The Origin Story of the Coolest Restaurant in Atlanta
Welcome to Octopus Bar, ye tired masses.
January 25, 2016 ● 4 min read
When asked to define what Octopus Bar has meant to him, four years after its opening, co-owner Angus Brown offers an exasperated grunt.
He clearly loves the place. “It means a lot to me,” he says. “It means opportunity.”
With coolness there are certain unassailable tenants. Foremost: it’s difficult to articulate or emulate. Secondly, the encounter is vital and impressionable. Cool is so cool, that even after a century in our vernacular, we’ve yet to come up with a better word to supplant it. Whatever it might imply, Octopus Bar is brimming with it.
But as these stories go, one of the coolest restaurants in the country for discerning late-night diners—read, industry people—almost never happened.
In April 2011, family brought Brown home to Atlanta, where he’d grown up until age 15. More than 10 years later, on his second day back, Brown was inspecting his new hood, Castleberry Hill.
Castleberry Hill is just southwest of downtown. It’s a lively, mostly black community; once upon a time, it was a red-light district complete with cockfighting, drinking and gambling. These days, it’s still an active neighborhood, but more so in the manner of densely populated art walks and bustling ethnic restaurants. One evening, Brown found himself seduced by the peculiar aromatic combination of burnt weed and grilled salmon kama. He followed it to a closed restaurant, where a man inside presided over a plate of grilled collar. This was Nhan Le.
Le was a disaffected cook and restaurateur. In a past life, he’d worked finance for an insurance company in Santa Barbara, but he’d also—crucially—trained under master sushi instructor Andy Matsua. In 2005, he opened Wasabi, with visions of live uni and scallops, but it didn’t take long for his creative aspirations to be consumed by the corporate prudence that had once informed his life: Castleberry Hill wanted well-done burgers, not raw fish.
That first serendipitous meeting between Brown and Le ended several hours after it started, punctuated by talks of food they revered but didn’t get to cook. The rapport and momentum that rose up between them felt preordained.
Initially, Brown had flirted with trying to get something going in the Northeast. New York, or Boston, where he had some contacts. Le urged him to stick it out in Atlanta. In addition to Wasabi in Castleberry, he also had a busy neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant in East Atlanta, SoBa. Adjacent to the restaurant was a tarp-covered patio. Since SoBa closed at 10:00, Le suggested they use the space. Octopus Bar would soon exist as a perpetual pop-up, serving until almost 3am. A year later, Octopus Bar became a permanent fixture, and four years on, they are deep into their third venture together.
In the early days, Octopus wasn’t busy, but it was uncompromising. Brown and Le served the uni and raw scallops that they both loved. If business didn’t support this fresh fish, they gave it away to friends. The friends on the other side of that fish were, more often than not, fellow chefs, and Brown relished the opportunity to cook for them. Gradually, Octopus Bar morphed from a low-risk opportunity into the place he had always dreamed of, where “drug dealers and attorneys ate next to each other.”
Gresham Road, where Octopus is located, is perpendicular to Glenwood Avenue, a main thoroughfare of East Atlanta. For anyone who knows the city, this particular neighborhood is not a traditional destination. Especially after 10pm. This quality enhanced its original character, and bestowed its patrons with that “in the know” glow. You couldn’t have ended up there accidentally. Laissez-faire was undeniably the prevailing attitude of the place, and everyone was happy to steep themselves in it.
The admissible vibe and late-night booze kept them fluid in their dealings. It also meant stories. The stories are endless.
There was the time, in the second week, when a server entered the restaurant, confused.
“Hey Angus? You’re not in your car, man?”
“Shit. Someone’s in your car, man.”
They ran outside, and cornered the guy. Once confronted, the guy knew he was busted. He sized up Brown, then Le, and chose (the slighter in stature) Le. It was the wrong decision: Le pinned the bandit to the ground.
There was the dude in the pink bathrobe, who, at first, they deemed merely “eclectic.” Brown first noticed him not only jumping from table to table in the dining room, but eating food straight off the plates of patrons. Once Brown caught on to what was happening, he confronted the guy, and he left without incident, appearing surprised he’d been able to pull it off for as long as he had. All good fun on a night at the Octopus Bar.
So although the Atlanta plan was working better than anticipated, it still wasn’t the plan. Beyond the professional rigors—namely being the one to lock the doors of a place the took the last dinner seating at 2:30am—cooking there was a challenge. It was a small kitchen, the spatial limitations initially an exhilarating part of the venture, but after awhile they wanted more. Needed more.
Octopus Bar was such an unlikely cult success, it seemed that retiring it while it was still popular would be the best way to honor it while they moved to open their second place, Lusca. Around this time, a young cook fresh from a world travel tour stopped in. The food made an impression on him, and he wanted to work. His name was Duane Kulers.
As Brown and Le saw it, Kulers was exactly the right personality for this fragile, hard-to-articulate vibe they’d established: an intuitive, but unentitled talent. A rarity. “Duane understood the formula, which is shopping the right way and cooking what you believe in,” Brown says. He got the format of the place, and understood that the food had to match its energy: fun, hard to pin down, but really good. Cool. By the time of Lusca’s opening in 2013, he was named executive chef, and remains so to this day.
The story of Octopus Bar, and of Angus Brown and Nhan Le, is still being written—the duo has since decided to close Lusca and open a new spot, Ama—but for the rest of us, in a corner of Castleberry Hill, there still remains a place of opportunity. An opportunity to eat brilliant food at strange hours, in an eminently original setting, alongside attorneys, drug dealers, or men in pink robes.