckhead counterpart.  Located in San Francisco's Levi's Plaza, Fog City Diner was rechristened simply Fog City in 2013 and was also reconcepted into a more contemporary American restaurant.  According to the Fog City Facebook page, the restaurant went into "hibernation" as of December 9, 2020 with plans to reopen in April or May of 2021.  

Since inception, the Buckhead Diner has been fertile training ground for several great chefs, many of whom have gone on to open their own eateries.  Most notably, Iron Chef Kevin Rathbun, who spent a total of 10 years at BLRG, several of which were spent overseeing the Diner, left in 2003 and eventually went on to open Kevin Rathbun's, Rathbun's Steaks, Krog Bar and KR SteakBar. Top Chef contestant Eli Kirstein was trained by Rathbun and went on to open/helm several restaurants, and Chef Gerry Klaskala was Executive Chef at the Buckhead Diner before he became Executive Chef and partner at Aria.

City of Atlanta property records indicate that the Buckhead Diner property is owned by Kenneth Orkin, grandson of Otto Orkin of the Orkin pest control family.  According to sources familiar with the situation, the restaurant's more than $30,000 monthly rent is also a sticking point in the potential reopening with Orkin reportedly unwilling to lower the rate or otherwise offer any significant relief to the restaurant.  (It's unclear what rent has or has not been paid in the ten plus months since the restaurant "temporarily closed.")

Another hurdle to the reopening of the Diner is that aside from Corner Café, the Diner's menu is the least expensive of all the BLRG concepts with most entrees no more than $20.  When the Diner first opened, there were far fewer restaurants to compete with and the Diner often had an extensive wait.  With more restaurants in Buckhead and in metro Atlanta in general, the Diner was less able to do the volume necessary to support the affordable menu prices.  

According to online records, BLRG received nearly $6.4 million in PPP loans this past April with the majority - nearly $4.8 million - earmarked for "payroll."  That said, and given the changes and scarcity of restaurant workers, it could also be challenging to staff the restaurant to reopen even if the decision is made to do so.  

Charles Schwab (the chef, not the financial guru) was for nearly ten years the Executive Chef at the Buckhead Diner ahead of its closure, but this past fall accepted the same position at the upcoming Peachtree Corners restaurant, H&W Steakhouse.  Server Brian Boyle, who was employed at the Diner since 1996, has found a new home at the Atlanta Fish Market. 
Chef Schwab with Sylvester Stallone 

ToNeTo Atlanta reported in March that Cherokee Cattle Company, a popular longtime restaurant in Marietta, also remains closed with its immediate future unclear.  The steakhouse, part of Marietta Family Restaurants, has also remained closed since last March, but with ownership publicly stating they plan to renovate and reopen it.  Unlike like BLRG, Marietta Family Restaurants not only operate the restaurant, but also, according to Cobb county property records, own the land and building on which the restaurant sits.  The restaurant's ownership of the land has likely allowed them a more relaxed reopening timetable: they have already pushed their planned renovation/reopening plans several times.  

Property records indicate that through various entities, BLRG does own the property on which The Atlanta Fish Market (and BLRG headquarters), Buckhead Bread & Corner Café, and Pricci are located.  

An agent for BLRG registered "3073 Corp." (The Buckhead Diner's address) on March 15, 2021 with the Georgia Secretary of State's office.  The filing, which is due annually, seems to suggest that the company does intend to do something with the property, but as the name suggests, could ultimately be  something other than the Buckhead Diner.   

UPDATE 8/25: The Buckhead Diner property sold on August 17 for $6 million and on August 25 BLRG officially confirmed they would not reopen.  "Restaurant group declines lease renewal to focus on expanding and renovating the iconic Chops and new restaurant trends like Lamb Shack," read a release announcing the closure.  Lamb Shack is "ghost kitchen" concept which operates from within BLRG's Kyma restaurant.  

Would you be sad if the Buckhead Diner closed?  What is your favorite Buckhead Life restaurant?  If the Buckhead Diner were to close, what would you like to see open in its place?

Please share your thoughts below. 


Anonymous said...

$30K per month rent! Holy expletive!

Ham said...

Had a lot of great times there and would hate to see them close it has really become more than a restaurant for many. My Father was a vendor for Pano at serval of his restaurants over the years and always had nice stories to tell. I do understand the issues at play, but which the parties involved could work things out and re-open.

Darbrednew said...

Property Owners can do whatever they wish but if their fees get to high the restaurant will up and move or close down which has happened numerous times in Atlanta, just look at the three Houston's locations that are no longer in business

Anonymous said...

Other restaurants have figured out how to be successful during the pandemic, whether it's outdoor seating or something else. There is plenty of space in the parking area at the Buckhead Diner. Time to get innovative and think outside the box. People are comfortable now going back to restaurants as everyone gets vaccinated. The diner is a landmark and it's a shame nothing can be worked out between the owners and the landlord to lower the rent until this nightmare is over.

Anonymous said...

On a typical evening the entire Diner lot is full (with 90% valet parking) so I don't think outside seating along noisy Piedmont is a solution here. I'd hate to see the Diner lost as that is my favorite BLRG concept. I've always had good meals there.

Anonymous said...

Not Surprised that the owner is using the pandemic as an excuse to close a dying diner. The service and food has been less than desirable for the last couple years and lack of customers was a result of the bad food and service

Anonymous said...

Unless his rent per sq foot is equal to those in the area, he should seek a rent reduction. Landlords need to be more flexible. If they can't work things out, perhaps Buckhead Life Group wants to open a cooking/baking school attached to a rooftop wine and cheese cafe. This would allow students and others a place to go before and after class.

There are other cooking schools but none with the reputation of Buckhead Life. I think their bakery is one of Buckhead's best-kept secrets. I would love to learn how to bake bread.

Anonymous said...

While we loved the Diner, unfortunately it had problems way before the pandemic. The worn down interior (water stained ceilings, paint chipping off, etc.) and untrained staff really detracted from what had always been an exceptional dining experience. It almost seemed like BLRG forgot they owned it and left it to fail.

Steven said...

Sadly I agree the restaurant has slipped over the last few years. I am grateful to have experienced it when the food was marvelous and Brian Boyle was the embodiment of a professional waiter.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the shout out. I had just celebrated my 25th Anniversary at The Buckhead Diner on March 1, 2020, as I started in 1995. I had planned to stay there til I retired, but you know what they say "Make God laugh by telling him your plans." Come see me at The Atlanta Fish Market! Love, Brian Boyle

Unknown said...

Reopen the DINER with a reduced rent! 30K is gouging! Hoping for a good outcome here!

Anonymous said...

Just saw where the property has sold. I sincerely hope Buckhead Diner isn't another nostalgic restaurant to close for good as a result of the pandemic. That would be a total shame. Been dying to get back to this place again and really hope it reopens and can be saved. Though there are more than enough restaurant options to choose from in the area these days, there's nothing like Buckhead Diner and the localized quality it always delivered.

Anonymous said...

The property sold for $6 million. Rent was $30,000 a month = $360k gross rent a year. $360k/$6 million = 6%. this would seem to indicate that the rent was inline with the property value.

Unknown said...

So terribly sad. Had so many amazing dinners and special family events since 1988. Fantastic meals for such a reasonable cost. Best martinis!😥

Unknown said...

Very sad to see Buckhead Diner closed when we passed by it this week. One of my favorite places to eat. Loved their blue cheese chips.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite places to eat over the years and I don’t even live in Atlanta. I have dined all over the world including many Michelin -starred restaurants. It was the atmosphere that was special here, due to the location and the patrons. As a business guy, I get the lease. Nevertheless, it is a pity and a great loss.

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