Diners need only follow the pink neon, cursive-lettered sign down the staircase from the lobby to enter Tiny Lou’s at the Hotel Clermont. The French-inspired brasserie, and Eater Atlanta’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year winner, takes its name from a petite, Austrian-born dancer who once performed in the Gypsy Room below — currently home to Atlanta’s oldest strip club, The Clermont Lounge. It’s said Tiny Lou’s namesake once refused to dance with Hitler, only adding to the allure of this mysterious woman and the restaurant she now inspires.
After years of neglect, the nearly century-old motor lodge on Ponce de Leon Avenue underwent a multi-million dollar renovation, transforming it into a chic boutique hotel, complete with a rooftop bar where Atlanta’s skyline is on full display, a cocktail bar in the lobby, and Tiny Lou’s, the French restaurant “above where the ladies dance.”
Expectations for Tiny Lou’s were high. Skeptics questioned whether a hotel restaurant could attract and retain a local clientele in Atlanta. However, the number one question the hotel’s director of restaurants, Nick Hassiotis, and Tiny Lou’s executive chef, Jeb Aldrich, received prior to opening, “What’s happening to the Clermont Lounge?”
“People were really worried the renovation would destroy the lounge. Then it closed for its own renovation.” Hassiotis says. “We fielded the question a lot, not just in the press, but from neighbors, lounge regulars, and the restaurant industry. We couldn’t assure people enough the lounge wasn’t going anywhere.”
Concern quickly vanished when the Hotel Clermont and Tiny Lou’s debuted last June. People keep coming — even the locals — every night, and the Clermont Lounge is busier than ever. According to Hassiotis, the hotel, Tiny Lou’s, and the dubious vice den in the basement are like “one big family” and benefit from one another’s presence on Ponce.
Creating the dining room for Tiny Lou’s meant embracing the old hotel’s past, from the golden age of the motor lodge with its gentlemen’s club in the 1950s to its recent shadier years.
Peach-themed wallpaper along the corridor and in the restrooms, the cool elegance of the staircase dividing the dining room, plush, pink velvet banquettes and leather booths, and the tattooed servers decked out in white coats are all part of the charm of the enticing Tiny Lou’s.
Aldrich is humbled by the amount of local and national attention Tiny Lou’s continues to receive since opening, and by the crowded house he and his team serve nightly, seven days a week.
“The diversity of our diners has really surprised me. Atlanta is a very diverse scene but, here, it’s beyond that. Everyone comes to Tiny Lou’s,” Aldrich explains. “On any given evening, you could have a table of 20-somethings, next to a group of people in their sixties, next to a table of tattoo artists from Liberty down the street, next to another table filled with restaurant industry people. It’s incredible.”
Hassiotis and Aldrich say there’s been a shift from those first few weeks when the restaurant was filled with curious diners peeping the newly renovated Atlanta landmark to a renewed interest in French cuisine.
Aldrich believes Baby Boomers, who grew up eating French or French-inspired foods in restaurants, are reacquainting themselves with the dishes of their youth, while younger generations may be experiencing French cuisine for the first time.
“The city is definitely seeing a return of French cuisine. However, this time, it’s on Atlanta’s terms,” says Aldrich. “It’s cool, casual, and approachable yet refined, fresh, and light. There’s nothing stodgy about it. Eating French food at the Clermont only heightens the experience.”
Dishes at Tiny Lou’s lean toward southern France, and often incorporate ingredients from Georgia and the southern United States. Familiar bistro classics such as steak frites, beef bourguignon, and a fluke meuniere lightly sautéed in butter are woven between dishes like duck consommé, diver scallops in dark chicken jus, and Burgundy snails, punctuated by seasonal vegetables.
But foie gras is the surprising star on the menu at Tiny Lou’s. Aldrich probably rolls five foie torchons a week. “I’ve never sold so much foie in my life! Then again, it all comes back to the fact, you’re eating foie gras above the Clermont Lounge.”
Much of the original thought behind the menu remains intact, save a few tweaks. The crudités plate was eventually eighty-sixed from the menu. People just weren’t ordering it. Aldrich hopes to reintroduce in the summer.
The vintage 1950s dessert trolly also received revisions. Hassiotis calls the clumsy cart a “beast”, like “trying to drive a Cadillac.” It wasn’t as well-received as they had hoped. The cart remains on display and occasionally makes a trip around the dining room. Its disappointing debut catapulted 26-year-old pastry chef Claudia Martinez into the spotlight, affording her the opportunity to hone the desserts for the restaurant, which honor the Clermont’s past as well as her Venezuelan heritage.
Now with a daily rhythm in place, Aldrich and Hassiotis can focus on the future of Tiny Lou’s. An herb garden is planned for the roof and they hope to host a series of rooftop dinners and pop-up events beginning in the spring.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for a decade. I’ve watched this neighborhood and Ponce change,” Aldrich reflects. “It’s amazing to now be part of the history of this building and this street.”
Hassiotis adds, “I’ve helped open many restaurants in Atlanta over the years. Tiny Lou’s takes the cake. I’m so proud to be a part of this hotel’s history and to have made even the smallest mark on the history of Atlanta. We’re just getting started.”