Week 21: Ria's Bluebird

Atlanta, Georgia is one of the South’s standard-bearers: One of the places Southerners can turn to when in need of a reminder of who they are and what the South is about. It’s a place where preserving Southern tradition is part of life, and it’s a place where innovators find an encouraging atmosphere to create traditions of their own.

Take Ria’s Bluebird. It’s in Atlanta’s Grant Park, the city’s oldest. It is surrounded by Victorian homes and stands directly across from Oakland Cemetery, where Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell rests. You might think that this would be a place where something as simple and elemental to the culture as, say, biscuits and gravy, would uphold most folks’ expectations for a traditional interpretation.

Um, not quite.

At Ria’s Bluebird, the gravy is meat-free. That’s right: vegetarian biscuits and gravy. So let’s back up. Ria’s Bluebird was founded by chef Ria Pell in 2000. If her name sounds familiar to you, she was a winning chef on Food Network’s Chopped in 2012.

Today, Ria’s is a packed-out breakfast diner (word to the wise: If you’re going on Sunday, get there before 9). But it was once a drive-through liquor store. When Ria first got her hands on the property, there were holes in the ceiling, and no plumbing. It was a shell in an historic neighborhood that badly needed innovation and vision. She revived the place with repurposed heart pine paneled walls, a bright bluebird-themed logo, and a massive mosaic she commissioned friends in California to make for the restaurant.

Then there’s the menu that has a little something for everyone.

Ria, who passed away suddenly in 2013, was known—and is still loved—for how she embraced people that others might consider to be different, including artists and the LGBTQ community. Sixteen years ago, people who didn’t want sausage in their gravy kinda fit that category. Current co-owner Julie Pender says, “at the time, everything wasn’t so chef-driven, and she really wanted a breakfast restaurant that was chef driven. She was also kinda punk rock, and so she was like, ‘no, we’re doing it my way.’ So the vegetarian gravy, I think she was like, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ because everyone was expecting a meat gravy. The vegetarians, of course, love us for it.”

Honestly, anyone could love the biscuits and gravy at Ria’s, because even without sausage, everything’s made with familiar ingredients that deliver lots of flavor. Both the biscuits and gravy are made entirely from scratch using recipes Ria created when she first put the dish on the menu on opening day of Ria’s Bluebird. The recipes haven’t changed much. The pepper milk gravy is based on a roux that starts with a made-in-house roasted garlic oil. “A lot of people will ask, ‘are you sure it doesn’t have, like, something like bacon grease in it? Are you sure?’ Because it’s got a little bit more oomph than just regular plain milk,” Pender says.

The buttermilk biscuits are baked in a half-sheet pans, and over the years, regulars have learned to ask for which biscuits they want. “So, you can get the corner,” Pender says. “The corner edge is my favorite biscuit because you can get the double crusty part. A lot of people request the middle biscuits because they want all the fluff that you get from all four sides.”

What co-owner Julie Pender, who has been at Ria’s for 13 years, loves is that the biscuits and gravy are accessible and comforting: “The biscuits and gravy for me, is kind of like, a hangover cure. Or if you’re like, kind of on a budget, because it’s not that expensive here, it’s only five bucks.” (It used to be $3.)

And, honestly, that comfort is a part of the entire vibe that surrounds Ria’s Bluebird. Ria was known for being generous, whether it was in starting a now-defunct queer arts and music festival, or raising money for someone who needed it. When Ria died in November 2013, people began painting tributes to her on Bluebird’s patio. Julie finally asked an employee to paint a floor-to- ceiling tribute to Ria, a giant portrait of a woman who had a larger-than- life presence and legacy that still continues. Perhaps most important: Thanks to Ria, an historic neighborhood that once seemed kinda sketchy is now a delightful place to walk to your corner diner for a $5 bowl of biscuits and gravy.

**This blog was cleverly written by one of the International Biscuit Festival freelance writers, Shaun Chavis, who also obtained these special photos. Shaun is the Editor of Saltshaker Marketing & Media, LLC. Please check out more of her work at http://saltshakermarketing.com/.