An ode to Atlanta’s strip-mall restaurants

From holes-in-the-wall to high-end dining, our strip-mall restaurants have incredible range
Atlanta strip malls

Illustration by Josh Cochran

No one needs to tell an Atlantan that you can find amazing food in a strip mall. We could fill an entire issue with the praise we’ve heaped on the strip-mall restaurants of Buford Highway alone. But in this age of fancified food halls and cheffy fast-casual concepts, the ignoble strip mall has new competition—which makes now a good time to remind ourselves that some of our city’s most enduring and endearing restaurants call the strip mall home.

Quintessential strip-mall food is cheap and channels the flavors of home, whether home is South Georgia or South Korea. But Atlanta also has a legacy of higher-end and boundary-pushing strip-mall joints—legitimate destination restaurants. Some of the best examples of those, sadly, are gone: Soto in Buckhead’s “Disco Kroger” development (one of Atlanta’s best restaurants of all time) and Pano’s & Paul’s behind OK Cafe (a level of opulence that’s rare in any restaurant, let alone a strip-mall one). But our strip-mall restaurants still have considerable range, and these standouts reflect that.

You might notice some obvious omissions, such as Sushi Hayakawa and Masterpiece. That’s because we didn’t include any of the 10 strip mall restaurants on our 50 Best Restaurants list*; instead, we’re saluting a few of the city’s more unsung treasures.

Don’t roll your eyes at the term “vegetarian fusion”—at least not when it applies to dishes as creatively composed as these. Skip the mock meats for the real deal: black truffle fried rice, king oyster hot pot with Antarctica seaweed, and a stew of peach gum (dried resin harvested from trees) and cordyceps (parasitic fungi—don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it).
3780 Old Norcross Road, Duluth, 770-495-8828

Samad Mediterranean Grill
It’s easy to mistake this place for the forgettable Mediterranean grills that populate so many of Atlanta’s strip malls. Neither the drab environs nor the menu itself offers a clue to treasures that the kitchen delivers: baba ghanoush that’s smokier than the others you’ve tried, hummus that’s creamier, tabbouleh that’s more fresh and vegetal, lamb that’s more tender and fragrant.
8897 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, 770-807-3700

Regional Chinese
Good Luck Gourmet
The meat-heavy cuisine of Xi’an in China’s Shaanxi province has remained largely undiscovered among diners, making this the only place in Atlanta to find steamed lamb soup with glass noodles, Xi’an bread (basically flatbread), and juicy minced pork “hamburger.” English isn’t the staff’s forte, but don’t let that keep you from a great meal.
5750 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-451-8118

Southern buffet
Our Way Cafe
At a time when longstanding meat-and-threes are slowly fading from our culture, it’s reassuring to find the staff at Our Way shucking corn in the open kitchen while customers move through the buffet line, surveying pot roast, meatloaf, sweet potato soufflé, honey-glazed carrots, and broccoli casserole. A hunk of jalapeño cornbread on the side, please.
2831 E. College Avenue, Avondale Estates, 404-292-9356

Taco bliss
Tacos La Villa
Tucked away next to a Japanese restaurant in a nondescript strip mall in Smyrna, this taqueria is full of people who’ve been tipped off to its inimitable tacos, from spicy lamb to crumbled chorizo. The richness of the fillings is the perfect counterbalance to an acidic salsa or pickled carrots from the salsa bar.
2415 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna, 770-951-0415

Hipster haven
Bookhouse Pub
This is by far the coolest strip-mall restaurant in all of Atlanta. There are many wonderful things about the Bookhouse—the Twin Peaks allusions, the better-than-it-should-be bar food, the magical back patio—but perhaps best of all: Tiki Taco Tuesdays. Served on sturdy, fragrant tortillas, the tacos change weekly (the short rib and fried fish versions served recently are legit). And if you order a $10 cocktail, you get to keep your tiki mug.
736 Ponce de Leon Avenue, 404-254-1176

Noodle shop
As soon as you walk in, you’ll see a showcase window framed in neon. It reveals a kitchen where chefs stretch, bang, and twirl dough for the house specialty at this China-style noodle shop: springy noodles as long as a door is wide, which can be ordered in a soup as well as stir-fried. Try them both ways, and don’t skip the soup dumplings.
5231 Buford Highway, 678-691-2175

C&S Seafood & Oyster Bar
A bland brick facade hides this stylish Vinings restaurant, which feels a little like a French brasserie and a lot like a high-end coastal seafood house. Inventive cocktails employing all manner of bitters, marvelous oysters from Kumamotos to Malpeques to Belons, and simply prepared fish—think pan-roasted blue cod with slab bacon and Calabrian chiles—attract the gentry.
3300 Cobb Parkway, 770-272-0999

*The strip mall restaurants on our 50 Best list are Masterpiece, Sushi Hayakawa, Yet Tuh, Mamak, Kaiser’s Chophouse, Nam Phuong, Madras Mantra, Seed Kitchen & Bar, 9292 Korean Barbecue, and Community Q BBQ.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the name Sushi House Hayakawa was retired in 2016 and replaced with Sushi Hayakawa.

This article appears in our June 2018 issue.