New Orleanians generally consider Atlanta to be their affluent, arrogant and stupid uncle. This stems mostly from a genetic hatred for the Falcons. But it’s also because when we visit, we’re stupefied by the endless interstates and ceaseless traffic and soulless “townhouse” developments that ring the core. And the feeling that there isn’t much of a core. New Orleans, in contrast, is basically all core.
I’ve been driving north from New Orleans to Maine all this week, and I made Atlanta my first stop, thinking I should pay a visit to our wayward uncle. It had been a while. Maybe we could make amends.
I asked James Ives, a bartender I admire who works at Cure and Bellocq in New Orleans, where I should get a drink when I hit town. He used to live in Atlanta and worked at Holman & Finch. One of the places he mentioned to me was a tapas restaurant called Pura Vida.
So I Google-mapped it. And then I searched for “hotel.” And, lo, one popped up about 50 feet away, called the Highland Inn, where I found a room for $50. Deal: done. If there’s a holy grail in the cocktail travel world, it’s having a place to flop a one-minute walk away from where you drink. I wasn’t even dissuaded by the questionable TripAdvisor reviews. How questionable? Let’s just say it’s rarely a good sign when someone feels the need to defend a place by saying “Bed/sheets/towels were clean.”
Anyway, Pura Vida is the Poncey-Highland area, which is a residential area that arose during the first great streetcar suburb era — this was on the famous Nine Mile Trolley line, developed at the end of the 19th century. The neighborhood consists of smallish lots, bungalows, and non-chain commercial businesses on the main streets. And lots of trees.
Pura Vida is a supremely comfortable spot, with most of the dining on one side of a wall. A large, solid bar and a few tables are on the other. I immediately established a beachhead at the bar where I met manager Paul Calvert, who’s personable and very talented.
His spring cocktail menu (it was about to switch to summer) had the feel of a understated travelogue filled small, Bakeresque adventures. It’s predominantly a classics-with-a-twist menu, with offerings like a tequila Sazerac, and a Manhattan variation with sherry and Carpano. Also, a lot of drinks in the key of bitter. which is my favorite key. And the selection of spirits is outside the ho-hum usual, including Ragged Mountain, Scarlet Ibis, Five Islands, and Matuseleum rums, Encanto pisco, and Bellringer Dry Gin.
I started with a Floreciendo, a high-speed collision of Del Maguey mezcal mixed with Carpano vermouth, St. Germain, Campari, and rosewater, then garnished with a flamed orange twist. I ordered it in part because I’d just come off eight hours on the road and this sounded like something that could cut through the highway grit. But also because it seemed like a nervy maneuver — passing on the shoulder? — that might go badly awry.
It didn’t. It was flawless and exactly what I needed. The drink was so robust it stood up to (and even complemented) the chipotle mushroom plate I ordered.
Next up:an off-menu drink Calvert told me about (it was on last summer’s menu) called Le Petit Mort. I was curious because it seemed to be another high-wire act. It was built around Niesson rhum agricole blanc, which I’ve found generally doesn’t like playmates beyond sugar cane syrup and a bit of lime. But Calvert forced it onto the playground with Pineau de Charentes, lime juice, Herbsaint, and green Chartreuse. And the rhum agricole actually played nice, sharing its flavors and even letting some of the others (notably, Chartreuse) set the rules on some sips.
I departed weary but pleased, and made the short jaunt next door to the hotel. No vast parking lots or highway interchanges or fast food restaurants were in sight. (I’m still convinced that early streetcar suburbs remain the pinnacle of urban evolution.) As for the hotel, let’s just say that the bed, sheets, and towels were clean.
The best part of my evening? Realizing that my annoying uncle actually had some redeeming qualities.
Pura Vida Tapas, 656 N Highland Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30306, (404) 870-9797. For a pdf of the current cocktail menu, click here.