During the pandemic, Atlanta restaurants weren’t a treat—they were a lifeline

Atlanta's restaurants became a vital resource during the pandemic, offering community, stability, comfort—and pepperoni butter by the pint

Illustration of a family eating ice cream while walking on a sidewalk

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Throughout 2020 and most of 2021, some of my most reliable sources of serotonin have come in the form of pepperoni butter, apple maple scones, and tonkotsu ramen. The first—a lavish condiment served alongside Banshee’s frybread—was a “special-occasion” treat to break up the monotony of lockdown. The second, from Little Tart’s Summerhill shop—a 15-minute walk from my house—offered a sugar fix along with some fresh air and endorphins. And the third, courtesy of Wagaya, was just plain comfort on the nights I desperately needed to self-soothe with a tub of slippery noodles in rich broth. There have been a lot of those nights in the last year and a half.

The pandemic throttled local restaurants. At the same time, it revealed how much we rely on them, for reasons far beyond sit-down dining. Restaurants became havens: for weary parents to pick up food for their newly homeschooled families, for people to gather safely in the loneliest stretches of isolation, for underresourced Atlantans in need of a meal. They made our sad desk lunches less sad. They fed us when we were too depleted to wash a single fork. Some transformed themselves into grocery stores or drive-thru windows; others remade their operations and procedures, offering literal safe spaces (and much-needed fresh air) for cooped-up families. Many managed to serve as both lighthouse and anchor for their neighborhoods, throughout a time when everything else was unmoored.

“Buford Highway was my lifeline,” says Maria Fernandez, a healthcare worker who lives in Tucker. Fernandez says she frequented restaurants like Yokohama Sushi, La Mei Zi, and Food Terminal throughout the pandemic because they enforced safety guidelines more strictly than other restaurants: “They were the only places I felt safe.” Megan Kibby, of Pine Lake, found similar refuge on the makeshift outdoor patio at Decatur’s Brick Store Pub (which has now become a permanent backyard beer garden). “It became a haven for my little quaranteam,” Kibby says—especially during the long and lonely winter, thanks to string lights, fire pits, and Christmas movies on the projector.

Best of Atlanta 2020 Little Bear
Little Bear

Photograph by Martha Williams

In West End, rotating pop-ups (and the outdoor patio) at Boggs Social & Supply offered Sarah Lawrence and her partner a regular change of scenery, right in their own neighborhood. “It certainly helped make us feel like we were going to different places but still staying very close to home,” she says. In Summerhill, takeout from Little Bear was “a huge part of making things less terrible” for Ashley Finch and her partner—“anytime we wanted to feel a little fancy or needed a pick-me-up when things were dark,” Finch says. In East Atlanta Village, Banshee rose to the occasion by making the aforementioned pepperoni butter—normally served as a condiment on the appetizer menu—available to take home by the pint.

Some Atlantans found comfort in the go-tos of their youth, “regressing” to simpler times with takeout from Burger Win or delivery from Chico & Chang. Carleigh Knight, of Cabbagetown, gave birth to a baby girl in early March, bringing her home right before the pandemic immobilized the city. In the lonely, tough postpartum days, she found comfort in an unlikely venue: 97 Estoria, which she hadn’t frequented since she was in her 20s. “Being able to safely get a beer before I took my pandemic baby to the park was the only outlet I had,” she says, “and it was a glorious one.”

As our daily routines were upended, new ones took their place—and became crucial milestones when the days bled together. Traditions as simple as regular walks to get ice cream or pizza felt like a prize for making it through yet another long week (and remembering what day it was). Kelly Cornett, a wine educator, made it a weekend tradition to pair some of her favorite wines with delivery from El Indio in Tucker, New York Pizzeria in Chamblee, and Raduni off Shallowford Road. “They don’t even know it, but they kept us hopeful even on the darkest days,” she says.

And for Brittney Gove of Grant Park, weekly walks to the neighborhood coffee shop kept her whole family grounded together. “Every Friday, we would commemorate making it another week through lockdown by finishing our morning family walk, a way to get out of the house before we all Zoomed all day for work and school, with Grant Park Coffeehouse’s pastries,” she says. “It gave our kids something to look forward to every week, when there wasn’t much else to look forward to.”

Some restaurants quite literally became lifelines for their own communities. Best End Brewing in West End, Refuge Coffee in Clarkston, and several other restaurants around the metro partnered with Free99Fridge to host community fridges stocked with free, fresh food for anyone in need of it. Others pivoted into community soup kitchens, feeding healthcare workers (Forzo Storico on the Westside) and service-industry employees (Staplehouse). In East Atlanta Village, Argosy regularly held drives for neighbors in need, including one for snacks and games for the Branan Towers senior center on Glenwood.

Nearly 20 months into the pandemic and grateful for the gift of vaccination, I’m not self-medicating with pepperoni butter quite as often as I was this time last year—though, given the threat of new variants, I’m not exactly crowding shoulder-to-shoulder into a bar anytime soon, either. Either way, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the restaurants that gave me the rare gift of comfort and normalcy in the most bizarre, isolating, and frightening year I can remember. Frankly, the tower of plastic deli takeout containers in my cabinet won’t let me.

Pepperoni ButterFrom the Fans

Hawkers Asian Street Food provided a handwritten thank-you postcard in every order, noted each dish on the top of the box, and hand-delivered the bag to my trunk when times were uncertain. ♥♥♥

We were at Poor Hendrix when my healthcare husband got the call about Emory’s first Covid patient in March 2020. It was also our first patio experience in March 2021. Also did a lot of batch cocktail takeout. They were a lifeline when we needed it.

Early on, when everything was shutting down, Hodgepodge Coffee House started selling hard-to-find staples like flour and toilet paper, plus bulk quantities of their own specialties like biscuits and tuna salad. Now they have a huge variety. And we always have biscuits ready in the freezer!

The Companion on Bolton was and is my go-to. They opened during Covid. Their patio saved me last year. I prayed they would make it, and they did.

A weekly bowl of So Ba’s pho during the tough 2020 winter and election season was mental medicine for sure.

We got takeout at Tacos Hermanos in Tucker at least once a week and would eat on our front-porch stoop and talk to our neighbors, because everyone else was outside with their kids like us.

El Tesoro is that restaurant for anyone around the Edgewood neighborhood. It was amazing to experience them grow and transform across 2020 to now. Never seen anything like it.

This article appears in our October 2021 issue.