Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
The Rook and Pawn
If 2015 has a story as far as restaurants go, it’s probably the fact that downtown is changing. The literal rise of luxury apartments marketed primarily to students and wealthy alumni is affecting a lot of things, and it seems likely that restaurants are one of them. Profit margins are usually slim in the restaurant business, and more demand for downtown spaces means more competition and, no doubt, higher rent. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but several high-profile closings downtown, combined with success stories mostly elsewhere, suggests the landscape may indeed be shifting to chains or folks with deep pockets. On the other hand, Baxter Street had a decent year, and Normaltown is doing gangbusters with an older crowd, who don’t want to fight for parking just to get a beer.
The best meal(s) I had this year were at Speakeasy, which revamped itself completely, giving homes to many folks who had previously worked at Cinco y Diez and/or Farm 255. Many who patronized those restaurants never seemed to discover Speakeasy, and it shuttered at the very end of the year, but the menu was smart and contemporary, genuinely focused on local ingredients and innovative but unfussy preparations.
The Pine, in Five Points, also underwent significant changes, hiring Jarad Blanton away from The World Famous and letting him do his thing: bold, dudely dishes that bear-hug your mouth. Blanton’s cooking loves bacon fat and vegetables equally, and his biscuits (at brunch on weekends) are worth a special trip.
Heirloom Cafe grabbed Joel Penn, ex-The National, as its chef, and he promptly updated its entire menu. Many dishes that had outstayed their welcome were removed, and the focus shifted from a more purely Southern-influenced cuisine to something a bit more international.
Mannaweenta, serving Ethiopian/Eritrean cuisine out of a small space in an Eastside shopping center, made up for its relative lack of creature comforts with wonderful hospitality (just don’t expect to be in and out in a hurry) and delicious, well priced food to please vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
Abrahim’s Parlor, which serves Trinidadian doubles and other tasty things at the West Broad Farmers Market, seems to be starting off the same way as Mannaweenta, building an audience through supplying reliably tasty and cheap eats. Here’s hoping it continues to grow its offerings and maybe moves toward a brick-and-mortar location.
Automatic Pizza transformed a sad commercial space into a lively one, putting out some of the best pizza in town without being too fancy about anything.
On opposite sides of town, Panaderia Tacuari (hidden away on Fritz Mar Lane) and Sweetie Pie by Savie (on the Eastside) both started turning out lovely baked goods and a few savory options. The former specializes in Central and South American pastries and sweet breads, and the latter has a Thai influence but can make a meringue like nobody’s business, even in humid weather.
Downtown, R.U. Hungry vastly bested its near neighbor, Eddie’s Calzones, at serving the late-night crowd greasy eats that actually taste good. The Rook and Pawn focused mostly on board games but created better sandwiches and snacks than it had to, especially when combined with beer. The Place did a fantastic renovation of the old Five Star Day Cafe space at the corner of College and Broad, making use of the upstairs and serving well-executed Southern comfort food. Einstein Bros. Bagels, Arden’s Garden and a second location of Taqueria Tsunami moved in, and, on the edge of downtown, Graduate Hotels redid its restaurant, christening it The Foundry Bar and Mill. The original Blind Pig on Baldwin closed and moved into a shiny new location on Washington Street (and a third franchise location opened on the Eastside, by Kroger).
A few blocks up the hill, Saucehouse finally opened its giant BBQ palace and turned out to have spent its time on research. The line moves quickly for the most part, the plentiful sauces are generally good, and problems tend to have been anticipated and solved in advance. Nearby, 180°F Cafe started serving Taiwanese street food and bubble tea in a tiny space, while over on Baxter, Mr. Mr. Cafe did its own bubble tea, plus coffee drinks and a daily sandwich. Both offer free wi-fi to entice folks to hang out.
Also on Baxter, Phickles Phun Foods became a source for much more than Phickles Pickles, with a variety of fun small-producer foodstuffs for sale and occasional experimentation with tasty sandwiches and salads. The Table, despite a nearly invisible location at the back of its modern-style mixed-use building, made fresh, simple, healthy dishes, prettily plated, and seems to have found an audience. Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken, a small franchise, took over the building across the street from the library, serving fried chicken and other fried things as well as 40-ounce bottles of beer. And Domino’s Pizza moved across the street, into what had been Groucho’s Deli.
In Five Points, Atlanta-based Mediterranean Grill replaced the Charleston, SC-based YoBo Cantina Fresca on Lumpkin, and LRG Provisions, a pop-up/catering/event thingie related to Last Resort Grill, moved into the former Cinco y Diez space. Jason Zygmont moved on from Five & Ten to cook at a restaurant in Nashville.
Elsewhere, Farm Cart began serving again at the Athens Farmers Market (breakfast on Saturdays; dinner on Wednesdays), and Journey Juice came back from the dead in Normaltown. Bill’s Bar-B-Que similarly revived itself, in its old location in Hull, and Jennings Mill Drug Company opened a sweet lunch counter out Epps Bridge Parkway. Nearby, Cheddar’s Casual Cafe opened a location near the large new shopping center, and Teriyaki 101, an independent business making hibachi rice bowls and wraps, started serving in the same corridor. Bee’s Knees Bakery, also in the area, acquired new owners, Jaime Wilkins and Bradley Graham, both of whom have worked there for a while and plan to add some new things. Traveling Hobo Cafe, doing burgers and more, took the place of The Local Table, in Watkinsville, and Southern Brewing Co. officially opened.
Rest in peace: Lumpkin Cafe, East West Bistro, Nona, Speakeasy, Porkhouse BBQ, Charlie Noble’s, Lighthouse Seafood Palace, Niece’s Soul Food Cafe, Herschel’s, La Cabana de Don Juan and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit on Hawthorne (their other locations remain open), Always Baked, Square One, Mama Bird’s, Eat Hibachi, Stevi B’s, Joey’s Dine-In and Take-Out, Rooter’s, Juice Up, the downtown Your Pie and Chonell’s (after two decades in business).
The next year should bring the opening of Matt Downes’ Liberty on Harris Street off Baxter, in the former Loco’s; the expanded version of Mimi Maumus’ home.made, also on Baxter; a branch of Atlanta’s Cafe Istanbul (Turkish food!), a Zaxby’s, a D.P. Dough and a WingZone, all downtown; Fazoli’s and Bone Island Grillhouse on Epps Bridge; a Fatburger in Beechwood (originally planned for this year but on hold due to health issues with one of its owners); Flash Foods (a sort of convenience store/restaurant hybrid) at Lexington and Gaines School on the Eastside; and a new project in the Chase Street Warehouses, next to the tree room.