Standing in the dining room of Georgia, one of the newest restaurants to hit the Santa Fe culinary scene, you’d never know that in January the whole place was gutted from floor to ceiling for a complete renovation. Walls were torn apart to be reinsulated, original ceilings were exposed and plumbing and electricity overhauled. From the dust and debris a gorgeous space has emerged. In the dining room, luxurious leather banquettes and tables covered in white linen line the freshly painted walls, which are hung with contemporary art. Stemware and chrome ice buckets reflect light from the pendant lamps that hang suspended from the ceiling. A zinc-topped bar and a wall that displays the restaurant’s wine selections dominate another room.
On a warm day in June, I sat down at a table on Georgia’s patio to speak with the trio behind the venture: owners Lloyd Abrams and Terry Sweeney and the restaurant’s executive chef, Brett Sparman. Lloyd, who helps run Geronimo restaurant, was the driving force behind Georgia. He purchased the property, previously home to the O’Keeffe Café, from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum located next door. Originally officers’ quarters for the US Army, the two buildings on the property are 114 and 107 years old (they are now connected). After Lloyd bought the property, Terry agreed to become a partner and the pair recruited Brett, who had been working since 2011 at the Inn and Spa at Loretto’s Luminaria restaurant. As we chat, Lloyd frequently jumps out of his chair to do one thing or anotherspeaking with a customer who will be returning later for dinner and cleaning up the restaurant sign. “This is the longest I’ve seen him sit down in five months,” Brett jokes. “He’s one of the most tireless restaurant owners I’ve ever worked with.”
Since the beginning of the year, Lloyd and his partners have been busy renovating the old buildings, which needed a lot of work. Because they’re historical, nothing could be done to the outside. But inside, Lloyd says, “we ripped the place apart. We didn’t use an existing electrical or plumbing line. We put in a brand new kitchen. It’s a brand new building.” He shows me a picture of the space during the early phases of renovation—a mash up of ripped-open walls, exposed insulation, loose nails and boards and the general disarray of construction. Although there was a lot of work that needed to be done to get the place up and running, Lloyd knew the location was special. “Great architecture is an important component of a successful restaurant,” he says. “This building and this setting had unique potential.” When I walked into Georgia for dinner later in the week, it was clear that the metamorphosis also extends to the service and cuisine.
“There is a real absence in Santa Fe of the type of restaurant we wanted to create, that we think other cities have,” Lloyd explains. “And that’s an in-town country club. A place that’s elegant and sophisticated, but where people can eat every week.” The idea is that when people come to Georgia, the staff and owners know not only their name, but also where they like to sit and what they like to eat. Service is upscale but personable, and the dishes are simple and approachable, so people will want to come in often. Keeping prices reasonable is also important to the owners of Georgia: nothing on the written menu will be over $35 (nightly specials may run a bit more), and there are plenty of wines by the glass for a reasonable $7 to $9. “We want Georgia to have a very comfortable atmosphere with fantastic contemporary American food,” Terry tells me.
Another niche Lloyd and his partners are hoping to fill is an après lunch available daily in the summer and fall months from 1:30 to 5:00pm. “There’s nothing downtown open at that time,” Brett says, pointing out that the area is saturated with foot traffic that they’re hoping to catch. The idea is for people to be able to have a bite to eat and a drink in the afternoon before dinner. A stop at Georgia’s patio for oysters and a glass of sparkling wine, or charcuterie and a cheese plate, sounds perfect for a Santa Fe summer afternoon.
Brett’s cuisine at Georgia is focused on simple, approachable dishes. He won’t be serving Southwestern cuisine, particularly green chile—he says there are plenty of people in town serving this type of food already. Instead, look for appetizers like grilled romaine (sheep’s cheese, crouton and limón Caesar) and Brett’s jumbo lump crab cake (olives, sun dried tomatoes, summer bean salad and basil). Entrées include Talus Wind Ranch lamb rack (roasted garlic potato, parsnip, baby squash and salsa verde) and Alaskan alibut (broad beans, purple cauliflower, baby carrots and beurre blanc). Brett says he will source organic and local ingredients as much as possible, especially during the summer months when he can make trips to the farmers market. He also plans to change items on the menu frequently, rather than making changes only seasonally. “Food here is approachable, simple and clean with my personal touches,” he says. “This is the food I really like creating.”
I had some fabulous dishes at Georgia that I would definitely try again. The Texas quail was delicious on top of a yam purée, garnished with vivid blue borage flowers. Beech mushrooms here and there added a delightfully chewy texture contrast to the smooth purèe. The beet salad was simple, with golden beets, shaved radish, pistachios and goat cheese yogurt. Brett’s dishes are lovely and the beet salad arrived garnished with a striking dark pink beet powder that stood out beautifully against the white plate.
I also loved the crispy onion streusel and sweet citrus-vanilla emulsion with the pan-roasted Scottish salmon. Black barley and smoked apricots finished the dish. I could smell the mesquitegrilled New York strip cooking while I sat on the patio, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to try it. It was served with white asparagus, crispy potato and king oyster mushroom, though my favorite part of the dish was the romesco sauce swept across the plate. Perfectly spicy and smoky, it was a great compliment to the mesquite-grilled meat.
Making sure guests’ experiences are exceptional is at the heart of what Georgia is all about, from the time you arrive until the moment you leave. For example, driving up for dinner I was excited to see a sign for valet parking, a service rarely offered at Santa Fe restaurants. Servers are dressed in white collared shirts with black ties. Details like bread and butter service (each guest is offered a choice of rolls, muffins and lavash) and varietal-specific stemware amplify the dining experience. Lloyd and Terry emphasize fine dining service, but what really stood out for me is how involved both partners and the chef are through the night. While I ate dinner, Terry and Lloyd walked around, stopping at tables here and there to speak with guests. Brett did the same, delivering some of his dishes to tables and stopping to introduce himself.
Brett tells me, “These are the most involved restaurant owners I’ve ever worked with.” He laughs and says that Lloyd is there every daycleaning windows. “And watering the plants!” Terry joins in. “I got here early one day,” Brett remembers, “at seven in the morning. Lloyd was already here and had the holes dug for the new trees!” He points out that Terry and Lloyd are always on the floor, talking to guests and being present. “These are not the guys in the corner saying, ‘I own this place, give me a drink!’ They’re here being a part of what this place is.”
The involvement of the team at Georgia and the familiar, friendly atmosphere, paired with a high level of service, will be a defining feature of the restaurant and what sets it apart from other restaurants in Santa Fe. “We want to be the neighborhood restaurant,” Lloyd says, and it seems Georgia is already succeeding. While I had dinner I saw many familiar faces from my years in the restaurant business. Community is one of the main reasons Lloyd decided to open Georgia in the first place. “My wife Janet and I are very involved and love our life in Santa Fe,” Lloyd says. “We think this is a way for us to be even more personally involved in the community.”
Georgia is located at 225 Johnson Street in Santa Fe. 505.989.4367.
Story by Erin Brooks; photos by Gaelen Casey