New South Dining in Atlanta
Craig S. Pascoe, December 2006
In 1988 the city of Atlanta hosted the National Democratic Convention. In opening ceremonies Mayor Andrew Young encouraged delegates to have "all the greens, ribs, and grits they wanted before returning home."1 Much of the catering for conventioneers revolved around the theme of southern cooking—BBQ, fried chicken, and biscuits, for example. Southerners are proud of their food and this is especially true with Atlantans. But today Atlantans embrace more than collards greens and cornbread as symbols of regional cooking. The offerings in Atlanta restaurants represent a growing diversity in the styles of cooking available in the city. We hope you will venture outside your hotel and enjoy some of Atlanta's diverse food offerings.
So, Just What Is Southern?
Try these ethnic restaurants and you will find it difficult to categorize southern cooking as stereotypical overcooked vegetables, pork, and fried foods. Sotto Sotto (313 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-6678, www.sottosottorestaurant.com) has won numerous awards for its "authentic" Italian fare. Sample courses include the Tortelli di Michelangelo—veal, chicken, and pork ravioli in a butter/sage sauce or Saltimbocca alla Romana—center cut veal loin scaloppini rolled with prosciutto and sage and served with a marsala sauce. Planet Bombay (451 Moreland Ave. NE, 404-688-0005, www.planetbombay.com) in Little Five Points serves some of the best tandoori in town. Enjoy the mulligatawny stew, aloo mater, and chicken tikka masala on a cool Atlanta winter night with Bollywood music playing in the background. Located next to the Georgia Tech campus, Tamarind Thai Cuisine (80 14th St., 404-873-4888) is a good bet for spicy Thai food—and spicy is the key word at Tamarind. Try the basics—pad thai, panang curry, or chicken satay. Or select something special like the kung-thod—rice paper stuffed with cilantro and shrimp. If Southeast Asian cuisine is too hot for your tastes, visit Veni Vidi Vici (41 14th St., 404-875-8424). There you can dine piatti piccolo—"tapas Italian style." Choose from small plates of grilled artichokes with mint pesto, thin sliced beef and prosciutto di parma, rotisserie specialties like coniglio (rabbit) with roasted tomatoes and Ligurian olives, or larger seafood servings like Zuppa Di Mare—mussels, clams, prawns, scallops, and fish cooked in a tomato saffron broth. "I came, I saw, I ate way too much," should be the translation for this restaurant's name.
Of course you are in the Deep South and one of the first things you want to know is where to find good BBQ. There are three BBQ joints (it's impolite to call them restaurants) within a short cab ride. Daddy D'z (264 Memorial Dr. NE, 404-222-0206, www.daddydz.com) offers smoked pork ribs topped with a tomato-based mild sauce or hot sauce, pulled pork plates and sandwiches, and chicken. Entertainment—blues bands like Chicago Joe and White Trash, and Black Cat Bone—pack crowds into the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. Rolling Bones Premium Pit BBQ (377 Edgewood Ave. SE, 404-222-2324, www.rollingbonesbbq.com) is located in a converted 1940s gasoline station. This is Texas pit BBQ—beef brisket is the star here. But Rolling Bones also offers chicken and pork as well as some good sides like pinto beans and mustard greens. And there is Ace Barbecue Barn (30 Bell St., 404-659-6630) just around the corner from the Sweet Auburn Market. Here you can feast on smoked pork ribs and deep-fried chicken and catfish. Ace also has an array of vegetables from black-eyed peas to collard greens. This is "no-frills" dining at its best. Here soul food and BBQ come together to create a truly southern eating experience.
Three restaurants close to the meeting hotels cater to carnivores. Bone's (3130 Piedmont Rd. NE, 404-237-2663, www.bonesrestaurant.com) not only specializes in steaks but takes pride in serving fresh Maine lobster and Gulf Coast shrimp and crabmeat. The portions are serious—the petit filet is 10 ounces and they serve a porterhouse that weighs in at almost 2 pounds. Chops/Lobster Bar (70 W. Paces Ferry Rd., 404-262-2675) is also well known for its selection of quality beef. If you feel frisky, perhaps you and your partner should order the "Double" Porterhouse steak (a mere 48 oz.). Chops also serves Kobe beef and takes pride in its loin lamb chops and signature side dishes like the creamed spinach. The restaurant also has an extensive seafood menu. Fogo de Chao (3101 Piedmont Rd., 404-266-9988) is a southern Brazilian restaurant (churascaria) that offers a wide variety of grilled meats. Servers dressed as gauchos present customers with skewered portions of filet, pork loin, lamb, and top sirloin. There is even a large salad bar for the unfortunate vegetarian in the group. This is not your typical Golden Corral experience.
Ray's in the City (240 Peachtree St., 404-524-9224) offers a wide selection of seafood like grilled Yellowfin tuna from Hawai'i, mountain trout from north Georgia, and black grouper caught off the coast of North Carolina. They also serve sushi—rolled, nigiri-style, and specialty rolls like the Bagel Roll and the California Eel Roll. The Atlanta Fish Market (265 Pharr Rd., 404-262-3165) has the best selection of fresh seafood in Atlanta. You get the idea that they are serious when you drive up to the restaurant and see the 65-foot-tall copper fish. The daily catch is over a dozen fresh fish like Block Island swordfish, Artic char, and Indian River redfish.
Before you leave town, visit one of these restaurants to experience southern-style cooking. Mary Mac's Tea Room (224 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, 404-876-1800, www.marymacs.com) has been around since 1945. You order by checking off items on a paper menu. Chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, meatloaf, and country-fried steak are some of the entrees available. Be sure to check off plenty of vegetables and sides like fried green tomatoes, cheese grits, stewed okra and tomatoes, and pot likker. Thelma's Kitchen (302 Auburn Ave., 404-688-5855) offers food in an atmosphere of simplicity. The restaurant is located in a run-down building but the food is worth the trip. Vegetables like rutabagas and okra and macaroni and cheese take center stage here. The fried catfish and chicken are signature items. For urban soul food, stop in at Gladys Knight and Ron Winans Chicken & Waffles (529 Peachtree St. NW, 404-874-9393, www.gladysandron.com) for the "Midnight Train"—a plate of southern fried jumbo chicken wings and a crispy waffle—or catfish and grits served with cinnamon raisin toast and peach butter. And there is Paschal's (180-A Northside Dr. SW, 404-525-2023). The original restaurant started by the Paschal brothers served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s. Fried chicken, meatloaf, and southern-style vegetables are served along with a big slice of history.
These restaurants are more moderately priced but still offer an enjoyable dining experience. There is the fern bar atmosphere of TGI Friday's (100 Peachtree St. NW, 404-523-5744) where you can nosh on stuffed potato skins while spending the rest of your food budget on Cosmopolitans or Ultimate Long Island Iced Teas. Or consider eating at Max Lager's American Grill & Brewery (320 Peachtree St. NW, 404-525-4400, www.maxlagers.com) where you can choose a pizza, calzone, burger, or steak cooked on a wood fire to go with your fresh brewed Max Pale, Max Gold, or Max Oatmeal Stout beer. A short distance down Peachtree Street across from the Fox Theater is the Bridgetown Grill (3316 Piedmont Rd., 404-266-1500, www.bridgetowngrill.com). This Jamaican-themed restaurant specializes in jerk chicken dishes, Jamaican-style burritos, and guava BBQ ribs. If you have had a tough week of job interviewing, presenting a paper, or schmoozing, consider Einstein's (1077 Juniper St., 404-876-7925) located just off Peachtree Street near the High Museum. They have a great brunch menu on Saturday and Sunday morning—try the classic French toast or the Ixtapa scramble of eggs, chorizo, tomatoes, red onion, bell pepper, jalapenos, cheese, and cilantro served on a flour tortilla and accompanied with sweet potato fries. Their "make your own" Bloody Mary bar will take the edge off.
For those of you who want a meal that represents American culture, there are two close by that are a must. The original Vortex is located in the Little Five Points neighborhood (438 Moreland Ave., 404-688-1828, www.thevortexbarandgrill.com). (Stop by Your Junkman's Daughter, 464 Moreland Ave., 404-577-3188, to buy a unique gift for loved ones back home.) The restaurant's menu is big—with items like Cuban black bean spread, corn dogs, and alternative burgers made from turkey, veggie, ostrich, and bison. Vortex has opened a second location at 878 Peachtree St. NE (404-875-1667, www.thevortexbarandgrill.com) where you can get one of Atlanta's best hamburgers. Be advised that in addition to being declared an "idiot free" zone, both locations are smoker friendly and adults only. A trip to Atlanta would not be complete without a visit to the Varsity (61 North Ave., 404-881-1706, www.thevarsity.com)—caution, people with high cholesterol levels should check with their physicians before ordering almost anything on the menu. If you eat inside, ordering at the counter is part of the experience. Counter clerks shout out "what'll you have?" and customers respond by ordering slaw dogs, deviled-egg sandwiches, onion rings and fries, chili burgers, and frosted orange drinks.
OK, Here's Atlanta's Finest
Not all historians are satisfied to dine out based on their meager academic incomes. Sometimes you just have to max out your credit card to get the culinary experience you want. Bacchanalia (1198 Howell Mill Rd., 404-365-0410) has been chosen numerous times as one of Atlanta's best restaurants. As at other high-end restaurants, the menu changes seasonally with the availability of fresh ingredients. Some of the items on previous menus include Snowy River & Hood Canal Oysters with champagne mignonette, Georgia White Shrimp and Pickled Okra, and Risotto with House Cured Tasso and Pickled Wild Ramps. Joël (3290 Northside Pkwy., 404-233-3500, www.joelrestaurant.com) is the creation of Joël Atunes, a Frenchman who trained under acclaimed chef Paul Bocuse. This award-winning chef offers customers a selection of dishes with excellent presentation, flavor, and simplicity. Try the grilled turbot with artichokes, gnocchi, and red pepper cumin sauce or the roast hare tenderloin with mushroom cannellonis topped with a civet sauce. Even food connoisseur and historian David R. Goldfield gives this restaurant his stamp of approval.
For 30 years, Nikolai's Roof (255 Courtland St. NE, 404-221-6362, www.nikolaisroof.com) on the 30th floor of Hilton Atlanta has been known for its amazing views and culinary offerings. The floor-to-ceiling windows give diners an impressive view of Atlanta's skyline and hinterland. The restaurant offers a six- or eight-course menu that is priced high enough that if you have to ask, you cannot afford it. Some of the dishes on the menu are Dorade Royal baked in a sea salt crust flavored with Siberian garlic and fresh Texas tarragon served with a light nage of Les Moulins Dores olive oil to the more simple presentation of Pan Seared Haibut Cheeks in Dutch White Asparagus Crème Soup, garnished with baby corn shoots. Yes, it sounds expensive and it is.
We hope that you enjoy your visit to Atlanta and find this sampling of Atlanta's best restaurants helpful. Please check with the hotel concierge about transportation to these restaurants. Most are within five miles of the meeting hotels and some can be reached using MARTA. Bon Appétit, y'all.
—Craig Pascoe is a member of the Department of History at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia. He is also the editor of Atlanta History: A Journal of Georgia and the South. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.