Southern food is unapologetically comforting.
Almost to the point that its regular consumption feels like a cloying embrace gripping both your spirit and your hardening arteries. That fine line makes eating it so effortful and effortless.
Although you can’t keep from shoveling it into your body, that same body is working overtime now to make sure you survive this delicious round of Russian roulette. When consumed in abundance, it can render you doubled over and reaching at grandma for a hug while she supports your collapsing body.
Atlanta boasts some of the best southern food in the country — arguably the southern capital — and armed with rich history alongside pop-culture equity to boot. As The Big Peach gains more notoriety and shine, I’d like to highlight the fabulous food it has to offer.
This is breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the ATL.
A Saturday in July 2019:
I’m not much of a breakfast guy. I understand some of the appeal, but for me — I eat coffee for breakfast most days to stave off any mid-morning lethargy. This time was no different.
The day kicked off with a trip to the mall. To be sure, Atlanta is different from most of the country. It’s famed as the stunting capital. Locals’ efforts to flaunt and stunt do not go unnoticed.
I think it’s one of the few places left where going to the mall is an event worth getting dressed for (remember middle school weekends?) along with regularly checking the marquee at movie theatres.
Visiting a mall in Atlanta is a rite of passage, which meant hauling over to Lenox Square.
Before even entering the vaunted shopping center, neighboring businesses and neighborhoods are lavishly manicured with ivory white facades and perfectly trimmed foliage. Winding roads veer around the complex to direct the always steady flow of traffic. Parked outside were rows and rows of luxury cars peppered with some truly confounding showstoppers: Rolls Royces, Aston Martins, McLarens, Cinderella’s chariot. Stunt.
Inside the mall was a nod to American exceptionalism and excess. Dozens of glass storefronts with high-rolling shoppers inside. Hundreds of people donning their Sunday’s best or Saturday’s flex. The high ceiling mirrored a church for consumers who solemnly bow their heads and swipe their cards.
Like any mall, I did the rounds and paid my respects to the handful of stores that fit in my tax bracket. After parsing through several shops, I spotted a hulking figure in the concourse — Cam Newton.
Adorned with a headscarf and sunglasses, the 6’4 quarterback was briskly pushing a stroller and trying to maintain inconspicuousness. It was apparent by everyone’s reaction that this was just another day in Atlanta — where everyone comes out to show off, even celebrities in a lowkey manner.
After browsing till I dropped, I was getting hungry. And being hungry in a mall means one thing: food court.
The food court was expansive, cavernous. Seven or so escalators going every which way, mothers tugging at their children, munching, chewing, juice machines whirling. Every kind of food was present: Chinese, Jamaican, Ethiopian, Japanese, Halal.
It was like a United Nations of strip-mall restaurants packed together in an emporium of unchecked self-restraint.
After skimming through the hall’s incredible array of options, I couldn’t find what I wanted most — barbecue. So, I took out my phone and flipped through Google for the best barbecue the city had to offer.
That led me to…
After navigating through the endless waves of trees that is Atlanta, I found myself at a rib shack.
Matt’s is straightforward in terms of appearance. Seedy, shoddy, neon. Grab a beer, hang out, rock music will be playing, sporadic framed photos are hung, ribs will be eaten. It’s charming in a self-aware sense and doesn’t try to be anything other than it is. Dingy and unpretentious, the shack lets you know that they’re here to barbecue and not screw around.
In this hole-in-the-shed restaurant, I ate the best barbecue I might have ever had. Smoky, tender ribs coated with a spicy-sweet, tacky glaze will have you wondering why you didn’t just order seconds before sitting down. Soft without actually falling off the bone, they’re tender with a slight bark.
The sides were also exceptional. Creamy, stringy mac & cheese, sour vinegary collards, and smooth crunchy slaw. Each dish provided a supplemental adventure for every bite of smoked pork. The mac amped up the decadence of each bite, collards kept mouth fatigue in check, slaw rounds off the flavor and added some textural contrast.
Though they weren’t necessarily the star of the show, the sides offered a strong cast to support and play with leading-man ‘ribs’. A much needed — and aptly located — bottle of Coca-Cola washed down the whole affair leaving me with a smile on my face, a hand on my stomach, and delirious with ‘Itis’.
After a much needed and undeserved nap, the sun had set and it was time to venture out. Nightlife in Atlanta holds up to its storied hip-hop reputation. Clubs and parties spill out onto the street, the parking lot, the open door of someone’s Lamborghini.
First stop was at The Bookhouse Pub; a lowkey bar filled with, you guessed it, books.
The bar takes creative liberties with stocked bookcases and a traditional tavern layout. After noticing that my friend and I were clearly out-of-towners, the bartender offered several recommendations before explaining that Atlanta’s bar scene is notorious, as rumored, and that almost anywhere will be a good time.
What followed was a slurried haze of whiskey, gin, Robert Frost, paper cuts and beer foam. Successive blinks transported me to waiting in line outside, to adding to bathroom vandalism, to standing in the middle of a dancefloor.
Without a clue as to how I arrived at a dimly lit, red-hued basement club — I watched people enjoy themselves and have some of the purest fun I had ever seen. Remixed Motown, thumping bass, dance circles. Fuzzy silhouettes swaying to Stevie.
Last call was quickly arriving, which meant it was time to get some food before twirling and dropping on a mattress.
Intoxicated and half-dead, I watched the streaking light trails of Atlanta from a half-closed Uber window. Waka Flocka Flame serenaded me while my glassy eyes stared out at the shuttering buildings.
Although there was a slight hum of restlessness in my body, I kept my cool. I was on my way to a historic foodie site after all.
Made famous by the hit series Atlanta, J.R. Crickets is a staple in the area renowned for serving up some of the best wings in the game.
After a night of drinking, J.R. Crickets warmly welcomes the late-night crowd. The parking lot alone would have someone question if they actually left a club at all. Luxury cars bump rap music, feet shuffle near the entrance, and loitering bodies blur the distinction between the club and after-hours sustenance.
With how much lore surrounds J.R. Crickets, you would be rightly surprised to find how unspectacular the interior is. Laminate. Residue. Who cares? If there is an increasingly noticeable trend about food in this city it’s that some of the best restaurants are not here to wow you with décor, they’re here to feed you the best food possible.
This late in the night it is loud, crowded, and everyone is out of pocket. Griminess is at an apex with all those clammy, sweaty bodies. Service is short-tempered from dealing with high-ego drunken idiots; they curtly yell out orders and slap a plastic bag of food into your hands before gesturing you to leave. Henry Ford would be beaming.
There is no wrong thing to order, but there is definitely a ‘right’ thing to order.
Almost everyone gets wings, and of those people, lemon pepper. Lemon pepper is the banner spice of the south like Old Bay for Maryland.
The taste is tangy, spicy, and leaves your mouth tingling while it salivates as you pucker and smack your lips. It’s perfect for the grease-laden nature of wings and makes you feel like you can eat more than 50.
The wings themselves are medium-sized — personally my favorite — and carry a crackling crunch alongside a shockingly juicy interior. Clarified butter and buffalo sauce makes the wings ‘wet’ and the accompanying fries sop up any misplaced wing sauce. The fries are crisp with an ethereal hallow fluffiness.
Takeout is presented in an iconic self-titled treasure box. After receiving mine, I retreated to the comforts of my Airbnb before tearing into my meal and leaving behind a mess that would have a coroner mortified.
I woke the next morning doubled-over in pain and covered in what I can only assume was oily sweat. My body felt terrible and heartburn felt less like a moment of discomfort but a permanent pre-existing condition. I longed for vegetables, and the idea of alcohol made me wretch.
It was noon and my brain was still hazy from liquor-addled slumber, which meant only one thing on a Sunday: brunch.
After a light jog and soulless black coffee, my spirit was restored to half capacity. So, good enough to walk around and pass as a functional human again. Which isn’t to say I necessarily needed to because, well, brunch.
The neighborhood surrounding 10th & Piedmont mirrors much of the restaurant itself: vibrant, breezy, and fun. Small businesses and trees are nestled every dozen feet in the area. The restaurant itself is a pleasant modern brunch joint where good vibes flow as freely as the mimosas.
10th & Piedmont serves solid food with the promise of a good time.
It’s a classic yuppie hangout with an atmosphere that is pleasant without trying to do too much nor too little. The contemporary interior lets you know almost right away that it’s a place for a quick power-lunch or a take-your-time boozy brunch.
Chicken & waffles is the recommended pre-eminent menu item of choice. Paired with the requisite mimosa, I was ready to ease into the airy low-stakes affair. Although the first several mimosa sips had me reeling, the following ones placed me squarely in the bubbly realm of ‘Brunchland’.
Although my inhibitions being slightly lowered could have something to do with it, I didn’t have my socks blown off, but it was very tasty. The waffle was crisp and light, the chicken was moist, crunchy, and the peachy preservative syrup took the dish to a realm of decadence I really didn’t earn.
If there was any doubt about my stomach composition before the meal, anyone who has even so much glanced at a Scrubs DVD cover could tell I wasn’t in the best shape after. I was fully ready to hibernate for the winter and had a cheat day-and-a-half that would make a powerlifter blush.
10th & Piedmont wasn’t perhaps the soaring high note to end the weekend, but it was still pretty good and I hobbled away happy and satisfied. It speaks to the quality of a city’s food scene when passable is still exceptional almost anywhere else.
After all those adventures and meals — Atlanta imprinted on me the knowledge that no matter where I go, it will still be an icon culturally and culinarily when I return. There are still dozens of places that I overlooked and neglected, but this is the kind of food you can expect to find in the city on any given week.
Southern hospitality and southern charm are definitely real, as I’ve seen for myself, and it is a welcome change to my regular East Coast life.
I expect to be back soon.