Forks up, y’all: We’ll soon witness an unprecedented surge of restaurant openings in Atlanta. It’s about time. After a stagnant spell at the decade’s start, when only a smattering of standouts launched each year, 2013 changed course: Buckhead regained its groove with Kevin Rathbun’s KR SteakBar and Ford Fry’s King + Duke (followed by Fry’s Italian seafood blockbuster St. Cecilia eight months later), and marquee chefs Kevin Gillespie and Todd Ginsberg took winning chances with unconventional menus at their respective restaurants, Gunshow and the General Muir.
What’s driving the upcoming rush of new arrivals? In true Atlanta tradition, massive mixed-use developments—five, to be exact, each devoting serious thought to ambitious restaurants. These projects have been in planning for years, but they’re coming on line in close succession, an onslaught of buzz and calories.
First up is Inman Park’s Krog Street Market, the project most strictly focused on food. Located in a 1920s warehouse, Krog Street will spotlight the Luminary, an American brasserie from Top Chef alum Eli Kirshtein; Superica, Ford Fry’s first foray into the “Mex-Tex” cuisine of his native Texas; and the Cockentrice, a “charcuterie saloon” from Kevin Ouzts of Kirkwood’s Spotted Trotter shop. The space will also include around two dozen stalls where you’ll be able to grab, say, a burger designed by Todd Ginsberg, or dumplings from the family that runs Sichuan darling Gu’s Bistro. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and beer emporium Hop City Market have signed on for their second Atlanta-area locations.
Three developments will follow sometime between this fall and early 2015. The most exciting culinary news for Buckhead Atlanta, the retail project on the eight acres originally slated for the ill-fated Streets of Buckhead, is that developer OliverMcMillan snagged the city its first Shake Shack, star restaurateur Danny Meyer’s burger sensation. I’ve relished a double cheeseburger and root beer float in New York: They do push the Americana happy button.
Avalon, Alpharetta’s $600 million live-work-play development, aims to compete with nearby Roswell’s booming dining scene. Look for suburban outposts of Antico Pizza Napoletana, a Bocado burger bar, and Ford Fry’s Tex-Mex-themed El Felix. Fry the Unstoppable will likewise put his stamp on the Inman Park development at 280 Elizabeth Street, though this location will flaunt seafood. 280 Elizabeth is also where brothers Chris and Alex Kinjo, who decamped to Houston a couple of years ago, will return to Atlanta with a redo of their MF Sushibar.
Lastly, Jamestown Properties’ Ponce City Market—the 1.1 million-square-foot office-retail-residential behemoth in the former Sears Roebuck distribution center—will open a central food hall in spring 2015 with a meticulously curated mix of restaurants and kiosks. Confirmed cornerstones include Dub’s Fish Camp from Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison of Bacchanalia and Star Provisions; H&F Burger, a spin-off of the famous late-night burger offered at Linton Hopkins’s Holeman and Finch Public House; and Jia, a Sichuan restaurant from Dahe Yang, owner of Marietta’s Tasty China. Jamestown is keeping quiet on other possible tenants, but expect a surfeit of top-notch talent.
I’m incredibly heartened by all the activity, yet the timing is somewhat ironic for me: After five years, I’m leaving my position as Atlanta magazine’s food editor and restaurant critic. When this issue hits newsstands and mailboxes, I’ll already be roving the country as the national food critic for the online publication Eater. I feel lucky to have been front and center to an astounding revolution in Atlanta restaurants. Our finest chefs have embraced the regional bounty—which grows ever better, thanks to the state’s committed small- production farmers and community fervor for our proliferating markets—and made it the foundation of their cooking. Sometimes they compose their menus by taking cues from traditional Southern cuisine; often they weave in global inspirations with equal skill. Before the blitz of forthcoming restaurants, I’ll leave you with a rundown of my favorites right now. (This list admittedly skews upscale; if you’re looking for a bargain bite, try Yet Tuh in Doraville for homey Korean food or Taqueria la Oaxaqueña in Jonesboro for the taco-pizza hybrid known as the tlayuda.) I’ll be traveling much of the time, but I’ll remain based in Atlanta. These are the touchstones I’ll dream about when I crave a taste of home.
Atlanta’s fine-dining monarch continues its reign after twenty-one years in business. What’s the secret? A gracious sense of hospitality unmatched anywhere else in the city. The prix-fixe dinner—with five to seven choices for each of five courses (two starters, meat, cheese, dessert; vegetarians happily accommodated)—comes with an array of extra sweet and savory nibbles and service from impeccable staffers. They’ll help you compose a comforting meal (crab fritter, a gorgeous hunk of New York strip, Valrhona chocolate cake) or an adventurous one (Georgia shrimp with pork belly and trout roe, sweetbreads in brown butter, a tasting of vegetable sorbets).
2. Cakes & Ale
Where do I eat most frequently when I’m off the clock as a critic? Billy Allin’s buttery-lit boîte on the southeast corner of Decatur Square. No one vegetable-whispers like Allin, who accents the loveliest of-the-moment produce with flavors that unite the South, Italy, and the Middle East. His menu never stays still, but if you spy gnocchi or lamb shoulder with minted yogurt, pounce on them. The beverage program is in the best possible hands with Jordan Smelt, who has turned the short but deftly edited wine list into a Francophile’s fever dream.
3. Restaurant Eugene
No other restaurant in town explores the relationship between Southern ingredients and the flavors of the world with more refinement and intellectual rigor. Chef de cuisine Jason Paolini oversees the kitchen of Gina and Linton Hopkins’s flagship, and a recent meal was one of the finest I’ve had there in years: Ham broth lent Dixie smokiness to a silky sliver of foie gras; a witty spoonbread puree anchored rosy slices of lacquered duck; and a dramatic staging of sturgeon caviar and parsnip cream with grated egg and herbs was pure, borderless luxury. Gifted pastry chef Aaron Russell crafted desserts—such as lush sliced strawberries with vanilla ice cream and candied celery—that were heady but also more lighthearted than in the past.
4. Miller Union
In an age when so many chefs go ballistic with fat and salt and walloping flavors, Steven Satterfield stands confident in his love of the understated. So many of his dishes are edible essays on the season. Rhubarb chutney with confit rabbit; fava beans and green garlic with sauteed shrimp; snapper fillet with English peas, pickled onion, and radishes—hello, spring! Look out for Satterfield’s Savannah red rice with smoked sausage and shrimp, which nods to his South Georgia childhood. Co-owner and front-of-house maestro Neal McCarthy assembles a suave wine list heavy on Old World varietals.
5. Five & Ten
Among Hugh Acheson’s expanding stable of restaurants—including the Florence, an Italian Southern concept scheduled to have opened in Savannah by the end of May—his first-born is my current weakness and well worth the drive to Athens. Nearly a year ago he relocated Five & Ten to a restored Colonial Revival–style house that oozes Southern gentility. Executive chef Jason Zygmont collaborates with Acheson and remains faithful to his aesthetic: I love touches like roast chicken consommé and butter-suffused potato puree, paired with a farm egg, that allude to Acheson’s French culinary background. Come summer, save room for pastry chef Mike Sutton’s swoon-worthy fruit pies.
6. The General Muir
The towering pastrami sandwich slathered with grainy mustard; the Swiss chard fritters at dinner, barely visible under a blizzard of Parmesan; the poutine, available noon and night, tangled with cheese curds and just enough gravy (frizzled bits of pastrami optional): So many dishes tempt at the General Muir. Executive chef Todd Ginsberg uses the classic Jewish deli as a template for the restaurant but doesn’t limit his repertoire—particularly in the evening, when his small plates dazzle. Brave the crush at brunch for the city’s fluffiest omelet.
Kevin Gillespie and his brigade of spark-plug chefs broke the rules of traditional restaurant service and created a hit. The cooks—each following his own muse—prepare a weekly rotating roster of dishes in the open kitchen and then bring them into the dining room to entice the diners personally. I want my name on some sort of call list to alert me when chef de cuisine Joseph Ward makes his West Coast Burger—a messy and sublime homage to In-N-Out Burger’s Double-Double, Animal Style creation—or his re-envisioned beef Wellington, the meat blushing under a taffeta swath of pastry.
The marvels at chef-owner Tomohiro Naito’s glittery Buckhead digs are twofold. First, indulge in East-West lookers like uni tempura wrapped in seaweed and minty shiso with tomato-shallot salsa: They gratify both the eye and palate. Then savor the simplicity of exquisite nigiri sushi and sashimi crafted from pristine seafood. Hint: Tuesday and Thursday are when Naito receives his biggest shipments of prized fish.
For birthdays and anniversaries, I celebrate at Aria. Gerry Klaskala may not change his New American menu as frequently or radically as other chefs, but I’m comforted to know that dishes like butter-braised lobster “cocktail” with broccoli mousseline and black truffle potatoes will be prepared with the same finesse year after year. Ditto pastry chef Kathryn King’s warm cheesecake, made lately with mild goat cheese. Charming general manager Andrés Loaiza leads one of the city’s most polished service staffs.
Bruce Logue turns the notion of Italian American cooking on its head: He conceives of pasta dishes grounded in the Boot’s regional culinary techniques but then spins them off in his own fanciful directions. Kale kimchi adds odd but winning spice to tagliatelle with wild mushrooms. Those crisp bits around the edge of a pan of lasagna that we all adore? Logue achieves the same texture by searing the top of a wedge of white lasagna until it’s nearly blackened, then serves it in a pool of fontina fonduta for smooth contrast.
11. The Optimist
Ford Fry’s Westside seafood palace lures me more than the rest of his brood (which also includes JCT Kitchen and Decatur’s No. 246). Temptation Exhibit A: the lobster roll piled with fleshy lumps of sweet meat, no mayo in sight. Order it in the main dining room during lunch and at the adjoining oyster bar during dinner. Executive chef Adam Evans impresses with dishes like crisp halibut collar given an Asian edge with a garlic-ginger sauce.
12. One Eared Stag
Like every other food writer in town, I’m enamored with chef-owner Robert Phalen’s ability to surprise with unorthodox unions of ingredients. I’m still mooning over a brilliant plate of pan-fried dates with pine nuts, white anchovies, olives, and mint I devoured at a lunch early this year. Why isn’t One Eared Stag higher on the list, then? Occasionally Phalen’s whimsies stumble, and they stumble hard (seafood experiments can be the worst letdowns). Want a sure bet? Order the “meatstick,” Phalen’s name for his better-than-the-rest double cheeseburger.
13. Rumi’s Kitchen
Buford Highway and Duluth hog the attention as the metro area’s hotbeds of global cuisines, but I’d like to submit Sandy Springs for inclusion on the map. It’s home to a wealth of Persian restaurants, the crown jewel among them being this insanely popular stunner, whose swank atmosphere matches its savvy kitchen. Start with dips—herbaceous yogurt, sultry smoked eggplant—with hot, crackery bread, and segue to juicy marinated kebabs.