I recently complained to a friend that I had fallen out of love with Atlanta's dining scene. My stomach was bored. I was missing the kind of excitement we all felt when Holeman & Finch Public House opened in 2008, that independent, we-have-our own-way-of-doing-things-here-in-the-South-and-you-should-be-learning-from-us kind of vibe. Every city has a neighborhood where food-crazed folks congregate to dine and drink. In Miami, the Design District overflows with exciting new spots. When I lived in San Francisco, it was Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. In New York, Brooklyn continues to receive a lot of attention. Where was Atlanta's Gourmet Ghetto? The Westside? Inman Park? Edgewood Avenue? It wasn't until I spent a gluttonous evening bouncing around downtown Decatur that I found my answer.
Sure, I'd hit all of Decatur's new bars and restaurants when they opened, but I had yet to spend an extended amount of time there to fully embrace its energy. A real night out in Decatur was long overdue, so I dragged some friends and my husband out to explore.
In the spirit of keeping things casual (our theme for the night), we started at the bar at Cakes & Ale. When Cakes & Ale opened in 2008, it was one of the first higher-end restaurants in Decatur to catch our eye since Watershed. Since relocating from its original location on West Ponce to a much larger space on the square in 2011 — and adding a bakery/café next door — Cakes & Ale has become an anchor for the Decatur food scene. We were pleased to find chef Billy Allin's cooking as thoughtful and soul warming as ever. Take for instance, a recent Gruyère quiche served with a room temperature kale salad. Where else but Cakes & Ale would you find such an elegant and satisfying vegetarian main course? The quiche was airy and a beautiful color from quality eggs. The salad had that wonderful raw kale bite, but the creamy dressing made it feel substantial enough for dinner. The knowledgeable barkeeps are dressed with a nod to another time when men sported suspenders and bow ties. They also make a respectable Moscow Mule, a mix of fresh lime juice, vodka, and ginger beer, although it was not the best version we tasted that night. (The mule has become my personal litmus test for any bar and I always order it no matter where I am.)
Next, we slid through an alley behind Cakes & Ale and found a table at Paper Plane. Inside, Paper Plane looks like a cross between an old San Francisco bar near the Fillmore and a '70s basement rec room. It's dimly lit, which makes it feel somehow secret — and cooler, as a result. Bartender extraordinaire Paul Calvert, formerly of Pura Vida, opened Paper Plane with his partners from Victory Sandwich, which is located in the front of the same building. The service staff is friendly and the cocktails strong and interesting. The menu is mostly small plates with some adventurous combinations. A small portion of pickled plums and beef provided a creative layering of flavors, but the food here is more of an afterthought to the cocktails, which are the main draw. Of course, we tried the Moscow Mule and it was fantastic. Heavy on the fresh ginger, fizzy, and tart. Just as it should be.
After Paper Plane, we walked over to Leon's Full Service, which did for cocktails in Decatur what the Brick Store Pub did for beer. It was packed. When you do get a table the food is solid and the cocktails amazing thanks to mixology superstar Miles Macquarrie. Macquarrie, however, recently left Leon's to be the beverage director at the owners' forthcoming Kimball House. The seafood centric spot is slated to open in the old Decatur Depot building later this month.
Instead of waiting, we decided to hit the most recent addition to Decatur's list of headliners, the Pinewood Tippling Room. The Pinewood opened last May in the former Cakes & Ale spot next to one my favorite sandwich shops, Sawicki's Meat, Seafood and More. We squeezed into the bar with our party and ordered our litmus drink again. Big points go to the bar for a solid Moscow Mule — full of spicy ginger — and for using the right copper cups that retain the chilliness of the drink and therefore, its integrity. The menu is full of fun, slutty bar bites like fried Brussels sprouts, fried cheese grits, and chicken and waffles. They also serve a deliciously squishable cheeseburger double stacked with remoulade and bacon. I do, however, wish they'd get rid of the breakfast potato—like fries and do a more traditional spud to make this burger destination-worthy.
After our evening came to a close around eleven-thirty, we dropped into the seats of our Uber ride. I was smitten. I had that feeling, the same one you get when you are at an art house cinema and everyone claps in appreciation at the movie's end. Decatur is casual, walkable, and the people there seem so passionate about good food and drink. It was the first time I felt excited about an Atlanta neighborhood in so long. I realized that sometimes falling in love is even better the second time around.
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