We were at the edge of a glistening rooftop lap pool when a well-known Atlanta writer introduced herself, nodded to the Buckhead skyline, and said, in a tone wobbling between compliment and dig, “I truly do feel like I’m visiting another city… a world apart.”
So began a FAM trip on Tuesday—that’s short for “familiarization trip,” or an extended property tour for press and social media influencers—of Simon Property Group’s big, three-building bet on the allure of Phipps Plaza and an Atlanta subdistrict often called the Beverly Hills of the South. Some came for two days or more. I could spare only 24 hours. But I was hellbent on living up the opportunity to a regrettable degree.
The two dozen tour attendees were split evenly among ATL locals and people who’d flown in for the chance to feast at Nobu Atlanta—where the reservation waitlist was rumored to have been six-months long upon its November debut—and stay at the brand’s attached, understatedly sexy hotel. One of journalism’s fringe benefits is partaking in cool experiences and documenting them as part of the job. But the itinerary for this excursion was borderline absurd and absolutely Buckhead, reading less like an assignment than a breathless, 1980s Ric Flair promo come to life: “Penthouse rocking, sushi crushing, comped-shopping-spree having, champagne slamming, cabana toasting, Porsche Taycan riding sons-of-guns—wooo!”
None of it was necessary. But isn’t that kind of the point?
Through the miracle of photo time stamps and notes diligently made into a voice recorder—(at times with slurred semi-English and, no kidding, a couple of accidental “Wooos!” for emphasis during dinner)—the following example of participatory journalism is presented as an honest, blow-by-blow assessment of modern-day pampering, as only Buckhead does it. The goal is to provide insights into each new facet of the property for which time allowed a firsthand experience. Except for the parts that people demanded stay off-the-record.
The consensus among pals I made over the course of a day: What’s been created here since Robert De Niro, a Nobu hospitality brand cofounder, was bashing Phipps Plaza’s old Belk store with a sledgehammer to mark the project’s groundbreaking in 2018—well, it’s impressive. The mixed-use symbiosis is real. The vibe is unique. The staycation potential is big, with world-class food, retail, and self-care facilities within steps of each other. And the damage to wallets can be tremendous, in those unfortunate, plebian cases where money is an object.
1:57 p.m. Running tragically late, I pull onto the property and spot the Nobu hotel entrance—and the two “house cars.” Both are all-electric Porsche Taycan GTS models, driven by certified “pilots” who will take you for free to anywhere within three miles—and then pick you up when you call the bellman’s cell phone. I park in a garage next to a relative jalopy, a smoke-gray Maserati.
2:07 p.m. Name tags are distributed. It’s that kind of party.
2:08 p.m. We’re loaded into a ground-floor Nobu boardroom that could almost be characterized as seductive, one of four onsite. “We’ll be unveiling over the next couple of days the culmination of a five-year process,” we’re told, which includes, “the best office tower in the city, One Phipps Plaza, bar none.” Fourteen new luxury brands are en route this year at Phipps Plaza, including Fendi, Dior, and Hermes, we’re informed. Anthony, a Nobu exec from Toronto, advises us to squeeze in a workout at Life Time Buckhead across the street “because [the dining experience] tonight is going to be a lot of food—and a lot of drink.” The understatement of 2023.
2:20 p.m. I dash up to my room, noting the David Rockwell-designed, handsome décor, grass-cloth wallcoverings everywhere, dark woods, and a pervading, signature Nobu fragrance like a candle burning in some high-end modern house. (It’s called lemon ginger.) In the room, the headboard is canoe-big. The sleek bathroom pocket door doesn’t just work—it excels.
2:29 p.m. “Welcome to Life Time!” the tour guide declares. Champagne is distributed to FAM attendees. It’s a nice bar area, especially as gym bars go. And a fitting intro to a self-time utopia.
2:33 p.m. We check out two pools on the Life Time roof, one for lapping and the other leisure, both heated to 80 degrees in winter and open year-round. There’s bottle service in the wings. The steamy pool deck is dotted with bikini-clad sunbathers and shirtless dudes pecking at laptops.
2:38 p.m. On the roof, an Australian woman on tour, looking across Atlanta’s verdant, rolling canopy, says, “It’s beautiful, really. Are you from here?” Me: “It’s the city in a forest!” Her: “I was actually surprised, flying in. It’s so green, so lush! A city in a forest—what a great idea! It’s so beautiful!”
2:56 p.m. We enter the gym’s bonkers Kids Academy, which spans 6,300 square feet, including its own basketball court with skyline views and a dance/yoga/party room for tykes. They watch kids here, from three months old, while parents work out, visit the spa, or see the in-gym chiropractor. Or go to the gym bar.
3:25 p.m. In the salon area, we learn expert massages start at $105 for an hour. Also I discover that one option I can pick for my “aroma journey” smells exactly like my tyrannical kindergarten teacher, Ms. Beard.
3:32 p.m. We enter the vast Life Time Work space, a 25,000-square-foot coworking facility included with memberships, open 24/7. It features sound-proof phone booth nooks for Zoom privacy and a temperamental, touchless coffee machine. Like the rest of the five-story athletic club, it’s understated and modern, yet pretty.
4:10 p.m. I break off on my own and bee-line to the gym’s hydromassage chairs. In five minutes, the hot water’s heavenly pounding has eased back tension. From this vantage I notice the patronage is, well, normal. Not a single Gucci meathead or duck-lipped Betty to be found. Pressed for time, I exercise way too hard, too fast, and run far too long on the TechnoGym treadmill. Easily the best I’ve tried.
4:11 p.m. Life Time memberships here, I'm told, are $279 monthly per person, or $379 per couple, with a $200 initiation fee.
5:40 p.m. We tour the hotel’s two Porsche-inspired suites, and it’s interesting, again, what an impact the German automaker has made across the city, from Hapeville to Phipps.
6 p.m. We swing up to room 901, and—behold!—it’s an Initio fragrance and origami social in Nobu’s only penthouse, a gorgeous, 2,800-square-foot space!
6:12 p.m. Cookerly PR head Jane Stout modestly says she plays a little piano—then sits down at the penthouse’s grand and rips off “Piano Man.”
6:39 p.m. Down to the Nobu restaurant and gratis everything and… uh-oh!
6:42 p.m. I sit down with Christopher Daniel, a Morehouse journalism professor and seasoned local and national publication writer who moonlights as a VIP media event extraordinaire. By the way we both marvel at our Nobu Old-Fashioneds, wondering how many we can ingest in a couple of hours, I know I’ve met my mischievous match and subversive ally for the evening.
6:44 p.m. Wishing I hadn’t worked out so hard, burned so much. A snack before happy hour would have been prudent.
6:46 p.m. There’s a “Nobu” imprint on the cocktail ice cube. The ingredients, we learn, are Maker’s Mark, Japanese brown sugar, and kuromitsu, garnished with a sliced frozen orange. The unifying power of free booze takes hold.
6:55 p.m. We’re led past the white onyx Nobu bar and seated in a back corner of the restaurant, which feels like a contemporary, top-flight steakhouse with roots in Japanese arts. The waitstaff is a well-oiled machine.
6:58 p.m. Seated at a five-chair table next to Daniel, we singlehandedly destroy the first dish to arrive: yellowtail tuna with cilantro, rimmed in jalapeños. All sunshine in your mouth.
7:15 p.m. Our second Old-Fashioned arrives, along with generous pours of red wine, the house Matsuhisa Cabernet, available at every Nobu around the world. Servers won’t let the red dwindle below two-fingers full for the next couple of hours.
7:28 p.m. The next round arrives: rock shrimp with tempura creamy spicy sauce. The final empty chair at the table has been filled by Caleb Spivak, What Now Media Group founder, a man I’ve considered a professional competitor for more than a decade but have never met. Awkward!
7:30-ish: Here comes the tuna sashimi salad with Matsuhisa dressing, topped with paper-thin veggies. Chef’s kiss!
7:36 p.m. I’m speaking into the trusty Olympus recorder, and Daniel says he admires my note-taking method—then launches into wild tales of Miami and Caesars Palace. The lights go down, and the Instagrammers use special lighting to photograph food. Spivak, an actor, discusses his role in a recent romance film. Seated to my right is Patrick Peterman, Simon’s senior vice president of development and asset intensification. He says training for each Nobu server is an eight-week process.
7:57 p.m. The fourth dish is black cod miso, a beautiful, generous, delicious portion with an almost jellied-toast sweetness—a huge hit. “Oh, my God,” says Peterman, “it’s incredible!”
7:58 p.m. Urbanism discussions unfold. Peterman says, with the advent of Life Time, people are riding bikes to Phipps Plaza for the first time ever. I lobby for more bike racks everywhere, in highly visible places, waving cabernet.
8:18 p.m. The main course arrives, an array of blue and yellowtail tuna, salmon, golden-eye snapper, and more that makes Daniel audibly go, “Mmmmmm.” I dumbly note the taste as “so fresh, so clean” without realizing the local irony. Says Peterman, pointing chopsticks, “Even the ginger’s like really good ginger.”
8:38 p.m. We’ve lost count of the Old-Fashioneds. (I stopped counting when I realized I was counting backwards.) Daniel is waxing philosophic on the value of maximizing… something. Waves of cabernet keep coming.
8:40-ish: Miso tart cake arrives, swiftly disappears. We collectively declare our table “by far the best table!” with no context for what’s happened at other tables.
8:48 p.m. An impromptu interview with Daniel breaks out. Me: “Did that meal live up to your expectations?” Him: “Oh, yes. After having my first dining experience at a Nobu in Vegas, and because Atlanta is such a cultural city for us, I knew the actual experience was going to be elevated—and that’s exactly what it is!” He hoists a wine glass: “This is all-inclusive. This is the jam!”
8:50 p.m. The Nobu feast for our table is estimated at $1,500. Cocktails excluded. No bill arrives.
9:21 p.m. The table’s most follicly challenged men start mugging for photos.
9:23 p.m. Our table’s wine intake is estimated by Daniel at “17 bottles.”
9:40-ish: Peterman hatches a genius plan to snatch a few more bottles of red—and head back up to the Nobu penthouse!
10:10 p.m. Out by the rooftop pool, the evening cool and cityscape glittering, I’m joined by Daniel and Spivak in trying to convince a recent Atlanta arrival who helps run the Nobu hotel that she needs to get out and explore the town more, beyond Buckhead and Ponce City Market. She pledges to do so. Then she informs us we’re free to rent the penthouse for $5,000 per night. We could also make the rooftop pool and bar our private hang—for an additional $15,000 nightly.
10:35 p.m. In the penthouse's cavernous primary bathroom, trying to figure out the flushing mechanism, as Abba’s “Dancing Queen” hums across embedded speakers.
10:50 p.m. Indecipherable hooting, throughout the penthouse.
11:10 p.m. With all the eloquence of a child’s record player in slow-motion mode, I start conducting silly interviews, specifying they’ll be on the record, asking penthouse dwellers to describe their philosophy on life in 50 words or less. Spivak replies: “My philosophy on life is, there is no moment beyond this one, the reality is the earth can spin out of its axis in the next 10 seconds, so if you’re not enjoying this exact moment, what are you even doing?” Daniel goes next: “My philosophy is, shut the fuck up and drink your champagne!”
11:33 p.m. Most of the revelers, suddenly, have disappeared.
11:52 p.m. Soldiers convene at the main penthouse table, with Daniel insisting it’s not late for a Tuesday. Glasses are cluttered throughout. The night is crisp, the carpet of Atlanta lights vast. Daniel sounds remarkably sober, giving Peterman a thorough rundown of recent Tony award nominations history. Everything is henceforth off-record. So the Olympus retires, a more casual hang ensues. On the penthouse sound system “Midnight Train to Georgia” is followed in a beautiful twist of fate by Journey’s “Lights,” with its chorus, “When the lights go down in the city…”
12:35 a.m. I’m back in the room, wishing myself “night night” into the Olympus for some reason, admiring how someone has placed black slippers in my perfect size beside that queen marshmallow of a bed.
6:40 a.m. Having the first of four in-room Nespresso cups in hopes of clearing the head and beginning the workday.
6:49 a.m. Convinced my brain is literally on fire.
9:45 a.m. Having successfully published a news story, I’m walking the fanciful corridors of Phipps, passing Versace and Boss stores, en route to a Legoland Discovery Center tour.
10:11 a.m. We learn Legoland reopened March 31 after a spiffy, $5-million renovation, and that it’s been in Phipps Plaza for almost 10 years. Daniel is chipper, recovered, but I joke with other tour participants about how we’d love to dive into the piles of so many little plastic heads and take a nap.
10:42 a.m. I ditch Legoland tour for quick nap, a session of pure marshmallow bliss.
2:40 p.m. Refreshed, with hours of work in the rearview, it’s time to use a gift card at the property’s new Citizens Market food hall and munch a bowl of healthy El Pollo Verde to atone, slightly, for last night. It must be Atlanta’s most minimalist food hall, a contrast to the gilded shopping complex next door. I bid adieu to tour friends on The Green, a centralized social space, and walk away with a gift bag that includes a $200 bottle of Mojave Ghost, a genderless Byredo fragrance. Absurdity.
4:32 p.m. A bellman named Marcus provides transportation service to Lenox Square in one of those in-house Porsches. We discuss acceleration times and so much Alcantara on the dash.
5:31 p.m. Being a nice day, I opt for the unpleasant walk beside Peachtree Road from Lenox back to the hotel. I just smoked through a $250 gift card at the other Simon mall in 50 minutes, experiencing the unfamiliar sensation of money being no object, of blissful accumulation and gain, the Buckheadian dream. But hey, I’ve upped my summer shorts game exponentially. In my bag is a stack of Calvin Klein and Armani Exchange and a pair of discounted, silky pink swim trunks with tiger prints, which wouldn’t look out of place on the Nature Boy himself.
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