January 16, 2013

Grub Notes

2012 Wrap-Up

Photo Credit: Christina Cotter

Five Bar

The year in review is always a chance to try to get the big picture of what went on in Athens food over the course of the past 12 months, but it can be difficult. In some ways, 2012 contained fewer highlights than many previous years, but there were still some restaurants that deserved more accolades than others.

The Branded Butcher, for example, which replaced Flight next to the Georgia Theatre on Lumpkin Street downtown, was far and away the most ambitious restaurant to open in Athens last year, offering up a varied array of small plates based on charcuterie, fine oysters, a smart and well-priced list of wine and cocktails and, above all, a playful sensibility that never undermines its professionalism. 

Pulaski Heights BBQ, which opened toward the end of the year and has yet to get a proper review in this column, is less upscale in its goals, but Chuck Ramsey (ex-Five & Ten) knows exactly what he’s doing with a smoker and then some. Tucked away in the Leathers Building, down Pulaski Street right next to the railroad tracks, he’s elevating BBQ in all aspects.

The Savory Spoon, in Jefferson, with new owners who believe in locally sourced ingredients and clearly have a great love for vegetables, is worth a little trip out of town.

Farm 255 obtained a new chef, in Whitney Otawka, but not a new attitude, maintaining the same commitment to the components of its dishes and being, in particular, an excellent place for bar snacks.

And, finally, Trappeze, on Washington Street in downtown Athens, turned over its kitchen to some new blood and dramatically improved its menu. The place may be quiet at lunch, but you’d be a fool to pass up its affordable and well-executed offerings at that time of day.

As ever, chains continued to flock to the area, with Steak ‘n Shake, Chipotle, Firehouse Subs and Hubee D’s all serving as examples of what a franchised business can do right. The Washington Street deck downtown added Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and Momma Goldberg’s Deli, not exactly broadening the area’s options, and Dirty Birds, a wing shop out of California, moved in at the other end of downtown. Copper Creek Brewing Company added Sunday hours. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit added another location, in the former Allen’s on Hawthorne, and some local folks (Siri Thai and Taqueria La Parrilla) added locations on the Eastside. Speaking of that, one of the stories that popped up all year was the supposed abandonment of “downtown,” which often came to include Baxter, for the Eastside, but the relocation of Stuffed Burger did not a trend make.

Baxter saw its usual comings and goings, with The Sultan reopening (hooray!) in Stuffed Burger’s vacated spot, Gnat’s Landing making way for Chonell’s, Skogie’s (a fish place out of Lake Lanier) opening a spot by Domino’s, and Runt’s BBQ opening and then closing. Broad, too, saw a lot of change, with Broad Street Coffee (a vegan restaurant offering all three meals plus coffee and snacks) opening in the former Dogg Pound, Quickly (an odd Taiwanese chain focused mostly on bubble tea and burgers) opening with no fanfare near downtown, LongHorn Steakhouse relocating from Beechwood to the spot of the old farmers’ market and, of course, Steak ‘n Shake fouling up everyone’s traffic.

The Fresh Market gave Beechwood a grocery store once again, for those who can’t handle the Kroger over in Alps, and Stripling’s General Store camped out on 78, catering to tailgaters. Maba Grill closed downtown but, thankfully, was replaced shortly thereafter with Yummy Pho, serving an even larger menu of Vietnamese food, and Athens Bagel Co. managed to make it work as a bakery and will soon have Always Baked cookies made onsite. Tlaloc El Mexicano opened a second location in Watkinsville, with a friendlier atmosphere but no less delicious food, and Donderos’ Kitchen took over the concession at the Botanical Garden. Streets food cart, long present in downtown but not entirely legal, managed to go legit and now can be found regularly outside the Max. Las Conchitas Caliente, serving Peruvian on Prince for years, was replaced by Rustica, doing the same, and, somewhat similarly, the Chick-fil-A in the mall is now a one-off called Chicken Burgers N Things. The Camp offered both honey-baked hams and lighter country cooking in Homewood Hills and, interestingly, Sabine’s Coffee Haus, promising German grub, opened in Lexington near the end of the year.

In addition to those already noted, we said goodbye to Chango’s, Sisters Creole Market, Yoguri, JR's Baitshack, From Scratch Cafe in Winterville (which also opened), Peaches Fine Foods, The Local Jam, Gymnopédie, The Beer Growler, Kabana, Shane’s Rib Shack on the Eastside, Graze and the westside La Fiesta (now the location of La Cabana de Don Juan).

Five Bar, an Alabama-based small chain, just opened in the Cotton Exchange Building on Hull, in the former Casa Mia space, and Tin Drum Asia Cafe in Beechwood, Urban Flats in the Washington Street deck and Herschel’s Famous 34 Pub & Grill on Washington should be close behind. A Dunkin’ Donuts (and a second Jimmy John's) just opened up on the Eastside, paired with a Your Pie, and Mitchell Bridge’s former Iron Grill will be Los Coyotes before long. Sloan’s Ice Cream and Famous Dave’s BBQ, two more franchises, are looking to arrive in Athens, and Golden Chick will open in Watkinsville. The coming year will bring moves for Donderos’ and for Five & Ten, although neither very far, and the opening of Marker 7 Coastal Grille in Five Points, which should be open in March, as well as Grindhouse Killer Burgers on Lumpkin, The World Famous (mostly music but also chicken and waffles) in the former Wilson’s downtown and Creature Comforts, a brewpub in what was Snow Tire, around the corner. Two longtime projects: Ideal Bagel and La Puerta del Sol have me crossing my fingers they’ll come to fruition, and let’s hope Dexter Weaver’s alarm some months ago has staved off closure of Weaver D’s. One 2012 event that attracted an astonishing number of people downtown and I hope will be repeated in 2013 was the Athens Food Cart Fest, which packed the streets at the end of last March and showed that, trend or not, people are interested in mobile eateries.

Finally, as usual, here’s my wishlist for the year ahead: more than one Korean restaurant (the population is here to support it), someone who can make a go of it with a really excellent upscale breakfast on weekdays (Heirloom tried but scaled back to weekends), something good in the Local Jam and Five & Ten spots and ramen-ya (cheap,filling and tasty).