Eater is highlighting some of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants and food institutions through a series of photo essays, profiles, and personal stories. The restaurants featured are a mix of longtime familiar favorites and less well-known venerable establishments serving a wide variety of cuisines and communities in Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. These restaurants serve as the foundation of the Atlanta dining scene, and continue to stand the test of time.
After closing for two years during the height of the pandemic, the unmistakable blue dome resembling a flying saucer spins slowly once again atop the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta. The reopening of Polaris in December 2022 marked the beginning of a new chapter for the historic hotel restaurant that makes a full rotation every 45 minutes and includes ties to some of Atlanta’s most influential figures and the civil rights movement.
Opened in 1967, and designed by Atlanta architect John C. Portman Jr., Polaris has undergone more than a few reinventions in the past five decades. But this latest version may be its best yet in terms of food and cocktails.
People arrive at Polaris via a glass elevator that ascends 22 stories at a heart-fluttering pace. They enter into a dining room that played host to the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Gladys Knight during the restaurant’s heyday.
When Polaris first opened in 1967, it offered the tallest vantage point overlooking Atlanta. Polaris quickly became a downtown dining hotspot for celebrities, tourists, and local politicians and residents. Despite it now being obscured by new high rises soaring above it, the blue dome and a 2014 mid-century modern redo bridging the restaurant’s past to its present continue to attract new generations of diners.
Classic cocktails remain key to the drinks menu, which features creative twists like a daiquiri mixed with herbaceous sorrel. Polaris manager Dyshun Rice oversees the bar and says he and his bartenders place greater emphasis on using Black-owned spirits brands to better reflect Atlanta and honor the Hyatt Regency’s legacy as a “Hotel of Hope”. Both the Hyatt Regency and Polaris became the first fully integrated hotel and restaurant in Atlanta when they opened in 1967 and often hosted civil rights leaders and other leading Black figures during a time when many other establishments in the city would not.
One Black-owned spirits brand Rice is excited about is Du Nord, a brand that produces vodka, gin, whiskey, and coffee liqueur. The coffee liqueur, in particular, is used in the peanut butter cup martini mixed with aged rum and peanut butter-infused whiskey. A chocolate dome cap is flamed away, leaving thick streaks of chocolate on the cocktail glass that mingle with the drink when it’s poured. Like Polaris, cocktails frequently come with some wow factor. The Smoked Honey ‘O blends Rye and Sons whiskey (a brand owned by master sommelier Andre Mack), dark rum, orange bitters, and syrup made with honey from the beehives located on the rooftop of the hotel. Presented in a smoke box, it’s one of the most popular cocktails at Polaris.
“To the best of my knowledge, I’m the first chef to come out here with tattoos,” says chef de cuisine Angus Daunt, who oversees the kitchen at Polaris. Among his tattoos, Daunt sports a bacon tattoo on his left arm, the word “salt” spelled across the fingers on his right hand, and other tattoos of cloves of garlic and even a shamrock.
Daunt was previously the chef at Parker’s on Ponce, a steakhouse in Decatur. At Parker’s, Daunt says he felt “anonymous”, but at Polaris, he enjoys interacting with diners and talking about the local produce used in dishes at the restaurant.
“My philosophy in anything, is either take local ingredients and put classic techniques to it, or take classic food or classic recipes and put a Georgia twist on it,” says Daunt.
The charcuterie board currently on the menu features meats from Reynoldstown butcher shop the Spotted Trotter. It comes with everything crackers, local jams, pickled vegetables, and local cheeses, including goat cheese from Decimal Place Farm in Conley, Georgia. A salad on the menu contains seasonal fruits, edible flowers, and candied pecans tossed in a burnt honey vinaigrette. The latter again uses honey from the hotel’s bees.
The tofu bulgogi pays homage to the Korean-American chef interns who worked alongside Daunt when Polaris reopened last year. Collard green kimchi and pickled daikon radishes accompany the tofu, made locally by the Soy Shop. Pork dishes are the calling card for the bacon-loving chef, and Daunt’s bacon, egg, and cheese appetizer is a standout with crispy pork belly, maple hot sauce, grits, and a cured egg yolk.
Some dishes remain fixtures at Polaris, like the steak Oscar served over creamy whipped potatoes and a bone marrow bearnaise sauce. People can swap out the beef fillet for wagyu New York strip. Despite the $90 price tag, this option is actually quite popular, says Daunt.
Pastry chef James Gallo focuses on the fruity desserts for Polaris, such as a springy strawberry cremeux with almond financier and rhubarb crackers served with creme fraiche sorbet or the blueberry and calamansi vanilla mousse with calamansi wine made from a hybrid citrus fruit found in the Philippines.
Gallo’s most popular dessert, however, is the blue dome. It’s almost as iconic as the restaurant itself. Chocolate mousse containing a caramel honey center is sprayed with a blue-tinted cocoa butter to resemble the restaurant’s distinctive domed roof accompanied by chocolate sorbet and a pecan praline sauce.
Reservations to dine at Polaris have been booked solid for months since the reopening. Rice, who didn’t grow up in Atlanta, says it didn’t take him long to learn the significance of working in one of the city’s most treasured dining institutions and the impact the restaurant has had on generations of Atlantans and visitors.
“I didn’t understand the history,” says Rice. “Once I got the job, I would walk around and go places and people were like, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ And I would tell them, “I’m going to be the new manager of Polaris.”
“You could see the excitement in their eyes. Everybody had a story.”
Open Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Lia Picard (@helloitsliapicard) is a lifestyle writer who has called Atlanta home for nearly a decade. Her work frequently appears in Atlanta magazine, the New York Times, Eater, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.