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Archive for May, 2013

Midnight Sun Restaurant

Midnight Sun Restaurant

It has been said that “A restaurant is a fragile thing”, and I believe it.  It’s such a simple premise on such a complicated topic.  You have a room with tables and chairs, a kitchen and an “Open” sign, and from there it gets interesting.  The restaurant has to have good food, at least at the beginning, but at some point, a restaurant takes on a life uniquely its own.  People become loyal customers, celebrations take place there and a restaurant becomes unique.  And restaurants come and they go.

As you drive up Peachtree north from Five Points, there are ghosts of restaurants all along the way.  These were places of memory and human emotion, happy times and a few sad ones, but all that revolved around a table and chairs, places set for the human drama.  There was the Top of Peachtree (one of the tallest buildings in town), then Leb’s (that did not integrate in the 1960’s) and Herrin’s (which did), The Midnight Sun (in the Peachtree Center complex), Dale’s Cellar, Fan & Bill’s, Johnny Reb’s, A Taste of New Orleans, Mammy’s Shanty, The Coach & Six, Clarence Foster’s, John Escoe’s, Abruzzi, Hart’s, The Feedmill, the soon-to-be-gone Dante’s Down The Hatch, and Bluepointe.  There were Camellia Gardens, House of Eng, The Abbey, Arigatoh, Bobby & June’s, Robinson’s Tropical Gardens, Snack & Shop, Harold’s Sandwich Shop, The Granary.  Every major street you follow has ghosts of restaurants past.

In their place, new places have cropped up, sometimes in the same space as an earlier restaurant, but the scene is the same.  It’s usually a family that takes that vacant space and turns it into something real; chain restaurants have no soul.  Eventually, the place develops into an institution and you have a success story.  The place takes on a life of its own, with regular waiters, regular customers, regular menu items.  Of course, to some this is boring, but for others, such as myself, it is comfort, that the world is in its proper place and all is well.

Circumstances being what they are, you may not get there very frequently, and by doing so you miss that slow subtle changes that every restaurant has to make to stay alive.  And that is what this blog item is about, for last night we visited a place of great sentiment and memory and it was a disappointment.

Somewhere on Peachtree, between that late-Abruzzi and the late-Hart’s is an Italian restaurant that I have always held in great esteem.  The place opened up in the late 1970’s, located in the basement of an apartment building.  It’s an odd location to begin with, but there’s not another restaurant for at least a mile in any direction.  In fact, the location is almost worthy of being a destination since those driving by on Peachtree would never know what is downstairs.  By itself, this gives this restaurant a certain cachet, the sense of being a hidden jewel.  Which it is.

For so many years, a visit to this restaurant was a visit to the grand old-school sensibilities, where gentlemen wore coats and ties, the ladies were dressed up to be out with their men.  The service was flexible, able to adapt to the fusty bank president or to the younger entrepreneur who just wasn’t all that serious.  Regardless of their backgrounds, the diner knew that they would be treated with respect and that they were there to enjoy great food.  It was a stable place in an uncertain world.  As you left your car at the front door, you entered an apartment building in a high end Atlanta neighborhood.  You were literally in peoples’ homes and as you got off the elevator, you opened a glass paned door, walked down a hallway lined with deep red velvet and entered an exclusive world.

All of that is still there today, but my recent visit again confirmed that a restaurant is indeed a fragile thing.  To be sure, this restaurant is faced with an uncertain future because its basic customer demographic is getting older.  The fusty bank president has retired to the Highlands and his buddies that are still in town are dying off as the natural cycle of life.  The young entrepreneur has either moved to Vail or went bankrupt in the last economic cycle.  Fortunately, I still have money and I still get a craving for this hidden place; not just the food, but the whole cannoli of cozy dedicated service with a deep wine list attached.

It was not quite that way this night.  My friends and I were there to celebrate two birthdays and things started off well enough.  After initial drinks, however, it became apparent that we were located in Siberia.  Every restaurant has one of those undesirable places (euphemistically called “The Ponderosa” or “The South Forty’) , usually near the kitchen or behind a concrete column.  As it turns out, this restaurant’s bad table is almost right in the center of the restaurant.  Who knew?  But it soon became evident where we were when we constantly had to seek out our waiter, something which I had never experienced at this place, ever before.  It was sad.

Overall, the food was good, which helped save the day.  I wasn’t quite so sure about the bottle of Tuscan wine that I ordered, but given the general tenor of the evening, I was not about to send it back.  But as we waited yet again for the return of our waiter, I found myself looking around.  As it turned out, our isolated table also gave me a view of the entire restaurant, which proved to be an interesting thing.

On one side of the restaurant were the old bull elephants and their brides, those who had carried this restaurant for decades.  They were dressed in business-like beige summer coats.  The wives were in muted shades of blue and yellow.  And there was lots of gray hair.  That side of the room was dim and gray.  A single teenaged girl sat with her parents and their friends, looking awkward.  The dim light of that part of the room made them appear almost as visions in the mists, gray shadows of something greater.

To my other side, however, was a brighter scene, literally.  While the elderly side of the restaurant was dim, the area around the bar was brightly lit with the warm shade of light that only incandescent light can produce.  Young people sat around the bar with other young people.  There was bright young conversation and it appeared that many of these young people were friends of the restaurant’s new managers.  Lots of hugs as more young people slowly drifted into the restaurant.  Meanwhile, as 10:00 PM approached, the gray side slowly emptied out as bedtime approached.

What would have normally been a two-hour meal had dragged out into a three-hour affair.  Under normal circumstances, I would have been pleased that we had been able to take that much time there, but that was not the case this evening.  It made me wistful, wishing for the many times that we had there earlier.  And had me wondering about how much of this experience was due to the fact that I’m part of a dying demographic, one that this restaurant now seems eager to push into the past.

It’s all over the place.  There are stores that will not wait on older people, doctors that are reluctant to treat an older patient, not because they’re old but because it’s more gratifying to treat a younger person who will get longer benefit.  I refuse to get paranoid about this stuff; old age just sort of snuck up on me.  One day, you’re looking in the mirror and there it is.  I’m still the same irreverent soul that I have always been.  And, in many ways, I’m at the top of my game.

No, I’m not mad at the restaurant for an off night.  Every restaurant is entitled to have one every now and then.  No, it’s more that I found myself looking at the cycles of life.  On one side, there were those who had made a success of life off to one side in the mists, having a quiet dinner at a favorite place with close friends.  While on the other side there are other younger ones with their lives full ahead of them gathered around the brightly colored bar.

The drive back to Brookhaven was uneventful and nothing felt better than coming into our home.  I’ll make at least one return visit to this restaurant to make sure that it was just an odd evening but with restaurants, as in all life, things come and things go.

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If you recognize the value of a historical perspective, you always find interesting things in history that connect to today.  Fortunately, there are lots of things in history to be interested in.  As a railroad enthusiast, there is plenty of interesting historical material, but as a Southerner and a long-time resident of the City of Atlanta, there is a never-ending trove of new material related to the Civil War.   To be sure, there are those who question the relevance of study of the Civil War, but the issues raised by the war keep reappearing.  Consider my blog item from 2009, titled Sometimes, It’s Never Over, about an on-air squabble between two panelists on the local news program “The Georgia Gang”.  This dust-up centered on a local political light, Loren Collins, and Confederate Memorial Day (April 26th each year).

If there ever was a question of the Civil War being ancient history, the 1990 Ken Burns series The Civil War put that to one side.   Years after hostilities officially ended, the War still generates passions.  And numerous academic careers have been centered on the study of America’s civil war, where families fought each other over an abiding and unresolved issue.  Just what “that issue” might be has a lot to do with your sympathies for the circumstances of the war.  It is as complicated as human nature itself.  For more than a few, 150 years later, those sympathies are still actively discussed.  And popular entertainment still draws upon the Civil War as source material.  For something so long ago, it is still very much alive.  Merely consider a massive series of podcasts on the Civil War from the Gilder Lehrman Institute on the topic, located here.

Which brings us to a very interesting lecture series being presented by the Lovett School called “The Civil War and the Forging of Character“.  There are those who regard the Civil War, aka “The War Between the States“, as being ancient history, but I’m not one of them.  Likewise, there are those who question the necessity of further study of events which occurred more than 150 years ago, but this lecture series disproves that.  These lectures, sponsored by Jack and Anne Glenn Charitable Foundation and brothers Jack, Alston, Bob, and Lewis Glenn, have proven to be a remarkable series of new and interesting information about what might be considered to be a dusty subject.

To quote the Lovett website:

  • The Civil War and the Forging of Character is a four-year lecture series presented by The Lovett School to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the Battle of Atlanta. Its purpose: to bring to Lovett speakers and scholars who can engage all of us—students, faculty, parents, alumni, and the community at large—on critical matters of character and integrity as demonstrated during this defining period in our nation’s history.

At this writing, there have been four lectures spaced over a series of a year, with the promise of many more.  Each of these four lectures have proven to be interesting in unique ways.

  • Edward Ayers, Ph.D.; President, University of Richmond – The opening lecture by Dr. Ayers, “Where Did Freedom Come From?” set the tone for the series by the application of modern technology to an old topic.  Using mapping software, new analysis of the emancipation of slaves using record books from that era brought new light to a complicated process.  Materials are available (“Visualizing Emancipation”), here.
  • Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D.; Professor in the History of the American Civil War, University of Virginia – “Robert E. Lee and the Question of Loyalty.”  Lee is always an evergreen subject, and Gallagher did not disappoint.  This lecture could easily be described as “frisky”, and Dr. Gallagher was not afraid to step on a few toes, quietly pointing out some of the fallacies of what Southerners “believe”.  There are lots of misty moonlight and magnolia fantasies that don’t hold up under examination.  The full lecture is available on YouTube, here.
  • George McDaniel, Ph.D.; Executive Director, Drayton Hall, Charleston, S.C. – “”The Civil War, Vietnam, and the Shaping of Values“.  In earlier times, Dr. McDaniel taught at the Lovett School and his return was in front of many friends.  Some of the lecture talked about the similarities that every soldier experiences, including a heart-stopping description of a meeting of two soldiers in Viet Nam, enemies to each other.  Other aspects talked about researching local civil war sites.   A full video is available, here.
  • Ted DeLaney, Ph.D.; Professor of History, Washington and Lee University – “Frederick Douglass, Millennialism, and the Civil War“.  Dr. DeLaney’s back story of his academic career was easily as interesting as his lecture.  Why he turned down a full scholarship to Morehouse College but later earned a college education is a story worth knowing unto itself.  His lecture brought me a new understanding of why Frederick Douglass is important.  And why the Abolitionists were a driving force in the Civil War.

The next lecture will be on May 8, 2013 at the Atlanta History Center, which is a cosponsor of the series.  The lecture series returns to the Lovett School in November 2013, with an additional four lectures posted through September 2014.  Additional lectures planned through the balance of the sesquicentennial years.

Atlanta

There is an inevitability about Atlanta.  This is certainly true if you fly on one particular airline, which uses Atlanta as a major hub.  But Atlanta’s location has always put it at the center of things, and it is this centrality that has often shaped the events of Atlanta.

There were other bloodier battles, but it was Atlanta that proved to be a major turning point of the Civil War.  Those who are from other places often fail to grasp that most of the Atlanta area was a battlefield.  The Lovett School property itself was a site of one such battle and although most of the traces of these battles are now wisps of history, evidence still periodically crops up.  In my Northeast Atlanta neighborhood, an individual pottering around in his garden turned up a Civil War-era artillery shell that that proved to be still active.  When I was a student at Lovett in the 1960’s, you would periodically see individuals wandering around the forested areas of the school with metal detectors, looking for Civil War artifacts.  These people would quickly be approached by school personnel and shooed away from private property.

Even with the great war ended, Atlanta in ashes would continue its key role.  It continued as a major railroad center, later adding highways and aircraft travel to its remarkable transportation role.  Banking and corporate business followed.  It was a cultural center for all people.  In the post-Civil War era, Atlanta would thrive, and all of its people would benefit from Atlanta’s location.  As the years passed, however, it became apparent that while slavery had been ended, there was substantial racial inequality.  Nor was this inequality confined to the former Confederate States.

In looking back, it’s hard to believe that it took as long as it did to address this problem.  I grew up in coastal Texas, and I remember that the local grocery store had two water fountains; one was marked “White” and the other was marked “Colored”.  In that era, if an African-American family traveled away from their home town, they carried a copy of the “The Negro Motorist Green Book“.  This book, published by a firm in The Harlem borough of New York, was a guide to restaurants, hotels and other accommodations that did not discriminate against people of color.  The era of racial discrimination would come to an end because of the efforts of many people, and more than a few of these people called Atlanta home.

As the Lovett School was located on a battlefield of the Civil War, so too it was a skirmish point in the effort to end discrimination.  This from the Lovett website:

  • The years 1963 through 1966 were difficult ones in Lovett’s history with the beginning of integration. Lovett certainly was not the last stronghold of segregation, but it was certainly one of the most publicized. In 1963 Martin Luther King III applied to Lovett and was denied admission by the board of trustees–despite the objections of the governing Episcopal Diocese, which was in favor of open churches and open schools. But Lovett’s trustees argued that they were not in defiance since the school was not originally founded by the Episcopal Church. As a result, the Reverend McDowell, an Episcopal priest, resigned as headmaster, and the school’s admission policy was revised to free itself of ecclesiastical jurisdiction of The Cathedral of St. Philip. However, by 1967, Lovett’s admission policy had been revised to adopt a non-discriminatory policy of evaluating students without regard to race or religion.

So into this environment comes the Forging of Character lecture series.  In addition to four interesting lectures on a diverse variety of related topics, these lectures have also increased my awareness of the environment in which the different issues occurred.  In that way, I have started noticing related articles.

Consider “When the South Was Flat“, a book review of “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom“, located here.  Slavery had become integral to the economy of the United States.  In the first lecture in the Lovett series, Edward Ayers observed that the two wealthiest states in the United States of that era were South Carolina and Mississippi; all due to the value of human beings held in slavery and the related institutions.  One of the great Southern fairy tales is that “Only 1/3 of the people in the South owned slaves”, but as Gary Gallagher pointed out in the second lecture, the entire South was dependent upon the institution of slavery.

So, the lecture series brought things into perspective when the book review states: Louisiana and Mississippi slaveholders were keen to reopen the African slave trade in the late 1850s, which, the thinking went, would allow more whites to own slaves and dilute the tensions from an emerging class of slaveless whites.  In other words, the practice of importing slaves from Africa, which had largely been ended in 1807, was about to begin again.  The pressures for war were building.

At this point, the lecture series will continue for several years, covering a variety of aspects on the Civil War.  The next is scheduled May 8th at the Atlanta History Center; David W. Blight, Ph.D. will present “Emancipation at 150: How Does the Civil War Have a Hold on Our Historical Imagination?

I don’t yet have a sense of the overall focus of the lecture series, but I do feel that it is worthwhile.  I feel like I am looking at a large stained glass window.  Right now, each lecture looks at a few pieces of colored glass, but at the end I will see things as a totality.  This is a great lecture series, well worth your attention.

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