R. Thomas: a health food phoenix rises from the fryer
STORY: Rebecca Cha
PHOTOS: Sara Hanna
It’s hard to believe that R. Thomas Deluxe Grill was the brainchild of the same man who was the first president of operations at Kentucky Fried Chicken and followed that up by creating what became the Bojangles’ franchise. Twenty years later, after an existential epiphany and an auspicious meeting with nutritionist Donna Gates, Richard Thomas decided to pivot—and how—by opening a funky, natural-food eatery in Atlanta and never looking back.
Located in Buckhead’s Ardmore district, R. Thomas reminds me of the L.A. cafe featured in Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning film Annie Hall. The Sunset Strip is replaced here with Peachtree Road, and Alvy’s “alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast” are swapped out for a panoply of, well, similar-sounding grub. For foodies who don’t get the Woody Allen reference, let me put it another way: R. Thomas is the original True Food Kitchen. Even better, it’s open 24 hours, 7 days a week, so you can get a goji berry maca shake, walnut sunflower pâté or a hamburger whether it’s 4 p.m. or 4 a.m.
R. Thomas’ eccentric dining room is essentially an indoor/outdoor space. The concrete floor is the former parking lot, and there’s an industrial tent “ceiling” sporting ’70s-style disco lighting, beaded curtains and “walls” of heavy transparent plastic. And did I mention Mr. Thomas’ birds? Parrots, toucans and more are perched in cages along the north exterior of the building, and a few will provide a delightful pre- or postprandial chat if they’re in the mood. Though Richard Thomas passed away in 2017, the birds are well cared for and are so popular, they have their own Facebook page.
But on to the food. Testing out the eatery’s promise to “treat carnivores and vegetarians with equal respect,” we began our first visit with a pound of hot wings. Marinated then grilled and tossed with just enough hot sauce to tingle your tongue, it’s no wonder they’re so popular on social media. Continuing our meaty mission, we couldn’t pass up the grass-fed Thomas Burger. Served on a choice of toasted sourdough or marble rye, the grilled-to-order patty comes stacked with fresh romaine, garden tomatoes and R. Thomas’ “special sauce” (homemade Thousand Island dressing). It passed muster, but connoisseurs will likely choose other burger havens to scratch this particular itch.
When it comes to vegetarian and vegan food, however, R. Thomas is where you want to be. The widely praised Thai Express bowl was a masterpiece of multicolored veggies sautéed with chunks of nutty tempeh, tossed in delicate peanut sauce and served on hearty quinoa. The dish is reason enough to go vegetarian. From the limited but enticing dessert menu, we ordered the peanut butter pie made by local bakery Kenny’s Great Pies. It was as delectable as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup but better at triple the size.
My next visit was a quick dinner before an evening at the Alliance Theatre. (R. Thomas is, incidentally, a great place for pre-theater meals—with light traffic, it’s less than five minutes to the Woodruff Arts Center.) Our veteran waiter regaled us with stories of yore, chatting us up about the fare and the fowl.
He recommended a round of mimosas, but we went with fresh-pressed juices. The Champ, containing carrot, apple and ginger, was pungent, spicy and incredibly fresh. Likewise my companion’s Dancing Queen, an elixir of fennel, apples and pears. Either of these refreshing mocktails will make you feel a paragon of wellness and healthy restraint.
The evening’s meal commenced with French toast. (You gotta do breakfast for dinner from time to time, right?) The thick, sugar-dusted slices of egg-soaked sourdough drizzled with real maple syrup make this one of the most kid-friendly dishes on the menu. The accompanying housemade vegetarian sausage was savory and tender, but calling the soy-based patty “sausage” was a stretch. We followed that with the scrumptious R.’s Quesadilla— crisp bacon, gooey white cheddar and white-meat chicken, all tucked into an organic chile tortilla—and it was the table favorite. In keeping with the crunchy spirit of the place, we chose a salad for dessert, specifically Dr. Joe’s Mango Salad. (Dr. Joe, a Marietta chiropractor and nutritionist, was a good friend of Richard Thomas’.) With its baby Boston leaves, sunflower sprouts, avocado and mango chunks tossed in a light tamariagave dressing, it was the perfect antidote to our heavier first courses.
R. Thomas is not completely free of disappointments. One particular seared tuna salad, for example, arrived from the kitchen looking like yesterday’s news and was promptly sent back. But there are far too many upsides to keep us from R. Thomas, not the least of which is the fact that it’s just a really happy place. The healthy, food happy clientele, along with a touch of charming hippie nostalgia, has cemented R. Thomas in the pantheon of beloved Atlanta spots for more than 30 years.
R. THOMAS DELUXE GRILL
1812 Peachtree Rd. N.W., Atlanta 30309
Prices: Breakfast: $9.75-$14.75.
Salads, sandwiches and entrées: $5.99-$20.75.
Recommended: Free-range chicken wings; Thai Express bowl; curry coconut seafood linguine; French toast; R.’s Quesadilla; Dr. Joe’s Mango Salad; Kenny’s Peanut Butter Pie; fresh-pressed juices, smoothies and yerba maté drinks.
Bottom line: Whether you’re gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, carnivore or undecided, there’s plenty to love at this funky Buckhead institution.