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Drew Podo

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Eat This: The General Muir’s Pastrami Sandwich

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When chef Todd Ginsberg set out to open The General Muir in 2013, he wanted to create a restaurant that paid homage to the delis that he and his parents grew up dining at. He planned to serve his childhood favorites, like matzoh ball soup, corned beef, and a pastrami sandwich, but there was one problem. “When I told my parents I was going to open a deli, my dad looked at me and said, ‘Todd, you don’t know how to make pastrami. How are you going to make a pastrami sandwich? What are you going to do?’” Ginsberg says.

Undeterred, Ginsberg started experimenting with recipes to get the perfect pastrami sandwich. He used a simple recipe that involved brining a brisket, rubbing it with coriander and pepper, smoking it, and steaming it, but it still wasn’t coming out quite right. “There was a lot of heartache in the first two months because we were still trying to dial in the right amount of brine.” Finally, after months of experimenting, he settled on 10-14 day brine. The sandwich, made with rye bread, a smear of mustard, and a heaping pile of pastrami, is one of The General Muir’s most popular offerings. Ginsberg orders roughly two tons of brisket every month just to keep up with the demand. He credits the sandwich’s popularity to the nostalgic flavors executed at a higher level. “We do everything from scratch, and it’s a reminder of what people ate when they were kids.”

Even though The General Muir has only been open for three years, it has become a vital part of the neighborhood. It has been consistently ranked as one of Atlanta’s best restaurants (it’s No. 16 on our list), and has even received national accolades. But despite the restaurant’s growing reputation, Ginsberg simply wants his restaurant to be a community hub. “We’re never going to be the best restaurant in the country or the fanciest, but we want it to resonate with people. My goal is to say I went to culinary school and learned how to cook better than my cooked mom for me,” he says. “But not my grandmother.”

Eat This: Muss & Turner’s evil cookie

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Since opening in Smyrna in 2005, Muss & Turner’s evolved from a little gourmet shop and deli to a full-service restaurant, bar, and neighborhood hangout. They’re probably best known for their sandwiches or for having one of the city’s best burgers, but co-owner Ryan Turner thinks there’s a better way to understand the restaurant’s vast, ever-changing menu. “If you brought in any chef and I had to give them two things to gauge what we do, it would be the fries and the evil cookie,” he says.

The evil cookies, weighing a quarter of a pound, are made with local Georgia pecans and a blend of dark and milk chocolate chunks. They’ve been a mainstay on the menu since the restaurant opened, but co-owner Todd Mussman first came up with the idea when he was a student at Ithaca College. “There was a place called Danz Cookies that did cookie delivery. You could call from the dorms and they would show up with a dozen of these big cookies, a pint of ice cream, and a quart of milk,” Mussman says. “That’s where I got the idea of doing big, honking cookies.”

When the restaurant first opened, the cookies were simply called double chocolate pecan cookies until a regular customer made a quip to Mussman. “We had a customer who would come in and buy a couple cookies to bring into the office and share. One day she came and said, ‘I need six today. Those things are so evil I need to bring six back to the office,’” he says. “They’ve been the evil cookies from then on.”

Now, the cookies are one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings. Mussman and Turner credit the recipe’s success to their take on the familiar flavors. “It’s nostalgic for most people who’ve grown up eating chocolate chip cookies,” Turner says. “And when you have our version of it, it takes you from nostalgia to euphoria.”

Eat This: Busy Bee Cafe’s fried chicken

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Quiet moments are rare at Busy Bee Cafe. Six days a week, patrons cram into the dining room and the line snakes out into the parking lot. It’s a stopover for almost every visiting politician and celebrity, and the list of famous diners include Martin Luther King Jr., OutKast, and President Obama. Customers flock to the Vine City restaurant for Southern classics like ham hocks, candied yams, and oxtail, but the most ordered dish is always the fried chicken.

Busy Bee may boast the city’s best fried chicken, but it wasn’t always their top seller. When owner Tracy Gates first started working at the restaurant in 1987, the menu was dominated by ham hocks and chitlins. The restaurant, opened in 1947 by Lucy Jackson, had once been a bastion of fresh, Southern food, but its reputation was slowly fading. Jackson sold the restaurant to two Auburn Avenue businessmen in the late 70s, but they had trouble keeping the restaurant staffed. “My father bought it in 1981, and he wanted to bring it back to the way it was when Ms. Lucy was here,” says Gates. But despite taking steps in the right direction, the quality of the cooking didn’t match Jackson’s until Gates took over the operation. “The first thing I did was research the history and the owner, to understand her passion and methodology,” she says. “I took it product by product, learning the science behind everything. How the weather affects it, what you had to do to get it to this standard. I more or less became a scientist.”

Gates also decided to reinvent Busy Bee’s fried chicken, basing her new recipe off of her grandmother’s. “I wanted to sell the fried chicken that my grandmother cooked,” Gates says. “She brined it on Saturday nights and would cook it in a cast iron skillet on Sundays when we got out of church.” She spent three years finding the right brine, seasoning blend, and frying technique before it was finally perfected. “I’ve seen people call their moms and wives, they call their grandmas to say it was almost as good as theirs,” Gates says. “It brings back memories for people.”

Even though Gates claims that the biggest draw of the restaurant is the food, she thinks that it has remained popular because of its importance to the neighborhood. The restaurant has long served as a local meeting spot, and it has a rich history. “We’re the only business in this area that was started in segregation that still exists,” she says. “It’s a part of history that still exists.”

Eat This: Jerk Chicken at Eats

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Eats hasn’t changed much since opening on Ponce de Leon Avenue in 1993. The walls are lined with license plates donated by employees and customers, the booths are painted plywood, and the menu sports old favorites. “I always joke that we change something or add something about every ten years,” says owner Bob Hatcher. Even with new, trendy restaurants opening at Ponce City Market across the street, Hatcher says the restaurant is as popular as it has ever been. The increase in traffic has brought in new customers, and the most ordered dish is always the jerk chicken.

The recipe, created by Hatcher’s former business partner and Tortillas owner Charles Kerns, has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. The dish is simple—half a chicken rubbed in jerk spice and baked until golden brown—but when the restaurant opened, it was an oddity. “In ’93, jerk chicken was our little, esoteric thing to have,” Hatcher says. “Pasta was the common denominator. We knew that everybody liked pasta.” Now, he estimates that the restaurant serves more than 2,000 orders of jerk chicken every week.

Despite the restaurant’s popularity, Hatcher is just thankful that Eats is still open. “We were fortunate that we were able to buy the property in the late 90s,” he says. “If we hadn’t, I don’t think we could still be here.” He wants Eats to remain a gathering place for the community, especially in the rapidly changing neighborhood. “We’ve served everybody from homeless people that have just enough for a meal to celebrities,” he says. “It’s just a cross section of humanity.”

Eat This: Canoe’s Smoked Salmon

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Since opening in 1995, Canoe has been a staple in Atlanta’s dining scene. Nestled on a scenic stretch of the Chattahoochee in Vinings, the restaurant’s dedication to fresh, seasonal produce garnered city-wide and national acclaim. The menu constantly changes to take advantage of local flavors, but the smoked salmon is a permanent fixture at Canoe. “That’s the one dish that has always been exactly the same,” says executive chef Matthew Basford. “It’s been on the menu the same way for 21 years.”

Creating the salmon is a four-day process. The fish cures in a seven spice mixture for three days, before it is rinsed and left to sit for one more day before being smoked. “The salmon gets a nice film that helps it absorb all the smoke flavors,” Basford says. After it is cold smoked for an hour, the salmon is sliced thin and served with fried potatoes, a goat cheese and cream cheese mixture, and topped with dill and capers. While Basford doesn’t know how the dish’s creator, Gary Mennie, came up with the recipe, he has a few ideas. “I think that it’s very loosely based on Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon pizza,” Basford says. “The goat cheese was probably Gary’s touch, but it has that same kind of flavor profile.”

Basford estimates that the kitchen serves more than 120 pounds of salmon every week. He thinks that the dish’s popularity lies with the quality of the salmon, but he also credits the restaurant’s consistency over the course of two decades. “Atlanta and its food scene have changed so much in the eleven years that I’ve been here, but Canoe is a constant factor,” Basford says. “I’ll come and go, but the restaurant will always be synonymous with Atlanta’s dining scene.”

Eat This: Morelli’s Salted Caramel Ice Cream

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Morelli's Salted Caramel Ice Cream
Morelli’s Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Photograph by Drew Podo

When Donald Sargent and his wife, Clarissa Morelli, decided to open an ice cream shop, they wanted to stand out. In 2008 they opened Morelli’s on Moreland Avenue and received almost instant acclaim. Customers and local critics raved about their unique flavors, like coconut jalapeno and sweet corn, and within a year of opening Morelli’s was named by Bon Appétit by one of the best ice cream shops in America. But despite the shop’s reputation for unusual flavors, their most popular offering is their salted caramel ice cream. “We always have to have it on the menu,” says Morelli.

Morelli and Sargent decided to offer the flavor after visiting ice cream shops in California, where they saw salted caramel on nearly every menu. “We just wanted to make it a little bit different,” Morelli says. “We made it a little bit saltier and made our own caramel.” They also used a higher butterfat base to create the ice cream’s creamy texture and rich taste. But Morelli claims that the real secret to their ice cream is how they make it. “We use gelato machines to make our ice cream,” she says. “That way we don’t incorporate as much air as American-style ice cream.” At the Moreland Avenue store, they sell upwards of 1,000 gallons of salted caramel ice cream every month.

Morelli still can’t pinpoint why salted caramel is such a popular flavor, especially given the shop’s reputation for unusual combinations like rosemary olive oil and ginger lavender. “It’s such a traditional flavor,” she says. “But people will come and try everything on the menu, and they still decide to go with the salted caramel.”

Eat This: Grilled chicken gyros from Nick’s Food to Go

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When Nick and Eleni Poulos moved to Atlanta from Greece in 1994, they decided to open a restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Over the past 23 years, Nick’s Food to Go has become a city-wide favorite for Greek food. Manager Evie Poulos, their daughter, estimates that they sell upwards of 200 gyros every day. But despite the restaurant’s reputation for their Greek sandwiches, gyros weren’t even on the menu when Nick’s opened. “Back then, people didn’t know what Greek food was,” Evie says. “If you didn’t grow up with it, it was easy to be intimidated by it.”

The restaurant originally sold hot dogs, chicken wings, and burgers, but Eleni eventually wanted to add Greek flavors to the menu. “They started just selling gyro meat and slowly introducing it to people,” Evie says. Customers quickly fell in love with the new dishes.  Now, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes is the grilled chicken gyro, made with Eleni’s secret family recipes for marinated chicken and tzatziki.

Other than a few menu items, Nick’s Food to Go hasn’t changed much over the past twenty years. Eleni is still the sole cook, and the restaurant is still entirely family run. Nick retired in 2014, but he’s still a regular presence at the restaurant. Evie claims that the consistency and hard work is part of the reason for the restaurant’s success, but says the real reason that the restaurant has been open for twenty years is because it’s a family business. “One of the hardest part with restaurants is finding people to work for you,” she says. “Here, we’re just family.”

Eat This: Ria’s Bluebird pancakes

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When Ria Pell opened Ria’s Bluebird in 2000, she set out to make a welcoming and affordable breakfast spot in Grant Park. Memorial Drive had none of the buzz that it does now; developers hadn’t caught the intown bug yet. But Pell’s cooking combined with her larger-than-life personality brought her city-wide acclaim. Her restaurant became a community favorite because of its reasonable prices and diverse crowds. When Pell passed away in 2013, she left half of her ownership shares to manager Julie Pender, who has gone to great lengths to uphold Pell’s legacy. “I stick to her fundamentals, the Ria Rules,” Pender says. “She’s the perpetual boss here.”

Pender, who has worked at Ria’s for 13 years, took care to keep many of Pell’s favorite dishes exactly the same. The pancakes, which were among Ria’s most praised dishes, are still mixed in the same bowl. Despite the praise that the pancakes receive, Pender says that the recipe is so simple that anybody could make it at home, in theory. The ingredients, cake flour, buttermilk, butter, and vanilla, are all standard, but the secret to their success is the restaurant’s 16-year-old flat top grill. “We’ve had the flat top since we opened. It’s so seasoned that you can pretty much cook on it without oil,” Pender says. “It’s a beautiful, old albatross of equipment.” The restaurant sells an average 200 hundred orders of pancakes on most weekdays, with the numbers exceeding 350 on weekends.

Three years after Ria’s death, the restaurant is still thriving. “It was really important to Ria that anybody can come here and feel welcome,” Pender says. “She created a space that everybody wanted to be a part of. And that is still here.” Pender still recognizes customers she served over a decade ago. She knows customers who met their spouses at Ria’s and still come in every week with their kids.

Despite the restaurant’s reputation in the community, Pender is still worried about the restaurant’s place along the rapidly changing stretch of Memorial Drive. She worries new developments will drive out old-school landmarks like Ann’s Snack Bar. “Things change and you can’t prevent that,” Pender says. “But you can stake your claim, and we’ve staked our claim here on the corner.”

Babalu Tacos and Tapas eyes Midtown opening

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Jackson, Mississippi-based Babalu Tacos and Tapas hopes to open their first Atlanta location in the 33 Peachtree Place development in Midtown by the end of the year. Eat Here Brands president Bill Latham says they signed the lease this morning.

The restaurant, which serves small plates like shrimp and grits, braised beef short rib, tamales, and tacos, has been on opening rampage, expanding throughout the Southeast. In addition to their four current locations, the company is opening outposts in Charlotte, Chapel Hill, and Lexington in the coming year. Latham wants the Midtown location to be unique to Atlanta. “All our locations are different. They have some aspects of Babalu in each one, but we don’t have a package,” he says.

Courtesy of Eat Here Brands

Latham also wants the restaurant’s menu to reflect Atlanta’s local ingredients. While the menu at each location has similar items, they have been adapted to fit the local culinary scene. “The executive chefs in our restaurants have a pretty-good bit of flexibility,” he says. “We are very focused on going to local vendors for our products.”

While the company does not yet have a candidate to run the kitchen, Latham hopes to begin the search soon.

Pine Street Market and Riverview Farms are opening Atlanta’s first farmer-owned butcher shop

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Owner Rusty Bowers
Owner Rusty Bowers

Courtesy of Pine Street Market

Rusty Bowers, the owner of Pine Street Market, is teaming up with Riverview Farms to open Atlanta’s first farmer-owned butcher shop in Grant Park. Even though the final location is undecided, Bowers hopes to be open by the first of next year. The store will offer an extensive selection of meat, produce, and products from other local producers such as Doux South, Global Growers, and Sweet Grass Dairy. “It’s a closed loop,” says Bowers. “You’ll walk in and realize there are no other hands on this meat. That’s such a beautiful thing to me.”

The market will be at least 2,000-square feet and feature a patio equipped with a Big Green Egg. In addition to the butcher shop, Bowers and Swancy want to offer grab-and-go items, tastings, and classes. They also hope to host pop-up dinners with local chefs such as Ryan Smith of Staplehouse and Terry Koval of Wrecking Bar. “Atlanta has such wonderful friendships between chefs, growers, and producers, and we want to help celebrate that,” Bowers says.

Bowers has worked with Riverview Farms since opening Pine Street Market in 2008, but he wants to help showcase local farmers on a larger platform. “Now that we both have a wonderful infrastructure in place, the next step is opening a high-end store that people can come to from all over Atlanta,” he says. “We want it to be a little culinary, meat driven mecca.”

Charlotte Swancy of Riverview Farms wanted to open in Grant Park because it was an up-and-coming area, but also because she has many, established customers in the area. “That area has given us a lot of support for the farm and our products since we began,” she says.

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