I meet Jesse Smith while I'm standing among the raised garden beds in the side yard of Kimball House. Smith, aka Gentleman Jesse, is a co-owner of Kimball House (pictured top right) and has spent the last decade working all over downtown Decatur. While the restaurant is less than a year old, the former train depot that houses it has been around since 1891.
Getting coffee is our only real goal so we head toward the Decatur Square. "Unlike most of Atlanta proper, it is very easy to walk places," Smith says as we cross East Howard Avenue.
It's true. We speed by galleries, bike shops, restaurants, and bars, including Twain's (pictured bottom right), in as much time as it would take to buckle up. And while we do pass by plenty of options for craft beer and hyper-seasonal produce, Church Street and the surrounding area has plenty more to offer.
"Most places here, they have something that they've carved out that is their own. There aren't a bunch of photocopies of each other trying to one up each other. We don't have one Philly cheesesteak trying to put the Philly cheesesteak place across the street out of business," Smith says as we pass by the stream of eateries that someone else in his position could easily see as a threat. "If there is any competition, it's always friendly."
He sees the success of so many restaurants and bars as emblematic of the culture that Decatur residents share.
"There is a spirit of adventure with people here," Smith says. "They're willing to try new things. We all have to eat food so why wouldn't you try something new and different?" Coming from a guy whose business flourishes because it traffics in oysters and absinthe, it's a tough premise to refute.
What seems like a simple task, grabbing a quick coffee, becomes an hour-long odyssey in the sun. Barely a minute goes by when he isn't shaking hands with acquaintances or talking shop with peers. He never kisses any babies but, being that we are in downtown Decatur, he has plenty of opportunities. It could be construed as cynical glad-handing but there's a Mayberry quality to the whole thing that makes it all seem genuine.
"Community is huge here. It's crazy. There are so many people that I have seen almost every day for a decade," Smith says as we pass by Java Monkey, the spot that pulled him into Decatur's orbit more than a decade ago. We cross over Ponce de Leon Avenue and by an early afternoon Bocce and beer session at Leon's Full Service (pictured top left). Smith nods toward the game as he traces the changes he's seen in the neighborhood over the years.
"In the past three or four years, I've seen people really coming to Decatur because there is so much to do so close together. The masses come out to go everywhere around here," he says. The sidewalks and patios are brimming over with families, people with dogs, and packs of young people.
We change direction before we hit the Old Courthouse and head toward the Café at Cakes & Ale. Finally reaching our destination, I'm offered an off-menu pour over with multiple international options. It's a bit much with an order as simple as an iced coffee but it goes to prove Smith's point about what defines the neighborhood.
"It's well curated, no matter what you're into," he says. "I think that even that point is indicative of Decatur, the amount of garbage is very small. Even down to the dive bars. Trackside is a classic dive bar. If there is going to be a dive bar in Decatur, it's going to be the perfect dive bar. It's open until 4 a.m. every night but Saturday. And the times you've ended up at Trackside, do you remember anything about it?"
Of course the answer is no.
Revolution Doughnuts & Coffee
Ruin the rest of your life by never being able to enjoy a doughnut from any other source ever again. Coconut crème brûlé, raspberry with sprinkles, and all the classics are available. Get weird with a Crunchy Mister, the love child of an unholy union between bacon and doughnut. 908 W. College Ave. 678-927-9920. www.revolutiondoughnuts.com.
The "CD" in the name does make the store sound like it belongs to the era of Judge Ito but it deals in quality of all kinds. The hyper-informed staff stocks only the best in new and old releases. Stock up on vinyl, music books, and more. 356 W. Ponce De Leon Ave. 404-371-9090. decaturcd.blogspot.com.
A staple for dudes that wake up at noon and people with juror stickers on their shirts eating solo, the options are nearly endless to create gut-busting bean-based beauties. Get something jerk style and wash it down with a pitcher of one of the many different types of margaritas. 141 Sycamore St. 404-377-3311. www.ragingburrito.com.
This shop boasts that it's one of the few establishments on Church Street that manages to survive without a liquor license. The reason is its dedication to selling only the highest quality bicycles and related gear. 316 Church St. 404-220-8957. www.h2rd.com.
Specializing in absinthe and oysters as well as local seasonal produce. The cocktail list is expansive, intricate, and delicious. Take a date here. 303 E. Howard Ave. 404-378-3502. www.kimball-house.com.