The best places to eat and drink in Athens

Saluting our neighbor's culinary excellence

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The best places to eat and drink in Athens
A busy Friday night at Puma Yu’s

Photograph by Growl

My relationship with the Classic City has nothing to do with football or music. I don’t remember my first visit, which had to be nearly 30 years ago, but probably it was for a game of Ultimate when my youngest daughter was at the Paideia School, on her way to becoming a national champion in that eccentric sport. I may have stopped at a vintage store or two, or perhaps traded books at the long-gone Jackson Street Books. I probably had a Blenheim ginger ale and bourbon at what remains a favorite bar: the Manhattan Cafe.

Things got serious when my other daughter wed her high school boyfriend and settled there. The two innocents took advantage of the HOPE Scholarship to attend the University of Georgia at almost no cost, and moved to married student housing in a grisly location off campus that I hated at first sight. My daughter and the kid are still married, still live in Athens, and now have two children. I am still eating my way through the town.

I vividly remember my first visit to Hugh Acheson’s original Five and Ten when it was in a much smaller location in Five Points. Early on, I also fell in love with the soul food and vibes of Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods, where owner Dexter Weaver’s booming voice still returns customers’ thanks with “Automatic!” R.E.M. paid tribute to the restaurant by naming an album Automatic for the People. I used to run into Michael Stipe there occasionally. He and I discussed the importance of carrying a man purse as we compared his custom leather satchel to my Freitag messenger bag. I discovered a specialty called chicken mull that consists of ground chicken and crumbled saltines dosed with hot sauce and lots of pepper, available mostly at barbecue places and church dinners.

Several of my friends and colleagues, including John T. Edge from the Southern Foodways Alliance and the former editor-in-chief of this magazine Rebecca Burns, who now teaches journalism at UGA, have told me that their long-standing favorite is the National, a place that I also adore.

The best places to eat and drink in Athens
The National was founded by Peter Dale. Dale also owns Maepole, with locations in both Athens and Atlanta.

Photograph by Growl

The best places to eat and drink in Athens
Fried green tomatoes at the National

Photograph by Growl

But the dining scene is changing rapidly in Athens, and locals complain about the intrusion of Atlanta chains. Emmy Squared, a popular Brooklyn pizzeria with multiple locations in Atlanta, has taken over the hallowed, now-closed site of the Grit, where it doesn’t quite fit. Taqueria del Sol, on the other hand, has found a place in Athenian hearts.

There has always been a back-and-forth between Atlanta and Athens chefs. See Acheson, whose Empire State South closed recently in our city. Jerry Slater, who was ahead of his time in what is now Muchacho on the BeltLine, runs a wonderful empire in Athens with his wife, Krista: the Expat, offering Italian food in Five Points, with its magical bar; their new Slater’s Steakhouse across the street; Krista’s wine bar, the Lark; their new bar, Nighthawks Lounge; and the forthcoming Pretty Boy, a Vietnamese-themed project from the Expat’s chef Kenny Nguyen.

Things go the other way, too, with Peter Dale, formerly of the National, opening an outpost of Maepole in Summerhill and Jamshad “Jaamy” Zarnegar, previously of Last Resort Grill, establishing the bizarrely named Kitty Dare, a delightfully hospitable, wine-focused Mediterranean restaurant in Inman Park.

The best places to eat and drink in Athens
Smoked chili dip with crudités and laab mushrooms at Puma Yu’s

Photograph by Growl

The best places to eat and drink in Athens
Labor of Love cocktail at Puma Yu’s

Photograph by Growl

My latest recommendations include Puma Yu’s, a new hipster bar/restaurant in the Southern Mill complex, with Thai small plates, great cocktails, and excellent vegetarian and vegan options; Bar Bruno for delicious wines and fun Italian snacks; the marvelous Cafe Racer, whose potato doughnuts and breakfast biscuits you shouldn’t miss; Dale and his brother’s Choco Pronto on Baxter, as well as their Condor Chocolates, for a good, quick cup of coffee or hot chocolate, bars, or truffles; and the charming but not cheap ZZ & Simone’s, a millennial favorite for upscale coastal Italian dining in Five Points. On a more casual note, Tamez, in what looks like an old barbershop, will impress with its brisket and breakfast burritos.

The best places to eat and drink in Athens
Tamez

Photograph by Growl

Among the old places, the Globe, a cherished longtime bar in downtown Athens, got a nice redo and has an excellent menu. Seabear, near downtown, remains consistently good, with an ever-changing array of oysters from all over, plus creative small plates and cocktails. Cali-n-Tito’s—in Five Points (BYOB only at this location) and on Athens’ Eastside—still charms with its high-energy, eclectic atmosphere and its Peruvian plates. Owner Bruno Rubio has also taken over the former site of Heirloom Cafe, in Boulevard, and plans to reopen Pollo Criollo, his Peruvian rotisserie chicken concept, in the near future. White Tiger, home to the best burger in town, is still going strong in a historic former grocery in Boulevard and has added a second location, White Tiger Deluxe, in nearby Watkinsville, with a full bar of pink drinks and bathrooms that feature disco lights and a brief blast of dance music at the press of a button.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and my daughter Hillary Brown, now the communications director for the Georgia Museum of Art, has been reviewing restaurants for Flagpole for almost two decades. She and I agree that, after Five and Ten moved to fancy digs on Fraternity Row and Acheson achieved celebrity status, expectations soared perhaps too high. Citing Five and Ten dishes such as chilled corn and shrimp soup and duck gnocchi with habanada peppers, Hillary says, “The good stuff is still really good and adventurous in a way few places in Athens are.” It may no longer be all the locals’ first choice for a special occasion, but thanks to chef de cuisine Fausto Zamorano De Miguel, it remains ours—with excellent service, a calm but assured cocktail program, the highest-quality ingredients, and a desire to experiment, no matter who is directing the crew.

This article appears in our December 2023 issue.

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