The backstory: I moved to Atlanta twelve months ago, having enrolled in the year-long culinary arts program at Le Cordon Bleu in Tucker. When I decided to leave my magazine job in Washington D.C. for this culinary adventure, my choice of location had some personal motivation behind it. My boyfriend, Zack, was starting his final year of law school at Emory, and we’d spent the past two years shuttling between Atlanta and D.C. to visit each other. When I found an Atlanta outpost of Le Cordon Bleu, it was an easy sell.
Credit Southern hospitality, if you will, because it wasn’t long before I found myself enamored with a city that’s welcoming and warm, especially to food lovers. It began with a burger. Naturally, I’d been reading up on food in Atlanta, and this very magazine had named Holeman & Finch “new restaurant of the year” in its August ’08 Best New Restaurants issue. So just days after my move, we made our way over. The place was buzzing with energy, and our table of three ordered fantastic cocktails and a full spread of food—perfect steak tartare, pimento cheese, deviled eggs, a pile of fried oysters with scrumptious fried pickles, melt-in-the-mouth pork belly, a skillet of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and creamy polenta. When our server came by around 10 pm, we were sated and about ready to pay the check. “Have you tried our burger?” he asked. “We only make 30 of them a night, at 10 o’clock. We run out fast—they’re really good.” He seemed earnest, not like a salesman just trying to inflate our check. So we ordered one to split among the three of us—a few bites of beefy dessert (pictured above). The rest is history. Soon I was reading about the H&F burger everywhere, and I was grateful to our server for letting us in on this little secret before the hype intensified.
My year of culinary discovery continued at a quick pace—every week, I was raving about something new—well, new to me. Last fall, my very first post for AtlantaMagazine.com was about Souper Jenny. The Buckhead institution was celebrating its tenth anniversary and I was assigned to write about the festivities, so we went over to the quirky little cafe to see what it was all about. A look around the cramped and cozy space and a smile from the energetic aspiring actress ladling out our steaming bowls of soup, and I was sold. In my pre-culinary school days, turkey chili was one of my only specialties—but a few bites of Jenny Levison’s My Dad’s Turkey Chili was quite humbling.
Cakes & Ale is another discovery from Atlanta Magazine’s 2008 restaurant issue that I now count as one of my favorite restaurants anywhere (Bon Appetit thinks so too). I’ve swooned over so many plates here—a rabbit and farro salad, pillowy gnocchi, a top-notch vegetable plate, a snack of rosemary-roasted almonds at the bar. Cakes & Ale is also one of a select group of restaurants where skipping dessert is just not an option for me. The marscarpone “phatty cakes” are the restaurant’s signature, but if it’s on the menu, figgy toffee pudding is my pick. I’ve sampled several iterations of this dessert around town—Rathbun’s and Floataway Cafe also make commendable sticky toffee cakes—but pastry chef Cynthia Wong’s is in a class of its own. On our first visit, we ordered this to share, but we’d also asked our server about the phatty cakes. With our figgy toffee, she brought out one delicious phatty for us, just to sample. That night, I was blown away by this little act of kindness. The restaurant industry survives on insanely slim profit margins, so giving away freebies is no small sacrifice—yet I’ve come to realize that gestures like this aren’t so rare in Atlanta restaurants. That spirit of generosity is just another reason why I love eating here.
When family comes to town, for us it means one thing: great meals. Zack’s grandparents are from New Orleans and were foodies long before that term existed, so we wanted to show them some range of what Atlanta has to offer. Our first night’s dinner was at Restaurant Eugene, where the new menu concept is a spectacular showcase for chef Linton Hopkins’s creative, Southern-tinged food. Our out-of-town guests were delighted when Hopkins came by the table (and every table), sincerely asking for feedback on our meal.
The following evening, we were back in Buckhead for an entirely different experience at Bone’s. I likened it to the Palm with real character and better food—we feasted on crabmeat with remoulade, shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad and, of course, red meat. This time it was Zack’s birthday, and when I made the reservation the staff went above and beyond, asking if I wanted personalized menus and decorations. I was more than happy to email them a photo of Zack to grace the menu covers—they turned out adorable and, of course, the grandparents loved them. Several other family members now have copies.
After these two nights of high-end indulgence, we wanted something super low-key for Sunday’s dinner. We ended up taking Zack’s 80-something-year-old grandparents to The Vortex in Little Five Points, where they had a blast noshing on fried zucchini and huge burgers. By the end of the night, his grandmother was taking a shot of whiskey with our server.
With my parents and sister visiting, a trip to Watershed was non-negotiable. My younger sister and I became Indigo Girls fans back when most of our friends were into New Kids on the Block. For years we’d known that Emily Sailers owned a restaurant somewhere near Atlanta. When I moved here, it was one of the first stops on my list. Once, Sailers was hanging out at the bar while Zack and I were having dinner: I’m not usually the celebrity-stalking type, honest, but this was pretty exciting. My Dad actually started singing “up on the watershed, standing at the fork in the road…” as we drove up to the former gas station in Decatur for brunch. Sadly, Sailers wasn’t around that day, but the buttery biscuits, shrimp and grits, french toast, and chicken hash with griddle cakes were more than enough to win my family over.
These are mere snapshots of my year of eating my way through Atlanta. I’d be remiss not to touch upon our regular haunts, like Frank Ma South for Shanghai juice dumplings and always at least one order of dry sauteed green beans—often a weekly occurrence. I’ll miss the friendly little man with glasses who knows our order by heart. I thought D.C. had the best Ethiopian food in this country until I sampled from the beautiful platters of shiro, lentils, tibs and injera at Desta. Antipasto and pizza at Fritti is one of my favorite meals after a long day—and I get to brush up on my Italian by attempting to converse with pizzaiolo Enrico Liberato. I may not always be able to understand everything he says, but his blistered pies are consistently delicious.
A bit further down on North Highland Ave., Zuma is our go-to spot for sushi—it’s not the most mind-blowing sushi bar in town by any means, but the fish is fresh, they stay open late, and for months now they’ve been giving out $10 gift certificates to each diner after every meal. Essentially, it cuts our bill in half, making it much more reasonable for me to get my at-least-once-a-week sushi fix. For lazy brunches, Sweet Melissa’s in Decatur is our place. I love to sit outside year-round and always order the yogurt pancakes with bananas and strawberries cooked in. Zack’s partial to the meat-lover’s Goose’s Delight omelet with a side of cheese grits.
Although I accomplished a lot of eating this year, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Atlanta has to offer. There are so many places still left undiscovered on my always-growing list: An exhaustive food tour of Buford Highway, a trip to Serenbe, a blowout special occasion at the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton Buckhead, just to name a few. I’m still clueless when it comes to the suburbs, and I’m told there’s plenty of good eats out there, too.
We haven’t even left the ATL yet, and we’re already talking about the food itinerary of our first trip back. Hopefully it’ll be soon—but tonight, we’re off to one last dinner at Cakes & Ale.