Nestled along the scenic banks of the Chattahoochee River in Vinings, Canoe restaurant is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
By Meredith Pruden /// Photography by Katherine Frye
The iconic institution, which consistently collects industry accolades and seems always to garner a sense of celebratory nostalgia in the minds of long-time patrons, has seen its share of triumph and heartbreak over the years, but always seems to come back stronger (and, though it hardly seems possible, tastier) than before.
Founded in 1995 by partners Ron San Martin and George McKerrow, with chef Gerry Klaskala (now of Aria), in the space formerly occupied by Robinson’s Tropical Gardens dance hall in the 1940s and Patio by the River in the 1980s, Canoe is an award-winning and nationally-recognized farm-to-table eatery overlooking a registered Atlanta Audubon Society Wildlife Sanctuary.
“It’s an oasis,” long-time General Manager Vince Palermo said. “It’s so refreshing to come out here and enjoy a meal and a great bottle of wine. It’s an experience that’s just rejuvenating.”
With a working garden, on-site chicken coup and completely unrivaled locale, Canoe is the kind of place where people (customers and staff alike) build memories around a fantastic chef- and ingredient-driven culinary program, expansive and well-selected wine program and friendly atmosphere from which no one leaves a stranger.
It seems nothing can damper enthusiasm for Canoe’s cuisine, libations and amiable service, but the restaurant’s generally idyllic location also has presented its share of challenges through the years. Even from the days of Robinson’s Tropical Gardens, the river has given — and it’s taken away.
Twice since it opened, Canoe has flooded. The first was a quickly dissipating inch of water in the lower part of the dining room. Then, in 2009, the restaurant saw a devastating incursion that easily could have proved the end of an era — and for almost any other restaurant probably would have.
“Flood stage on the river is 14 feet,” Palermo said. “That day was 29, so the river rose 15 feet out of its bank straight up. After the water receded, everything was just soaked and covered in a half inch layer of sticky silt.”
It took the team 60 days to re-open the restaurant, moving, cleaning and sanitizing anything salvageable and disposing of everything else, but both Palermo and Executive Chef Matt Basford said that, in the end, they view the disaster as something of a positive experience.
“The flood brought us all very close together,” Palermo said. “Every time we needed help we made phone calls to our employees and had a brigade out here. The neighborhood was cool too. They would show up with lunch or dinner and were just very supportive.”
Today, the only time Palermo, Basford and the rest of the Canoe team look back on the flood is when recounting the tale for inquisitive reporters and customers. Instead, the two stand steadfastly at the helm of a restaurant fueled by a passion for the very finest ingredients, the very best technique, the most charming and friendly service and the most breathtaking setting in Atlanta.
It is this attention to detail and zeal for unpretentious cuisine that consistently has allowed Canoe to evolve with the times, keeping it current, relevant and always highly lauded amongst the country’s top restaurants.