The cornbread is dry, but I always eat it anyway. The trick is to find the butter. The single-serve tubs are piled in a stainless steel bucket on a table by the sweet tea—the same table where you grab your own forks, napkins, and lemon slices. I apply it liberally, frosting the cornbread like a slice of birthday cake. Crumbly and sticky, sweet and salty, I eat it last like dessert.
The cornbread at Eats may be nothing special, but it comes free with every meat-and-three, vegetable plate, and classic Eats platter (jerk chicken, black beans, white rice). The rice is chewy and bland. Order a side of steamed broccoli and you get a bowl of bright-green florets, undercooked and underseasoned.
Perhaps the sides are forgettable because the jerk chicken is the star. Or maybe that’s the point of comfort food: It’s cheap, it’s filling, and it doesn’t try too hard. I am not a food critic, though, and this it not a restaurant review. I am an Atlanta native who has been going to Eats for decades, and I mention the food up front simply to get it out of the way. There’s more to this place than the food.
A modest pea-green stucco shoe box, Eats has been wedged into a hillside on Ponce de Leon Avenue since 1993. Go for lunch on a weekday and you’ll see the following: silver-haired retirees in cowboy boots, uniformed Comcast technicians, moms in yoga pants hoisting toddlers into high chairs, high school punks cutting class, silent old couples, high-heeled transgender women, dreadlocked scenesters, police officers, nurses.
They shuffle along as Otis Redding’s voice trickles from the speakers, handing their money to a bored art school undergrad manning the cash register. Before they can find a booth—red-painted wood buffed to a shine by countless sliding rumps—a line cook, his beard netted, pulls a knot of pasta from boiling water, tops it with broccoli and marinara, drops it onto a melamine cafeteria plate, and shouts out a name. The system functions like clockwork.
Not everyone loves the restaurant. “It just seems kind of grungy,” says my friend Sara, when I ask her to meet me for a weekday lunch.
I get that. My college boyfriend, Jason, who’s now my husband, used to walk into Eats with sheet metal dust on his jeans, and no one batted an eye. He worked as a welder at Ray-O-Lite in the 1990s, when I’d pick him up between classes and we’d spend his lunch break sharing a $9 plate of cheese-filled tortellini with lemon pepper chicken. Twenty years later, Jason and I bring our two young sons here for the same food—and the unbreakable plastic plates. Regulars like us come to Eats to be fed, but we’re really looking for consistency. That’s worth a lot in an ever-changing city.
Robert Hatcher III, who opened Eats with his onetime business partner Charlie Kerns, still roams the front of the house five days a week from morning to night, bussing tables and making small talk with customers. A thin, handsome guy in his 50s, Hatcher looks at ease in jeans and a well-worn T-shirt with the bubble-lettered Eats logo. Today he is the restaurant’s sole owner but takes little credit for its origins. “To understand Eats,” he says, “you have to remember Tortillas.”
Hatcher and Kerns, both Army brats, met in high school in Germany. Later, they worked together as stagehands in San Francisco. (“Think Journey at the Fillmore West, that kind of thing,” says Hatcher.) He and his now-wife moved to Atlanta in the 1980s, and Kerns followed soon after. In 1984 Kerns opened Tortillas on Ponce and brought on Hatcher as its manager. There, they served Atlantans the rice-and bean–packed burritos that had fueled their California days.
Tortillas quickly became an unofficial headquarters for Atlanta’s indie rock scene. Several nights a week, the restaurant’s basement operated as a music venue, and almost every server was in a band. Local groups Seely, the Rock-a-teens, and Flap all got their starts playing gigs there.
Building off the success of Tortillas, Hatcher and Kerns opened Eats in 1993 in a former nightclub a few blocks west on Ponce. Their partnership ended some years later, and Hatcher won’t say much about the breakup except that it was like a marriage ending. Kerns got custody of Tortillas, which he closed in 2003; Hatcher kept Eats.
When I ask Levi Nichols, one of Eats’ managers and an employee since 2000, why he thinks the restaurant has stuck around for so long, he chalks it up to both nostalgia and affordability. “People move away from Atlanta, and when they come back to visit, this is their first stop.” He continues as he arranges a row of red trays: “Now it’s also people walking over from across the street. It costs $19 to eat a burger and fries in the food court over there.”
Nichols is talking about Ponce City Market, where I once paid $6 for a nut milk latte. The Atlanta I love has space for both $6 lattes and $7 dinner platters. Without places like Eats, though, I don’t know that I would recognize—or could afford—this city. As I sit in one of those red booths and look through my son’s greasy fingerprints on the windows at that brick mini-metropolis, I wonder how long this institution will be here.
“That would depend on the owner,” says BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel, Atlanta’s de facto voice of urban design, when I ask him to look into his crystal ball. “Does he own the land?”
He does. Hatcher officially bought the building in 1998. Every six months or so, he gets a call from real estate developers interested in the property, but he’s content bussing tables and managing the playlist for now. So there’s still room for people like me on Ponce.
I ask Hatcher if he’ll ever retire, and he makes a joke, “One day, you’ll come here, and the sign on the door will say ‘Gone Fishin.’”
This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.