The Hotel Clermont, Atlanta, Georgia
If a building could receive a psychological designation, Atlanta’s Hotel Clermont would be a shoe-in for multiple personality status.
Since opening in 1924, the five-story red brick structure has morphed from luxury apartments to a high-end hotel, supper club, nightclub, strip club, motor lodge, rent-by-the-day flophouse, and finally, an abandoned shell when it was shuttered by the health department in 2009.
A New Look
Now, after a massive $20 million renovation by Nashville-based Oliver Hospitality, The Hotel Clermont is back and sporting a whole new persona, one that melds past and present with a singular style and chill vibe.
Owners Ethan Orley and Philip Welker knew they were onto something when they first lay eyes on the shabby structure. The pair were experienced in the adaptive reuse realm with the SoBro Guest House and Fairlane Hotel in Nashville and The Oliver Hotel in Knoxville. They saw solid bones beneath the Clermont’s scarred surface and an unoccupied niche in Atlanta’s hospitality market.
But there was more to it than that. “The Clermont is one of those unique, once-in-a-lifetime properties,” says Orley. He knew it presented the opportunity to create another destination lifestyle hotel, but it was the building’s many lives that made it stand out.
“Everyone loves a good story, and people love gritty narratives even more,” he explains. “She’s not the prettiest building on the block, but, boy, does she have attitude!” And while that certainly provides fodder for the marketing folks, one gets the sense that uncovering the Clermont’s past gives its new owners a personal thrill as well.
A Destination Lifestyle Hotel
Walking through the original Georgia pink marble entrance, you step into the lobby and what feels like a different era. Not in an antique-y, Oriental rugs and oil paintings way, but in an intriguing, slightly disorienting “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” way.
While guest rooms are brand-new, the halls are the same ones guests have traversed since the ’20s. Where construction required filling in space, the doorways to the disappeared rooms remain slightly spooky reminders of days gone by.
Nods to Atlanta and the hotel’s history appear throughout, with oversize peach wallpaper, magnolia upholstery, bunk rooms that acknowledge the flow of musicians who have decamped at the Clermont and quotes from the rap duo Outkast written in random corners.
The ambiance is retro-tropical, with leafy fabrics and rattan furniture. Straight ahead is a cafe serving local coffee and pastries. Take a turn, and you find the lobby bar, a sultry pocket of jewel tones reflected in rows of rounded mirrors that have earned it the nickname “the peacock room.” Wander through the hotel, and you’ll find peacocks popping up unexpectedly, reflecting the creative fun the New York firm Reunion Goods & Services had with the interior design. A library connects to a long gallery with clusters of seating for intimate conversation or time alone with your laptop.
Six floors up, there’s a funky rooftop bar with astroturf underfoot and 360-degree views of the sparkling skyline. The menu epitomizes Clermont quirk, serving crepes and hotdogs from a cart that was lifted and lowered into place by crane.
First Rate Food: Neighborhood Prices
Sharing star billing with the hotel is its culinary crown jewel, the French-American brasserie Tiny Lou's. Named after a dancer in the hotel’s 1950s Gypsy Room, it was one of Zagat’s “30 Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings Across the U.S” in 2018, and reviews show it has not disappointed.
Led by executive chef Jeb Aldrich, the kitchen turns out dishes like black cocoa foie gras torchon with Rainier cherries caline and Blue Ridge trout almondine with haricot vert, capers, cipollini, toasted almond, almond milk, and sourdough brown butter.
The French theme reflects the older, classic side of the Clermont as well as its inclusive atmosphere, says Aldrich. “French cuisine has influenced so many other cuisines, and that fits the whole concept.” Such is his passion for the restaurant that he has tattooed Tiny Lou herself on his left forearm.
The seasonal menu features local produce and is designed to be refreshing and light. “French food gets this reputation for being heavy, and it’s not if you’re using the right ingredients,” says Aldrich, noting that lemon juice is a favorite go-to.
“Yeah, we use a lot of butter, but we use it in a way that you don’t feel like you need to be carted out.”
The 35-year-old chef brings extensive experience to the job. Since his start at the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, he has worked at several highly-praised Atlanta eateries — Canoe, 4th & Swift, Noble Fin, and the Michelin-starred Joël, where he trained under its James Beard-award-winning chef-owner, Joël Antunes. A turn through Austria and Italy added a European element to his resume.
Like everything else Clermont, the top-flight credentials and exceptional cuisine come together to produce an unexpected and delightful result. Far from being an enclave of formal dining, Tiny Lou’s is a relaxed and comfortable neighborhood bistro. “We don’t have that stuffiness, that pretentiousness, that can sometimes be associated with a project of this size,” says Aldrich. “This is a neighborhood place. It’s for everyone. We want it to be approachable — we don’t have one entree over $30.”
The neighborhood he refers to is Poncey-Highland, an area alongside Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Avenue, one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares. The stretch on which the Clermont is situated is in full-on rejuvenation mode, a boon to guests of the hotel. The pedestrian beltline and shops and restaurants of Ponce City Market are steps away, while newcomers like Honey Bubble, 8Arm and City Winery mix with landmarks like the Plaza Theatre, Mary Mac’s Tea Room and the antique-hunting paradise of Paris on Ponce.
And then there’s the legendary Clermont Lounge, continuing full swing in the building’s basement. The unaffiliated basement strip club/dive bar has been in operation since 1965, earning it the distinction of being Atlanta’s longest running strip club, not an insignificant accomplishment for a city known for its risqué entertainment.
A polar opposite of the sophisticated hotel, the Clermont Lounge serves Pabst Blue Ribbon from a black duct-taped bar and features dancers of all age, shape, and personality. When word got out that the building had been sold to developers, locals wondered about the fate of the basement club.
They needn’t have worried. As Orley put it, “The opportunity to juxtapose a classy French-American restaurant with a crowd-pleasing, adult-only bar below” was one they couldn’t resist.
The iconic lounge enjoys a far-flung reputation with celebrities like Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro stopping by when they’re in town. The late Anthony Bourdain filmed a segment of Travel Channel’s “The Layover” there and declared, “This place should be a national landmark.”
The hotel has embraced the lounge as part of the building’s storied past. Images of women subtly appear throughout, and suites bear names like “The Flossie” and “The Ruby.” The idea is to add a celebration of femininity to the mix.
Since the revived Clermont’s eagerly-awaited opening (“We were anticipating a crowd, but we never anticipated a line out the door”), the buzz shows no sign of letting up. The wait for the Rooftop can be hours, in part because admission is kept well below maximum capacity to ensure an uncrowded experience. Patrons put their names on the list and then have dinner or go to the lobby bar. Somehow, it all works.
“It’s a great reward to see people enjoy the final product as much as we enjoyed working on it,” says Orley. “We love how much everyone is picking up on the small design details that we spent years planning.”
It’s history with a modern twist. Or modern with a shot of history. It’s hard to say which dominates, and it doesn’t really matter. The result is eclectic, eccentric, quirky and cool. Whether you eat, drink, sleep or just hang-out, you’re sure to have a good time at the Clermont.
Ponce City Market – www.poncecitymarket.com
Plaza Theatre – www.plazaatlanta.com
Paris on Ponce – www.parisonponce.com
Honey Bubble – www.honeybubbletea.com
8 Arm – www.8armatl.com
City Winery – www.citywinery.com
Mary Mac’s Tea Room – www.marymacs.com
Clermont Lounge – www.clermontlounge.net
All photos in this story were submitted by the author, Laurel-Ann Dooley, courtesy of the Hotel Clermont, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 2018, and with referential credit to other photographers as apropos.