Taste the difference.
Atlanta’s food scene is like no other.
Atlanta’s food community is like no other and is constantly evolving. It is a population brimming with creativity, self-expression and a spirit of cooperation where big-name chefs help nurture new talent, and established restaurants, on their days off, host pop-ups for up-and-comers.
Atlanta is in the South, but it is not Southern. Atlanta is a major metropolitan city replete with skyscrapers yet it is also the City in the Forest with parks, trails and, importantly, urban farms supplying local restaurants. But, above all, Atlanta is a food city, and the locals in Atlanta show their support in the way that counts-they dine out. A lot. In fact, dining out accounts for 57% percent of the city’s average total food and drink spending annually, the highest in the U.S. So why is Atlanta such a great food city? Here are six reasons:
Innovation is the process of creating something new. More than building on established practices, it means breaking traditions in ways that move the craft forward. This requires taking risks, often big risks. Atlanta chefs have broken free from the Southern meat-and-three stereotypes, yet they are comfortable with their Southern roots and local ingredients. They are proud to reflect this in their interpretations of world cuisines rather than trying to be what they are not, which is the curse of so many chefs in cities throughout the nation who try to be “Italian,” “French” or any variation of that theme.
Take James Beard Award-winning chef Linton Hopkins. Not content with owning one of Atlanta’s best fine dining establishments, Restaurant Eugene, Hopkins closed that successful restaurant to pave the way for a new concept, thereby adapting to the changing trends of the younger generations. Whether it is consulting Delta Air Lines on its culinary program, supplying bread to other restaurants or co-founding the Peachtree Farmers Market, Hopkins has long been at the leading edge of the Atlanta food scene.
Another classic example is James Beard Award-winning chef Anne Quattrano who, back in the early ‘90s, established both a 60-acre farm on the outskirts of Atlanta and opened the bastion of fine dining, Bacchanalia, supplied by her Summerland Farm still to this day. Twenty years later, her restaurant still leads the way, but she has moved it twice, both times helping establish a new neighborhood as a culinary destination. She has continuously pushed the innovative envelope with her other ventures.
We could go on and on celebrating innovative talents who have helped shape the Atlanta culinary scene. These talents include chef Kevin Rathbun, Steve Nygren of the Pleasant Pheasant group, chef Ford Fry and chef Kevin Gillespie. Gilliespie’s Gunshow restaurant earned a spot on GQ magazine’s list of “12 Most Outstanding Restaurants” in 2014 and has been receiving accolades ever since. Every aspect of Gunshow is innovative, starting with the mixologist who brings a cart to prepare cocktails tableside, to the Darwinian approach to menu selection and the real time feedback of the patrons as the sous chefs hawk their wares table to table.
Thanks to the world’s busiest airport and innumerable international corporations that have their headquarters here, combined with the impact of hosting the 1996 Olympics, there are more than 70 foreign consulates representing large established international communities that now call Atlanta home. Atlanta has unprecedented global reach, and with this comes cross-cultural exchanges that have further enriched Atlanta’s culinary scene. This is evidenced by the huge number of culturally specific food markets and authentic restaurants serving the various communities. Whether you crave the Laotian food of Snackboxe Bistro or the spicy East African Ethiopian dishes of Desta, Atlanta’s large international communities of each culture ensure there are many well-supported choices of each style of cuisine to choose from. A trip up the iconic Buford Highway quickly demonstrates the depth and breadth of Atlanta’s culturally diverse food scene, likely second only to New York.
Yes, the groundbreaking Summerland Farm of chef Anne Quattrano set the standard for modern day restaurants working with local producers, but it would be remiss not to acknowledge Evelyn J. Frazier. As early as 1936, she established a 40-acre farm, raised animals and grew produce to supply her restaurant, Frazier Cafe Society, and to guarantee quality and consistency of supply.
Atlanta enjoys an abundance of small farms located within and around the metro area that supply the restaurant community, often working closely with chefs to plant what they need for their menus. Stone Mountain Cattle supplies Atlanta restaurants with organic pasture-raised, carbon negative beef and pork. Rodgers Greens and Roots Organic Farm supplies fruits and vegetables from a 15-acre farm on the outskirts of the city. Within the city, Filomena Andrade owns and operates Mena’s Farm, one of more than 50 small urban farms supplying locals and restaurants with organic produce.
Most people who have heard of or visited Atlanta, know of Buckhead. For decades, Buckhead was the shopping and dining district of Atlanta to the extent that if you asked any Downtown hotel concierge where to go for a great meal, they would even direct you to Buckhead. This is no longer the case. The last decade has seen unparalleled development of restaurants in residential neighborhoods all in close proximity to Downtown. While Buckhead can still hold its own, a foodie is now spoilt for choice, but will have to compete with the locals for a seat at the table.
Just a mile from the city center to the north west you find the Westside district, a hub of diverse and outstanding restaurants like Miller Union, The Optimist, Bacchanalia, Marcels, and more. A mile and a half to the east of the city center takes you into Inman park and the Old 4th Ward neighborhoods where you can find incredible Italian at Sotto Sotto or BoccaLupo, exquisite sushi at MF Sushi or some of the city’s best steaks at Kevin Rathbun Steak. Heading further east to East Atlanta Village for the best late night dining at Octopus Bar or enjoy the innovative cuisine of Banshee. The list goes on, but these are neighborhood restaurants that the locals love so be prepared to wait if you haven’t made a reservation. Check out our neighborhood guides for a more comprehensive drill down of options.
Much like with hip-hop, Atlanta has a habit of taking an idea to the next level and then owning it. Ponce City Market, originally opened in 1926 as a Sears Roebuck headquarters and retail store, was developed by the owners of NYC Chelsea Market and launched in 2014 as a food hall and retail market. Attached to the popular BeltLine, it is home to a diverse array of ethnic cuisines ranging from Sichuan to South African, Korean to Italian, and everything in between. But this was by no means the first food hall in Atlanta. The Municipal Market (known by the locals as Sweet Auburn Curb Market) first opened in 1924 and has been a launching pad for many restaurants around Atlanta. It continues to this day to serve locals with fresh produce alongside great eateries. Krog Street Market is another food hall attached to Atlanta BeltLine with over fifteen establishments to enjoy. To keep the balance with the Eastside, Chattahoochee Food Works aims to become a culinary destination on the Westside, a massive reimagined industrial warehouse with over thirty food stalls including Lebanese barbecue, Thai food, a Korean Tea House and a Prosecco bar. No visit to Atlanta would be complete without checking out each of these halls, as they each have a very distinctive character but deliver on the promise of great and affordable food.
Atlanta has, for many years, been playing catch up with other major U.S. cities that have storied culinary reputations. Atlanta as a city is only 10 years younger than Chicago, but has not enjoyed the reputation for its culinary scene at anywhere near the same level. To understand why, we worked with historians and learned from residents who took us back to the beginning of the American civil rights movement to appreciate that a rich and diverse culinary scene could never begin to develop in an environment of segregation. It was only in the late 1960s that people of all colors could sit at the same table and begin to share a meal. For this reason, we believe that Atlanta’s food scene started 100 years or more after such beginnings in the North, but has been developing at a far faster pace since. That same revolutionary spirit that motivated the activists to push for desegregation now powers the diverse creative culinary community. Learn more about how the struggle for civil rights was integral to the development of the Atlanta food scene of today.
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