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Chef Billy Allin on Cakes & Ale, Decatur, and Restaurant Challenges

Billy Allin.
Billy Allin.
Photo: Christopher Watkins

Ten years ago when Cakes & Ale chef/owner and James Beard Award semifinalist Billy Allin relocated to Atlanta from the West Coast, not only was there nothing in the vein of Cakes & Ale in the area's restaurant scene, but the space now occupied by Cakes & Ale and its partner café and bakery was a sandwich and wing joint in a building that had seen far better days. In the years since, Allin and Cakes & Ale have certainly filled a void, but they've also helped to foster an environment that has transformed Decatur into one of metro Atlanta's densest and most revered dining destinations, rehabilitating a piece of Decatur's history along the way. Below, Allin talks about the challenges he's faced and the growth he's seen in his restaurant and the city.

How did you come to be in Decatur? What made you want to choose not just this location, but this town and this area?
My wife grew up in Atlanta; she's a Georgia Tech grad. I grew up in South Carolina. So we knew the South. We had moved to San Francisco, but when we decided we wanted to start a family, we kind of thought, "Could we do it out here?" and decided we couldn't. We needed family support. Kristin had a grandmother and a couple aunts that lived in Decatur, so we had visited. We liked the community feel, the idea that it had a town center— which, as everyone will say, is not the norm for Atlanta. You're starting to see a little bit happen right now in some of the other little towns; old squares are building up, which is great. But Decatur, when we moved here ten years ago, was really the one part of Atlanta that had a town center that felt like a walkable city. It was still really affordable, too, on top of that.

As for the business, one thing we didn't see in Atlanta was what we did and what we ate in San Francisco. There were a few Atlantans supporting the ideals, but we didn't see the idea of the old Cakes & Ale: just a small, neighborhood restaurant that serves solid food, really comfortable, easygoing, relaxed. There's a focus on the food and the experience more than just serving people. We wanted to have really good food. And we started out really basic, but it got good fast. Decatur made sense because you had walkability, you had livability, you had incomes rising, people leaving other parts— Highlands and Morningside— and moving into Decatur, a good school system for our kids. As a business goes, it just made sense.

"Cakes and ale" is a phrase from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, but how did you pick it for the restaurant?
[The name] has developed more over the past six years, but we reverse engineered it. As we thought about what we wanted to do with the restaurant, we came up with what we wanted to offer people, which was something good in life, or a respite from the day. As we researched the idea, we found the phrase "cakes and ale" and loved the meaning and relationship it had with our philosophy.

What drove your decision to move to this location?
We just grew out of our old location on Ponce de Leon. The physical location itself was not conducive to doing what we wanted to do. It was a building that needed some major maintenance. Crazy enough, [our current space] was the first space we looked at when we started looking for a restaurant, six or seven years ago. And we had talked to the landlord, but he didn't know us from anybody. It was like, well, "Why am I going to put all this money into someone that we don't know anything about?" We understood it, and we just wanted to get open, so we went down to the other one, rehabilitated it as much as we could, and then we did well.

The city was pushing our current landlord to get this area in some type of shape because it was really an eyesore, unfortunately. It wasn't because of the particular business that was here; it was because the buildings were in such disrepair. But until the landlord had someone that he felt could support the investment, there was nothing he could really do.

How did you find each other?
We had heard he was looking to renovate these spots. He heard through the city that we were looking to possibly move to something else. We just got together and talked about it. He had had plans done for this that he was trying to submit and everything was really modern. So when we came and talked to him, we said we wanted to do our own plans. He looked at them and said, "Oh, it's very different. We have modern [versus] real classic." But it was an easy conversation, and he was happy with the design.

We felt like you had to bring this corner together to kind of make Decatur square. We didn't rehabilitate it for historical sake, because we wanted to think about the past— it just fit. There's a history to this building. There's a feeling. It let us know what it wanted to be as we started excavating it. The original plans we drew have a lot less to do with what it looks like right now. As we started taking away storefront, we saw these beautiful panes and found these transom windows. In the café, we found the original inset, and that was a flat front at the time. It just told us what it wanted.

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[Photo]

The mural advertising a 1920s-era bakery, nobody had any idea that was there?
No one had any clue. We still can't find much about it. It's intriguing, because there is a story, but it's just not going to be told unless we find somebody. But there's no one alive, because it's circa 1910, 1920, we're guessing. No one around here knows what it is or remembers it, even if it was here. It could have been a billboard for somewhere else.

You were recognized for doing a good job, historic preservation-wise, with an award from The Georgia Trust.
We're just happy and proud that it was recognized. It was a combination of us, the city, and the landlord all really saying that we were going to take a stand, that we were going to make something that preserves a little bit of what Decatur used to be. I think it was just recognition of people doing what probably needed to be done.

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[Photo]

Not only in the rehabilitation project and moving to this space, but in general, what have been some of the challenges that you've faced?
Running a restaurant is a challenge unto itself. The whole key of a restaurant is staying relevant. There are other little things involved, but I think staying relevant is really important, especially in a city like Atlanta with a dining scene that's moving really quickly. Ten years ago when we moved here, it was nothing like it is right now in terms of both quality and quantity.

And then inside Decatur, the city has its own factors. Decatur is definitely pursuing and going after— and we love it— this cocktail culture, cocktail crowd. It brings masses to Decatur and it brings a lot of people to shop in the businesses, but we have to work inside of a realm where the city and a lot of the visitors are younger, whereas we're catering to maybe a more mature crowd. That's probably a struggle we have to work through. But I think what we're doing with the food [helps]— it's really just about being honest with the food. And I would argue that [beverage director] Jordan Smelt's beverage list is the best in the city. Because we work together, it matches the menu. I change the food very regularly, very seasonally. You can't change a whole wine list at once, but the profile of the wine list will shift with the seasons, which goes with the food. And a lot of times he buys wine or sets up a wine program, and I'm like, "I really need to do something maybe a little richer, a little bolder because these awesome red wines are there."

Another challenge is the education. Any restaurateur, anyone who works in a restaurant— they're fibbing if they say they're not preaching. Everyone should be preaching. Your food and beverage and service preach to people about who you are, especially when you're an independent owner, like my wife and me. The old place was very different because I did everything, including the beverage, and it was just wine that I wanted to drink. It went with the food, because I was making all the food, too, but it was just wine I wanted to drink. But what that did help do was open people's eyes. We had 100% European wine lists at one point, and that was not Decatur, that was not Atlanta, but the guests enjoyed that experience.

There are all these innate challenges, from macro— which is environment, how to work inside an still-growing environment like Atlanta and stay relevant— to the micro—setting up a beverage program that excites us, but also that the guest wants. There's this balance. And sometimes we're off, and sometimes we're on, but I think lately we've been on a lot.

As you've grown, have you still been able to use a lot of what you grow in your own garden in the restaurant?
The garden is another challenge. We try to use anything that comes out of it. We don't really highlight anything on the menu, as in Farm A, Farm B, Farm C. We have great respect for what they do, but we've just always been, since we opened, a de facto restaurant. If you want to know where it comes from, through every lineup, we will tell you. But we do highlight our Cakes & Ale stuff, because we're extremely proud of it. And we've learned how bloody hard it is to do a farmer's job in an intown farm especially, because chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, birds, and whatever else get in there and just decimate a garden. We have covers over everything, but something got into our broccoli rabe, which I love and very few people grow. Sure enough, there was one little gap, and an army of chipmunks had to have gotten in there.

You learn how hard the farmers work. I want to support them for a lot of reasons. Mainly, it tastes better to me. And I think for the guests, it tastes better to them. In the end, it really is about flavor. Something fresh is going to taste better. Fish, vegetables, soups, anything you make. If I could make a batch of soup for two weeks it would make my life a lot easier, but I guarantee you in two weeks, it's not going to taste as good.

Is there a garden on the roof of the restaurant?
We have herbs on the roof right now. The plan is to build some raised beds. But that's just kind of the next stage, until we get the one at our house in complete working order. We'll never [grow] enough to supply the restaurant fully, but right now we've got the rabe going, and we have some chicories going, and cauliflower. All the arugula coming into the restaurant is Cakes & Ale. Arugula is used widely, everybody uses it. And when you cut it fresh, that's why. Arugula three, four, five days old is fine— it just tastes green. But really fresh, just-cut arugula is delicious. There are a lot of reasons you put salad or some type of green on every plate. But chlorophyll is like salt. It raises the palate, it gets things excited, so you don't have to over-season or over-reduce to get people's palates excited. It's more of a subtlety and letting the flavors taste like what Mother Nature made them to be.

What's your favorite thing about this restaurant?
My co-workers. Easy.

But this is an overall experience restaurant. It's a friendly welcome at the door. Really good service, but really laidback, and not in the sense that they don't care about the details, but laidback in that you can talk to these people. Don't be intimidated. They're your guides. We don't try to turn tables. Every two-top has at least an hour and half to eat dinner, which is unheard of, and it's not necessarily about multiple courses. Of course I like to see that, but it's about giving you time to relax. You get a cocktail— if you had a hard day at work, or an easy day at work, whatever, you want a cocktail— you sit, you have that cocktail. Take fifteen minutes to drink your cocktail. We're not going to shove everything down your throat at that point. Enjoy it. Relax.

We try to give you food that is value in the sense of the quality. I feel like with our beverage program, the value is immense, considering the quality. A lot of people do food maybe less expensive, but their wine list is really expensive. We're really tight inside of that window because I want you to drink the wine we think is better. The experience— beverage, food, service— should be something that is really cohesive, [especially] in a competitive market. Fifteen years ago, Atlanta was not as competitive. I wouldn't say it was easier, because this isn't an easy business.

What's it like now?
Now, Decatur Square is a restaurant row. Good or bad, I don't know. But if you come to Decatur, you have a lot of options, and they're solid in most cases across the board. The outlook, I think, is positive. More and more people are coming to Atlanta from other parts of the country because of costs of living, there are more businesses opening. You're getting people who are well-traveled, who are used to different experiences, and that's fueling a boom in the restaurant world of Atlanta. Decatur, I think, is almost in the forefront— there are a few other little areas, Westside being one, Roswell doing a good job— really booming and catering to not just people who have lived here, but a lot of people that are coming from elsewhere. That's a net positive in the long run because there's going to be a flush out of restaurants all the time— some of them may be good, some may not be good. But in the long run it will keep intriguing other restaurateurs, hopefully a lot of independent restaurateurs, to put both feet in and go for it.
—John Mishler
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Cakes & Ale

155 Sycamore Street, , GA 30030 (404) 377-7994 Visit Website

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