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.

Photo By: Andrew Thomas Lee

Photo By: Andrew Thomas Lee

Photo By: Andrew Thomas Lee

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Photo By: Heidi Geldhauser

Photo By: Andrew Thomas Lee

Photo By: Anna Gatti

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Photo By: Justen Clay

Photo By: Heidi Geldhauser

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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