When I look back at the list of what restaurants and other eateries opened in Athens in 2017, it could be more impressive. Sure, there were bright spots. There always are. But I usually have an easier time picking my favorites. Maybe it’s that two places that would have made it onto the list closed before the year concluded—Peaches, back for a brief period on the Eastside spreading delight through Glenda Brown’s wonderful food, and Cafe Istanbul, an Athens branch of an Atlanta-based Turkish restaurant with three other locations that never quite found enough of an audience here, despite its fantastic eggplant and tasty pizzas.
The best meal I had all year was at Five & Ten, where Richard Neal is continuing to push the menu in botanically driven, weird and wonderful directions. If you think it’s lost its spot as the best restaurant in town, you’re wrong. No other place—and, honestly, we have serious culinary riches for a city of our size and average income—has same the combination of service, wine list, continually high level of cooking and a menu that changes constantly. That doesn’t mean it’s always flawless, but it achieves its goals a lot of the time.
New things that delighted included New Red Bowl Asian Bistro, in the former Peking on the Eastside, which has an excellent and real Szechuan menu that includes frogs as a protein choice. It may seem like a slick place to get a boring noodle bowl—and it is that, too, if you just look at the lunch specials—but it also has a huge array of more interesting choices and staff who get excited when you ask for the Szechuan stuff. La Superior, a lovely bakery on Highway 29 in front of Ingles, is a great addition to the area, with soft, delicate, cream-iced pasteles sold by the slice or by the whole cake, and surprisingly good bagels.
Better on the pan dulces front and offering sandwiches and other savories, Panaderia Tacuari moved from its original location on Fritz Mar Lane to Watkinsville, across from Publix, and added a kids’ area as well as air conditioning. Athens also got a Filipino food truck, a chromed-out faceted little trailer called Manila Express that is full-on cute and makes salty, fatty, crazy flavorful dishes. If you want to figure out where it’ll be, your best bet is to find it on Instagram @manilaexpressga. And The Fish Shack, a sweet, straightforward place that is just what its name says, began frying up tastiness at Broad and Hancock Wednesday through Saturday. You can even get it delivered through Cosmic Delivery, but then you’d miss the family atmosphere.
We did get some new chains—J. Buffalo Wings, in Beechwood, which actually does a pretty good fried rice; Charlie Graingers on Epps Bridge Parkway, with a wide array of hot dogs; a branch of Atlanta’s J.R. Crickets doing wings on Hawthorne; Roll It Up, a rolled ice cream franchise on Alps Road; approximately 1 kajillion fast food franchises on Highway 29, near Space Kroger—but in retrospect it seems like a fairly good year for independent businesses. Mama’s Boy opened a second location, in Oconee County, which is big and bright and gives them tons of space. La Michoacana… Es Natural, my favorite ice cream and paleta place, also added another branch, inside the Eastside Cali N Tito’s, and began selling its popsicles in a cooler inside Los Compadres on Prince.
1000 Faces moved into a much bigger space downtown, on Thomas Street, with food and plenty of tables, and Lindsey’s Culinary Market was just about ready to open on the ground floor of the same building. Akademia, a brewpub long in the works, started doing business near Georgia Square Mall, in the old Musician’s Warehouse, with a heavy emphasis on sours and beers incorporating a ton of flavors and some good bar nibbles, plus a kids’ menu.
Downtown, Ahi Hibachi and Poke opened next to Athens Wok, doing quick and tasty poke bowls. Clarke’s Standard replaced the sadly missed Branded Butcher, near the Georgia Theatre, with a less interesting menu but some nicely executed twists on bar food. And The Office Sports Bar and Grill opened in the West Washington Street deck. The Chase Park warehouses got a coffee shop and snack retailer in Veronica’s Sweet Spot. The Epps area added Woks Up, a sort of stir-fry place with goals of being a franchise. Watkinsville got a solid pizza place in Fully Loaded Pizza Kitchen, an a.m. quick biscuit place in Suncatcher Cafe and a place for people in golf shirts to have dinner in Pour. Las Monarcas opened in a former Huddle House on Danielsville Road and Wing House Grill in Hull (with beer!). Showtime Bowl completely renovated and added food from the dudes behind The Pine, with The 11th Pin.
Takorea and Copper Creek closed downtown, as did Koyla (sigh) on South Milledge, which has been replaced by Athens Pizza, and Two Story Coffee, in Five Points, which is in the middle of being renovated into The Expat, a cocktail-heavy serious restaurant from Atlanta’s Jerry and Krista Slater. La Dolce Vita acquired new owners and a new name, Dolce Vita Trattoria Italiana, but kept many delicious preparations. Chops and Hops, Craft and Heirloom all got new chefs, the last of which, Garrett Macfalda, should have a new menu in place by the time this runs. Donna Chang’s added lunch with noodle and rice bowls, and has been serving a stellar fried eggplant dish full of Szechuan pepper.
Still to come in 2018, some sooner than others: Chick-fil-A, in the former Five Guys space downtown, Caborita Cantina and Grill on Mitchell Bridge Road, Little Ice Cream Dude’s Cool World (which made its Kickstarter), Peter Dale’s Maepole on Chase Street, a second location of Sakura (in Five Points), El Barrio Tacos and Tequila in Five Points, a branch of franchise Mamoun’s Falafel out of New York, Franklin House Cafe (a coffee shop at Broad and Thomas downtown), The Falls (with chef Jarad Blanton at the helm, near Mama’s Boy No. 2) and a project from Bain Mattox in the old 1000 Faces on Barber Street (Breakfast? Soft-serve ice cream? Beer? I’ve heard a lot of things, and any of them would be welcome).
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