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Upscale Diners: Charles Schwab of Buckhead Diner Talks Fine Dining Under Neon Lights

As Greasy Spoons Week heads into its final day, correspondent Taylor Poncz talks to the executive chef at Buckhead Diner, Atlanta's not-so-greasy greasy spoon.

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Charles Schwab. [Photo courtesy Buckhead Diner]

While most diners are known for hashbrowns, hairnets, and hangovers, there is a well-known place in the heart of Buckhead which defies most 24-hour diner stereotypes, yet still serves up classics like grilled cheese and french toast. This time, with a touch of fine dining. A strong contender, and often times winner, of many Atlanta's "Best of" awards, Buckhead Diner is about as much of an Atlanta institution as the Braves. Now, executive chef Charles Schwab shares with us why Buckhead Diner is unique and long-lasting, and defines just what the fine-dining diner experience is all about.

What makes a "diner" a diner and not just a restaurant? It can't just be the neon lights, right?
A diner has the ability to cross all genres of food. A diner typically has good options for American fare, but it also opens the door to be anything culinarily that you want it to be. For example, at a diner, you have the luxury to do American, Asian or Greek dishes. America is a mix of cultures, and I think many different cultures can be represented on a diner menu. Opening an American diner gives you license for creativity.

Are there specific dishes crucial to a menu to make it a diner?
When you go to a diner, you expect specific things to be on the menu, like every diner has to have a fantastic hamburger. Period. You also have to have a really good chicken sandwich, meatloaf, and meatballs. These are just things that people come to expect when they walk in a diner.

So what makes Buckhead Diner different from the typical 24-hour diners we're so used to?
Buckhead Diner is definitely not the typical 24-hour diner even though "diner" is in our name. From the outside, it looks like one of those diners with the neon lights, but then you step inside and it is completely different, from the custom-made light fixtures to the teak wood that adorns the dining room. So much of what makes Buckhead Diner different is our product. Our prep list has more than 280 items and 75% of that list is prepped every day. We have a huge prep staff. We start cooking at 6:30am just to be open by 11 am.

The menu itself is elevated, too. All of the food is made fresh and in house. A lot of diners are just "burgers and fries" or other standard American fare. We try to differentiate ourselves by careful menu selection. We bring in fresh fish all the time from Boutique Seafood Brokers, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group's own seafood company. Whereas most diners just have a turkey sandwich, Buckhead Diner has the turkey jardiniere. You just won't see something like that in another diner. We also have a meatball appetizer and entree. Most diners do their meatballs with ground beef. We make ours with veal.

It's all about consistency too, and trying to differentiate yourself from the normal. We are also different because we hire very highly skilled people who have been in the industry a long time. We have several employees who have been with us for more than 20 years simply because they love the environment and have a passion for what they do.

So it's a fine dining diner?
Yes, absolutely.

Where did the concept of an upscale diner originate?
The concept of the upscale diner originated with Pano Karatassos. He is the gentleman who founded all of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group many years ago. Pano is the brainchild behind all of his restaurants, including this one.

Let's talk food. What dishes have people coming back for more?
We believe people keep coming back for the entire menu. We do regularly update the menu to stay seasonal and run daily specials. But the top dishes are definitely the turkey jardiniere, the veal and wild mushroom meatloaf, the meatballs, and the grilled chicken breast pretzel club sandwich. The veal meatloaf has been on the menu for 27 years. The white truffle deviled eggs are also a staple.

Is there a dish that you feel is often overlooked?
No, not really.

What dishes have been on the menu the longest?
The veal meatloaf has been there since day one. The others that have been there for more than 20 years are the maytag blue cheese chips, Thai chili calamari, and the white chocolate banana cream pie.

Several of your menu items are listed as gluten-free. Is this a trend you think is here to stay?
I do. We really try to make it as convenient for people as possible to dine with us. All of the restaurants in our Buckhead Life Restaurant Group are trying to list items as gluten-free. We want people with allergies or celiac disease to easily find something on our menus. If a guest has an allergy or aversion, we go above and beyond to try to accommodate them.

Is there a specialty cocktail that we need to know about?
The Best Wine Cooler Ever cocktail. It's made with St. Germain elderflower liqueur, dry champagne, soda water, and a lemon twist.

So tell us the secret. How does Buckhead Diner manage to stay so relevant in the Atlanta restaurant scene when it seems like a new restaurant is opening every few months?
It's our quality, consistency, and service, and has been over the last 27 years. We offer a quality product at a reasonable price, and we have great service. That is definitely why Buckhead Diner stays on the cusp of the Atlanta restaurant scene.

Why do you think Buckhead Diner has become such an institution?
I think it has become an institution because everyone involved with Buckhead Diner has spent so much time, energy, and love on this place over so many years. We love what we do here, and we believe that keeps us set apart from the others. That's why we continue to thrive even in the recent economic climate.

Which celebrities have you cooked for at Buckhead Diner?
We see celebrities all the time. We've had Eugene Levy, Ryan Seacrest, Ben Stiller. I had an opportunity to meet Ben Stiller. He was very nice and very generous. He came in with his wife and two kids for a late lunch. He stopped and took pictures with every table that was still there and signed autographs.

What can we expect from the menu over the rest of the summer and into the fall? Any exciting additions?
We are getting ready to update the dessert menu and a general menu update to reflect the fall season. That is all coming very soon!
Taylor Poncz
· Buckhead Diner [Official Site]
· All Eater Interviews [-EATL-]
· All Greasy Spoons Week [-EATL-]

Buckhead Diner

3073 Piedmont Rd NE Atlanta, GA 30305

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