You are the director of my show The FN Dish and you are a smart, capable, likable fellow with good sense and judgment. Except, when it comes to one subject, you are a big dumbass. That subject is Atlanta.
You may remember that a few weeks ago, there was a plan for us to go to Atlanta to shoot a segment with Guy Fieri and possibly Alton Brown. You told Rachael, who also works on our show, “To get us in and out as fast as possible, I hate Atlanta.” It’s entirely possible that when you said those hateful, hurtful words you’d forgotten that I’d spent 7 years of my life in Atlanta and that it still holds a very dear place in my heart.
“Matthew!” I said. “Are you nuts? Atlanta’s awesome–we should stay there as long as possible.”
“Yuck,” you replied. “No thank you, you can have it.”
Strangely, I felt like I understood your misguided vitriol. I, myself, once had a very limited view of Atlanta. Back in middle school, I’d visited Atlanta with my JCC Teen Tour (yes, I was a Jew nerd) and we stayed downtown, ate at the Hard Rock Cafe and took a tour of the Coca Cola museum. Atlanta, for me, was much like what New York must be to the tourist who stays in Times Square, visits the M&Ms store and sees “The Little Mermaid”: a giant, soulless, corporate entity with no life, no quirk, no spark. I’m pretty sure that’s your slant: you came to Atlanta for work, you stayed in an ugly chain hotel, and ate your meals in sterile silence.
Well, Mr. Matthew, consider this e-mail your gateway to a whole new Atlanta. I will show you, in the next thousand paragraphs, everything you missed and why you are indeed such a dumbass. In fact, I’ll write you a guide. Here’s how to enjoy Atlanta the right way, a proven way. How is it proven? Craig came along with me this weekend for his first Atlanta visit. He was wary at first–“Atlanta?” he asked from the couch when I suggested it, “I dunno”–but, by the end, he was in love. Seriously. He’s doing the dishes right now, let me ask him.
“Craig, what do you think of Atlanta now that you’ve been there?”
“It was funky and edgy and reminded me of Seattle.” Which is high praise because Seattle is where he’s from and he loves it.
So here we go: An Atlanta Lovers Guide to Atlanta.
Step One: Stay with Josh, Katy and Lucy
My friends Josh and Katy are the best. They’re old friends from college and now they have a daughter, Lucy, who gives new meaning to the word adorable. Take, for example, this video of her playing a game she invented with Craig:
Having friends in a city you visit is always an asset, often a necessity. I can’t imagine, for example, having visited Paris two years ago without knowing that I’d get to see my friends David and Clotilde, friends who live in Paris and could steer me in the right directions. Josh & Katy will do the same for you, plus Josh will make you Swedish pancakes:
Stay with them and you’re off to a good start.
Step Two: Heed the Advice of John Kessler
John Kessler is one of the nation’s best food writers and he lives and works in Atlanta. I met him years ago when I started my blog (we had lunch) and since then we’ve stayed in touch. When I told him I was coming in this weekend with Craig who’d never been to Atlanta before, he wrote me a massive, entertaining and highly informative e-mail that’s essential reading for anyone eager to discover the heart and soul of Atlanta:
Here’s what I think you need to do to see the character of the city today…1. go the the King Center, then get a paleta or Mexican ffruit cup right up the street at LottaFrutta. Poke around the corner to the Irwin Street Market, and if it’s after 4, stop in for a glass of wine at Krog Bar (next to Rathbun’s).
As you can tell by this picture, we didn’t follow the first half of these instructions but we did make it to Krog Bar and as you can see by this picture, it is thoroughly unique:
Actually, what that picture shows is something that most don’t realize about Atlanta: many of its hidden gems are hidden away in weird industrial looking lots where factories used to be. Like Krog bar, which used to be a stove-making factory. Same is true for The Floataway Cafe, where we went at the end of our trip.
But back to John Kessler:
Also, drive through the Krog Street tunnel, hang a right and follow the street all the way to the end at Carroll Street, turn left and look for the Cabbagetown Market. The blonde is Lisa, the brunette Maria…the place is very true and strange…raw milk, beaded handbags, Sen Sen, local pullet eggs and a great pimento cheese burger made with grass-fed Ga. beef)…you’ll love it, and I’m thinking Craig will love seeing Cabbagetown.
Once again, John was right. See the pictures:
Craig spotted these raw chickpeas and we bought a bag for the car:
And here’s Maria with the sen-sen:
It’s marketed as Haribo Zan and it’s apparently quite big in Europe (what say you, European readers?) and, after taking it back to Josh and Katy’s, we determined that it tasted like a breath mint mixed with a cigarette. Consume accordingly.
What this passage reveals is just how Atlanta works: it has charming, offbeat little communities that you have to go out and discover. Which leads us to our next step.
Step Three: Go Out and Discover Charming, Offbeat Little Communities
I didn’t take pictures, but if you’re new to Atlanta you must visit: Little Five Points (which Craig said was the most Seattlish of them all) where you should eat a burger at The Vortex (a giant skull that you can see here); The Virginia Highlands which is posh and a bit like the Hamptons; East Atlanta, where I ventured with Craig one night in hopes of noshing at Iris only to find it’s no longer there. Instead, there was a taco place that was pretty mediocre:
But there’s a gay bar nearby called Mary’s which was a favorite for my friends when we all lived there. Craig and I popped in and we were startled to see people smoking indoors: haven’t those laws changed yet? But I realize I won’t sell you on a gay bar unless we get to step four…
Step Four: Embrace Your Inner Gay
Craig pulled up a survey, when we got back, that said that Atlanta was the 3rd gayest city in America (after San Francisco and Seattle) in terms of gays per capita. I can understand then why you, a heterosexual male who used to work for the NBA, might be wary of such a statistic. But then again you did watch the “Project Runway” finale and you texted me about Christian’s fierceness, so who knows? There are two litmus tests for you. The first is an absolute Atlanta favorite, a place I’d encourage anyone going to Atlanta to visit: Agnes & Muriel’s.
Kitschy in all the right ways, Agnes & Muriel’s is a converted house that used to burst at the seams with Barbie dolls in various tableaus. The Barbies are temporarily gone, but the kitsch and spirit of the place aren’t. What you’ll find is a vintage 50’s countertop, TV sets, cake stands and waiters with sass and Southern charm that’ll melt your little heart, yes it will. And the food is better than ever. Check out this fried chicken plate:
The chicken was crisp and tender and the sweet potato fries perfection. The garlic broccoli salad was actually a disappointment, I won’t lie, but they quickly replaced it with much better coleslaw. My friend Carrie, who we dined with, had a winning plate of French toast with bananas:
All in all it was a fantastic meal and one you won’t soon forget.
The other litmus test isn’t really a litmus test unless you go to the one in Midtown, in which case you better embrace your inner gay because you’ll be eating right across the street from a gay bookstore. That place is The Flying Biscuit and it’s the first place we headed straight from the airport:
Of all the places I left behind when I left Atlanta, the place I most definitely missed the most was The Flying Biscuit. Maybe it’s not the world’s greatest restaurant, but it’s the place I associate the most with the 7 years I lived in Atlanta. The food is reliable and the biscuits divine. How do they get them to rise so high?
That’s the signature biscuit with the Southern scramble, a nice mix of eggs, bacon and collard greens. The potatoes were negligible but the biscuit, oh the biscuit. Even Craig oooh-ed and ahhh-ed. “That’s a great biscuit,” he said.
When you’re done embracing your inner gay, take a stroll in Piedmont Park–a lovely park with real character. We walked the whole way around and overheard many delightful Southern conversations, especially one about catfish and cornbread. This is the real deal.
Step Five: Suck It Up and Go To the Aquarium
Ok, so it’s touristy and for kids, but there’s something wonderful about Atlanta’s new aquarium. I moved away right before it was finished, so I was particularly excited that Craig, a lover of all things aquatic, was eager to go. The tanks are beautifully illuminated and there’s just enough variety to keep even the most jaded aquarium-goer engaged. Check out these pictures (some of which I’m mighty proud of):
Step Six: You Must Eat at Watershed
We had many great meals this weekend in Atlanta (we loved the crabcake at Floataway Cafe, though not the service) but none came close to the two meals we had at Watershed in Decatur.
There are many things you should know about Watershed, but the most important thing is its story. The best version of this story is the one Kim Severson told in The New York Times but I’m having trouble finding it online. Essentially, though, Emily Sailers of The Indigo Girls opened Watershed and solicited Scott Peacock, an openly gay former cook for either the governor or mayor, to be her chef. He said he’d do it on one condition: if she also hired Edna Lewis, a legend of Southern cooking, the granddaughter of slaves and one of Peacock’s heroes. Sailers agreed and Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock not only cooked together when Watershed opened, but lived together too.
Just that idea–this young gay gay and this older black woman living together in mutual admiration, working together too–makes me love Watershed. Ms. Lewis, sadly, passed away two years ago but her legacy lives on in the food.
Take, for example, this plate I had at lunch:
Those are salmon croquettes served with the creamiest grits you could ever imagine, a whole roasted tomato and spinach. It’s a lovely, loving plate and among the most honest, authentic plates of food I’ve been served in some time. Plus, it’s a steal at $12.
We started the meal with celery and pimento cheese, a Southern stable that Edna Lewis writes about with Scott Peacock in their book “The Gift of Southern Cooking”:
It’s a mix of sharp cheddar cheese and peppers and probably some mayo, but it’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted–in a very good way.
And for dessert, I made Craig order the apple cake even though he was stuffed to the gills. But how could we ignore another Edna Lewis signature?
Dense and not too sweet, this is Southern food at its best. Refined but rustic, all the same. Look at that dollop of whipped cream: doesn’t that just scream love? That’s what this meal was–just a big giant hug of food and love.
Plus, Craig was starstruck because Emily Sailers was eating at the bar and he loves The Indigo Girls.
On Sunday, before we left for the airport, we brought Josh, Katy and Lucy to meet John Kessler and his daughter Mary for brunch at Watershed. Again, the place was charming and bright (I love bright restaurants: it makes such a difference). Our waiter was the same waiter from two days earlier (I think his name is Doug and he was sweet and always helpful) and he encouraged me to order the most Southern of Southern breakfasts: Country Style Ham Steak, Red Eye Gravy, Grits, Eggs, and Buttermilk Biscuits.
Everyone stared at the giant amount of food set down before me, but I just felt–again–like that plate was a mountain of love. And that’s what Atlanta’s all about. If you seek out the love, you will find it and then you’ll never want to leave. You’ve heard of Southern hospitality? Atlanta has it, but it has it in the coolest way. It’s not forced, it’s not fake. You have to know where it’s real–just like you do in all the world’s best cities.
I hope this e-mail inspires you to quit your job, pack your bags and move your family down South. Actually, I hope you don’t quit because I like working with you. But I hope that in the coming months we’ll get another chance to go to Atlanta and that when we do, you’ll recall this post and say to Rachael: “Atlanta? Why, my mind’s been changed, let’s stay there for a whole week!”
Until you insulted it, I didn’t realize how much I missed it. Now that I’ve been back, I can’t wait to go back again.
Atlanta, I love you. I’m sorry I left you for so long.
With great sincerity,
Adam D. Roberts, Esquire