Alf's Bangkok Journal, January 2, 2004
The Atlanta’s enigmatic allure
Published on Nov 2, 2002
The cryptic message above the door says it all: "This is the place you're looking for - if you know it. If you don't, you'll never find it."
I've known about it for a year and been visiting at least once every few weeks ever since. The Atlanta is indeed what I was looking for but hadn't previously found during my five years in Bangkok.
Ensconced at the end of a nondescript residential soi, the Atlanta gets no passers-by, only patrons.
My introduction came at the hands of a seasoned human rights journalist who'd been visiting the Atlanta for decades as a place to conduct interviews in peace, or just savour the refined, low-key ambience and service in the hotel's restaurant.
Opening the smoked glass door reveals a world vaguely familiar but seldom seen any more, full of curves and the rich but soft colours of a forgotten era. Much more than a retro nod to the past, the look has simply been left to age like a fine wine in what the Atlanta calls "the oldest unaltered hotel lobby in Thailand".
The foyer also boasts a display of books by the many writers who've passed through this eclectic oasis at some point. The 1950s style lobby is well worth loitering in. The back yard garden and pool are charming, but perhaps the real attraction is the small hotel restaurant.
Isolated in time and distance from the rest of Bangkok, the Atlanta's restaurant offers a place to sit and think. This is no small thing in a city where upscale restaurants like to wedge a "Cafe" into their names but frown on lingering, which - and I hope they are reading - is the whole point of any real cafe.
The restaurant's subdued jazz and classical music, continuation of the lobby's classic styling, and amazing menu of very affordable Thai tastes, create a place and an atmosphere to let a few hours melt into the few decades that have already slipped by here.
Much more than a mere list of dishes, the menu is a scholarly work of art, describing in detail the excellent fare. And you've got to admire the throwback red and black emblazoning of "The Atlanta" on the cups and saucers in a font that suggests the bold masthead of The New Yorker (stacks of these and other literary and news periodicals are available for reading). The attention to detail tastefully abounds, but never overwhelms.
There's no place quite like this.
A couple of times on weekend afternoons my girlfriend and I have tried to convert at least one table of a local 'cafe' into the more European sense, dispatching the army of cutlery to the far side of our table, and coasting on smiles and firm but polite requests for just coffee and a place to read for a few hours. But it doesn't work very long - especially if the place closes between lunch and dinner.
Upscale coffee houses like Starbucks and Gloria Jeans help fill the gap but while reliable, they can get boringly predictable if you go too often.
As a recent Nation editorial said, oral traditions hold strong influence in Thailand to the determent of reading and writing. Helping support literary trends, the Atlanta attracts the type that wants something beyond actress/model pocketbooks. The back of the popular postcards of its classic lobby states that the Atlanta is "popular with writers, academics, artists, cinema and theatre and other professional people", the hotel describes itself as "untouched by modern pop culture".
The message written on a coaster is franker in lambasting the losers who come to Bangkok for the wrong reasons and who are not welcome in this classy place: "Zero tolerance & sleaze free zone; No sex tourists, junkies, louts & other degenerates."
But well-behaved rogues and creative nonconformists are welcome.
While the traditional teahouse of East Asia has been re-spun into hip hangouts for new generations in places like Seoul's Insadong district, Thai youth, so carefully fashion-conscious in dress and other respects, are content to plunk open books in vibe-free places like Dunkin' Donuts and Santa's at Siam Square.
Sure, there are cool artistic venues like the About Cafe and the hangouts of Phra Athit, but these are basically bars in drag, open at night, with a focus on alcohol and loud socialising, not caffeine and quieter conversations or literary pursuits beyond the latest copy of Lips.
For a discerning clientele, the Atlanta offers a distinguished alternative.