In a world where you can have sushi delivered to your front door by a stranger via your phone, the realm of airport dining has made significantly less progress. Only in an airport does eating a cheeseburger at 7 a.m. seem like a sound breakfast choice; only the desperation of a 35-minute layover leads you to look admiringly at a pre-wrapped sandwich with the same mouthfeel as a rubber boot. Not to mention all of this will cost you close to $20.
Luckily, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the hub of the South, has been one of the leaders of adding fresher dining options to their terminals like the award-winning One Flew South. Now, there’s a new spot on the block, er, concourse. Chicken + Beer, a collaboration between Grammy-winning rapper and hip hop artist Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Chef Andrew Tabb, formerly of OFS, is now offering weary travelers Sunday supper-style soul food with upscale twists. Named after his breakthrough album Chicken-n-Beer, its menu offers dishes like Luda’s Chicken and Pecan Waffles with a whiskey-maple sauce, spinach, and andouille sausage; the appetizer section lists items like Cajun boiled-peanut hummus.
We caught up with Ludacris and Chef Tabb to talk about their new oasis of Southern hospitality, the vibe they hope customers pick up on, and what’s on their cooking playlists.
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SL: How did y’all first meet and come up with this restaurant concept?
Chris “Ludacris” Bridges: It’s been great to open this place 10 years down the line since my album Chicken-n-Beer came out. I had dabbled in the restaurant industry with this place called Straits in Midtown Atlanta, and when it came time for the airport to start clearing out for new business in 2013, it just made sense because I was already friends with the people at Jackmont Hospitality [the group that owns co-owns Chicken + Beer and had previously co-owned Straits]. So we started to all work together on this place. I never thought in a million years that my album would make it as a restaurant.
Andrew Tabb: I was brought in on the process in 2016, and we started putting together what we wanted the Chicken + Beer experience. We wanted to provide patrons a place to enjoy craft beer, some great cocktails, and Southern comfort food no matter where they were traveling from. We get customers coming in now from all over the world. I was actually telling Chris about how old I was when the Chicken-n-Beer album actually dropped. I was in 11th grade, and now to be the executive chef here, it’s kind of a surreal moment, especially being such a fan of his music for so long.
SL: Can each of you recall when you took a deeper interest in food and when you wanted it to become a part of your careers?
AT: I’ve been cooking in restaurants since I was 13-years-old, and I got my first real big break when I was 18 when I helped open up Table 1280 near the High Museum of Art in Downtown Atlanta. It was the first fine dining restaurant I had worked in, and I got my taste of upscale menus and my first encounters with true foodies. I had just graduated from high school, and I started to take a turn for the culinary industry. I have a degree in business, but I still pursued my way in this industry, which I feel like shows my passion for this.
CLB: I started taking an interest in food and the restaurant industry as an adult. Being on the road all the time performing, I started to see a gut forming, and I started to become more conscious of what I was putting in my body. From there I became a foodie, and I wanted to be more involved in the whole process of creating a restaurant.
SL: What restaurants or experiences did you use as inspiration for the vibe of Chicken + Beer?
AT: I wanted to reference some of my experiences from growing up because I was born and raised in the South–in Atlanta. Sunday dinner was the bomb growing up. With everyone coming together, my great-grandmother, three brothers, three sisters, my aunties and uncles coming over to cook in the same house. I would watch the collard greens cook or pick through the black-eyed peas. They had fried chicken, cornbread, mac-and-cheese. When it was time to sit down and say prayers, you got that warm feeling not just from the warmth of the food but being around family. The connections between what we did to make that meal and enjoy it together, I wanted to recreate that feeling for our guests in the airport.
CLB: At Chicken + Beer, you get the whole Southern hospitality feel. People think of family and warmth when they think of the South. We tried to make that feeling in everything from the food to the the colors and decor; we wanted the Southern experience of what people think that it is or identify it with.
SL: I was wondering if y’all could talk a little bit about the menu development process.
AT: I had a lot of experience cooking great food in an airport setting, and my mission has always been to open up people’s views to what airport food can be. Most people’s impression of airport meals are overpriced fast food, and when you come to Chicken + Beer you get made-to-order food from scratch. We knew we wanted must-have things like grits and the chicken and waffles, but our own version that stood out from the rest.
CLB: I wanted the menu to be well-rounded too with healthy options for people who are trying to go lighter, but if it’s your cheat day, then you’ve got the chicken and waffles. We wanted to take the norm and twist it.
SL: What’s your favorite beer offering at the restaurant right now?
CLB: It’s hard for me to pick just one because I love variety, but the Terrapin's Hopsecutioner is one of my favorites right now.
AT: I’m an IPA guy. I’m really liking SweetWater Brewing's Hash Session IPA. We cook with quite a few of the beers we have on tap. The IPA Double Cheeseburger has freshly ground beef patties with chuck and short rib and a cheese sauce we make in-house that I call ‘hoppy cheese.’ We make it with the SweetWater Hash Session so it’s kind of like a mornay sauce. Then we add caramelized onions, smoked bacon and bread and butter pickles. It comes with fries, but people sub in for the rosemary tater tots a lot.
SL: How insanely good is that Bourbon Peach Shortcake on the dessert list?
AT: Oh yeah. That’s one of my favorites on the menu. The peaches are braised with tarragon, and it has an almost star anise flavor. There’s spiced peanuts. The cake is definitely done classic style. Chris always gets the bourbon peach shortcake, but he’s into the Stout-Braised Beef cheeks too. I thought that was amazing.
CLB: I definitely love that shortcake. When you think of that name, it’s a twist on something that classic and it’s different; people don’t think of putting that stuff together. The beef cheeks is one of my favorites on the menu 100 percent. It’s cooked so perfectly. When I go in, I tell people don’t be afraid of the beef cheeks.
SL: Last question, since y’all represent a union of music and food, I was wondering do either of you listen to music while you cook at home? What’s on your playlist?
AT: As far as my playlist at home, I love all kinds of music. I played in the orchestra growing up. I played violin and piano. But backdrops when I’m cooking, I like to listen to a bunch of lyricists and Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. I’m a big fan of Luda. I love his album Word of Mouf. I’m such a big fan of his creativity with what he does.
CLB: Probably something relaxing or jazz music or some [John] Coltrane. Or maybe Kenny G, you know? Something that people wouldn’t expect.