Everyone in Atlanta seems to have a story about the Clermont Lounge, the landmark strip club-slash-dive bar on Ponce de Leon Avenue. And any good story about the Clermont Lounge features Blondie, the dancer who celebrated her 40th anniversary at the club this spring at 62 years old. Blondie is an icon. She’s known for her ability to crush beer cans between her breasts, and for being a dancer at her age, but to many, she also represents a soul of Atlanta that’s disappearing quickly, one that’s been bulldozed down and built up over through decades of development but is fighting to remain strong. She’s been immortalized in documentaries, in coffee table books, and, now, as a dessert.
Claudia Martinez hadn’t been to the legendary club or met Blondie when she took the job as the head pastry chef at Tiny Lou’s, the restaurant in the hotel above the Clermont Lounge. But once hired, she knew she had to go — and now she has a story, too: She’s the one who created that dessert.
When Martinez, a 2019 Eater Young Gun, did meet Blondie, she asked her if it would be okay to put a dessert in her name on the menu. “Blondie said yeah, and then she made me pay her to crush some PBRs,” Martinez says. “I paid her $20, and she gave me a poem.” Blondie, who, yes, also writes poetry, delivered the poem to Martinez in a plastic bag, along with the crushed beer can. “She’s great. She gets straight to the point.”
Unpretentious, a little surprising, with a story to tell: that about sums up all of Martinez’s desserts for Tiny Lou’s, including the Ode to Blondie, which plates curried banana flambé, buttermilk ice cream, and hazelnut cremeux with a brown butter blondie. It sums up the Hotel Clermont, too: a building first built in 1924, renovated into a hotel 15 years later, then condemned and shut down in 2009, staying empty for about a decade before reemerging as the new, boutique Hotel Clermont last year. Inside the historical space, Martinez takes a little of the old and a little of the new, and puts it all together to create something that feels at home in this city — that feels like this city. Both the desserts and the person making them represent modern Atlanta.
There’s the Royale, a rich chocolate mousse over biscuit joconde, with coffee cream and cardamom ganache that’s the menu’s best seller. It’s a chocolate dessert for chocolate lovers, with none of the bright citrus or tropical fruits Martinez loves to play with. “It’s probably the most approachable. I knew I had to have a chocolate dessert, because at least one person [at a table] wants a chocolate-based dessert,” she says.
Martinez’s plan is simple: She draws people in with the dish she crafted to be a chocolate lover’s dream, and then she hopes they’ll come back and try something different. If she runs a special or puts a new dessert on the menu, she asks the front of house to gift those ones, the “weird” ones, like a dessert with dulce chocolate, passionfruit, and pistachio that she served off-menu one day this May. “I think Atlanta is growing as far as the food scene, and people are beginning to try new things,” says the pastry chef, who grew up in the city. “Now that I have people’s trust, I’m going to [do things like] putting foie in my desserts. I know it’s weird, but now I feel like I can do it. Now I feel like guests aren’t too scared to try it.”
When she was hired to run the dessert program at Tiny Lou’s, along with two sister restaurants Donetto and O-Ku, she warned executive chef Jeb Aldrich that she didn’t have a background in French pastry. He said it was fine: the desserts didn’t have to be strictly French. They needed to have some French “highlights,” sure, but more importantly, they needed to taste good. “Thankfully, he allowed me to literally be myself. I didn’t want to do creme brulee or caneles — I want to do passionfruit, guava, dulce,” she says. Aldrich is from Atlanta, too, and Martinez thinks it’s great that they both share a connection with the city and both want to see the food scene change. “Atlanta’s super classic, but [in places like] Chicago and New York, when you go there, people are playing with cool flavors, textures, and fruits. I think I do that here. I use a lot of fruit. We’ll do French technique but then add Latin influences.”
Martinez created her brazo gitano, served during the holidays, with inspiration from her Venezuelan heritage. The gitano is similar to a Swiss roll; her version is a sponge cake with salted dulce, which was billed on the menu as a “salted caramel cake.” She’s always thinking about balance, even with desserts like that one and her best-selling Royale, which uses Venezuelan chocolate. “I respect the French theme of the restaurant,” she says.
Martinez’s background is in the savory side of the kitchen, and she often mentions that, like Atlanta, she has a lot of room to grow. “I didn’t go to school for pastry, so I’m trying to learn as I go and get better.” At opening, for example, she offered a strawberry dessert with black pepper streusel and basil lime sorbet that was a “fan favorite.” It went off the menu at the end of last year’s strawberry season, and this spring a new, composed strawberry dessert emerged: the Fraises With Benefits. Her coworkers at the restaurant call it “more adult;” it highlights strawberries in three ways — fresh, as ice cream, and pickled with yuzu — and, as a nod to her savory past, it’s also made with goat cheese. It’s one of the desserts she calls “weird,” because “when you read it, it’s a lot.”
But she thinks it shows how she’s evolved as a pastry chef. Her menu has gotten “a lot less basic,” she notes, and some critics who returned after the opening rush for later meals told her they could tell she’s “becoming more of herself” and “starting to be more adventurous.” Or, as she puts it, “I’m trying to put my influence on Atlanta.”
For a city growing as rapidly as Atlanta, it’s important that Martinez and Tiny Lou’s approach to cooking focuses on working with the dining scene instead of trying to influence it from the outside. “I think Tiny Lou’s is cool because it’s so Atlanta, and it didn’t change anything. [Hotel Clermont] kept a lot the same as it was before, and they didn’t take anything away from the Clermont Lounge. We’re not covering them up, we didn’t kick them out, they’re still here.” Atlanta, Martinez thinks, wouldn’t be Atlanta if it wasn’t for all of its quirks and for all of the “little towns” that make up the city. She hopes they don’t disappear, just as she’s glad to see that it’s not just the corporate restaurants dominating the food scene. “All these cool, trendy, small restaurants that chefs are opening — they’re stepping it up in every way.”
Like the new Atlanta, and like the Clermont, Martinez is here to stay. She wasn’t expecting to get the press that she has — ”people always overlook the pastry chef,” she says — and she hopes to do what she can to help the city’s sweets scene grow, alongside other great pastry chefs in the city like Christian Castillo from Atlas, who she used to work for and still calls one of the best.
Changing the menu keeps things fresh for Atlanta diners, but until now, the Ode to Blondie hasn’t been altered. “That dessert, I haven’t touched,” Martinez says. She remembers the dazzling gold dress Blondie wore on her 40th anniversary party at Hotel Clermont and wonders out loud, “Should I try to keep it the same, or should I upgrade it, add flair to it? I don’t know.” It’s Martinez’s decision, but with her heart and her kitchen in a changing city, I like to think she will end up adapting it. Blondie is classic Atlanta, as real as it gets, but as the landscape changes around the Clermont and across the city, we think about our legends differently. We appreciate them more, and look at them in new ways. The perspective is always changing — just like the dessert menu at Tiny Lou’s.
Sonia Chopra is Eater’s director of editorial strategy (and a former editor of Eater Atlanta).