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Destination Guide

  Atlanta
 
 
Atlanta is a town that eats, and eats well. If you come to Atlanta expecting to load up on barbecue and collard greens, well, you won't be disappointed, but you might also be surprised at the spectrum of alternatives that greets you. The 1980s and especially the 1990s witnessed a restaurant boom here, and new places continue to spring up faster than you can say 'fried green tomatoes.'

Traditional Southern cuisine is still served up nightly in places that have stood for the better part of the century, but now they're often right next door to a brand-new fusion joint or sushi bar. World-class chefs from all over the globe have brought their magic to the culinary capital of the South, and the blending of influences has resulted in many an interesting mix. You won't have any trouble turning up a top-rate Italian, French, Thai, Japanese, or even Moroccan establishment, but to really broaden your palate, look for places boasting 'new Southern? or 'contemporary Southern.' Atlanta's best and most memorable dining is often to be discovered in creative skillets that haven't yet quite made up their minds.

Atlanta is a town that drinks well, too, with a wide mix of bars, taverns, and clubs that cater to every taste and demographic. For a closer look, check the comprehensive guide that follows immediately below the restaurant section.


Downtown

Although there's not a whole lot going on downtown after dark, you won't have to wander far to find a good place to eat. Catering to a predominantly business crowd, downtown manages to hold its own in a furiously competitive culinary market.

The place to see and be seen is Mumbo Jumbo, a high-energy joint which features contemporary American cuisine and a lounge that stays open well into the night. Another high-end favorite with local celebs and sports figures is City Grill, which puts out fancy renderings of old Southern classics. For your hardcore business tete-a-tetes, head over to the no-nonsense, traditional wood-paneled charm of Dailey's.

Some of downtown's finest dining is to be found at hotel restaurants. For the city's best Russian fare, make a reservation at Nikolai's Roof on the 30th floor of the Atlanta Hilton and Towers. You'll find the Westin well-stocked, too, from the Savannah Fish Company at street level to the elegant, rotating Sun Dial offering unparalleled views of the city from up on the roof.

Housed in an abandoned church, the Abbey was converted into a club during the 1996 Olympics, and now lives on as a unique setting for contemporary American fare. Across the street, the Mansion stands as a reminder of all that is still wholesome and elegant about traditional Southern dining.

If you're in search of local tradition, however, few options hold a candle to the Varsity. This white-tiled diner opened in 1928 and still serves up greasy dogs, burgers, and fries in the comfort of your own car. More of a newcomer but still an Atlanta favorite, Bertucci's Brick Oven Pizza features several locations around the city, including downtown on Peachtree Road. And it's tough to beat Mick's for good solid eating on a budget, with locations at Underground Atlanta, a few blocks up Peachtree across from Crawford Long Hospital, and various other spots around Atlanta.

Finally, what major downtown would be complete without the obligatory presence of a Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood? Both are centrally-located on Peachtree Road and easily accessible to all downtown hotels and attractions.


Midtown

The most frustrating aspect of dining out in Atlanta is not trying to find a good place to eat, but deciding which worthy restaurants you simply won't have time to try. Nowhere is this more true than in Midtown, where some of the city's most enduring culinary landmarks sit side by side with the latest and trendiest kitchens.

Steaks are the order of the day every day at Coohill's. Standing proud at the corner of 12th and Peachtree, this high-end house of meat is as trendy as it is traditional. These two qualities mix equally well a few blocks away at South City Kitchen, where local chefs fashion ever-more-innovative twists on classic Southern favorites. Consistently rated at the top of Atlanta's crowded Italian list is Veni, Vidi, Vici, always a dignified way to round out an evening of theatre at the nearby Fox.

A bit kinder on the pocketbook but rich in local tradition is Mary Mac's Tea Room. This old-time Southern stalwart was a favorite of another old-time Southern stalwart, Jimmy Carter, who frequently stopped by while he was governor. A short drive up Piedmont Road is Cowtippers, that rarest of all culinary finds, yet so perfectly-suited to Midtown: a gay steak house. For the best barbecue in town, continue up Piedmont to Fat Matt's Rib Shack. There's a line around the building on Saturday afternoons, but the hot barbecue and cool blues inside is worth the wait.

The flavors of the Caribbean are on full display at the reasonably-priced Bridgetown Grill. And you'll be hard pressed to find Mexican with more flair and variety than at Zocalo, just steps from Piedmont Park. No dining tour of Midtown would be complete without a snack, or at least a beer, at the Park Tavern. Situated in the far Southeast corner of Piedmont Park, local dog owners for years have tied up their pooches along the fence to enjoy their lunch with a sweeping view of the park and the Midtown skyline.


Buckhead

If you're coming to Atlanta just to eat, Buckhead is where you'll want to set up camp. Acre for acre, this fashionable neighborhood packs more tables per square foot than any other part of the city, featuring many of Atlanta's finest, hippest, and most unique offerings. Standing on the corner of Peachtree and Paces Ferry Roads, you could throw four stones and hit arguably the city's best steak, fish, Southwestern, and contemporary American restaurants. As with everything else in Buckhead, however, prepare to open your wallet a bit wider than usual.

Let's start with those four stones. You won't have to toss the first one far to hit Nava, a new star on the local dining scene. Set in the dead center of Buckhead, Nava's upscale Tex-Mex fusion is rounded out by one of the most dazzling dessert carts in town. Throw your second stone a bit harder in the same direction, and you're liable to break a window at Chops, which runs neck-in-neck with Bone's (a few blocks to the East) for top dog status in the steak-and-good-old-boy business lunch game. Without even turning, toss rock number three a bit harder still, and land it on the roof of 103 West, so named for its address on East Paces Ferry Road. With its top-notch contemporary American menu and one-of-a-kind wine list, there's not a classier address in town for elegance and unabashed decadence. Finally, loft your fourth stone toward the big fish on Pharr Road. The Atlanta Fish Market is faithfully guarded by a three-story, 50-ton copper trout, and faithfully frequented by the likes of local media mogul Ted Turner (founder of CNN) and wife Jane Fonda.

For Italian, it's tough to beat the enormous platters of Tuscan perfection at Maggiano's Little Italy. Head across the street to Lenox Square Mall for French fare at Brasserie Le Coze, or walk down the block and go American at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. Faced with a wait, have a drink by the fire in one of the warmest and most dignified lobby bars found anywhere.

The diminutive dining room at Pano's and Paul's belies the enormous range of their ever-changing menu, but the continental offerings are second-to-none, and, after your first visit, you'll never again want for a definition of 'posh.' A close rival in the intimacy department is Bacchanalia. Set in an old house just off Piedmont Road, this softly-lit spot finds ever-more-interesting ways to bring fish and fowl to your plate.

For the utmost in romance and new Southern cooking, check out the patio at Horseradish Grill. Directly across from Chastain Park, whose outdoor amphitheater hosts big-name concerts and classical evenings throughout the summer, this intimate lodge is a can't-miss. Or if tapas is your game, stop in Eclipse di Luna, where local chef and legend Paul Luna wows guests with his whimsical creations and frequent outbursts of charming lunacy.

Get all the flash for a bit less cash at Buckhead Diner on Piedmont Road. Always crowded, this nouvelle joint fixes up traditional American fare that would do mom's table proud. Or check out Houston's across from Lenox Square Mall for great steaks, ribs, and seafood at reasonable prices.


Virginia-Highland

As with other aspects of this neighborhood, the restaurants of Virginia-Highland pride themselves on their laid-back dignity away from the maddening crowds. Starting at the locally-famous Harry's-in-a-Hurry gourmet grocery store at the corner of Ponce de Leon and North Highland, you'll find most of the area's choicest selections on a lazy stroll up Highland Avenue.

The hippest Highlands grub is to be had at Dish, a converted corner gas station that offers a unique global menu in an atmosphere of funky elegance. Not a block down the street you'll inevitably meet a crowd at Surin of Thailand. A single dining room with the hottest Thai in town and few frills, this newcomer is fast on its way to becoming a local favorite.

The greatest single concentration of new and old, fancy and simple is to be found at the neighborhood's namesake intersection of Virginia and Highland Avenues. The dignified Highland Tap offers your best bet for a great steak dinner and unbeatable martinis. Next door you'll find a pair of brand-new hotspots, the casually-elegant la Tavola Trattoria for Italian, and Noche for margaritas and chic Southwestern. The two share a covered balcony section at the rear of the building. Come early for Atlanta's most popular weekend brunch at Murphy's across the street, or sample their solid American dinner menu.

The shack with the big covered porch next door is Taco Mac, a favorite for affordable Mexican, great people-watching, and just about every beer known to modern man. And you'll always be made to feel at home at Everybody's Restaurant around the corner. Known best for it's pizza, this fun joint also has several other locations throughout town.

Wander another half mile north on Highland to the corner of Amsterdam and discover a cozy collection of trendy spots. The San Francisco Roasting Company on the corner is a good place to read your paper over java or ice cream, and it blocks most of the street noise from Tiburon Grill, an ultra-cool, cozy room with an innovative flair for fish. You can get your Italian fix next door at Camille's, which offers carry-out specialties if you don't have time to linger on the covered sidewalk patio.

Farther up the road toward Morningside, set your sights on Indigo Coastal Grill. Although there are bigger seafood spots in town, few achieve the quaint, distinctive style of this catch. Your taste for Latin is easily taken care of here as well, either on the large back porch of the Caramba Cafe for Mexican, or across the street at Atlanta's favorite Cuban kitchen, Mambo.


Little Five Points

The restaurants of Little Five Points keep an even pace with their surroundings, in energy and attitude. You won't find much in the way of fine dining in this area, but what the neighborhood lacks in culinary quality, it makes up for with its alternative atmosphere and remarkable diversity.

Walk through the mouth of the enormous skull on Moreland Avenue and enter the Vortex, a landmark famed as much for its oversized burgers and expansive beer list as for the oversized cranium outside. For unique, unbeatable omelets and fanciful dinner selections, venture a bit off the main drag for a visit to the Flying Biscuit Cafe.

Nothing if not diverse, Little Five is home to a wide range of economical options for world cuisine. Lodged among the shops and piercing parlors of Euclid Avenue, you'll find hot shrimp and bayou fare at Baker's Cajun Cafe, Cuban sandwiches and other delights at La Fonda Latina, and tastes from every corner of the Caribbean at Bridgetown Grill.


Points North, South, East, West

Wherever you find yourself in Atlanta, you're never far from a great place to eat. While many of the biggest names might be concentrated in Buckhead and Midtown, the rapid growth of the metro area has been mirrored by similar expansion of the restaurant scene, and some of the newest and hippest dining destinations are to be found in all corners of the city.

Funky digs like the Heaping Bowl & Brew are helping along the renaissance of such up-and-coming neighborhoods as East Atlanta, an area some predict will be the site of the city's next big nightlife boom. In the Decatur/Emory University area, unassuming gems like Violette (French) are mixed and matched with college hangouts like Burrito Art. And keep your eye on Vinings, a developing neighborhood Northwest of Buckhead, and its flagship restaurant, Canoe. Resting quietly on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, this charming spot is a can't miss choice for romance.



DRINKING GUIDE

Atlanta is a town that knows how to have a good time, and the broad diversity that embodies the city is reflected in its lively bar scene. Whether you're looking to dance, relax with friends, or hunker down for some serious drinking, the clubs and cantinas of Atlanta provide ample opportunities for many memorable nights on the town.


Downtown

The downtown club scene matches pretty well with the restaurant scene; unless you're a daytime drinker or a business traveler in search of a nightcap, you won't find much. Your best bets are to be found within the major hotels, as most of the big ones maintain at least one self-contained watering hole. For a great view of the city in an elegant environment, try the bar at the rotating Sun Dial restaurant atop the , where the room is spinning even before you start drinking. For the athletic-minded, Champions inside thWestine Marriott Marquis provides local brews and 25 screens of sports mania into the late hours.

Some area restaurants serve double duty as night spots after hours. Try the upstairs lounge at Mumbo Jumbo for flash and celebrity-spotting, or the downstairs tavern at Dailey's for old oaken charm and a good cigar. The best bet for a downtown steak is also a great spot for a downtown drink, so check out the bar at Morton's. Of course, you'll always find the expected, heavily-tourist crowds at Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe. Same goes for the burger-and-beer masses who flock to Hooters and Jock's & Jill's sports bars, both with multiple locations in the downtown area.


Midtown

This lively neighborhood is top of the Atlanta heap for trendy, cutting-edge nightlife. Local headquarters for black lights and velour shirts, Midtown caters to the dressed-up, tightly-groomed crowd, and exacts heavy tariffs of its image-conscious patrons.

The martini rage continues unabated and unabashed at the Leopard Lounge, one of Midtown's hippest hotspots. The spotted skins on the wall absorb some of the din from the swinger-cum-yuppie crowd, but can't quite drown out the blare of swing music from the basement. Around the corner, the Crescent Room and Innuendo do their best send-ups of the ultra-flashy, velvet-cordoned, New York rave scene. For a quieter stab at New York chic, try nearby Nomenclature, just a block and a half but light years away from the august Four Seasons Hotel on 14th Street.

The many small taverns and hotel bars that line Peachtree are popular with locals and the after-work crowd, while restaurants such as Jock's & Jill's at Peachtree and 10th Street are usually a good choice for watching local sporting events, or for listening to live acoustic music at happy hour. For a laid- back game of darts or a few pints of sturdy British ale, head to the Prince of Wales, whose patio looks out over Piedmont Park. At the opposite end of the park sits Park Tavern (formerly The Mill), a great place to relax and soak in the bucolic setting and an unparalleled view of the Midtown skyline.

For a walk on Midtown's wild side, swing by Club Anytime on Peachtree Street. As the name implies, the doors of this lively after-hours dance club never close, and it's where you'll find the serious night owls after the weak and timid have gone home. More extreme still is Backstreet, a frenetic, high-intensity club that can't seem to make up its mind. Gay and straight, yuppie and grunger, old and young all mingle late into the night, with an occasional drag queen thrown in to make it still more interesting.

Midtown is the center of Atlanta's gay community, and home to the city's highest concentration of alternative lifestyle clubs. Local favorite Blake's serves up strong drinks in a high-volume, flashy environment, while Burkhart's plays to a more diverse, and unpredictable, crowd. My Sister's Room, on Monroe, is perhaps the neighborhood's most laid-back and inviting lesbian hangout.


Buckhead

Buckhead reigns supreme as the epicenter of fast and furious nightlife in Atlanta. Although certain establishments like the Havana Club cigar bar and Otto's cater to an older, more reserved crowd, the vast majority of clubs and bars are the stomping grounds of the city's 20- and 30-somethings. On weekends, Buckhead surrenders to the loud and festive throngs, as college kids and young professionals move from bar to bar, making the streets all but impassable. Peachtree Road moves along pretty well, but be warned: once you turn off onto side streets such as Pharr, Buckhead, or East Paces Ferry, you can expect severe delays.

Peachtree is lined with an impressive stretch of great places, starting with the Atlanta Beer Garten near the corner of Pharr. The large patio is enclosed in the winter, and live music charges into the wee hours on most weekend nights. A few steps down the sidewalk lands you at Fado, an Irish-themed pub that serves up great ale and stout, but whose decor is about as understated as a forty foot leprechaun. A few doors down you'll find Plush, Buckhead's answer to rave rage, with dim lights, throbbing tunes, and too-cool attitudes. If the '70s is more your thing, don your bell bottoms and head up the road to Have A Nice Day Cafe, where disco defies death four nights a week. For the unabashed beer drinker, check out Buckhead Saloon next door, where loud bands and raucous crowds shake the walls while the more subdued patrons kick back with a pitcher and a game of pool.

Bolling Way is a short street that parallels Peachtree to the east for several blocks. Many clubs with Peachtree Road addresses actually have their main entrances on Bolling, such as Lulu's Bait Shack, a sprawling, three-story Cajun joint with a 2500-square-foot rooftop deck. Next door, Swinger's brings the sounds and styles of the 1940s to the new zoot suit crowd, offering free swing dancing lessons and plenty of floor space to show off your new moves. For a more contemporary dance floor, take a short jump over to Mako's, where New Year's is celebrated every night with free beads and plenty of party favors.

Bolling Way dead ends into East Paces Ferry Road, Buckhead's main cross street, which is lined with similar establishments. Right at the intersection, the aptly-named BAR is the site of what may be Atlanta's most consistently-rowdy assembly. Turning east, such local favorites as Park Bench, Dixie Tavern, and Rose & Crown do a steady business most nights of the week. With live music and good drink specials, Tin Roof Cantina, which is housed in the corner of a large parking structure, marks more or less the end of the downtown Buckhead bar scene.

As you make your way up Peachtree Road toward Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls, you'll come across a mixed bag of various bars and small clubs, such as the Chameleon, a live-music joint that hosts local and some mid-range national talent. Near the corner of Piedmont Road, the Rockbottom is an emerging favorite with the after-work mob, with a wide range of self-brewed masterpieces. And, of course, one of the most dignified places for a drink in all of Atlanta is the bar at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. Stop by for a brandy if you want to drink in Buckhead but you like things quiet.


Virginia-Highland

While Buckhead hosts the ragers and Midtown attracts the ravers, a more casual and eclectic flock finds its way to the Virginia-Highland neighborhood. Known around town as "the Highlands," the charm of this quieter quarter of the city comes from its low-key residents, its one-of-a-kind taverns and restaurants, and the fact that through the years of expansion and development, it has held on fiercely to its defining neighborhood qualities. In 1999, a loud community protest, complete with old fashioned petitions and town meetings, quashed plans to bring a large music venue to North Highland Avenue. It's not that Highlanders don't like the vibrant nightlife that draws many visitors to their corner of Atlanta-- they just like it fine the way it is. And they're right to do so.

The majority of nightlife in the Highlands centers around two main clusters, both on North Highland Avenue. Where Highland meets Virginia Avenue, you'll find the door to Highland Tap standing proudly on the corner. Follow the stairs down and say hello to the young professional martini gang. The margarita reigns supreme a few doors down at Noche, whose high-gloss bar in front sets the stage for the restaurant's new-wave Tex-Mex menu.

If you're more in the mood for tavern food and a few cold pitchers, cross the street to Moe's & Joe's or George's, whose no-nonsense booths and fun-loving clientele closely mimic each other. For streetside patio dining and one of the best brew selections in the city, cross Virginia to Taco Mac and pull up a stool outside.

The other significant collection of watering holes in the Highlands can be found four blocks to the south, again along North Highland Avenue. The three-block area between Ponce de Leon Avenue and Drewry Street house such local favorites as English pub-styled Atkin's Park and the Dark Horse Tavern, with its three-story dining and drinking porch in the rear. At the corner of St. Charles, stop by Neighbor's for a bite and a choice seat on the biggest patio in the Highlands. Or stop by Limerick Junction for a few pints of Guinness and some live Irish folk tunes.

A bit off the beaten path, look for Manuel's Tavern at the corner of North Avenue and North Highland. This old-time speakeasy is still a favorite with city hall employees, and lively debates are a way of life. Down on Ponce de Leon, leave your inhibitions at the door when you enter the Clermont Lounge, a rollicking place that can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a watering hole, a dance club, or a strip joint.


Little Five Points

This eclectic corner of town, just South and East of the Highlands and a short cab ride from downtown, boasts Atlanta's most extreme nightly parade of alternative rockers and rebellious youth. Although not unsafe, L5P isn't far from some economically-depressed neighborhoods, and is perhaps most wisely approached with a group.

Bring your nose ring and body paint when you visit the Vortex, one of L5P's most visible and lasting landmarks. The 20-foot skull-shaped entrance gives you some indication what you'll find inside, but don't be scared away from the grill, which cooks up some of the meatiest burgers in town. Across Moreland Avenue, trade your tattoos for earplugs and dive into the Star Community Bar, where local bands and some larger acts drive young crowds wild most nights. More moderate groups also play the Star Bar, but it's best to check the schedule if you are sensitive of ear.

The Brewhouse Cafe sits pleasantly at the intersection where Moreland meets Euclid, and offers your best chance for some quiet conversation and sensible brew. The large patio area looks out over the heart of the neighborhood for some fascinating people-watching. And no one seems to know what first brought the bikers to the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club, but each Sunday the long line of Harleys along the storefront gives ample warning of the court held inside. Most days, the Yacht Club is a simple bar with good basic grub, and even on Sundays it doesn't get very rowdy.


The Best of the Rest

While most of Atlanta's club-hopping happens in the neighborhoods outlined above, a few interesting exceptions are well worth a look. Just North of the Perimeter, Ballyhoo's hosts perhaps the city's largest and most-advertised singles dance party, while not far away, a few blocks from Perimeter Mall, Mexico City mixes up pitcher after pitcher of multi-flavored margaritas. Further North into Cobb County, you'll find Stetson hats a-plenty standing in line to ride the mechanical bull at Cowboy's, an enormous and enormously-popular send-up of a country and western roadhouse.

Some of the lesser-known and up-and-coming in-town neighborhoods quietly boast their share of winners, as well. Just South of Buckhead (in SoBuck), the Tree House has long been a well-kept secret of young professional locals, and offers a better-than-average menu early in the evening. Out in Decatur, Eddie's Attic stands as the premier venue for live acoustic talent, and despite its strict ban on talking during performances, still turns pretty lively at times.

If you're looking to check out a neighborhood on the rise, wander over to East Atlanta for a drink at the Fountainhead. Although the area is still a bit sketchy, if the rise of the club scene around town is any indication, East Atlanta should be the next big trend within a few years.