Yes, really. My first post written after Tales of the Cocktail 2011 is a road review of an airport bar. Bear with me, it’s worth the journey.
I had the superior sense and forethought to book my flight home from New Orleans in the afternoon, but the result was that I had three hours in Atlanta Hartsfield at dinner time. I idly tweeted, “Hmmm. 3 hour layover in ATL. Anyone know where the best Sazerac is made in Concourse C?” I fully intended to sup on lukewarm Budweiser and chicken fingers, so the tweet was really just an idle musing on how cocktail-spoiled I’d become in The Big Easy. Thus, I was surprised to receive this reply moments later from follower @Vespajet, moments later: “Nowhere on that concourse. Your best bet in terms of cocktails is One Flew South on Concourse E.”
With a shrug, I set off. Concourse E is the main international rib in ATL, so I figured that if there was decent food and the chance of an un-shaken Manhattan to be had in this or any airport, it would be found there.
One Flew South is located right at the top of the escalators accessing the councourse. It is an elegant modern sushi bar, restaurant and cocktail lounge. It is decorated in spare, Japanese style, all in white enamel and blonde woods, with modern white leather and chrome seating that is more comfortable than it looks. (This is more important than it might sound at first, since this place is designed for travelers who may have just spent up to 12 hours scrunched into those pretzel molds they call coach seating.) There are 11 seats at the bar, a few less in front of the sushi chefs, and a bunch of two person tables surrounding these.
I slipped into a seat in the middle of the bar, not expecting much, and that’s when all the fun began….
Bartender Norm Johnson presented me with both sushi and cocktail menus as I sat (an important detail I highlighted in my last post on menus), and I almost laughed out loud. No Sazerac, but this menu offered me such non-obvious but essential craft cocktails as Bellinis, French 75s (gin, sorry NOLA), Vieux Carrés, Negronis, and Aviations. They offer Pisco Sours and ‘Treuse or Dares… These are raw egg white drinks… In an airport bar.
As I sipped my Aviation (what else to go with first in an airport bar?), I started paying real attention. Just how crafty is this bar, I wondered. The next drink someone ordered was a simple gin and tonic…
“Really?” I asked Norm. “You have a Kold-Draft machine here?”
Yep. No soda gun, either, only premium bottled mixers. They have a small but useful selection of fresh juices and herbs. I counted at least nine bitters. (Unaccountably, no Angostura.) And they boast a pretty interesting selection of premium liquors and liqueurs.
The sushi offerings were limited but very well executed, with excellent quality tuna. While the drinks are priced very much in line with a regular craft bar, the food prices are up there where you’d expect for the captive airport clientele. They offer non-sushi dishes as well that looked pretty good, but I saw none served whilst I was there.
Of course, you can build a nice facility, stock it with great stuff, and still have a crappy result if you don’t have the most critical element of any bar, craft or otherwise: good staff. Rather than the usual parade of temporary journeymen who toil behind the mahogany-print vinyl in most ‘tween runway establishments, One Flew South boasts a small, long-term professional staff. Norm has been there the whole three years the bar has been open. He’s enough of a drink geek to have fun with the resources he has before him, but isn’t self-indulgent about it. He also has that great judgement about character that let him treat every customer at the bar with me in a subtly different way from the one next to them. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that he has a private bartending firm, as well.
So, is One Flew South another Pegu Club? No, of course not. But it is a damn well-executed classic cocktail bar with some nice touches that would be worth a spot in a local’s rotation if it were located in Buckhead. And it wildly exceeds any reasonable expectations a traveler should have for a refuge between flights. If you fly through Atlanta and have the time, I highly recommend a ride on the train to Concourse E. It’s the best bar I’ve ever seen in an airport. Say, “hi,” to Norm for me.