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The 10 Best Restaurants in Athens

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10 Best Restaurants in Athens: Donna Chang's
Donna Chang’s

Photograph by Lyric Lewin

When people talk about Athens bands, the big names always come up first. But if you only listened to R.E.M., the Drive-By Truckers, and the B-52s, you’d miss an entire bill of outstanding, under-the-radar acts.

Same goes for the food scene here. It’s been nearly 20 years since Hugh Acheson opened his flagship Five & Ten restaurant, creating an unofficial culinary incubator that’s birthed a small army of standout chefs. Much to the delight of locals, many of those kitchen impresarios have stuck around. So after your pilgrimages to the Grill, the Grit, the Globe, and—god forbid—the Taco Stand, do as the townies do and pull up a chair at these choice establishments.

Seabear

Nabbing a seat at the bar of this petite oyster parlor is the cocktail hour equivalent of a touchdown on the opening drive. Seabear serves a rotating roster of six varieties on the half shell, and from 3 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, they’re just a buck-fifty a pop. Celebrate your victory and hold onto that seat. With all the coin you’ll save on a couple dozen, treat yourself to a few plates from the laser-focused seafood menu, and, of course, a cocktail. The bar’s eponymous drink—a shaken, dill-tinged sipper—is a great place to start.

10 Best Restaurants in Athens: Five and Ten, frogmore stew
Frogmore stew

Photograph courtesy of Five and Ten

Five & Ten

Hugh Acheson’s flagship oozes Old South grace, but the menu triumphantly samples from regions far and away (we’re lookin’ at you labneh and schnitzel). When you turn a 1913 house into a restaurant you get a constellation of intimate dining rooms perfectly suited for beautiful food and quiet conversations. But this grande dame does provincial as well as it does posh. If you don’t have tailgate plans, hit the deep front porch on game day for barbecued game hen sandwiches and housemade bologna brats.

10 Best Restaurants in Athens: home.made
Charbroiled oysters

Photograph by Christy Rogers

home.made

Mimi Maumus manages to make her Baxter Street beacon of Southern food feel as comfy as home but also special enough to warrant putting on your fancy new shoes. Her tomato pie is just like your mama used to make, but—shhh—so much better. The restaurant did some renovating last year, adding a dainty marble bar where chief barkeep Noel Finch infuses rum with gardenias (bet your mama didn’t do that). When there’s a New Orleans dish on the menu, grab it. Mimi’s nods to her hometown are among her best offerings.

The Expat

Arrive early and you’ll find owners Jerry and Krista Slater—the bon vivants of Atlanta’s former H. Harper Station—at the hostess stand running through the French brasserie lineup with former  Hampton + Hudson chef Savannah Sasser. Less than two years ago, the Slaters transformed a historic house in Five Points, which UGA alums will recognize as the former Two Story Coffeehouse, into an understated dining room crowned by a stylish cocktail aerie. If you’re waiting for a table, head there for Sazeracs and Derby Sours, and don’t be shy about selecting an album for the turntable from the Slaters’ own stack of vinyl.

Donna Chang’s

Shae and Ryan Sims’s take on Americanized Chinese food evolved from a supper club series they launched after leaving the kitchen at Five & Ten, where they met. It’s all your workaday favorites—General Tso’s Chicken, Kung Pao Shrimp, Crab Rangoon—gone bespoke. But there’s a secret menu, too. Available only by request, the Hot Hot Sauce sharpens and mellows with each crop of Collective Harvest habanero and ghost peppers. Ask for “nut dumps” and your pork-and-scallion wontons will come smothered in peanut sauce. “I feel dirty even saying it,” the bartender explained. “But it’s so good.”

10 Best Restaurants in Athens: The National
The National

Photograph by Erin Wilson

The National

Azure patterned plates harmonize with the Mediterranean menu, in which patatas bravas and Manchego-stuffed Medjool dates give way to a diplomatic entrée list ideal for power lunches and first dates. This diamond in the downtown rough was created by Hugh Acheson and his protégé Peter Dale and conjures up a golden age of travel—note the wall-mounted wooden plane propeller and postcards from faraway places pinned to the back bar. An oversized Jim Fiscus photograph of a Big Boi and Andre 3000 sets the tone for said bar, a more relaxed space that’s favored by those coming or going to the indie movie theatre Ciné, next door.

10 Best Restaurants in Athens: Mama's Boy

Mama’s Boy

There are several spots for good brunching in Athens, but Mama’s Boy draws the biggest crowd. Do they come for the raspberry jam, so ceaselessly utilized that each table has its own squirt bottle of the stuff? Or the buttery square biscuits? The pulled pork and potato hash? Or thyme sausage gravy? The ample meals here are everything you need to get going or a fine excuse to go back to bed. A second location opened two years ago on Macon Highway. Spoiler alert: It’s similarly crowded and undeniably worth the wait.

10 Best Restaurants in Athens: Maepole

Maepole

Peter Dale’s new fast-casual café fills a void in Athens for healthy, tasty food on the fly. The array is as dazzling—think deep-purple ginger beets, verdant sesame shaved Brussels, and meatballs swimming in crimson marinara. It’s perfect for lunch but don’t dismiss it for dinner. Globe string lights shimmer above the kid-friendly outdoor area and many fine, local beers are on draft, alongside the fizzy-bitter Maepole spritz. It’s about as guilt-free as you can eat—even your cup, plate, and fork are compostable.

Cali n Tito’s

Is it Peruvian? Is it Cuban? Is that a burrito on the menu? This funky, family friendly destination steps from the University of Georgia cannot be confined to a single category, so don’t try. Twenty-some-odd picnic tables fill a palm-fringed, beach-pebble yard where kids careen down old metal playground equipment. Order fish tacos, an El Cubano, and if you’re really hungry, the lomo saltado. Pro tip: It’s cash-only and BYOB, but hit Creature Comforts on your way over; the neighboring Circle K’s proximity to an elementary school prevents it from selling anything stronger than Mountain Dew.

Weaver D’s

Dexter Weaver recognized the members of R.E.M. as regular lunch customers when they came to ask if they could use his soul food restaurant’s slogan as the name of their eighth studio album. He’d never heard of the band but happily agreed. Like Automatic for the People, Weaver D’s remains an Athens institution. Dexter will greet you at the register and say, with inflection, the word “Communication” when he’s ready to take your order. As you’re savoring every last crispy lick of fried chicken from the bone, he’ll shout, “Y’all enjoying everything?” You’ll smack your belly and say, “Delicious!” and to that he has just one response. “Automatic.”

Editor and writer Julia Reed on her hometown culinary favorites

Julia Reed

“There are very few times when I’m not on the road,” says Julia Reed. As if to illustrate the point: She’s pausing for this interview while on a whirlwind tour promoting her fifth book, South Toward Home, a collection of wry essays chronicling the people, places, and traditions of the South. And while she has called New Orleans home on and off since 1991, her travels often bring her to her native Greenville, Mississippi. In fact, she just put the finishing touches on a second residence adjacent to the house in which she was raised. In view from her kitchen window: the pasture where her childhood horses grazed.

South Toward Home, Julia Reed

“I’ve always heeded the sign and call of the Delta,” Reed says. “When I was away for long periods of time, I would miss it so much that I’d fly into Memphis, rent a big Cadillac, roll down the windows, and hit Highway 61. I never have more fun than when I’m in the Delta.”

And sharing the adventure with longtime friends—or relative strangers—only adds to the experience. “I love piling people in the car, mostly people who are new to the area,” Reed says. “But I also love to bring people from the South who are living in exile, to give them a taste of home.”

Food is a focal point of Reed’s travels and much of her writing; in fact, taking a seat at a local restaurant is the first thing she does when she’s in a new place. “People think Southern food is just one big thing, that we just eat fried chicken and cornbread all the time, but it’s all so incredibly, extremely different,” she says. “It’s fun to go explore that when you get to a new town. Food tells you everything you want to know about a place.”

Heading to the Delta? Reed suggests beginning your journey in Memphis. After checking in at the iconic Peabody Hotel, kick off the trip with dinner at one of Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman’s six acclaimed restaurants, which include Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and the Gray Canary. “Of course, there’s also Gus’s Fried Chicken. Or you could hit the Rendezvous across the street from the Peabody for some barbecue, and you’d be in good shape,” she says.

Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen
Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen

The next day, take Highway 61 south into Mississippi, stopping for lunch at another of Reed’s picks, the Blue & White in Tunica. Snag a seat at the counter of this tiny diner, open since 1924, and treat yourself to made-from-scratch chicken and dumplings, turnip greens, and fried dill pickles, a Delta classic.

Continue on to Clarksdale, then follow Reed’s recommendation and ditch Highway 61 for the more scenic and less traveled Highway 1, which runs along the Mississippi River. In Rosedale, you’ll find the White Front Cafe (662-759-3842), one of a number of stops on the Southern Foodways Alliance Hot Tamale Trail.

Farther south, in Reed’s hometown of Greenville, her culinary hit list includes Doe’s Eat Place for fried shrimp—“the best in the world”—and Jim’s Cafe (662-332-5951) for homemade biscuits and preserves. She also recommends the new Downtown Butcher & Mercantile for sandwiches and locally made groceries like Crop to Pop popcorn and Delta Blues Rice grits.

Stay at the Lofts at 517, housed in the former Sears building downtown, and—take it from Reed—don’t miss the hotel’s unexpectedly sophisticated bar. “I never thought I would see the day I’d be sitting on a bar stool in Greenville, Mississippi, drinking a French 75 or a beautifully made Negroni instead of a cold Bud or some rotgut whiskey.”

Grammy Museum
Grammy Museum

Reed also thinks Greenville is a fine home base for exploring the Delta on day trips. “I love the B.B. King Museum in Indianola,” she says, “and the Grammy Museum is in Cleveland. The world-famous McCarty’s Pottery in Merigold is a huge draw. Everybody buys their wedding presents there. In the fall, there’s a series of blues festivals in almost every little town, from Hollandale to Leland to Gunnison, so you’re bound to hit one.”

For Reed, the open road is familiar terrain. “If you grew up in the Mississippi Delta, you were always prepared to get in the car and drive to a party that was an hour or two away because all the towns are so spread out,” she says. “We’re used to going long distances for some fun. When I was a kid, I’d think, ‘If we leave right now, we can be in Memphis in time to eat dinner at Justine’s.’ Or, ‘We can get to New Orleans in time for a late lunch at Galatoire’s.’ I’ve always had that kind of road-trip mentality. Seize the moment. Get in the car and drive.”

Hot Tamales

tamales

Since 2013, Julia Reed has been instrumental in planning and promoting the Delta Hot Tamale Festival (October 18–20, 2018), an annual convergence of hot tamale makers and Southern chefs, writers, and artists in Greenville, Mississippi. The hot tamale—seasoned ground meat wrapped in cornmeal or masa dough and simmered in a corn shuck—was first brought to the area by migrant farm workers in the early twentieth century. The Delta staple is widely available at restaurants and roadside stands up and down the river. During the festival, it’s celebrated with a cook-off, eating contest, and pageant, as well as discussion panels on local and regional food, literature, and music. “We call it the literary-culinary mash-up,” says Reed. “It’s very laid-back and a great time of year to be in the Delta.”

This article appears in our Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Southbound.

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