Kevin Rathbun’s résumé reads like a who’s who in restaurants. Rathbun worked his way up the gastronomic ladder under the watch of Bradley Ogden, Emeril Lagasse and Stephan Pyles before taking over as corporate executive chef with Pano Karotassos’ Buckhead Life Restaurant Group in Atlanta. After 10 years there, he left to open his own restaurant, Rathbun’s, in 2004.
Following a short but perplexing cab ride east of downtown and cutting across Atlanta’s industrial underbelly, RH’s Megan Rowe recently paid a call on the affable Rathbun at his newest spot, Kevin Rathbun Steak, which opened last spring. The 225-seat steakhouse is a block away physically and a step up in price points from from Rathbun’s and another more casual place, Krog Bar. All occupy spaces that once hummed as factories and are situated in a section of Atlanta known as Inman Park that is gradually undergoing gentrification. Rathbun’s Steak is a deceptively hip interior hiding behind a nondescript brick exterior, with only a tiny plaque on the opposite end of the building hinting at its existence in the structure housing office space. Clearly, it was a “if you build it, they will come” gamble, just as Rathbun’s and the Krog Bar were when they debuted.
RH: So the obvious question is: Why put a restaurant here?
Rathbun: Four years ago, when we built Rathbun’s, rents in this area were $18 a square foot, not $30, as it was in Buckhead. At first I thought, “Oh, shit, what have I done?” But within three months, we were doing 400 covers a night.
RH: I imagine your fans followed you, and it probably didn’t hurt that Rathbun’s was named one of the top new restaurants by Esquire the year it opened.
Rathbun: They did. But Rathbun’s also is known as a neighborhood place. We looked at American Express numbers, and the biggest demographic comes from 5 to 10 miles away. All the hotels downtown and the convention center love us because we’ve cut the cab ride (to Buckhead, the city’s restaurant hub) by $30.
RH: The Zagat Survey lists Rathbun’s as the second most popular restaurant in Atlanta. What are you doing right that people are willing to travel to such an out-ofthe- way location?
Rathbun: I had a good reputation with Buckhead Life, so at first they came to see what I was doing. Also, it’s really good people—the partners and employees—I surround myself with great people. They’re very hospitable and treat guests the way they want to be treated. The food is good and consistent, and the price points work. Rathbun’s has about 50 items on the menu, so we give people a lot of variety.
RH: More is better?
Rathbun: I don’t believe in the 7/7/5 rule anymore. With a small, limited menu people might come once, but might not come back.
RH: How would you characterize your menu at Rathbun’s?
Rathbun: It’s edgy peasant food. We serve tarragon roasted chicken with lemon mashed potatoes, we have lobster soft tacos, we teeter on Southern and Spanish, some Asian. I’ve done a lot of food in the past and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into doing one thing, like Italian.
RH: You’ve never been shy about admitting that you maxed out your credit to get the first restaurant built. How was it pulling off such a slick place as Rathbun’s Steak?
Rathbun: I put my house on the line the first time, but I figured if you don’t try, you’ll never get anywhere. The banks didn’t want to have anything to do with me on the first one, but they lined up for this one.
RH: Your restaurants are only open for dinner. Why?
Rathbun: We are also closed on Sundays—it’s so we get a reprieve. I call it staff retention.
RH: Where do you like to eat when you’re not working?
Rathbun: I love to travel to New York, L.A. and Chicago a couple of times a year. We’ll eat in four restaurants in a day and come home. We look at service, food trends, what people are doing to keep their business sustainable.
RH: Any plans for additional restaurants?
Rathbun: I think there’s some potential in the area. I would consider something low-brow, like Mexican.
RH: Your brother, Kent, runs his own well-known restaurants in Dallas. Is there any sibling rivalry between you?
Rathbun: We’re great friends. We spend a lot of time together doing charity stuff, and we just did Iron Chef together. We’ve followed some of the same paths—The American Restaurant, Brennan’s—and we have a lot of the same foods in our repertoire. It’s a little eerie.
RH: How was the gig on Iron Chef, by the way?
Rathbun: It was a stress test. But win or lose, it’s great publicity.