Former Westword critic John Kessler weighs in on bashing Atlanta's restaurant scene

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Just over a month ago, Hanna Raskin, restaurant critic at our partner paper, the Dallas Observer, raked the entire Dallas dining scene over the coals. In a lengthy diatribe, she explained why the industry in the city was "broken."

Hot on the heels of that, John Kessler, critic at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and a former Westword restaurant reviewer, wrote an open letter to the chefs in his city, asking them to up their game.

"We're calling it a trend," wrote Paula Forbes at Eater. "Which city is next? Phoenix? Denver? St. Louis?"


...no, not Denver. Not me.

But I did catch up with Kessler to see what he had to say about Atlanta, the city for which he left Denver.

"I was at a restaurant that I really liked, and I had this fish that was this pan-seared trout," he explained, when I asked what had set him off. "And the skin was kind of gooey, and the butter sauce was a brown butter and greasy."

That's when he realized that good culinary technique had slipped in Atlanta during his five-year hiatus from reviewing restaurants, a regression he blames on the shuttering of three high-profile -- and expensive -- spots.

"I never said I wanted the days of paying $125 for a six-course meal back, but those restaurants were the training grounds," he continued. "And then when those chefs who spent two years in those kitchens opened their own restaurants, they did it with finesse. They communicated their view with a little more insight."

Kessler isn't saying every chef and every restaurant in Atlanta has gone to pot, he pointed out. He'd just like the chefs there to be a little more innovative, and try to recapture the creative spark that once defined the city's dining. "This is a great center for exploring what Southern food is about," he says. "I just don't see the sparkle that was here five years ago."

And therein lies the critical difference: For me, Denver has plenty of sparkle, although I do worry about the never-ceasing popularity of the Denver omelet (it's a terrible omelet -- I wish we could all agree to forget it ever happened and move on).

But where Kessler fears regression and stagnation in Atlanta, I see any problems here as growing pains of an emerging dining scene. Right now, Denver is opening restaurants at a breakneck pace, trying to define what kind of eating city we're going to become. Creativity abounds. While some of those creations are fated to fall flat, the point is to learn from our mistakes and keep moving in the right direction. Ten years ago, I was choosing between steakhouses for a special night out. Today, the Front Range supports swanky cocktail dens, bone marrow on menus, and an eatery entirely given to the Italian region of Friuli (like any of us could have pinned that on a map in the year 2000). Progress.

I respect Kessler and Raskin for trying to give the chefs in their cities a swift kick, but that's not what Denver needs. Or deserves. Sorry, Eater.

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