Photo Credit: Whitley Carpenter
Punta Cana Latin Grill
If there’s an obvious story on the Athens food scene in 2019, it’s the number of places that closed: Ike & Jane; Eden’s Cafe; the downtown Taco Stand; Pouch, which is still in the retail business; El Zarco; Bella Noche; Bajan Delight; The Sultan; Caborita; Manila Express; Koa Surf Bar; both locations of Keba; the Eastside and Five Points Your Pies; the very last Mirko Pasta; Taqueria Mundos; Magnolia Cafe in Crawford; Pinky’s Indian Cuisine in Commerce (but worth the drive); Franklin House Cafe; probably Craft Public House (still unconfirmed); Big Family Cafe; the brick-and-mortar location of the Phickles store; and Uncommon Gourmet. They all closed in 2019.
It wasn’t just local places either. Burgerim, both locations of Gigi’s Cupcakes, Bone Island Grill, Fatz, On the Border, Crazy Dough’s, Golden Chick and the downtown Einstein Bros. Bagels also all shuttered. Food costs went up around the world. People wanted, rightly, to get paid more. Rents in Athens continued to grow faster than salaries. None of that is good for restaurants, which have tight margins at the best of times.
On the other hand, if I told you that Athens added Persian, Korean, Peruvian, Dominican, Viet-Cajun and birria restaurants in 2019, plus a kombucha place, a cheese shop and some upscale eateries, you might conclude we were doing OK after all. It’s hard to tell, but there absolutely were bright spots.
Mifflin House took over from Big Family Cafe, in the Homewood Hills shopping center, serving fresh, flavorful, well-presented Peruvian food in a family atmosphere, and appeared to be finding an audience. Farm Cart transitioned from a food truck to an incredibly well executed brick and mortar, expanding its options, having fun with specials on a regular basis and not wavering in its commitment to good local produce as the basis of its menu. Punta Cana Latin Grill moved into the space that was previously Siri Thai in the Bottleworks on Prince, becoming Athens’ first Dominican restaurant. If you need something to fill your belly and warm your heart, mofongo—plantains mashed with broth and a ton of garlic—will do it. International Grill and Bar opened toward the end of the year on Mitchell Bridge Road, offering the super accessible cuisine that is Persian food, with an amazing room for kids to play in while their families eat in peace, and plans to expand the menu to add things like tahdig, a wonderful crisped rice dish.
D92 Korean BBQ opened on Baxter Street, part of a small chain out of Atlanta doing legit Korean, with great banchan that changes regularly, fun popsicles for dessert that are hard to obtain anywhere else—even in Duluth—shiny music videos for boy bands and lunch specials that are a good deal. Kajun Seafood and Wings didn’t offer a lot of frills, but its spicy garlic butter-steamed plates of shrimp, crab, crawfish and more hit the spot. Figment Kombucha opened up on Baxter, filling up growlers with beautiful, plant-based fermented tea. Chuck’s Fish took over the old Greyhound building downtown, executing a great renovation of the historic space. And if the Lil’ Ice Cream Dude finally opening up his Cool World store on the Eastside isn’t a feel-good story, I don’t know what is. See? 2019 wasn’t all hot garbage.
Also opening last year were Latino’s Taqueria y Mariscos, taking over what had been La Estrella, on Hawthorne, for a long time; Giana’s Mexican Grill and Lickin’ Chicken on Oconee Street; Square One Fish Co. making a return to Athens, this time in Normaltown, in the renovated former P&M Army Store; Uncle Ernie’s Pub ’n’ Grub on Washington Street downtown, marking the return of the Battinelli clan to the restaurant biz; an Athens location of Jefferson’s Carriage House buffet on Atlanta Highway; Doughby’s Pizza and More in Watkinsville; El Barrio, from SP2 restaurant group, in a renovation of an old house in Five Points, doing tacos and tequila and mostly outdoor dining; Pelican’s Snoballs on Baxter; Matt Downes’ Homewood Social bowling alley in Homewood Hills; Birrieria & Taqueria Jalisco in Nicholson, serving tasty goat and mutton stew; Picnic Basket Meal Market, Butcher & Vine and Martino’s in Watkinsville, the latter in the former location of Bella Noche; locations of Newk’s, Bruster’s and I Heart Mac and Cheese—the first two on Epps Bridge, the latter in The Mark—and a La Cabana de Don Juan on Highway 78, in the same shopping center as Fox’s Pizza Den. Dolce Vita Trattoria Italiana became Osteria Athena, with a tweaked menu and perhaps lower prices, and Buvez, in Boulevard, added a full bar at the beginning of the year.
This year should bring, at the very least, an El Azteca downtown; the opening of the Cafe on Lumpkin in Five Points, with a proper English tea and nice baked goods; a Farm Burger on Prince, in the old St. Joe’s development; whatever kind of restaurant Go Bar’s proprietors decide to turn it into; Hook and Reel Cajun Seafood and Bar, where On the Border was; a Jinya Ramen Bar downtown; Richard Miley’s Noodle Bar in Watkinsville; a location of weed-themed sandwich franchise Cheba Hut; Athentic Brewing in Boulevard; and, fingers crossed, the third Cali N Tito’s, off Jefferson Road.