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Checking into Epicurean Atlanta
What it's like to stay at the South's new "food and wine centric" hotel
Quick peek behind the curtain: When I shared this column with my husband, he wondered if it was too harsh. “Is it accurate?” I asked. “Completely,” he said. In other words, much like Epicurean Atlanta, this post may not be to everyone’s taste. But since I pledged to help subscribers avoid making disappointing decisions, I went ahead and pressed ‘publish.’
I didn’t sleep entirely well at Epicurean Atlanta, in part because the hours between a rich dinner and early working breakfast are always fitful. But I was also stymied by a pillow packed with what struck me as unconventionally granulated filling: I remember waking up at one point to wonder if it was stuffed with quinoa and millet.
When you’re staying at a place which proclaims it’s the “first and only food-focused” hotel in town, that’s where your head is at.
Co-created by Bern’s Steak House--legendary for its wine cellar, red velvet wallpaper and private dessert rooms--and a lodging development company, The Epicurean since 2013 has existed exclusively as a hotel in South Tampa that’s a perennial top finisher in Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards. But operator Marriott International in September brought the brand to Atlanta, opening a second location of its culinary-themed property in Midtown.
Outside of Vegas and Walt Disney World, themed hotels are relatively rare (as a former prom committee chair who genuinely adores themes, I didn’t even have to Google that statement.) Online reservation sites don’t sort rooms according to potential guests’ favorite movie genre, and I’m not aware of any reward programs which promise to enhance your stamp collection.
Yet Marriott is banking on visitors to the Southeast’s biggest metro area wanting the overnight opportunity to express their allegiance to fine wine and fancy pantry goods.
Since my job entails covering the South and food for people who are fond of both, it seemed like a stay at Epicurean Atlanta was in order. Beyond the obvious “news you can use” component, with hotels playing an increasingly influential part in the region’s food scene, I was curious how it would look if their traditional roles were reversed: Imagine if a whole hotel was subservient to its dining room instead of the other way around.
What Epicurean Atlanta specifically promises is “a fully immersive experience that celebrates the teaching of its namesake, Epicurus,” who championed staving off anxiety with gustatory pleasure. Owner Joe Collier has described an Epicurean stay as a “superior culturally-enriching adventure of the senses.”
Regardless of its high-minded aims, like every hospitality business, Epicurean Atlanta is facing significant logistical challenges right now. For example, you can’t get a glass of iced tea at the hotel because delivery of its tea machines has been held up for months. And while I checked in with the notion of ringing up room service at some point, that’s not an amenity that Epicurean Atlanta currently offers.
Ultimately, though, Epicurean Atlanta’s biggest problem isn’t a lack of supplies or staff. It’s a lack of imagination.
Walking into Epicurean Atlanta, the sleek space immediately registers as belonging to the food realm because its aggressively geometric lobby is occupied almost entirely by a restaurant. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to roll my suitcase over to the end of the marble-topped kitchen bar, where a man with a corkscrew lapel pin was scrutinizing a screen. It seemed likely he was a restaurant host getting things sorted for his shift.
But it turned out the host stand for Reverence--the hotel’s marquee restaurant--was a few paces closer to the door, and the employee was indeed ready to mint my room key. After handing it over, he offered me a complimentary glass of beer or red wine.
Weirdly, he didn’t mention that I’d be staying on the “Bordeaux” floor. I only learned from press coverage of Epicurean Atlanta’s opening that each floor is named for a varietal, with the designation emblazoned on wine box-covered walls opposite the elevators.
Other tidbits I gleaned from supposedly reported preview pieces didn’t match up with what I experienced: For instance, there weren’t any “locally sourced snacks” in the mini bar, although it was furnished with potato chips from Connecticut, popcorn made by The Hershey Co. and the same beef jerky that’s sold at Starbucks. The only other retail area in the hotel is a shelving rack near the entrance featuring Chardonnay-scented candles, Scottish chocolate bars and canisters of truffle salt.
Minus any actual food to convey the hotel’s emphasis, and with the much-touted “Epicurean Theater” teaching kitchen locked up tight, guests are left to take their cues from the room décor. There’s a brown throw pillow with sketched utensils on the bed and a framed print of a beer chalice in the bathroom.
There’s also Reverence, one of three dining outlets at Epicurean Atlanta. A poolside cantina halfway up the hotel was closed by nasty weather when I stayed there, but the confluence of the World Series and college football season made it a fine time to check out The Office, pitched as an upscale sports bar. Located at the base of an adjoining office tower, The Office served up the best service and cocktails I had at the hotel, including a syrup-sweetened whiskey drink that took a more sophisticated approach to fall than anything involving pumpkin spices.
(On the subject of service, it’s worth noting that the former executive chef of Tampa’s Epicurean is now suing management over alleged labor law violations. A company spokesman in May told the Tampa Bay Times that it obeyed state and federal labor laws; weeks earlier, the hotel had settled a lawsuit brought by a former desk clerk who also accused the Epicurean of not paying overtime.)
According to The Local Palate, the chef in Reverence’s glassed-in kitchen “might be breaking down a whole tuna or rolling pasta for the house-made agnolotti while a mic allows them to chat with arriving guests,” which sounds kind of like those shark demonstrations at big aquariums, except that the object of fascination is feeding instead of getting fed.
Neat idea, but I couldn’t see or hear any evidence of the setup from my seat close to the drafty front door. Eating in a lobby is never ideal, but it’s particularly off-key when building residents are perpetually traversing the dining room’s edge with takeout pizzas and cases of Bud Light.
Reverence’s own food, attributed to international hotel veteran and former “Young Scottish Chef of the Year” finalist Ewart Wardhaugh, ranges from middling to “would order again.” The latter category is headed up by a captivating sea scallop rimmed with sealing puff pastry: The cashew-rich tomato cream sauce within the shell is terrific. An arancini riff on shrimp-and-grits is similarly playful and skillful, although an undergirding spread of country ham shavings doesn’t add much.
Among the entrees, ruddy lamb chops are a standout. Still, for the privilege of eating them and then going directly to bed, I paid $333.49, or about three times what it would have cost to stay at the Hampton Inn two blocks away. Even by Midtown standards, Epicurean Atlanta is expensive.
That alone isn’t a knock on a hotel. But Epicurean Atlanta doesn’t deliver on its promise of making guests feel like they’re in a food fantasyland
When I years ago stayed at Tampa’ Epicurean, I was carried along by the fun of a lobby reading nook stocked with food titles and wine shop stocked with great bottles. For a former prom planner, it’s hard not to tally up all the missed chances in Atlanta: Where is the in-house TV station screening vintage cooking shows? Why not ask local chefs to pop in for happy hour? Isn’t this the kind of place where turndown service should include a tin of smoked fish for midnight snacking?
In short, if you have $333 to burn, stay somewhere that puts a roof over your head instead of a theme in your face. Then take your $200 in savings and buy black spaghetti with red shrimp at Bocca Lupo; nam khao at Snackboxe Bistro; sourdough bread at Root Baking Co.; steak tartare at Ticonderoga Club; carnitas at Taqueria del Sol and maybe the celery cream farm egg at Miller Union.
There’s no better way to show you care about what you eat.
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