Where to Eat in the Big Peach: Atlanta's Top Restaurants

Eat and drink like an in-the-know Atlantan with this guide to some of the city’s greatest spots.

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An Atlanta Appetite

Atlanta’s dining scene is far from one-note, with each neighborhood boasting its own character, personality and, yes, flavor. With a slew of James Beard Foundation Award winners and a thriving community of die-hard foodies, there’s something for everyone, from high-end to down-home. So dive right in and discover Atlanta’s big-city offerings, craft producers and hole-in-the-wall neighborhood haunts, all served with a side of Southern hospitality.

Food with Heart: Staplehouse

The story behind the inception of this acclaimed restaurant is nearly as compelling as its food. It started as a dream of Chef Ryan Hidinger and his wife, Jen. Sadly, Hidinger lost his battle with cancer in 2014, but Jen, along with Ryan’s sister Kara and his dear friend Chef Ryan Smith, carried out the vision, opening Staplehouse to rave reviews. Smith’s thoughtful style of cooking is at once experimental, envelope-pushing and creative, the ever-changing menu peppered with dishes like chicken liver tart with strawberry and radish, or monkfish with lemon and ginger dressing. Profits from the nearly impossible-to-get reservations go to The Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit started by the Hidingers to offer support to Atlanta-area restaurant workers facing unexpected hardships.

Iconic Dish: JCT. Kitchen & Bar's Fried Chicken

Fried chicken may well be the iconic dish of the entire South, but if you’re going to have it at only one place, head for this west midtown spot. The Georgia-raised Springer Mountain Farms chicken is soaked overnight in a salt and herb brine, dipped in a buttermilk-egg mixture, dredged in seasoned flour, deep-fried and crisped in a cast-iron skillet. Served with housemade hot sauce and collard greens, it’s one of the city’s singular pleasures. While there are other restaurants in town producing equally exceptional fried chicken (including old-timers The Colonnade and Matthews Cafeteria), JCT. represents the newer guard of Southern-style dining, with terrific cocktails, an extensive wine list and smart service, served up in an industrial-chic dining room. For a spectacular view of Atlanta’s ever-changing skyline, sidle up to the second-floor bar.

JCT. Kitchen & Bar

Burger: Holeman & Finch Public House

James Beard Award-winning chef Linton Hopkins' cheeseburger is a thing of beauty in its thoughtful simplicity: two griddled four-ounce patties (made with a daily, house-ground mix of grass-fed brisket and chuck), melty Kraft American cheese, bread and butter pickles and shaved red onions are sandwiched between the halves of a fluffy, H+F pain de mie bun, served alongside housemade condiments. The phenomenon, which started as a “secret” available only after 10 p.m., now has a full-time place on the menu. 

Holeman and Finch Public House

Late Night Deal: Marcel

Marcel is easily known as one of Atlanta’s priciest meals, with devotees to Chef-Restaurateur Ford Fry’s bastion of steak forking over whatever it takes for dry-aged cote de boeuf, sole meuniere and precious bottles of French wine. However, sidle up to the dimly lit bar between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for a late-night menu that’s a comparative bargain. The Frites Canard are topped with chicken gravy, duck confit and a fried egg ($10), a cheeseburger topped with crisp bacon clocks in at only $12, as does the soft crab omelet, accented with mushrooms and snipped chives. Order the hearty steak frites ($12) and a refreshing Kronenbourg 1664 Pale Lager ($7) for a taste of luxury without the sticker shock.

Pre-Game: Molly B’s

Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium (already dubbed “The Benz”) has a starring attraction other than the NFL and pro-soccer games and concerts it hosts. One of its culinary stars, not just for game days, is Molly B’s. The sprawling 3,000-square-foot restaurant and bar has sweeping views of downtown and the field and is named for Atlanta Falcons owner and chairman Arthur Blank’s mother, Molly. Under the deft hand of Executive Chef Michael Bertozzi, the menu comes to life with a juicy prime rib carving station, sustainably sourced crudo and raw bars and a la carte offerings including Southern fried chicken, white cheddar mac ‘n’ cheese and baby back ribs. The restaurant operates as a private club for members for three hours before kickoff through the end of the first period, but is open to non-members for the remainder of the game days and throughout the week.

Artful Dining: Atlas

With an on-staff curator to change gallery walls regularly, Atlas creates a truly artful culinary experience. Guests dine in the shadow of works by Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne and other masters, while sampling equally impressive creations by Chef Christopher Grossman (who once worked at the famed French Laundry). He deftly crafts his dishes with a light hand, letting ingredients both shine on their own and display his seemingly endless store of creativity. Lobster en croute with nasturtium bearnaise, pecan-grilled lamb with field pea succotash, and citrus-cured kampachi are all as beautiful as they are flavorful.

Creative Comfort Food: Southbound

One of Atlanta’s former names was Terminus, so named for its position as a major railway hub in the South. Get up close to that legacy while enjoying some seriously tasty Southern fare overlooking the tracks in Chamblee. The restaurant, fashioned out of a two-story nineteenth-century brick general store, is named for owner Mike Plummer’s favorite song by The Allman Brothers. The rustic charm flows through the menu as well, with dishes like black-eyed pea hummus, brisket poutine over seasoned French fries, pimento cheese with green tomato chutney and bacon jam, and smoked short ribs with collard greens and potato salad.

Pizza: Antico Pizza Napoletana

Often imitated but never fully rivaled, the pies at Antico are the stuff of legend. The experience is classic Naples, which makes sense, since founding brothers Giuseppe and Giovanni Di Palma’s family hails from Italy. Three custom wood-burning Acunto ovens line the kitchen wall, each heated to a blistering 900 degrees so that the thin-crust pizzas need only 60 seconds to acquire an airy light interior and charred crust. The classic margarita shines with D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and garlic, and the San Gennaro is a crowd-pleaser with mozzarella, Italian sausage, red peppers and caramelized onions. Pluck some fresh basil, drizzle some imported olive oil and sit wherever you can, at a communal table in the kitchen or on stacks of double-zero flour. The pizza lasts until the last batch of dough is gone.  

Antico Pizza Napoletana

Doughnut Destination: Donut Dollies

With a name inspired by Red Cross ladies who attempted to bring a taste of home to soldiers abroad, this Marietta shop has plenty of doughnuts to sate any craving. Husband and wife duo Chris and Anna Gatti, who met at the Culinary Institute of America, use either a 24-hour brioche dough (butter, milk, eggs) or cake batter as each doughnut’s base. Small-batch favorites include Lemon Lavender, Sea Salt and Caramel, and "The Mikey," a brioche bar filled with Jittery Joes espresso cream, topped with maple icing and an entire piece of candied applewood bacon. Don’t miss the store’s namesake Dollie, brioche filled with vanilla bean creme brûlée and burnt sugar crust.

Pasta: Storico Fresco Alimentari e Ristorante

Michael Patrick has worn a lot of hats: journalist, pastry chef, sommelier and paramedic, but perhaps the most important is as a culinary historian of sorts. Through an extended trip to Italy, he discovered near-forgotten varieties of pasta, like scarpinocc, pi fasacc, culingionis, marubini and casonsei. He learned Italian, studied dusty old cookbooks and even knocked on doors in search of time-honored recipes. In 2012 he began selling his intriguing pastas, with fillings such as stinging nettle, local honey, lemon zest, roasted beets, bits of butter-infused bread and bone marrow, at farmers’ markets. Now, his charming Storico Fresco in Buckhead serves full dishes, as well as carry out components to craft a meal at home. Don’t miss the decadent charcuterie platters.

Sushi: Umi

A favorite of visiting celebrities and local sushi fiends, Umi’s menu is exquisitely created by Chef Fuyuhiko Ito. Take for instance the madai carpaccio, simply dressed with sea salt, lemon, olive oil and yuzukosho, or the thinly sliced yellowtail, with cilantro, ponzu and jalapeno peppers. Both are simple, striking examples of Ito’s restraint and skill. If raw isn’t your speed, order the lobster toban-yaki, which comes with its own petite griddle over blue-hot flames. Nuggets of sweet lobster meat, drenched in rich soy-butter sauce, are allowed to sizzle until golden and caramelized.

Well-Crafted Cocktails: The Mercury

Atlanta’s cocktail culture is thriving. Check out some of the best renditions on the second floor of Ponce City Market’s food hall, where The Mercury is crafting drinks with style. Beverage Director Julian Goglia’s love of midcentury cocktail culture is obvious in his take on classic drinks, which manages to be both relaxed and refined, relying on premium liquors, house-made ingredients and honed technique. Vintage cut-crystal rocks glasses, highballs and dainty coupes hold favorite drinks like Aviation, Vieux Carre, French 75 and Vesper. Perhaps best of all, guests who are unsure about what to order will find a friendly advisor in any of The Mercury’s expertly trained barkeeps.

Tasting Menu: Bacchanalia

Though Atlanta is packed with exciting dining options, most discriminating tastemakers would agree that the undisputed grand dame of fine dining is Bacchanalia, spearheaded by James Beard Award-winning chef Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison. Tuck into the restaurant’s signature tasting menu ($95) and know that you’re in for a five-course treat, with three savory dishes, a cheese course and dessert. The food is elegant and refined, drawing inspiration from classical preparations and local ingredients, many of them sourced from Summerland, the duo’s nearby farm. For extra-special occasions, there are optional additional courses available of oysters or Petrossian caviar served with a French omelet. It’s an experience indeed.

Date Spot: The Iberian Pig

Just six miles east of downtown, the city of Decatur has established itself as a dining enclave, thanks in no small part to the Iberian Pig. With a bustling dining room, bathed in soft light from Edison bulbs and candles, the space is perfectly suited to amorous diners. A playful craft cocktail menu, locally brewed beers and a largely Spanish wine list can help get the evening started, and the robust selection of charcuterie and small plates keeps guests connected over the food. The menu allows guests to be as adventurous or tame as they like, with standard Spanish favorites like patatas bravas and steak with chimichurri, and more daring fare like savory-sweet foie gras “Foiench” toast.

Far South (African): Cape Dutch

For a city in the southern United States, Atlanta has a surprising number of South African restaurants (four to be precise), thanks to pro-soccer-player-turned-restaurateur Justin Anthony. Cape Dutch is the crown jewel in his growing restaurant empire. Inspired by the food of his native Cape Town and the surrounding Cape Winelands, the menu is based largely around the braai, a traditional South African grill. An open flame stoked with locally sourced hickory and oak infuses 35-day-aged ribeye, whole branzino, wild game and other mains with a woody depth of flavor. Under the skilled direction of Chef Philippe Haddad and with a robust South African-leaning wine list, this charming restaurant feels like a quick trip to the Cape.

Ice Cream: Queen of Cream

Though only visitors call this place “Hot-lanta,” the city is famous for its humidity and sky-high temperatures, making ice cream a welcome relief almost anytime. When cravings strike, seek out fresh-faced ice cream chef Cora Cotrim, the “Queen of Cream.” At her eponymous Inman Park parlor, she serves creative flavors like Cornflake Bacon Brittle, Thai Tea, Maple Walnut and Georgia Peach Cobbler. Cotrim’s flavors may be intricate, but she keeps the ingredients uncomplicated with sugar and grass-fed organic cream and milk. The quaint shop features a full coffee bar with housemade syrups and Relevator Coffee, pastries and baked goods (just right for crafting a custom ice cream sandwich). Pretty sweet!

Room with a View: Nikolai's Roof

This Atlanta dowager opened in 1976 on the 30th floor of the Hilton Atlanta, and has remained a downtown destination ever since, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. Classic French and Russian techniques are applied to predominantly local ingredients and, though the menu changes seasonally, past favorites include leek and lobster risotto with pan seared scallops, a Burgundy escargot tart and herb-crusted lamb chops. Dishes are available a la carte, though the four- or six-course tasting menu appeals for special occasions. Be sure to spike the celebration with house-infused vodka, served in an icy shot glass.

Worth a Drive: The Hil at Serenbe

Atlanta is chock-full of terrific dining experiences within city limits, but those looking to make a jaunt should head for The Hil, located in Serenbe, a pastoral community 45 minutes southwest of town. In her charming farmhouse-style dining room, Chef Hilary White proves that refined food doesn't have to be fussy, with dishes like Gulf crab fritters served with gribiche sauce; caramelized Vidalia onion dip with potato chips; coriander-crusted Berkshire pork ribs with okra stew; and a truly astounding chicken pot pie. White’s cooking technique is exemplary, but it’s enhanced by her access to ultra-fresh ingredients served at their peak (many of them plucked from the 25-acre organic farm on the Serenbe grounds).

Vegetarian: Cafe Sunflower

Cafe Sunflower redefines the standard “veggie plate” with an exciting menu that draws both meatless diners and carnivores alike. The kitchen combines the flavors of Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the Southwest to create dishes like black-eyed pea and potato cakes with chipotle aioli, berry BBQ tempeh and eggplant-orzo lasagna. They even accommodate further restrictive diets, such as vegan and gluten-free, and make a rather astounding dairy-free carrot cake. 

Riverside Dining: Canoe

For festive meals and special occasions, few Atlanta restaurants feel as special as Canoe, thanks to its classic fine dining menu and riverside position on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. Opened in 1995, it’s been a go-to spot for proposals, family celebrations, business meals and leisurely, sun-soaked meals. Executive Chef Matthew Basford’s seasonal menu is easy to love, including tea-smoked Georgia white shrimp and daikon radish salad, house-smoked salmon on a crispy potato cake, duck ‘n beef burger topped with a sunny-side-up egg, and oven-roasted chicken over sweet potato-brown butter risotto. Sit inside for sweeping river views or outside where you’ll be close enough to hear the gently flowing current.

Go to: Canoe

Meat & Three: The Colonnade Restaurant

This Atlanta institution welcomes all guests with open arms, so you’re equally likely to have neighboring tables of bikers, blue-hairs and everyone in between. Located behind a midcentury motel, The Colonnade feels like it’s in a time warp (it opened in 1927 and moved to its current location in 1962), as does its menu. Favorites include salmon croquettes with dijon sauce, chicken-fried chicken with peppered gravy, and no-knife-needed pot roast. No matter what main you choose, be sure to try the light-as-air buttered yeast rolls. Just like in 1962, bring your cash, since credit cards are not accepted.

Go to: Colonnade

Cheap Eats: Lee’s Bakery

Buford Highway is a veritable treasure trove for adventurous, budget-conscious foodies, and a pilgrimage can yield anything from Hong Kong-style milk tea to handmade tamales and Bangladeshi pakora to bi bim bap, all at relatively affordable prices. Those who are unsure where to start should find a seat in the almost always bustling dining room at Lee’s Bakery and order the signature combo special of half of a banh mi — the sweet-tender BBQ pork stuffed into a crunchy French baguette is tops — and a generous bowl of beef pho perfumed with lime, ginger and Thai basil. The filling feast will set you back only $8 (including tax), leaving enough wiggle room to splurge on an iced Vietnamese coffee or other finds along the stretch. 

Breakfast: Ria’s Bluebird Cafe

“Gentrification” is a word perhaps few restaurateurs understood better than Ria Pell. When she opened her wildly successful namesake breakfast joint in 2000, Memorial Drive hadn’t yet caught the eye of developers. The restaurant drew universal acclaim for its affordable prices, all-day breakfast and welcoming, come-as-you-are atmosphere. Though Pell passed away in 2013, her pancakes carry on her tradition — still mixed using the same bowl Pell herself used — and have an understandable cult following. Cake flour, butter, buttermilk and vanilla blended and cooked on a well-seasoned flat top grill never tasted so good. Branch out and try the buttermilk biscuits and pepper milk gravy, tofu scramble or the brisket breakfast. Since Pell’s death, her trusted manager Julie Pender has carried on her legacy, still shining as newer restaurants crop up around it.

Beer Bliss: Brick Store

With an inch-thick menu curated by bartenders with near-encyclopedic knowledge of brews from around the world, Decatur’s Brick Store Pub is practically guaranteed to sate every beer fan. The German-style pub’s main downstairs bar features a rotating array of 29 draught beers and 75 bottled beers; the upstairs Belgian bar has eight draughts and 120 Belgian and Belgian-style brews, all served in their appropriate glassware. The scratch-made food is its own draw, with menu standouts including warm Bavarian pretzels with grainy mustard; chicken pot pie; and a meatloaf sandwich, served with stout ketchup and sharp cheddar cheese.

Rock-Star Chef: Kevin Gillespie

When homegrown chef Kevin Gillespie made it to the finale on Top Chef, he was relatively unknown, then leading the kitchen at Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill. His commitment to representing the food of his Southern roots, plus his quick thinking and big heart, have catapulted him to fame in the food world. Now the flame-haired, heavily tattooed chef is the creative force behind acclaimed restaurants Gunshow and Revival, as well as being a two-time author (Pure Pork Awesomeness and Fire in My Belly) and the headlining chef at TomorrowWorld (America’s largest 21-and-over music festival). Not to mention, he’s as nice and down-to-earth as you’d hope a Southern gentleman would be. 

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