In Atlanta, Linton Hopkins finds a new way to be a Southern chef

Todd A. Price
The Daily Advertiser
Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins has be at the forefront of the elevation of Southern cooking. (Courtesy of Hopkins and Co.)

Linton Hopkins was not happy about the $1,800 sconces.

The chef and his wife, Gina, spent 15 years building Restaurant Eugene into one of Atlanta's most luxurious restaurants. He helped turn Southern food into fancy food, fit to celebrate an anniversary or the close of a business deal. Then in August, he unexpectedly shut down Eugene. He stripped the space on Peachtree Road in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood and announced that he would replace it with Eugene & Elizabeth’s.

When Eugene & Elizabeth’s opens in spring 2020, its mood will be more relaxed with prices to match. Yet the designers wanted to install $1,800 sconces in the new restaurant, which would only revive the air of luxury of Restaurant Eugene.

"I think we really had to go for not just a toe-in-the-water menu change and slap some paint around," Hopkins said. "It was 'light the old Eugene on fire and re-establish exactly what it is we're doing.' "

Hopkins grew up in Atlanta not far from Restaurant Eugene. His original plan, after graduating from Emory University, was to be a doctor, like his father. Instead, he became a chef, working in New Orleans and D.C. before coming home in 2004 to open Restaurant Eugene.

At first, Eugene, named for Hopkin's grandfather, was a welcome addition to Atlanta's dining scene, if not a revelation.

"When Restaurant Eugene opened, it felt like it was a nice white tablecloth restaurant for kind of upper-middle class Atlantans," said John Kessler, who covered restaurants for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1997 to 2015. "I had the feeling a little bit like he was cooking for his parents' friends."

The elegant Restaurant Eugene, shown here, has been gutted to make way for the more causal Eugene & Elizabeth's.

Restaurant Eugene, however, would evolve. It reached higher. It became more refined. Hopkins and his team were some of the first in Atlanta to embrace local, distinctively Southern ingredients. The chef focused on making Eugene an exemplar of Southern cuisine's possibilities. Eugene gained national recognition and Hopkins, who won the 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, became a sage of a new wave of serious Southern cooking.

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"There just came a certain point where Restaurant Eugene started to feel more like an atelier or a workshop for what Southern food had been and could be," Kessler said.

Beef, asparagus, cured egg yolk, chard, onion bordelaise as served at Restaurant Eugene in May 2019, shortly before the restaurant closed after 15 years of operations. (Courtesy Hopkins & Co.)

Then this year, Hopkins with his wife, Gina, had dinner at Eugene. He didn't enjoy it.

"It didn't have a life force to it, a vitality. It had a lot of steps of service, and a lot of swarming the table," he said. "I felt almost claustrophobic with service steps."

Hopkins could have changed Eugene instead of shutting it down. Since it opened, it has never stood still. At times, the progress was a lurch forward, like in 2009 when he struck the standard menu and replaced it with more than 30 small plates. In a 2014 interview with the website Eater, Hopkins even said that he wanted Eugene to be part of Atlanta's fabric like Commander's Palace or Antoine's in New Orleans, both of which have been open for more than a century.

Hopkins, though, had no sadness or regrets about killing his flagship restaurant.

"I'm just a kid who likes building Lego kits, and you build one out so you can do it all over again," he said.

Creating the new place, Eugene & Elizabeth’s, has given Hopkins a chance to step back and ponder what a Southern restaurant should be today.

"It's almost like I want to dump cold ice water on everyone's head to just shake off the cobwebs and start the creative process again. I want to do that with me too," he said.

Hopkins, his face round and his head smooth, has a gentle charm, but with a hint that his core is granite. He will tell you that it's time for chefs to "get quiet again," yet he can talk for hours. He's a philosopher chef, and in the course of an hour conversation he mentioned the cookbook by Alice B.Toklas, the partner of Gertrude Stein, the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which values imperfection, the prose of Hemingway and "The Gentleman's Companion," a 1939 travelogue by Charles H. Baker Jr. he happened to be reading.

More than anything, Hopkins has been thinking about money and luxury. Does anyone still want to sit and be fed a tasting menu with double digit courses? Hopkins doesn't. How long does anyone really want to linger at the table? If Mozart and Beethoven only needed an hour for their symphonies, he said, why would chefs demand more of a diner's time ("I sort of think it's rude.").

He will tell you that he just wants to create the kind of restaurant where he wants to eat, but the decision to close Restaurant Eugene and create the more casual Eugene & Elizabeth’s reflects the moment.

People prefer more relaxed, less status-driven restaurants. Hopkins knows that firsthand.

In 2008, right next door to his flagship Eugene, he opened Holeman & Finch Public House, where the most talked about dish is a cheeseburger. The Southern gastropub has spun off four burger joints called H&F Burger, three in Atlanta and a fourth in Asheville, S.C. that just opened this month. The original Holeman & Finch will move next year to a nearby space and triple in size.

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As dining across America became even more casual over the last decade, said GQ magazine’s restaurant critic Brett Martin, restaurants like Eugene came to look more formal, and out of step, by comparison.

“For a long time a chef like him held onto a place like Eugene as a kind of anchor of respectability,” Martin said. “If it signals anything to me, it means that there's not even really a value in the flagship anymore.”

There was a time when civic ambition demanded a restaurant that residents could claim was "as good as what you'd find in New York." Today it's not one standard-bearer that people point to with pride, but a vibrant scene.

"I've matured, and I think Atlanta and the South have matured about what they want," Hopkins said.

A slice of carrot cake served at Restaurant Eugene, April 18, 2018.

When Hopkins sat down to talk with The American South about Eugene & Elizabeth’s, it was early October and the restaurant still largely existed in his mind. He described walking in and, instead of seeing glass racks of wine, there would be a 30-inch wooden cutting board, salvaged from a Winn-Dixie in central Florida, full of snacks and canapés that guests would get when they sit down. Soups will be featured. A simple roast chicken and trout with local vegetables will be among the main courses, and neither will cost more than $20.

"I don't have all the answers yet. I mean it'll take some time even after we open, because I know my creative process," he said.

Hopkins has also come to realize that luxury assigns arbitrary value. Why serve tuna instead of trout? Is a truffle intrinsically better than a turnip?

"I think part of being a chef is elevating turnips into truffles," he said. "I would love one day that people drove down the road and said, 'You know, I'm really craving that turnip dish.'"

Luxury also excludes people. It makes some feel unwelcome. Hopkins wants Eugene & Elizabeth’s to be a place where more people are comfortable.

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We talked about all this over a lunch of dumplings, Szechuan fried eggplant and spicy beef shank and tendons at a Chinese restaurant on Buford Highway, the stretch of Atlanta with food from across the globe. The people from Mexico, Vietnam, Colombia and Bangladesh who run the businesses along Buford Highway are now part of the South.

Our waiter sussed out that Hopkins was a chef and eagerly wanted to talk about cooking and Netflix food shows. He told us that he was born in Beijing, but came to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for college. Then he wanted to tell us about his favorite versions of shrimp and grits. 

"Being Southern, it's not necessarily being born here and from here, but it's understanding, as a chef, what it means to be here," Hopkins said.

When the check arrived, we opened our fortune cookies. Hopkins' cookie was empty. He looked pleased.

"This is great," he said. "It means I get to write my own fortune."

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com.