Atlanta, in the last four or five years, has become a great dining town, almost in spite of itself. Unlike the other renowned restaurant cities in the country, this town eschews its regional roots. There just ain't a whole lot of Southern cookin' going on here, gussied-up or otherwise. By extension, there's no traditional foodstuff associated with Atlanta: no deep-dish pizza like Chicago, or cioppino like San Francisco or even shrimp and grits like Charleston.
Instead, Atlanta is a young, feisty town. We embrace fine dining restaurants in malls. We'll hop in our SUVs and drive down desolate roads to check out eateries in converted industrial spaces. Yes, we love our mammoth slabs o' meat at Bone's and Chop's, and we utterly adore our trendy joints like One Midtown Kitchen and Twist with their nerve-shattering noise and flavored martinis. But if a chef is cooking with true heart and soul, we'll usually give it a shot, no matter what its ethnic origins.
In fact, the impressive influx of ethnic eats in recent years is certainly one of the keys to the town's ascent in dining quality. And I'm not just talking about Buford Highway, treasure that it is. Pockets of culturally diverse restaurants continue to pop up all over the metro area. You can find authentic Mexican pizza at Cafeteria La Oaxaqueña in Smyrna, stellar Vietnamese at Pho Dai Loi in Forest Park and unusual, non-vegetarian South Indian at Ruchi in Alpharetta.
I'd wager a guess, as I don my anthropological sleuthing hat, that Atlanta's opened-armed acceptance of ethnic food influences every level of dining in the city. Witness the success of Tamarind and the new Nam, which offer upscale, elegant variations of Thai and Vietnamese, respectively, in swanky surroundings with astute, attentive service. If someone would only open a high-end Indian restaurant, I'll think I've died and gone to New York.
The juxtaposition of upscale/modest, trendy classic, intown/OTP is my favorite thing about Atlanta's dining scene. There's even a tantalizing push-pull between two of our most venerated restaurants, Bacchanalia and Seeger's. Bacchanalia takes its cues directly from the California culinary movement -- its goal is to serve dazzlingly fresh ingredients and bring forth their essence with respect and subtlety. Guenter Seeger, on the other hand, is part chef, part chemist. An eight-course meal at his restaurant (where delicious oddities like white tomato mousse and basil seeds in gelee appear on your plate) stimulates the minds well as the senses. The food is incredib;y worked over, but the flavors are astonishingly on-target.
If you look hard enough in Atlanta, you can almost always find the food you crave, even if you've been convinced you can't find it here. Jonesing for an oozy, zesty slice of Manhattan-style pizza? Try Rosa's on Broad Street downtown. Sensuous Persian? Check out Shiraz in Alpharetta. Do enough investigation and you can find German, Russian, Colombian ... and even the down-home Southern meal that seems so elusive in this city.
One of my most memorable dining experiences, in this or any other city, happened a few months after I moved to Atlanta in 1995. I found Greenwood's in Roswell in a guidebook, and convinced my friends Bill and Ginny, with whom I was staying, to make the trek with me. We fell in love with Greenwood's crazy little converted house painted in psychedelic colors and adorned with funky artwork. The food was the homey Southern-inspired fare I'd been hoping to find since I'd first rolled into town.
When a college friend came through town, I wanted to take her to Greenwood's. It was a Sunday night and I was sure I'd memorized the way to the restaurant. I hadn't. We got lost and arrived at 9:10 p.m. Bill Greenwood, whose Santa-like appearance is hard to forget, was standing outside the kitchen door.
"Hi," I said. "I'm so glad we made it."
"Sorry, folks," Greenwood replied. "We're done for the night. We stop serving at 9 o'clock."
I'm sure my face collapsed. "But this is my friend from college and we drove all the way from intown because I wanted her to try it!" I blurted out.
Greenwood eyed me for a moment and then looked at the Maryland license plate on my car. "You from Baltimore?" he asked.
"Yeah," I responded. "Bel Air, actually."
He smiled. "Oh, you're from Blair [Balmorese for Bel Air], huh? Have a seat on the patio."
Greenwood disappeared, and a few minutes later a bubbly server with a honeyed Southern drawl brought out heaping oblong dishes of trout in lemon-butter sauce, creamed corn, broccoli casserole, mashed potatoes and corn muffins. Our eyes bugged out and we ate until we were delirious. Greenwood sat down with us. We drank Chardonnay and talked until almost midnight. I'd never experienced that level of hospitality in a restaurant before.
That was the beginning of my love affair with Atlanta's restaurants. But as with all love affairs, it never quite went in the direction I first imagined it would. I moved to Atlanta expecting catfish and barbecue. What I found instead is the peculiar, engaging collage of cultures that ultimately makes this an exceptional food town. It's the dosa crepes at Madras Saravana Bhavan and Udipi Cafe; the Salvadoran papusas, Korean fried chicken and Cantonese dim sum on Buford Highway; the whole wheat biscuits and apple-cranberry butter at The Flying Biscuit; the dessert of homemade yogurt with honey and walnuts at Kyma; the sublime barbecue at Swallow at the Hollow and Pig-n-Chik; the freshly grated wasabi at MF Sushi Bar.
Our unorthodox and wildly diverse dining scene continually catches food lovers off-guard and keeps them engaged. And that makes Atlanta not just a great place to visit but a delicious place to live.-- Bill Addison