Where to Eat in the Big Peach: Atlanta's Top Restaurants
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A Newcomer's Guide to Atlanta
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.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee
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.
Photo courtesy of Emily Schultz
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.
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.
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 ($85) 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 is an optional additional course of Petrossian caviar served with a soft-scrambled farm egg. It’s an experience indeed.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee
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.
Photo courtesy of Heidi Geldhauser
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!
Photo courtesy of Victor Protasio
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.
Late-Night Spot: Octopus Bar
When you want to find a great meal in just about any city, ask chefs where they eat when they’re off-duty. In Atlanta, Octopus Bar is their hangout. It’s so hidden there’s not even a phone number, so you have to know where you’re going. The bar is the late-night alter ego of So Ba Vietnamese in the alternative East Atlanta Village neighborhood. The restaurant transforms after hours (from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.), when chefs Angus Brown and Nahn Le take over the kitchen. Squeeze into the dimly lit dining room and order from the ever-menu changing menu that defies classification but is seafood-focused and broken into a sushi section, small plates and family-size portions. Sea urchin risotto with Champagne, basil and preserved lemon; grilled Japanese yellowtail collar with ponzu; and torchon of monkfish liver are all twists on izakaya-style comfort food.
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 showcase. 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.
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.