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Atlanta Chef Ron Eyester on Expansion, Shaping Neighborhoods, and Pizza

Photo: Jena Anton

Atlanta chef Ron Eyester has slowly been building himself a mini empire in the city's Morningside neighborhood over the last several years. Nearly five years ago, Eyester bought out his partners at Food 101 and re-christened it Rosebud. He then opened a bar across the street named The Family Dog. And, this past July, the New York native restaurateur opened a New York-style pizzeria named Timone's just down the block. Now, though, Eyester is turning his attention to Atlantic Station — an Atlanta neighborhood with a reputation for being "stagnant and vanilla" — to open a diner named Diner.

In the following interview, Eyester talks about his expansion philosophy, why his new project might be his riskiest, and how his restaurants have shaped (and been shaped by) the neighborhood in which they reside. And, of course, there's plenty of opinion to be found from the man whose Twitter handle @TheAngryChef has embroiled him in the occasional controversy for his frank observations about guests at his restaurants.

How are things going with the Diner?
I've never seen so many people so excited about a restaurant that's not even started to be built yet. The amount of media inquiries we're getting about this place is mind-boggling. But no, it's going well. We're still in the demolition phase. We're realistically probably about six weeks behind schedule right now. But we should still be on target for a late February, early March opening.

Why do you think it's getting so much attention?
I really don't know to be honest with you. Atlantic Station was pretty much a disaster from day one. It just never felt like it was a part of Atlanta. I still think it's a fairly controversial spot. Ninety percent of the people I've interacted with have told me I'm crazy from going there and doing this, which is probably one of the reasons we're doing it. (laughs) I think deep down everyone in Atlanta wants Atlantic Station to succeed, but no one's willing to put a stake in it to get it that way. Otherwise, I don't know [why it has attracted attention]. We're opening a diner. It's not like we're opening a topless barbecue joint.

So why did you decide to move into Atlantic Station if everyone was avoiding it?
For several reasons. I was approached by North American Properties. They were interested in having me conceive of a dining concept that would fit well there. Being from New York, the idea of a diner has always appealed to me. So it was really just a matter of finding the right location. North American Properties made a very appealing deal to us. That obviously always helps grease the situation.

I think Atlantic Station should be a viable part of our city. I've been very impressed with what North American Properties have done so far to really change the culture of Atlantic Station and get it to where it's going to be a more vibrant part of the greater Atlanta area. And I'm up for a good challenge. I feel like this project is going to make us or break us. That can be a little scary and definitely breeds some anxiety, but I think it ultimately pushes you to conceive the best concept that you possibly can.

I understand the area was mostly a lot of corporate chains, but what do you mean when you say it wasn't a viable part of the city?
Well, it was just very stagnant. Atlantic Station could have been anywhere. If you made a right-hand turn onto 17th Street to go into Atlantic Station, you could easily forget you were in Atlanta. There were just no landmarks that are synonymous with the city. Literally every single dining concept was corporate. Every single retail place was corporate. It just had a very stagnant and vanilla feeling to what was going on.

Rosebud, Atlanta, GA. [Photo: Judy K/Foursquare]

What is your philosophy when it comes to expansion?
It can't be too calculated. Sometimes you have to seize opportunity as it comes to you. I was a chef and a partner of Food 101, and I bought the remaining partners out and then we rebranded as Rosebud. We did that in 2008 when the level of uncertainty in the economy could not have gotten any more difficult. We were living hand-to-mouth each week making all the improvements that we wanted to make. I think a lot of people looked at me and said, "Wow, look at the level of commitment this guy is making into our neighborhood during an economic climate that is kind of scary."

I think the recession actually helped us because it gave people an incentive to rally around us. It was a time when people started to realize that there's more to life than money. There's no better alternative to money than food. And a central part of our philosophy is the communal aspect of food, the fact that we support so many local growers. People really acknowledged that.

That helped drive momentum in what we were doing and it just kind of led right into The Family Dog, which is literally across the street from Rosebud. My partner and I used to just look at that space and be like, "One day we're going to put a bar there." Sure enough, when it came open, we were able to raise some money through some private investors here in the neighborhood and pulled it off. We almost bankrupted Rosebud getting it off the ground. That was almost truly an instant hit. We definitely have leveled off since then, but it's a very consistent business and the quintessential neighborhood bar.

And then Timone's a few doors down, again, was just taking advantage of an opportunity that was right in front of us. Sometimes you have to be a little bit more aggressive than you might want to be because, if you don't go in there, someone's going to. Although we had to make some financial sacrifices, at least we're able to go into those spaces and build concepts that will complement each other. If somebody else comes into the space, they're just going to pursue their own vision. They're certainly not going to give any thought into how it's going to affect my business.

So right now I feel like we have such a unique dynamic in Morningside and in Atlanta. I don't think there's really any other type of dining scenario in Atlanta that gives you three restaurants that are all very much driven by the quality of product that they serve in a neighborhood. We probably could have saved ourselves easily $80,000 [at Timone's] had we decided to go the route of the average pizzeria and have plastic Coca-Cola cups and really cheap silverware and paper napkins. But the one thing that we wanted to do is establish symmetry between all three of our concepts. Even though all the concepts are very different, the level of dining has to be the same to a certain degree.

The Family Dog, Atlanta, GA. [Photo: Facebook]

When you came into Morningside, were you trying to shape the restaurants to the neighborhood, or do you think you've helped shape the neighborhood?
I think initially Rosebud was my purest restaurant vision. No matter how many other concepts we end up exploring, Rosebud will always be my baby. I feel a connection to that building and to that concept that I know I will never experience anywhere else. So it's hard to give you a really objective answer on that because, like I said, Rosebud was Food 101. We've never strayed from just serving approachable American cooking in a very comfortable environment using sustainable, local food. And so it's hard to say who shaped what.

It's kind of like the chicken and the egg analogy. This January, I will be in this location for 10 years. We did five years as Food 101 and we're coming up on our fifth year as Rosebud. So I was really shaping that restaurant. But at the same time, there's no denying that the clientele and the neighborhood was shaping my approach as a restaurateur and a chef. You conceive a basic concept and obviously you want to lead the horse to water, but you've got to have an open mind to make adjustments to listen to your guests.

The great thing that we have here in Morningside — simply because of what we've done with Rosebud and The Family Dog — is a level of trust. We have credibility. The expectations of dining are pretty high in this neighborhood, and the average diner is fairly savvy. These people go out to eat throughout the whole city. But they are very proud of their neighborhood and they like supporting their local digs. They almost have a sense of ownership on what's going on. That can be good and bad.

At the end of the day, I'm accountable for everything, and so I have to have confidence in my ability to make decisions in the best interest of the restaurant. At the end of the day, I'm the knowledgeable restaurateur. I'm going to know what's going to work and what's not. But I think you have to be willing to learn along the way. I don't think that you have a couple of slow months and then all of a sudden you re-concept. That's not the answer. The answer is, okay, let's make some adjustments and see how they're going to benefit the total operation.

What you've done in Morningside, is that something you're even interested in doing in Atlantic Station?
I think our biggest challenge over there is going to be, you know, let's go back to the idea of a diner. It's a very approachable food and there's obviously no pretension. But at the same time, they're not exactly the most friendly environment all the time. A lot of diners are doing high-volume. One thing I've always noticed [at diners is that] as soon as the waiter or waitress came back to check on you, they always brought the check with them. It's kind of like a sign, "Eat as quickly as you can and here's your check." And at Rosebud, our servers are trained that you never drop a check on a table that has anything beyond water glasses on it.

What we're really going to work hard to do is to take our neighborhood philosophy and bring it to Atlantic Station. Because that's one of the elements that's missing at Atlantic Station. It doesn't feel like a neighborhood. But there's going to be some limits on how we can implement that. I don't think we can go into Atlantic Station and say we're going to turn this into Morningside. That would be very foolish. We're going to have to embrace some of the natural parameters of what Atlantic Station is and apply some of our neighborhood philosophies to it and go from there. That's how our concept will evolve.

But in terms of doing multiple restaurants, I don't know about that. We'll see. What we're going to be doing at Atlantic Station is actually going to be more square footage than all three of our restaurants in Morningside put together. So we're going to have our hands full for the first couple years. But I don't rule anything out. If you asked me five years ago if I was going to open up a restaurant in Atlantic Station, I probably would have said there's no way in hell. That's one of the beauties of what we do. It's all about responding to opportunity.

Timone's, Atlanta, GA. [Photo: Alex Lassiter/Eater Atlanta]

Finally, I've got to ask you about The Angry Chef. Is there anything on your mind these days?
I've been so damn busy, I haven't had much time to tweet. All in all, The Angry Chef has always been a humorous perspective on some of the idiosyncrasies about what people will do in restaurants. I will never back down from my sentiment that people will do things in restaurants that they will not consider doing anywhere else.

Don't get me wrong. I'd be willing to say almost 90 percent of our diners are a pleasure to have. It's that fucking 10 percent. (laughs) It never gets old. I read the reviews, "I had a 1:30 reservation. We sat down at 1:38." It'd be like us being on a plane and we were supposed to take off at 12:40 and we took off at 12:51. What are we going to do? Get out of our seats and fucking storm the cockpit?

You'll probably get shot.
You know what I mean? So I think some of the expectations can be a little, I don't know, embellished. I'm definitely learning a lot with pizza. Pizza is the most opinionated food known to man. Everyone has their idea of the perfect pie and it's not yours. No matter where you are. You're always going to have, oh the crust is a little chewy, it's a little charred. I think it was really important for us early to be like, listen, we're not going to be able to make the perfect pizza for everybody. We're going to try our best, we're going to work with good ingredients, we're going to work with fresh dough every day, we're going to put quality toppings on it.

People up north don't seem to put their nose up to pizza. I grew up on Long Island, and Frank's Pizza was like our hometown pizza. But if we were at one of our cousin's house on a different part of Long Island and got a bunch of pies, it wasn't like we had this fucking arrogance that we could not eat this pizza. People down south are almost like cats when it comes to pizza. They're so territorial. "This is the best pizza, hands down." I guess because there's so much good pizza up north, people are so much more nonchalant about it. Maybe I should be grateful for how fucking almost militant people are about pizza down here.

I'm always terrified to write about pizza.
I'll give you one other good thing. How familiar are you with our brunch menu? Our most popular item is The Big Nasty. And we just got a cease-and-desist letter from a McAlister's Deli [a chain with over 300 locations] that apparently they have a Big Nasty that's been trademarked. It cracks me up. Really? You're going to try to sue us over a fucking chicken sandwich with scrambled eggs? I was going to actually write them back and see if they would be willing to host a contest where people decided who had the better Big Nasty. We could decide it fair and square by the people.

That'd be fun. Do you think you will change the name, though?
I think I'm going to change it to the McAlister. And then I'll wait about two months to get a letter from them saying we [can't use that]. So we're going to change the name of the sandwich like every three months. Or I'm going to put something out on social media and let people name it. Submit your best idea to replace the name of The Big Nasty.

· All Ron Eyester Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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1397 North Highland Ave NE Atlanta, GA 30306