Even under normal circumstances, I hardly ever set foot in what people would consider a typical grocery store. I’ve been lucky to live most of my life within reasonable distance of the farmers markets, tiny international grocers, and independently owned neighborhood shops that I prefer to big-box stores and shoppers’ clubs. In the ongoing pandemic, each trip to replenish my pantry essentials and perishables has become infinitely precious, woefully spaced out, and as supportive as possible of the locals.
But, despite the occasional enthusiastic recommendations I fielded from fans of Floral Park Market on the Westside, I was slow to check it out; its hyphenated nature—part flower shop, part grocery, part hawker of artisan wares—led me to assume it was some kind of fussy, gift-oriented place. What finally convinced me to stop by? Floral Park Market’s growing reputation as a destination where Atlanta-based health-food entrepreneurs sell their organic, vegan, gluten-free, and often raw prepared food. Plus, it’s open seven days a week.
Perched just above the Howell Mill Road reservoirs on a street nobody ends up on by accident, the store looks like it belongs in a quaint country town. I passed through tiny rooms crammed full of Tunisian towels, letterpress cards, and other carefully curated items and eventually ended up in a huge open space where tables are piled with attractive displays of baked goods and jarred pantry staples and walls are lined with refrigerator and freezer units loaded with items you won’t find anywhere else. There are no big brands anywhere, and way out in the back is a cool room with fresh flowers and pristine produce.
In 1997, James Olsen established a wholesale flower business, which he eventually moved into a former bakery on the Westside. Michelle, his wife of 22 years, grew up on a dairy farm in rural Connecticut; her passion for fresh, local food pushed the flower store to pivot to consumables in the fall of 2016. A vegetarian herself, she doesn’t mind selling fresh sausages, plump organic chicken leg quarters, and big crimson steaks cut from grass-fed local beef.
The prepared food is indeed worth the trip alone, ranging from turmeric hummus and dehydrated basil crackers (from healthy-eating guru David Sweeney of the late, lamented Dynamic Dish) to beauteous cold cucumber soup (from Simply Fresh), delicate fresh macarons (from Deborah Johnson, who lived in Paris for more than 20 years and was schooled at Le Cordon Bleu) to frozen wood-fired pizza (from a Brooklyn outfit that got its start on Shark Tank).
But that’s hardly the market’s sole selling point. There is a station for dispensing locally made Golda’s CBD kombucha on tap, shelves of local H+F breads next to two crockpots of boiled peanuts, and a large display of organic hand-milled grains. Floral Park Market doesn’t feel like a glorified convenience store. Everything from the spicy Portuguese tinned sardines to the roasted pecans whose proceeds benefit Meals on Wheels has been carefully sourced. If your ideal shopping list includes freshly baked banana bread, a bottle of elderberry syrup, high-quality CBD products, and in-house pickles, jams, and honey butter, there’s no better market in town. And as someone who has long been committed to the imperative to shop local, I’m kicking myself for not finding my way to Floral Park Market sooner.
Opening a business just a couple of weeks before the pandemic shut down the economy may seem like spectacular bad luck. But Cory Atkinson made it work. Like liquor stores in Georgia and across the country, Atkinson’s then brand-new boutique bottle shop at the corner of North Highland and North avenues was deemed essential and able to stay open. Atkinson responded to the threat of COVID-19 by closing the shop’s doors to browsers and creating a touchless environment, with online-ordered alcohol available for door-side pick-up—and soon, the store was doing brisk sales.
Looking more like a modern wine shop than a regular old package store, Elemental Spirits Co. occupies nearly 1,800 square feet, carved out of what used to be a windowless private dining room inside fabled Manuel’s Tavern. Its inventory focuses on small-batch spirits, low-intervention/mostly natural wines, and rotating craft beers sold by the single can. European aperitifs, high-quality mixers, clever bitters, and vintage barware are more useful than ever, especially to a clientele that used to frequent the neighborhood’s cool bars and now drinks mostly at home.
Atkinson, who lives around the corner from Elemental, has a background in retail (he used to work for Macy’s) and e-commerce, but he’s a cocktail hobbyist at heart. Originally, he was interested only in selling spirits, not beer and wine. After consulting with neighbors, though, he wisely decided to diversify. With the help of his wine buyer, the passionate Jesse Kirkpatrick, who used to manage Holeman & Finch Bottle Shop in Buckhead, he has assembled a collection of wines farmed and produced with an eye toward sustainability, including growers’ Champagnes, pet-nats, chillable reds, and a whole shelf of orange wines. Drink it now, and drink it young is the store’s philosophy, which I wholeheartedly embrace.
Shopping on Elemental’s website is no less fun than wandering the brick-and-mortar. The shop’s inventory is intriguingly organized, with spirit subcategories such as “Single Village” for mezcal, “Pot Still” for r(h)um, and “Sweet/Grapefruit” for vermouth. The suggestions and descriptions make a lot of sense without overwhelming you with esoteric details. My own exploration led me to my favorite boxed Spanish wines (from La Nevera) and whiskeys I’ve never seen before (an unpeated single-malt Maris Otter finished in a Resurgens Rye cask at Atlanta’s own ASW). You can indulge your curiosity about beer styles by creating your own six pack, build your own Paper Plane or Negroni with a three-bottle cocktail pack, or spring for a sampling of Meinklang lively biodynamic Austrian wines. But, please, do Atkinson a favor: If you buy any of the dozen canned wines, pour it into a glass instead of chugging it from the can, you animal!
Back In mid-March, when panic was beginning to spread through the restaurant community and I started to embrace abstinence as the only way to manage the risk of infection, I found a glimmer of hope in a burrito. One of my most trusted places had quickly come up with a plan to pivot to curbside pickup and retain all of its employees—and to go a step further by selling its customers staples such as produce, toilet paper, and bleach.
I wasn’t surprised. Matt Hinton, founder of Bell Street Burritos, has long known a thing or two about crisis and reinvention. After one of the religion classes he taught at Morehouse and Spelman was canceled due to diminished enrollment during the Great Recession, he had to think fast to support his young family. So, he started making and delivering Mission-style burritos. Back then, in 2009, Atlanta didn’t allow food trucks, and Georgia hadn’t yet passed its cottage food law permitting entrepreneurs to cook for the masses out of their home kitchens. There were no adventurous artisans selling food by subscription to smartphone-wielding millennials.
Hinton’s business, strictly friends-based at first, took off. At the time, Atlantans still hadn’t gotten over the 2003 loss of Tortillas, the cult eatery on Ponce de Leon that brought overstuffed San Francisco burritos to the city. My children and I had eaten there once or twice a week, and so had Hinton. When I spied Hinton outside the Sweet Auburn Curb Market sometime in 2010, steaming fat burritos that were startlingly similar—maybe even superior—to the ones I’d been missing all those years, I immediately took a shine to Bell Street. Hinton expanded that year to a small counter inside the market and later to a restaurant on Howell Mill Road (both now closed), then to Bell Street locations in Brookwood Hills, the Stove Works (across from Krog Street Market), and, now, Tucker.
From the time Hinton opened inside Sweet Auburn, his menu had grown beyond burritos to include quesadillas and tacos (and, later, tamales). While I appreciate what he’s done to diversify, I remain staunchly faithful to Bell Street’s big, juicy burritos bursting with quality rice, green chili peppers, cheese, and proteins such as pork, ground beef, tofu, or shrimp, served with appropriately spicy green or red salsa. One of the things I love most about these burritos is the way the cooking juices and drippings accumulate within the flour tortilla without soaking through it. You can keep them in the refrigerator or even hoard them in the freezer without the risk of them losing their essential goodness.
Bell Street burritos alone are enough to sustain anyone through quarantine (mine, alas, has continued even after dining rooms have reopened). And if you tire of your go-to order, you can try something new, at least for a few more weeks. One of Hinton’s neighbors in Tucker, Steven Bowe, has a huge, globe-shaped smoker and a talent for barbecue. A deal was struck in March, with Hinton supplying the meats and Bowe smoking them. During the height of the lockdown, Bell Street began offering Bowe’s smoked meats as part of its family meal kits or inside its burritos. The smoked pork and tender brisket with Hinton’s tangy barbecue sauce are a big hit.
Bell Street is as necessary now as it was when it stepped in to fill the Tortillas void a decade ago. And Hinton’s survival strategy—“don’t be too attached to the way you have always done things”—offers some assurance that he’ll be around a decade from now, too.
In light of the pandemic, be sure to check a restaurant’s Instagram or website for its most up-to-date info on dine-in, patio, takeout, and delivery options.
You can feel the love the moment you step into Anna’s BBQ, an old school–style barbecue spot in the middle of fast-gentrifying Kirkwood. The sprawling menu can be overwhelming, but the pulled pork, served as a platter, a sandwich, or in “Anna’s Favorite” (a sandwich topped with slaw), is a good start. The pork is juicy and well-seasoned and scattered with a just-right, sweet-and-hot sauce. The collards are appealingly briny, the mac and cheese adequately decadent (if a little salty). Pro tip: The portions of meat served with the lunch meals might feel a little scrawny for more carnivorous diners; spring for the dinner platter. 1976 Hosea L. Williams Drive, Kirkwood, 404-963-6976
B’s Cracklin’ BBQ
Every cloud has a silver lining, even the cloud of smoke that began billowing from the roof of B’s Cracklin’ last year, when a fire consumed Atlanta’s best barbecue restaurant. For better or worse, smoke and fire are integral to pitmaster/proprietor Bryan Furman’s success. In 2015, his first location in Savannah also burned down, and the amount of support he received back then allowed him to reopen in four months. Of course, both smoke and fire are critical to preparing his masterful, pecan wood–smoked ribs (cut from heritage-breed hogs raised in Georgia and South Carolina) and brisket. While Furman and his wife and co-owner, Nikki, still have a new location in the works, they opened a B’s Cracklin’ outpost in October in the new, BeltLine-adjacent Kroger on Ponce. Now, you can get your B’s fix at the same time you try to score toilet paper. 725 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Old Fourth Ward, no phone
Busy Bee Cafe
Atlanta would be a lesser town without Busy Bee, which provided sustenance to Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. Since 1947, the woman-owned institution has reliably served heaping helpings of soul food: smothered pork chops, oxtails, fried chicken, collards, and cornbread dressing. Old-school politicos and R&B stars alike continue to file into the tight quarters on the outskirts of Atlanta’s HBCU complex, seeking lunch or early dinner. You can’t find a more delicious serving of history. 810 Martin Luther King Drive, AUC, 404-525-9212
Chicken + Beer
There is no better restaurant co-owned by a rapper and named for a seminal album—especially if, like the intro track from Ludacris’s Chicken-n-Beer, you prefer your comfort food “Southern Fried.” That the restaurant is located in the airport is just one more reason to show up to Hartsfield-Jackson early. Ludacris and his partner, restaurant group Jackmont Hospitality, don’t peddle “airport wings” (the flavorless variety created solely to sustain a captive, security-cleared audience); these whole wings rival those you’ll find at any restaurant in Atlanta, the world’s wing capital. If or when Luda and company decide to expand the franchise beyond Hartsfield-Jackson, and members of the general public have an easier time getting hold of the short-rib mac and cheese, it will be even clearer that this food holds its own against restaurants far beyond Concourse D. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Concourse D, Gate 5, 404-209-3905
Daddy D’z the BBQ Joynt
Christianah Coker-Jackson bought Daddy D’z in 2018 from the restaurant’s founder, Ron Newman. The iconic barbecue spot on fast-gentrifying Memorial Drive received not just a fresh coat of paint but a continued commitment to the neighborhood’s longtime residents. “As a business owner, you can see that maybe there’s a possibility of increased business with all this development,” Coker-Jackson told Atlanta earlier this year. “But as a Black woman, I see gentrification as a way to displace African Americans, because these were our neighborhoods, and we’ve been pushed out of them.” Yes, there are tons of restaurants on Memorial Drive now, where there used to be few. But don’t overlook Daddy D’z. The tender, smoked ribs are as perfect as ever. 264 Memorial Drive, Grant Park, 404-222-0206
Desta Ethiopian Kitchen
Desta is one of three Ethiopian restaurants at the corner of Briarcliff and Clairmont roads—including the stylish and formidable newcomer Feedel Bistro. Despite the competition, it’s still among the best places in town to scoop up kitfo (raw, minced beef seasoned with chili powder and spiced butter) and miser (red lentils stewed with cayenne, onion, garlic, and ginger) using soft, spongy, fermented injera bread. The menu, which allows you to make decisions based on how daring you are, demystifies Ethiopian cuisine, and the tree that rises up from the middle of the covered patio and through its roof makes you forget you’re in the middle of an asphalt sea. A second location recently opened in Emory Point. 3086 Briarcliff Road, North Druid Hills, 404-929-0011, and 1520 Avenue Place, Emory, 404-835-2748
As the newest of three (yes, three) Ethiopian restaurants at the intersection of Briarcliff and Clairmont roads, Feedel Bistro signifies the size and strength of Atlanta’s Ethiopian community—but it also faces a challenge. How does it differentiate itself from its next-door neighbor, the no-frills and long-reliable Bahel, and its across-the-street one, the acclaimed Desta? For starters, Feedel Bistro is technically Ethiopian and Eritrean (the cuisines of the bordering countries are similar). A bigger difference is Feedel Bistro’s stylish dining room, all decked out with distressed shiplap walls and black rattan pendants. The space is tasteful and curated, and so is the concise menu, which has fewer options than Desta’s or Bahel’s and is a little easier to navigate. The supremely comforting “mom’s special,” gomen be’siga, combines cubes of tender lamb and velvety collards in a mildly spiced butter sauce. The kitfo—a beef dish traditionally served raw but also available here lightly sauteed or fully cooked—is evidence of the kitchen’s delicate balance with spice (the meat is neither overwhelmed nor underseasoned) and its deft knifework (the raw beef version is perfectly minced). Whatever you do, order the vegetarian sampler platter of spiced red lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, collards, cabbage, and house salad. It’s one of the best vegan meals around and a worthy addition to the spread, even at a table of carnivores. 3125 Briarcliff Road, North Druid Hills, 404-963-2905
Lake & Oak
Chef Todd Richards, who launched Richards Southern Fried at Krog Street Market and serves as culinary director at Jackmont Hospitality (One Flew South, Chicken + Beer), finally brings his mastery of barbecue to the masses. Lake & Oak, on a quiet East Lake corner formerly inhabited by Greater Good BBQ, arrived without much forewarning—but that didn’t stop the crowds from lining up (if only to pick up their takeout orders). Lake & Oak’s ribs have just the right amount of smoke and tug, the brisket is downright buttery, but I was no less impressed with the briny collard greens (no sign of mush in these leafy beauties) and the collard fried rice, punched up with slivers of ginger. 2358 Hosea L. Williams Drive, East Lake, 404-205-5913
Merkerson’s Fish Market
Few things feel more Southern than a fish fry. You can locate some of the best by following a sign advertising one at a local church—but if that doesn’t pan out, you’ll find a similarly iconic Atlanta experience at the somewhat decrepit-looking, old-fashioned Merkerson’s Fish Market, a longtime fixture on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. Merkerson’s offers fresh porgys, sheepheads, snappers, mullets, and catfish whole at the counter, which you can cook yourself. Better yet, have them fried on the spot while you sit on one of the benches, waiting for your order to be called. A scant $7 will buy you three pieces of deftly fried flounder, two thin slices of wheat bread, some fries, and a few jalapeño hushpuppies. The hot sauce waits for you at the counter. The whiting fish sandwich, priced as low as $3.49, trumps anything you could ever purchase at a fast-food restaurant. Eat your fish burning-hot at a long folding table overlooking a broken Pac-Man machine or in your car with the windows open. 740 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, West End, 404-758-9079
The Real Milk & Honey
At this all-day brunch spot from Chopped: Redemption–winning chef Sammy Davis and Monique Rose, you can chow down on Crown Royal peach cobbler French toast and Southern fried catfish with creamy grits—even for dinner. A valentine to Atlanta’s iconic Black music scene, the interior features photos of music-industry icons, gold accents, a bar embedded with vintage vinyl, and a menu that also includes crab hash, Southern fried fish and grits, and lobster, egg, and cheese biscuits. 3719 Main Street, College Park, 404-458-5500
Slim & Husky’s
This Westside pizza joint is the first of two Atlanta outposts from the hip-hop–minded Nashville minichain, which gained initial attention by opening in historically Black and underserved North Nashville. Atlanta is a logical next stop (Memphis and Chattanooga are next). But underserved the Westside is not; the chain’s mission will resonate more strongly in Adair Park, its second Atlanta location. The pies have cracker-thin crusts and names evoking vintage hip-hop (Rony, Roni, Rone! or Got 5 On It), and they’re made in front of you, assembly-line style, before being placed in a conveyor oven. What emerges on the other side is high on stoner-y fun. Go for the Cee No Green, loaded with ground beef, pepperoni, sausage, and two styles of bacon. 1016 Howell Mill Road, Westside, 404-458-3327, and 581 Metropolitan Parkway, Adair Park
Bring a friend. Bring a book. Just be prepared to stand in line. This southwest Atlanta take-out–only burger stand serves plant-based patties to thousands of people every week, all of them willing to wait an hour (or more) for the experience. The Westview brick-and-mortar location of Pinky Cole’s viral-sensation food truck serves cheekily named burgers—hello, One Night Stand and Menage a Trois—that have drawn orgasmic reviews from celebrities like Tyler Perry and Snoop Dogg. The 10 burger and sandwich options on the menu come with toppings including vegan bacon, vegan cheese, vegan shrimp, and caramelized onions (the $19 Menage a Trois has all of those atop an Impossible patty; perhaps it should’ve been called the Menage a Cinq), and all but one of them is doused with Slutty Sauce. Gloriously sloppy and convincingly meaty, these burgers are nearly indistinguishable from the classic ones you’ll find at the best walk-up joints. A second location opened in Jonesboro in July. 1542 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, Westview, 678-732-3525; 164 North McDonough Street, Jonesboro
Tassili’s Raw Reality
There are 40 ounces of kale packed into the Mandingo wrap at Tassili’s Raw Reality, which since 2011 has occupied the colorful ground floor of a two-story duplex in West End. (Grab a table on the front porch.) Lest you scoff at its $25 price tag, note that this wrap could easily feed you for three days—and that it’s so magical you’ll actually want to spend three days eating it. What makes it so good? Superspicy, soy-marinated kale, sweet coconut corn, couscous flecked with raisins and goji berries, and the sticky-crunchy combo of hemp hearts, almonds, and agave. Fewer mouths to feed? Various normal-sized wraps run from $9 to $14. 1059 Ralph D. Abernathy Boulevard, West End, 404-343-6126
Thompson Brothers Barbeque
Though you won’t see them all in the flesh, the five Thompson brothers can be found at this modest strip-mall joint just north of SunTrust Park—grinning at you from the large photo over the counter or beaming down from the snapshots lining the wall that collects their various honors (from culinary to military to athletic). Once you bite into a rib, you’ll want to grin back. There’s just the right amount of tug and chew comparative to soft flesh and fat, all of it bursting with straight-from-the-smoker fragrance. Those ribs might overshadow the chopped pork, but if you’re going for a combo platter, that’s your next best choice. Skip the underseasoned collards and lackluster mac and cheese for the piping-hot, perfectly tangy Brunswick stew. 2445 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna, 770-818-9098
Trederick’s Seafood & Grill
The owners of the Blue Ivory NightClub on the fringe of Castleberry Hill opened the charming Trederick’s next door in 2019. Southern-fried seafood is the specialty, and the catfish and whiting fillets in a light coating of cornmeal batter are especially splendid, though you might also be rightfully tempted by baskets of huge, sweet shrimp. In addition to its inexpensive fried offerings, Trederick’s offers more decadent options such as crab clusters and lobster tails. Don’t forget the crinkly fries, the thick homestyle chips, and the sweet coleslaw. 609 Whitehall Street, Castleberry Hill, 470-343-2175
Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours Chef Deborah VanTrece is quick to share her unfiltered opinion on the state of soul food, Black restaurateurship, and any other social issue you care to discuss. She also artfully builds on culinary traditions of Black Southerners. And after reopening on Juneteenth, her restaurant’s patio has become an ideal place to unwind. For brunch, order the “Sweetest Hangover” Chick, a fried chicken Benedict with crunchy Vidalia onion rings, arugula, and peach Hollandaise. 1133 Huff Road, Blandtown, 404-350-5500
Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar
Gee and Juan Smalls, who debuted Virgil’s last summer in College Park, are married business partners and first-time restaurant owners; they started out as event producers based in Midtown and rapidly became leaders in the Black LGBTQ community. It was Juan who suggested that Virgil’s pay tribute to his late father-in-law, Virgil F. Smalls, and the Gullah-Geechee cuisine Gee grew up with on James Island, just outside Charleston. As chef, Gee looks to the traditional Gullah-Geechee kitchen as inspiration for dishes such as red rice, crab rice, okra soup, and shrimp and crab gravy. 3721 Main St, College Park, 404-228-4897
A version of this article appears in our August 2020 issue.
As a child, I wanted to be a librarian. I imagined a safe, orderly life among books and card catalogs. Learning to read had been easy for me. In elementary school, I could barely add but I read compulsively. My grandmother shattered my dream by telling me that if I became a librarian, I would surely end up an old maid. My first career, preschool teacher, was just a bid for emancipation, something I could do to see the world. I thought I’d for sure end up in Morocco (I studied Arabic) or maybe Vietnam (I loved the food).
I taught for several years in the posh 16th arrondissement of Paris, where consular staff often sent their children to public school to learn the language. The American consul sent me fancy chocolates for Christmas. A famous chef invited me for lunch at his mother’s and served me guinea hen. I saw glimpses of a world beyond mine, and I wanted in.
How did I end up in Atlanta? My first husband, the German one, was a corporate lawyer from a military family. He took a job in New York, where I met my second husband, a rich kid from Pittsburgh working as a paralegal. While transitioning from Paris to Greenwich Village in the 1970s had been easy, transitioning a few years later from there to Atlanta, where the object of my affection was attending Emory Law School, nearly killed me.
Nothing had prepared me for a sprawling city with no clearly defined center. My husband had been issued an Emory guide to life in Atlanta, including where to eat pizza (Everybody’s), where to take the parents (Coach and Six), and the best neighborhood for vegetarian fare (Little Five Points). I read the few blurbs voraciously and thought, I can do better than that.
I roamed Atlanta with a mix of desperation and desire to figure out my new world. On foot at first, then by bus, and finally in a light blue 1977 Caprice Classic I kept for 20 years, I pursued new adventures, gobbling up every possible unfamiliar food. I discovered marshmallows, ranch dressing, and grits. I tried my first chicken wing. I fell in love with soul food at Paschal’s Motor Hotel and Restaurant, where I ate fried pork chops and chicken-liver omelets for breakfast.
In the early 1980s, I was teaching at the Alliance Française in Midtown, and my husband wrote hippie-ish articles for Common Cents, a weekly publication about saving money. One thing led to another, and we were asked to recommend restaurants under a shared byline. Eventually, a student of mine, a photographer at Atlanta magazine, introduced me to his managing editor. I’ve now been writing about restaurants for this magazine for almost 40 years.
I learned all there is to know about my profession the old-fashioned way—not by scrolling through other people’s opinions or watching celebrity chefs opine on television, but by hitting the pavement without a plan and with a broad appetite. Now, however, the wandering habits that have served me so well over the decades have come to a screeching and hopefully temporary halt. In this hiatus, I’ve had ample time to return to memories of the restaurant scene of Atlanta’s past.
The Atlanta I first got to know was far more small-town than it is now. Between Manuel’s Tavern, the Varsity, the Colonnade, Matthews Cafeteria, and the amazing Busy Bee (started in the 1940s and now heroically serving its fried chicken for curbside pick up), you can still get a sense of that old Atlanta. More than business acumen or an ambitious chef in the kitchen, a strong current of love between a stubborn restaurant and its clientele seems to be the deciding factor for a place that survives the decades—or, for that matter, a pandemic. La Grotta, which opened in 1978, for the first time ever subsisted for weeks by offering takeout orders of vitello tonnato and risotto di funghi. Its owners reopened the dining room in late May, but the takeout operation continues.
Even though I’m not currently eating at restaurants, I still keep track of what is happening in the community. I maintain my epic list of new restaurants, keeping tabs on recent openings such as Wonderkid (from the Bon Ton and King of Pops teams), Little Bear (from former pop-up star Jarrett Stieber), and the Companion (from chef Andy Gonzales of Steinbeck’s Ale House in Decatur), all of which have robust take-out programs. Wonderkid has pivoted to family suppers and cocktail kits for pickup or delivery, Stieber is doing playful, globe-trotting, multicourse dinners for two to go, and Gonzales hands out fried chicken through the windows of the Companion’s 90-year-old building on the Westside.
I now dream of the brutally hot spicy tofu soup and cheap kimbap I habitually ate at Yet Tuh on Buford Highway as I watch Korean dramas all day on Netflix. I yearn for a thin slice of sausage and onion pizza from Fellini’s, a cheeseburger taco from Taqueria del Sol, and a boozy session accompanied by chicken wings at Poor Hendrix. But I also remember how to live on chickpeas and rice the way I did when I had no money—and when Atlanta didn’t have such restaurants.
Editor’s note: This review is based on visits to Lyla Lila in February, before the pandemic hit. We originally intended for it to run in our May issue but decided to hold off until we knew what the future held for the restaurant. Lyla Lila closed its dining room in March (and ran a takeout program until mid-May), then reopened its bar and patio with a limited menu in June. The experience is a little different now, but those pastas are no less swoonworthy. We decided to run our original review untouched, to offer a glimpse of the restaurant in “normal” times. Remember those?
It’s long been a mystery why there are no restaurants near the Fox Theatre that approach its level of sophistication and magic. Now, finally, one comes close.
Walking up Peachtree Street from the Fox, you may hardly notice a slim, elegantly Scandinavian glass tower that resembles a silvery game of Jenga, jammed next to the Hotel Indigo. But if you stop looking at the sidewalk and lift your eyes skyward, you’ll realize just how much the new, 24-floor residential tower called Lilli Midtown suits the neighborhood.
And so does the restaurant on its ground floor. Not only is Lyla Lila the ideal place to eat (or drink) before a show at the Fox, it’s also a strong contender for Midtown’s best and most original destination restaurant.
Chef-partner Craig Richards, who until recently was culinary director for Ford Fry’s Atlanta empire, is a formidable technician and a pasta perfectionist. Instead of finishing his literature degree at the University of Wyoming, he sidestepped into cooking, eventually finding a mentor in celebrity chef and Eataly cofounder Lidia Bastianich, who hired him at two of her restaurants in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Because he has always worked at restaurants conceived by someone else (which, in Atlanta, include Ecco, La Tavola, and St. Cecilia), Richards isn’t as well-known as he should be. For Lyla Lila, his first restaurant as an owner, he has teamed up with the developer of the building (Jarel Portman, son of the late icon John Portman) and the gregarious Billy Streck of Nina & Rafi and Hampton & Hudson, with whom the chef has been friends for almost a decade. Richards’s daughter’s first name is Lyla and Streck’s daughter’s middle name is Lila—a coincidence that resulted in the restaurant’s moniker and echoes that of the Lilli building.
Richards’s menu often references the northeastern part of Italy known as the Friuli, near Trieste and the Slovenian border, blending in a few touches of Spain along the way. In Italy, where pasta is eaten as a first course, people typically don’t fill up on it; Americans, conversely, tend to treat pasta as a heavy entree. At Lyla Lila, you can order full or smaller “primi” portions (a little more than half the entree size). Opting for several of the latter will allow you to more fully explore Richards’s extraordinary range. Thin, fresh spaghetti is elegantly undersauced with spicy Sicilian pork ragu, topped with prawns, and finished with a soupçon of bottarga. Multilayered crispy lasagna is a decadent slab that’s graced with cocoa bechamel, duck, and organic carrots. Each pasta shape achieves its ideal texture, from pleasantly tender to slightly elastic. The rustic, rope-like casarecce with kale, porcini, cauliflower, and marsala should be chewed slowly, the better to enjoy its heartiness. And the unusually delicate cacio e pepe, served only at lunch, is a superb example of the deceptively simple dish: Taglionili is lightly tossed with five different kinds of crushed peppercorns and a judicious amount of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano.
Among the filled pasta, the kabocha squash tortelli with sorrel, housemade smoked ricotta, and a touch of pumpkin oil will melt in your mouth. The two-sided chicken liver and sweet potato doppio ravioli have a unique fold, in which fried pine nuts and bits of butter and tarragon can hide.
If you can wrench yourself away from the pasta, you’ll find such gems as a long octopus tentacle cooked sous-vide for five hours, curled gently around an intense pistachio pesto and plated with sumptuous cannellini beans. A square of grilled grouper is served alongside roe, citrus, and fennel and topped with a thin, stiff sheet of dehydrated polenta. The best shareable entree is a reasonably sized and modestly headless grilled whole sea bass, resting prettily on a bit of smooth romesco sauce, with braised broccolini and charred lemon on the side.
Vegetables play no small role on the menu. The stars—shiny, quartered acorn squash with brown butter, coriander, and pomegranate molasses, and large rounds of cauliflower with pine nuts and sherry—can work as an appetizer or a shared side. The wood-grilled lettuce dressed with yogurt, wild oregano, and Parmigiano-Reggiano is a bit messy in appearance, but it tastes better than it looks.
Richards, who completed the first level of the master sommelier program, embraces (mostly) European natural wines, many of them organic or biodynamic. You might find a lively unfiltered Arneis from the Piedmont, a ruby red Mencia from Northern Spain, and several worthy Sangioveses from young producers. For his bar program, he relies heavily on partner Streck and beverage manager Angela Guthmiller, whose staff crafts fetching cocktails and pours unusual amari and vermouths.
Designed by Smith Hanes, Lyla Lila has two distinct vibes. A spot near the expansive window in the high-ceilinged and elegant (if a bit stiff) dining room might seem like a prime seat, but the cozy lounge and its horseshoe bar hog all the charm.
Lyla Lila is the restaurant that Midtown needed. A serious destination for pasta from a profoundly talented expat of Ecco and St. Cecilia, it is as much a draw for Fox patrons as for residents looking for a reliable yet exciting neighborhood haunt—and, really, for anyone in search of an inspiring meal.
Born in Germany’s Black Forest to a family of produce brokers, chef Günter Seeger helped put Atlanta on the global gourmet map when he arrived at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in 1986, a European Michelin star already in hand. In 1997, he opened his jewel-box restaurant, Seeger’s, which garnered an international reputation for its luxe, creative dishes in the decade it operated from West Paces Ferry Road.
Before Seeger’s, farm-to-table dining didn’t truly exist here. Chefs didn’t have special relationships with growers and producers; they didn’t focus on organic sources, and no one has come close to the stunning clarity of his often deceptively simple-looking dishes. While Seeger has spent the past decade in New York (operating an even more progressive eponymous restaurant from 2007 to 2009 that earned him another Michelin star before shifting gears to consulting), he recently announced a move back to Atlanta, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeger is planning to open a revolutionary restaurant concept designed for a new world. As he recently told the AJC, “it can’t just be a restaurant anymore. . . . It has to be a multi-level experience.”
He returns to a very different city, one that embraces the practices he always embodied: the importance of local, organic produce and creating food that simultaneously delights the senses and nurtures the body. Seeger, who just turned 70, will be an elder statesman in a sea of young chefs—a scene full of great ideas but with few mentorship opportunities. Unlike embattled New York, which he describes as “Chernobyl,” Atlanta is a place more ready and able to accept new ways of doing business.
Below, Seeger discusses his decision to leave New York, the future of restaurants, and his resurrected role as an Atlanta chef.
It’s certainly a surprise that you’re coming back to Atlanta after more than a decade in New York. What factored into that decision? We originally came down to celebrate [our daughter] Alessandra’s birthday with the grandparents. [Seeger’s wife, Leslie, is from Atlanta.] But then things started to get bad [in New York with the COVID-19 pandemic], we thought, Let’s stay a little bit longer here and see what happens. Then, things got really bad. I was working on a big project—overseeing culinary amenities for a new building owned by the Trinity Church [in Manhattan]—but the church decided to postpone the project for almost a year.
This is a very serious place we’re in. It’s not going to be business as usual [as the pandemic ends], and I think we have to be open to that. It’s just like how September 11 changed the world of traveling. It will never go back to where it was.
Looking at that, and as much as I love New York, I also have two young children [Alessandra, 8, and Katarina, 2]. And visiting Atlanta [reminded me] that as exciting as New York is, you compromise a lot. Seeing all the beautiful trees here again, it was like, wow. It’s amazing. It will also be a much better place to raise our children.
I will always do something food related, but it doesn’t need to necessarily be a small restaurant. A brick-and-mortar restaurant, in my opinion, is not a good business model anymore. It needs to be designed around the new world after.
What is the situation like in New York right now? Everybody has jumped in now to help feed people, because there is really a need for that, but I don’t think anybody has a real plan for [what comes next]. What will be so hard for these restaurants in New York is when, economically, you’re already stretched to the limit because of the [high cost of doing business]. Then the health departments will have new restrictions. Can we go back to 100 percent—or at least 80 percent—occupancy? That’s not going to happen for a long time. I think restaurants have to look for some alternatives.
I’m totally for reopening the [economic] markets. We can’t just close ourselves up for six months. The outcome would be worse than the epidemic we’re living with. I think we have to be very careful about that and be very responsible, but it definitely will change the world.
I would imagine that 50 percent of all restaurants will not re-open. There’s just not enough income, and the costs are too high. This is going to be quite a challenge. On the other hand, it will create new opportunities.
The farm-to-table scene here has increased dramatically since you left. The Atlanta that you are re-entering is kind of your dream Atlanta. I have a lot of the national resources [for getting fresh produce in New York], but I also went four times a week to the Union Square Market, basically picking everything for the restaurant myself. There are some really good people, but it has become very commercially driven, and, of course, it’s very difficult for these farmers because some have to drive four or five hours just to come to the market. How pristine our products are in Atlanta, there is no comparison. I’m super excited about this, because I still know most of these people, and I think we can continuously to work with them and also market and use their [produce].
Atlanta is filled with young chefs. As someone who has been in the restaurant industry for five decades, what do you see as your role? What I’d really like to do is get a little more into understanding the [mind of Atlanta’s] young chefs, maybe participate in their world and support them in what they’re doing. Maybe this is a new era for me, too. Hopefully I can contribute something to that world in Atlanta.
Do you plan to be based in Buckhead again?
No. My restaurant in New York wasn’t on the Upper East Side, either. If you open a new business, it has to economically work. We also need to become more original and authentic. There’s just too many restaurants just from yesterday. Authenticity and originality is, for me, something exciting. That also needs a structure around it and an area around it to support that.
Beyond the pandemic, what are some of the challenges you see right now in terms of what we’re eating and how we approach food?
Cuisine has grown into almost like a Lego cuisine. It’s just too manufactured. Even in high-end restaurants, it’s like totally manufactured food. There has to be less manufacturing. We also need to get over [how visual food has become]. Why are we trying as chefs to be painters or some artists in some ways? I don’t consider myself an artist. I want to be an extension of the land and the farmer and the product. [I want to take] what comes out of the ground, beautifully grown by the farmer, and transport it in a beautiful way, keeping the essence of it. It’s still very beautiful when it’s on your plate, and you feel good. It’s [about] well-being. How do I feel after my dinner?
In 2018, Emma and Sean Schacke bought a quaint, free-standing building next to Kirkwood’s police station and across from its public library; the former under-the-table casino with an upstairs nightclub had been vacant for 40 years. In that building, the couple would hatch their dream: Sean would butcher whole animals; Emma would bake hearty, European-style sourdough loaves and pastries. Their long hours would be eased by the fact that they’d live upstairs.
Six months later, in mid-March, their little operation became more urgent. The Schackes now bake extra bread each day to offer a free loaf to those suffering through the COVID-19 crisis—particularly members of the temporarily shuttered bar and restaurant industry. And with a few adjustments to their hours and new safety procedures (such as asking people to queue up outside), the Schackes remain committed to running a quality, community-minded shop—one that I find more necessary than ever.
Evergreen continues to source its meat and flour from local farmers and millers who’ve seen other buyers close up shop. The gratitude is mutual. “Having a local food system and supply chain to rely on is the only reason we are able to continue to provide for the community,” Emma told me.
Even before the coronavirus onslaught, I felt emotional about Evergreen’s old-fashioned sourdough pain de campagne, shapely baguettes, rustic apple cakes, and savory pastries, including sausage rolls and pot pies. Here, you can find such comforts as housemade headcheese, souse, and scrapple. The meats, sourced from nearby farms, are appropriately rosy or crimson, with cuts such as certified Angus Picanha (a top sirloin popularized by Brazilian steakhouses) and gloriously thick and fresh pork chops with a shortened bone.
Sean, who is from Athens, worked as a chef for 12 years in Atlanta and Nashville before becoming a butcher at the renowned Publican Quality Meats in Chicago; Emma, originally from Toronto, moved to Chicago when she was 19 to attend the French Pastry School and moved around every year or so, working in pastry and baking bread, learning from other bakers. Both now consider Atlanta home. And, yes, they live above the shop.
I’m crazy about the lovely aesthetics of the meticulously restored building, with its dark green and black facade. The tiny inventory speaks to my soul. There isn’t too much, but it’s enough. Sean gets half a cow a week and at least one whole pig. Standing in the middle of the floor behind a small counter, he goes about his butchering in a clean apron while his wife feeds folded fresh dough into a contraption called a sheeter to make the kind of laminated, flaky croissants I now can’t imagine living without.
Breads such as flattish einkorn loaves and an especially dense, faintly sour German-style Vollkornbrot bring joyful sustenance to my household. I hungrily buy the brown eggs the store gets from Darby Farms in North Carolina. If I need orange marmalade or lard by the tub, I trust the products, made in-house, will be more exceptional than any I can find elsewhere.
In today’s uncertain times, these are the pleasures I need.
Because of my role as a restaurant critic, I wouldn’t dream of asking a restaurant to tweak a dish, serve the sauce on the side, or modify anything at all—lest I compromise my fiercely neutral professional taste. If you go out to dinner with me, you pretty much eat what is in front of you and keep your mouth shut.
But do I ever mess around with my food by, for example, ordering and crumbling a few slices of bacon over a vegetarian lasagna? You bet I do. At White Tiger in Athens, I especially love the vegetarian egg scramble with various brassica, but, like chef Ken Manring, I think it tastes better if you add some sausage to it. I don’t want to encourage you to sneak a bit of chopped barbecued pork from next door into the noodles you’re about to eat at an Asian restaurant (a true story confessed to me by a colleague), but a bit of culinary creativity on the part of a diner can make a good dish better—or at least acceptably different. I have learned, for example, that you can tone down some of the spicy curries at an Indian restaurant by ordering ras malai (a boiled milk dessert flavored with cardamom and rose water) and adding some to your incendiary savory course.
Buffets are an ideal way to create your own delicious mashups, but even regular restaurants can inspire ingenuity. You can easily replicate Dave Poe BBQ’s redneck lasagna (mac ’n’ cheese with a layer of Brunswick stew) at other barbecue joints. If you feel limited by the choice of condiments in a Vietnamese pho restaurant, try squeezing lime into some oily chili paste or sriracha to create a dipping sauce for the meatballs and brisket you fish out of the broth. I learn a lot by watching customers make their own sauces, even if it’s just adding a massive amount of black pepper to some sesame oil (which I’ve witnessed at hot pot restaurants and Korean barbecue spots).
I eat at Taqueria del Sol once or twice a week, and, in order not to get bored, I sometimes do things like lift chef Eddie Hernandez’s marvelous spicy turnip greens out of their pot liquor in order to distribute them on the surface of the refried-bean enchilada with pork green chili that I always order. I mush everything together into some weird, tasty stew and drink the turnip green broth on the side. Creativity has always been encouraged at Taqueria del Sol, where manager George Trussler ordered Mexican rice, spicy turnip greens, and ranchero beans so often for his staff meal that the soupy combo is now known as “the George” and is available as an off-menu item to in-the-know diners.
I can’t say that I approve of putting peanut sauce on a bacon cheeseburger (people do it routinely at Shake Shack) or imitating the stoners who wrap their burrito in a quesadilla at Chipotle. But I do appreciate the clever hacks that deliciously improvise on a restaurant’s good work.
This year, March 11 fell on a Wednesday, and I was going to be in Barcelona, where I’ve been eating for 20 years. I planned to visit my best friends, and we had two important reservations, one the day before and one the day after my birthday, in the kind of places food critics thrill for. Direkte Boqueria, a boundary-pushing eight-seat restaurant, and Estimar, one of the city’s most daring destinations for seafood, were going to be fun.
Luckily, I canceled my trip at the eleventh hour, as COVID-19 began to tighten its grip on Europe. I instead decided I’d spend my birthday the way I usually do: alone and somewhat content. My children had bought me a plane ticket to Toronto for later in the month, and one was going to meet me there to explore the best Chinese restaurants in North America.
On March 11, I had begun to worry about the immediate future, but I wasn’t panicking yet. The sinkhole hadn’t sunk. A friend delivered a tall slice of rich birthday cake, and I scarfed it up, thinking it would be enough of a celebration. Suddenly, it was five o’clock, and I decided on a whim to treat myself to a dozen oysters and a glass of Muscadet at one of my favorite places. Kimball House wasn’t quite as packed as it normally is in the early evening, but the bar was comfortably full, with no sense of impending doom. Because there was only a single specimen left of one of the oysters I had ordered, a substitution was made, and I ended up with thirteen oysters on my platter instead of six pairs. Was it an omen?
Let’s seize the moment, I vaguely thought, and spontaneously ordered something pretty and elegant-sounding: midlings with caviar and a fine dice of crispy potatoes. I was delighted with my evening. The two young women next to me at the bar—a pediatric emergency care nurse and her spouse, who joked that she was “the world’s worst trophy wife—offered to buy me a glass of wine to celebrate my birthday. Nah, I’m fine, I said with a smile. I woke up the next morning and tweeted that we should all treat each meal as if it’s going to be our last. Then, more quickly than I had imagined, my life as a roving gourmet came to a sudden halt.
In the last 40 years, I can’t remember a week when I haven’t eaten out almost every day, sometimes twice a day. The Sunday before September 11, I was in New York for a visit and decided to take a cheap Chinatown shuttle to see my daughter in Providence, Rhode Island, which is where I was when I heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center. This is the end of the world as we know it, I remember thinking. I spent an anxious week in Providence, waiting to change my flight home. The food critic in me still needed to go out. I don’t remember where or what I ate. But I never stopped eating.
The current crisis is something entirely different, a much more direct attack on they very thing that has made my life not just exceptional but livable. Without restaurants, there is no place for me to seek the kind of comfort among strangers I’ve grown dependent on. Restaurants are closing for who knows how long, their workforce devastated, their owners and investors fearing ruin. Some are pivoting to take-out and/or delivery. They are emailing me about their gift cards or branded merchandise. These are the short-term solutions that will help keep some of them alive. But for me, restaurant food without the restaurant experience feels meaningless.
I didn’t become a food critic just because of the food. I wanted to be out in the world, mapping a city through its bodegas, cafes, and markets, wandering endlessly in search of mastery. Like most of my colleagues, I am interested in the stories behind the food. Whether or not I like a place is less important than where that place fits into the history and taxonomy of the city.
To relieve my anxiety about the current situation, I weed my garden compulsively. I also have a new routine involving slow, lonely drives through the neighborhoods I love. I look for signs of activity, unusual notices; the best I can hope for right now is to see school buses dropping off meals as opposed to picking up children, as is happening in several cities.
Do I want to go back to a world where I can eat a fried fish sandwich at a restaurant bar for lunch and sit down for a 12-course tasting menu for dinner on the same day?There’s nothing I want more. But by the time that happens, the spaces I inhabit and strangers I meet will have been transformed by the suffering they endured. And so will I.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.