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Upscale dining options key to happiness at senior living communities [The Atlanta Journal-Constitution :: BC-SRS-LIVING-UPSCALE-DINING:AT]

When The Club opens later this summer at Lenbrook Atlanta, it arguably will be one of the more well-vetted dining establishments to hit Buckhead in recent memory.

At tasting sessions, residents of the Peachtree Road senior community helped select which dark, light and decaf blends will be served all day in the coffeehouse before it morphs into a dessert-and-drinks spot at night. Even the name, The Club, was chosen by a vote of Lenbrook's 500 residents.

"The residents here have always created impact, and just because they moved here they don't want to stop," said Lenbrook's dining services director Stephen West. "And food and drink is one of the areas they care about the most."

Lenbrook is at the leading edge of change sweeping over what is broadly known as "senior living" communities.

Increasingly, experts say, food is becoming as important as level of care among people deciding which independent or assisted living community to move into - or whether to move into one at all.

"There is a large trend in senior living toward 'destination dining,'" said Felicia Crawford, director of hospitality at Canterbury Court in Atlanta. "That means multiple dining venues, all with their own identities. So it feels like having multiple restaurants under one roof."

At Canterbury Court, the four different venues run the gamut from fine dining to grab-and-go fare. Residents also can order room service. And wherever they choose to eat, icons recently added to menus help them identify vegetarian, gluten-free and healthy eating options.

"As the younger generation starts coming in, we're seeing they're very health- and wellness-focused," Crawford said. "Besides still having lots of choices on where to eat, they want to know what's in various items and is it nutritional."

Indeed, here come the Baby Boomers. Some 10,000 of them are turning 65 in the U.S. every day now and for a large swath, deciding on their next, best place to live is of critical importance. In Georgia, the generation born between 1946 and 1964 comprises just under 24 percent of the population, according to the most recent Census estimates.

For many of these Boomers, mobile lifestyles, increased societal focus on healthy and socially conscious eating and even the proliferation of cooking shows on TV has acclimated them to a wide variety of dining options. Those expectations aren't about to disappear just because they're moving into senior living.

"Most people here are well traveled and used to having the best choices," said Jeanne Gambrell, a three-year resident at Lenbrook and the current resident co-chair of the dining committee. "They don't want to change."

"This is not a shy group," Barbara Ramos, who recently rotated off the committee after five years, confirmed with a chuckle.

Is it any wonder, then, that this isn't your grandfather's senior living dining room of even a decade ago?

"Back then, you would've had one dining room and maybe a couple of choices on a sheet of paper that you would have to circle what you wanted the next day," said Bruce Rosenblatt, founder of Senior Housing Solutions, a senior living referral service. "Now, it's night and day. It's all waiters and waitresses, fine dining and multiple venues."

Spurred by a growing market of seniors with honed palates and a willingness to speak up about it, senior living communities are adding open kitchens, brick-oven pizza venues and gluten-free and organically grown menus for residents, said Harris Ader, CEO of the Senior Dining Association, a professional organization of food service personnel in the senior living industry.

At Allegro Senior Living, some new communities will get rooftop or poolside bars, said vice president of dining services Mark Krystopa. Elsewhere, they're incorporating more happy hours and "things that would be seen in a nice restaurant setting," including omelet stations, wine carts, even Bananas Foster stations.

There is a downside to all that attention to food, though.

"Everyone who moves here gains the 'freshman 15'," Lenbrook resident Jeanne Gambrell joked.

Founded in 1983, Lenbrook had just one dining room where residents filled out an order ticket with their dinner choices, but that began to change in 2008.

Now, residents who choose not to cook in their own units can choose from fast casual fare at the Bistro; order a full-service, sit-down meal from the more extensive menu at The Grill Room; or treat themselves and guests to dishes like goat cheese and asparagus soup, pan-seared rack of lamb or Maine lobster at Lenbrook's Fine Dining restaurant. There's also a private dining room, room service and an outdoor restaurant, Tim's Terrace, that serves seafood, burgers, tacos and other al fresco specials from May to October.

Comment cards on the tables encourage residents to provide feedback on their dining experience, and a dining committee composed of resident members provides a link between fellow residents and dining services.

Stephen West, Lenbrook's dining services director, credits the committee with helping eliminate Styrofoam products in its restaurants. Next up on the environmental agenda: eliminating plastic straws.

Just as notable, the committee played an important role in finally helping to resolve a long running - and somewhat amusing - argument over cornbread.

Lenbrook's 500 residents have roots around the country and generally speaking, Northerners prefer a sweeter cornbread recipe and Southerners a more savory one, said West. So much so, that when he interviewed for the job about two years ago, someone asked, "What's your stance on cornbread?" His response: "I like both.' "

He'd make a good politician. But practically speaking, it worked. Soon after West arrived in 2016, he and Lenbrook's executive chef, Todd Clemens, started "preparing nearly infinite iterations" of cornbread. Ultimately, the dining committee selected their favorite sweet and savory versions, and both are now regularly available.

"Peace has been restored," former dining committee co-chair Barbara Ramos chuckled.

Maybe ...

Sometimes Clemens mixes up a batch of jalapeno cornbread muffins, "just to keep things interesting," says West.

Meanwhile, the menu of dining options keeps expanding. In June, Lenbrook hosted the first in what will be monthly farm-to-table dining events. The four-course menu of locally sourced foods paired with wines from Chateau Elan in Braselton was held outdoors and sold out at $60 per person. And The Club will open soon in a spot off the main lobby with a view of the terrace, largely in response to two factors: The popular happy hours that Lenbrook started throwing every night but Sunday a couple of years ago. Plus, people loving good coffee and the chance to socialize over it.

"We want every venue to offer its own unique experiences," West explained. "So what you can get in one, you can't get in another. Even though it's only 20 feet away."

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