See all Best of Atlanta 2021 winners
Soul Breakfast: The Breakfast Boys
A spate of breakfast restaurants has opened in Atlanta recently, but this College Park spot—with its Insta-friendly decor, its cocktails, its jerk chicken and sweet potato waffles, its luscious catfish, shrimp, and grits—is easily at the top of the list.
New ’Cue: Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ
A legend in his home state of South Carolina, Scott brought his immaculately smoked meats this year to Adair Park. Pulled pork is at the heart of the enterprise, but there’s also chicken, ribs, and fish, plus side dishes as good as the main attractions: Mac and cheese and banana pudding are both must-orders.
A mix of ’90s R&B, reggaeton, and Afrobeats keeps the walls bumping at this popular Snellville restaurant, which serves island staples—oxtails and rice, curry goat—as well as new twists on old faves, such as ackee and saltfish egg rolls and loaded “nachos” made with fried plantains. Wash it all down with rum punch or one of the signature mojitos—but sip slowly.
Career Move: Claudia Martinez to Miller Union
It was probably inevitable that Claudia Martinez, maybe the city’s best pastry chef, would take her talents to Miller Union—maybe the city’s best restaurant, helmed by chef Steven Satterfield. As at her previous gig at Tiny Lou’s, Martinez turns out visually stunning, vibrant-tasting desserts made with seasonal produce.
New Ethiopian: Chef Winnie’s Kitchen
This is basically a one-woman show, and that woman—Addis Ababa native Woinshet Legesse Emory, aka Chef Winnie—is as charming as she is versatile, as good with Ethiopian favorites like kitfo (spiced ground beef) as with more bespoke creations: One of the most satisfying items at her Clarkston restaurant is the Ethiopian-spiced quesadilla.
Mezze and More: Nur Kitchen
You can’t really go wrong on Buford Highway, of course. But if you want to go very, very, very right? Head to this small but well-appointed dining room near Norcross, where chef Shay Lavi prepares the Mediterranean dishes that dreams are made of, including hummus and baba ghanoush, falafel, and roasted-beet salad, plus sandwiches, shawarma, and gorgeous mixed platters.
Vegan: Grass VBQ Joint
At many restaurants, vegan substitutes for traditionally meaty dishes often taste like what they are: an afterthought. At this Stone Mountain spot, though, the animal-free alternatives have been lovingly crafted by 20-year culinary vet Terry Sargent, whose care and talent flavor every bite. Various plant-based “meats,” smoked over a blend of three woods, find their way into dishes like brisket sandwich and Brunswick stew, a Georgia favorite made here with jackfruit.
Burmese: Two Fish Myanmar
An inconstant presence on the Atlanta restaurant scene, the pungent, well-spiced cuisine of Myanmar (aka Burma) has made a triumphant return—not at an actual restaurant, but at a family-run takeout business open two days a week in residential Clarkston. Noodles, biryani, tea leaf salads, and electrically colored desserts are some of the standouts on an ever-changing menu. To find the place and put in an order, search for the name on Facebook.
New York–Style Pizza: Piccola New York Pizza Dunwoody
Fight us on this if you want, but some of the best NY-style pizza around is hiding in a Dunwoody strip mall, where owner Wilton Vinas creates pies—available whole or by the slice—with a thin, pliant crust and all the usual toppings.
Chef Pat Pascarella’s new Morningside Italian restaurant places the humble meatball in such high esteem that it offers six different kinds—pork with whipped ricotta; beef with gouda, red onion, and black truffle jam; and so forth—and, for true meatballheads, a tasting flight featuring one of each.
Gourmet Market: The Buttery
Jennifer Yee’s pastries alone justify the trip, as does the cheese selection; really, your kitchen could benefit from just about everything in chef Linton Hopkins’s gourmet grocery, opened near Cheshire Bridge Road in the depths of the pandemic. Hopkins and co. offer the raw ingredients for a good time (housemade pickles, charcuterie, fresh eggs, hamburger buns) as well as hot nightly dinners (shrimp and grits, cassoulet).
Japanese Street Food: Ok Yaki
Japanese street foods get the love they deserve at Corban Irby’s cheerful East Atlanta hang, with its terrific okonomiyaki (a big, umami-rich vegetable pancake), Japanese-style fried chicken, and handmade gyoza. Myriad drink options include Japanese draft beers, shochu and sake, and Suntory whiskey highballs.
Birria: Chef Smokeys ATL
Losing his construction job when the pandemic hit, Mauro Cruz turned to selling birria—silky stewed beef, often enfolded in tacos that are griddled till crisp—out of his Austell home. In 2021, he upgraded to this cozy restaurant on the town’s main drag, where the centerpiece meat is available in various guises (birria fries, birria pizza) and can be chased with margaritas. 2805 Veterans Memorial Highway, Austell
New Ramen: Samurai Ramen
The ramen at this Duluth newcomer, in a strip mall along Pleasant Hill Road, is superfresh and immensely comforting. Order the spicy tonkotsu—a steaming bowl filled with thinly sliced green onions, chewy wood-ear mushrooms, tender braised pork belly (aka chashu), and bamboo shoots—and pair it with fresh-fried takoyaki or a veggie-filled chashu bun.
Empanadas: Belen de la Cruz Empanadas & Pastries
Argentina native Belen de la Cruz opened her first eponymous bakeshop in Johns Creek in 2020, since expanding to Marietta and Chattahoochee Food Works. She keeps ’em coming back with tender empanadas in a staggering number of variations—beef, chicken, squash, onion; the list goes on—and sweet pastries including alfajores: dulce de leche–filled sandwich cookies.
Comeback Story: Cristy’s Kitchen
Hoping to leave hardship behind in Peru, Cristy Kisner and Sebastian Gracey moved with their five children to Roswell, where they opened a gluten- and dairy-free restaurant in December 2019—kind of an inauspicious time to launch any kind of business, as it turned out. The pandemic nearly wiped them out until they were visited by Brandon Stanton of the wildly popular Instagram account Humans of New York, whose thread about the couple’s struggles went viral—garnering them over $1 million in donations and a whole bunch of enthusiastic new customers. Now, people travel from all over for Kisner’s bagels, muffins, doughnuts, and other delicious (but healthy!) snacks.
New Pop-Up, Italian: Gigi’s Italian Kitchen
The Candler Park restaurant Gato has served over the years as a springboard for an impressive roster of local talent—including the young team behind Gigi’s, who launched a kind of weeknight pop-up residency here this fall, offering vibrant, modern interpretations like polenta cake with caviar and cultured cream, sweet potato ravioli, and a transcendent Caesar salad.
Casual: Che Butter Jonez
The many fans of the food truck operated by Malik Rhasaan (the titular Che) and Detric Fox-Quinlan (aka Bae Butter Jonez) welcomed the opening of this sunny Perkerson brick-and-mortar, which serves customer faves with cheerfully profane names (get the lamb burger, That Sh!t Slambing) and rotating specials including halal cart–style chicken and rice.
New Pop-Up, Persian Pastries: Shirini Bakery
Shirini means “sweets” in Farsi—and at this family operation, run by sisters Nela and Zara Salehi, that means beautiful Persian desserts like their rose- and pistachio-flavored Goli cake, chewy macaroons, and an airy almond-lemon cake. They bake out of the shared Prep Kitchen in Doraville, deliver locally and ship nationally, and can be found at various farmers markets.
Vibes: The Continent
It’s one of a gazillion businesses on busy Buford Highway, but stepping into chef Scotley Innis’s long-awaited restaurant is like stepping into another—quieter, softer, sexier—world. The African and Caribbean influences and rich flavors in Innis’s cooking are just as transporting.
New Pop-Up, Peruvian: La Chingana
In 2021, Arnaldo Castillo left his chef job at Minero to devote himself to a growing side project: a pop-up highlighting the cuisine of Peru, where Castillo’s family is from. Until he gets his brick-and-mortar—the ultimate goal—keep your eyes peeled for one-off La Chingana events featuring regional dishes prepared with a chef’s precision, such as ceviche with the citrusy Peruvian marinade leche de tigre, the grilled Lima street meats known as anticuchos, and hearty dishes like arroz con mariscos.
New Pop-Up, Bagels: Dear Friend, Bagels
One day, it may be a standalone business, but for now, Dear Friend is a side project that Dale Donchey opens as a pop-up at his Toco Hills cafe Spiller Park. Among the genius innovations: regionally milled flours in the dough, toppings like poppy-sumac, and the availability of the strained-yogurt product labneh—as shmears go, it’s as creamy as cream cheese but a little lighter, with an acidic bite that’s just perfect.
Breakfast Burritos and Sundry: Poco Loco
Come for the ever-changing array of evocatively named breakfast burritos (the “Brangelina,” for instance: roasted chiles, eggs, corn, cilantro crema), and stay for the various Tex-Mex takeaways that chef Nick Melvin serves up at this Kirkwood counter—which can include tubs of green chili queso, fresh housemade tortillas, pickled vegetables, stewed beans, and scoops of frozen cookie dough.
Sandwiches, Fancy but Inexpensive: Lobster Banh Mi
The name of this cheerful new Vietnamese restaurant in Duluth tells you what it serves, but it doesn’t fully communicate what a great deal this is: Ten bucks gets a crisp baguette packed with tender claw meat and fresh veggies. Other high-value options include crab, shrimp, and chicken curry banh mi.
Japanese Grocery: Wagaya Groceries
The grocery section attached to the Home Park Japanese restaurant Wagaya is as tiny and crammed as a Tokyo convenience store, brimming with housemade ramen, baked goods, sake and candies, and shelves packed with staples of the Japanese pantry. Need Japanese curry mix, fresh produce, Pocky, or sashimi-grade fish? Here you go.
Biscuit Brunch: Birdy Biscuits @ Redbird
Not content simply to be a dinnertime hero, Redbird chef Zeb Stevenson now opens a window every weekend at his Westside restaurant offering flaky Birdy Biscuits. Sandwiches include the Pure Guava—whipped cream cheese, guava paste, salted cashew butter—and the so-brilliant-why-didn’t-anybody-think-of-it-sooner Ocean Man: basically a lox bagel, but on a biscuit instead.
Sandwiches, ATM-Style: Antico Roma
Restless restaurateur Giovanni Di Palma’s Italian compound in Home Park comprises a pizza place, a chicken place, a gelato place—and now, of all things, an ATM-like window through which you may obtain crisp sandwiches with terrific fillings: mortadella and ricotta, roasted turkey and pistachio pesto, and the like.
New Thai: Tum Pok Pok
Opening in spring 2021, this joyfully decorated BuHi spot immediately took its place among the area’s top Thai restaurants. One secret to its success? Owner Adidsara Weerasin’s focus on the fresh, sour, pungent, spicy foods of the northern Thai region of Isan, which shares a border (and some flavors) with Laos.
Growing Sandwich Empire: Cubanos ATL
Atlantans have such a big appetite for what Ozzy Llanes is selling (pork-, cheese-, and pickle-filled Cuban sandwiches, on bread shipped in from Florida) that what began as a takeout window in Sandy Springs has since expanded to locations in Cumming and Chattahoochee Food Works. As at any good Miami-Cuban–style ventanita, there’s also strong coffee and flan that’s to die for.
New Farmers Market: Sun Market
The goal of this low-key new farmers market—in a Candler-McAfee church parking lot—is to give Black farmers a foothold in the local food economy. It’s closed for the season, but when it comes back next spring look for the usual Georgia bounty—peanuts, scuppernongs, blueberries, okra—as well as prepared food from a rotating cast of pop-up vendors.
Stone Mountain’s restaurant revival
On a breezy night in Stone Mountain Village, couples walk hand in hand and children twirl on the sidewalks, spilling out of the downtown restaurants. It’s the kind of street scene that local boosters have had in mind for the last decade: Stone Mountain as a dining destination.
“Restaurants are one of the things that drive traffic to any downtown area,” says Jelani Linder, chairman of the Stone Mountain Downtown Development Authority. “People enjoy going out and seeing their friends and neighbors, and we’re becoming a downtown for the surrounding communities as well.”
The city’s main attraction, of course, is Stone Mountain Park, where draws include hiking trails, laser shows, and holiday celebrations. Despite the foot traffic brought by park visitors, businesses have struggled to thrive downtown—but that’s changing. It started a few years ago when entrepreneurs Jeff Carey and Rory Webb rebooted Stone Mountain Public House as a cigar and piano bar. Around that time, David Downs of Keller Knapp Realty purchased and renovated a number of downtown buildings.
That private investment attracted more businesses to the area and brought new neighbors to hidden gems such as Sweet Potato Cafe and Gilly Brew Bar. Over the past 18 months, the area has seen the opening of Outrun Brewing Company, Cherokee Rose BBQ Bar & Kitchen, and the Vibrary, a chill space where guests can sip on organic wines and relax on plush velvet couches while reading and talking about books.
“I remember the village’s shops when I was younger,” says Vibrary owner Candace Walker, who graduated from Stone Mountain High School. “I wanted to be a part of the new ecosystem and help shape the community as the city moves forward. I want the Vibrary to be a welcoming and inclusive space that allows customers to come in and relax, learn something new, and engage with someone new.”
More new activity is on the way. The Mailroom Lounge, a vegan restaurant and jazz venue, is slated to open soon in the old post office building. Linder says the city is currently looking to attract a Mexican restaurant. “We’re on a grid system, so it’s nothing to walk to Gilly’s or Sweet Potato Cafe, and then have a beer at the Public House, eat dinner at Cherokee Rose, and end the night at the Vibrary,” Linder says. “We’re open to working with any restaurant or chef-driven concept that’s interested in Stone Mountain.” —Kelundra Smith
This article appears in our December 2021 issue.