There are some chefs who just fit Downtown and Justin Kingsley Hall, formerly of Downtown pop-up SLO-Boy is one of them. “I was always really excited about doing something down here [and] seeing the scene grow,” Hall says.
It’s one of the reasons why he’s leaving his station at modern eatery Sparrow + Wolf and taking on the executive chef role at Fremont Street restaurant The Kitchen at Atomic.
“I had originally, three years ago, planned to go on board with Brian [Howard, owner of Sparrow + Wolf]. At the time we were going to be Downtown; I was just in a completely different mindset back then,” Hall says.
Sparrow + Wolf ended up opening in Chinatown and Hall’s goals changed. “It’s hard because I was part of a great project, but it wasn’t where I needed to be,” he says. “I had become attached to Downtown [and] was always excited about doing things down here. … I wanted to be back where my heart was.”
Hall already had an in with the owners and managers of Atomic though sitting at the bar as a patron and throwing catering events there in the past with Josh Clark, co-owner of sandwich shop The Goodwich. It was Clark who mentioned Atomic was looking for a new chef.
Former Kitchen at Atomic chef Josh Horton took on a quirky, elevated approach to bar food with items such as Mama John’s Mac Bites (mac and cheese balls with lobster and roasted peppers) and the BBBLT made with pork, turkey and duck bacon. Hall is changing the menu entirely.
Hall’s menu reflects his homey, rustic style that people have experienced at SLO-Boy and dining events such as Whiskey In the Wilderness, which spotlighted meats cooked on open-fire grills and booze. Pairing food with adult beverages is becoming a Hall signature.
“For me, I wanted the food [at Atomic] to be more like the times I’ve spent with winemakers and different brewers,” he says. “I’ve been to a few different wineries and breweries where they’re getting done with work and I’m making food in the kitchen [for everyone].”
There is a section of the menu called Supper With Friends with larger plates that are meant to be shared, such as whole roasted fish and half-chicken. There will be four or five vegetarian and vegan items as well, including the dandelion green kale pie, all made with fresh seasonal ingredients. There will also be some SLO-boy favorites such as the harissa carrots and triple cooked potatoes, along with a beef cheek mole—a version of the cheeky tamale cup.
Photos by Krystal Ramirez
“A year and half [later and] people are still bugging me about these items, which is cool. But it’s like, ‘Oh, my god, it’s carrots guys,’” he laughs.
Noting the new apartments being built next door, Hall says the main idea is to bring people together to get them to come and stay a while over a shared board or veggie dish. “This isn’t about going and slamming something back and getting drunk, it’s about spending time together,” he says.
With Atomic’s licensing, outside food is only allowed on one small section of the patio away from the action of Fremont Street.
“My focus is to make an attraction of the side patio, which is hard because I know you don’t see [Fremont] Street,” Hall says. “It’s not as energetic right now, but that’s something I want to change so it’s its own experience.”
To celebrate the new menu, Atomic is hosting a patio party on Thursday, November 9, complete with a Firestone Walker Mocha Merlin whole roasted pig and Jameson Whiskey bread pudding. The new menu launches November 10.
Hall is confident his new position is a good fit.
“It’s my personality. It’s a group of people who I really respect and love being around,” he says. “And I’m excited to see Downtown grow. I know that there are still a lot of people who are uneasy about it, but there’s gotta be somebody who takes the risk, otherwise it never builds.”