I Grew Up in Atlanta — Here's How the Culinary Scene Changed Before My Eyes
In Atlanta, we pride ourselves on knowing what things used to be. Sometimes it's a street's original name, even after it has been changed to honor a local politician, or to shake off a dodgy reputation. We remember the nicknames of neighborhoods that have been spruced up to reflect changing real-estate interests. We stubbornly refer to department stores that have long since morphed into Macy's.
We may be attached to our past, but we're not stuck there. Atlanta, once the beacon of the South, is now a light for the whole country. Everyone knows about our pop-culture icons, hip-hop superstars, and reality TV franchises; these days our movie and television industries rival those of Los Angeles. Scores of writers and fine artists call this city home. At the Mayor's Masked Ball a couple of years ago, the party favors read ATLANTA INFLUENCES EVERYTHING. As the old folks might say, "We're so proud we could pop."
I grew up in Southwest Atlanta, now called "The SWATS." In the 1970s and 80s, what was known as "The City Too Busy to Hate" was still racially segregated, but not in the way you might expect. When you hear the term racial segregation you may think about Lester Maddox, who, in 1964, before he became governor, defied the Civil Rights Act by refusing to serve Black people in his restaurant. But the Atlanta I grew up in was what we used to call a "Chocolate City," a showpiece of African-American progress where Black children were driven by Black bus drivers, taught by Black teachers, and treated by Black doctors. We hardly ever explored the rest of the city, spending most of our time within about five square miles.
I left the city after college, but never shook the feeling that Atlanta was my home. Twenty years and four novels later, I moved back, this time eager to discover all of it — not just the precious quadrant of my childhood. I found a place about eight miles from where I was raised, in a neighborhood called Glenwood Park. My mother and father, now aged 75 and 84, respectively, act like they need a passport and a visa to come visit me. "It's only a fifteen-minute drive," I chide, but I know what they mean. The Atlanta I inhabit today feels a million miles from the city I grew up in.
Glenwood Park is a newish development in the heart of the city — halfway between the stately Victorians of Grant Park and the funky, alternative streets of Little Five Points. Its energy epitomizes that of an exciting Southern city on the upswing. The area is walkable and bikeable and filled with independently owned restaurants, coffee shops, and stores. The neighbors — diverse by any metrics — know each other, and each other's dogs, by name.
One of the things I love most about Glenwood Park, and the entire Atlanta metro area, is the trees. When I bought my home, I learned that if I wanted to chop down any tree with a trunk thicker than my wrist, I must first get permission from the city. As a result, we live in an urban forest, our busy streets lined with magnificent magnolias and opulent oaks. Delicate, twisted dogwoods greet you from nearly every front yard. Spring is a riot of blooms, and in fall, the leaves blaze.
The lockdowns of 2020 hit Atlanta hard, as they did the rest of the world. But in the spring of 2021, as the trees once again sprouted new leaves, we emerged from our homes to reacquaint ourselves with our city. For me, the experience was even more intense because I had returned after so many years away, only to be shut in for more than a year. The exploration was emotional.
Atlanta used to be known for its hole-in-the-wall soul-food joints, but nearly all of them have shut down. I'm sad to think that I will never enjoy another slice of Chanterelle's red velvet cake. Oily and asymmetrical, the dessert made up in flavor for what it lacked in looks. Luckily, the Busy Bee Café, in the historic West End neighborhood, is still in business, with a line of customers out the door waiting for the fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens that have kept it in business for more than half a century. I waited about 20 minutes to place my order, and another 20 to receive my plastic-foam to-go dishes. The warm, flaky-crusted blackberry cobbler was worth every second.
The soul-food joints of today have burst out of the confines of Southwest Atlanta. Soul: Food & Culture occupies a prominent space in Krog Street Market, a food hall just south of Inman Park. On a Friday afternoon, the stalls at Krog Street bustle with a crowd that's as diverse and cosmopolitan as the food.
At Soul, I ordered a fried catfish sandwich, mac and cheese, and a fried apple pie, then pulled up a stool at the bar. On one side of me sat a man wearing coveralls with the logo of the power company; on the other, a bearded man cuddled a baby strapped to his chest. The catfish, served still sizzling from the oil, remained true to its roots, but condiments like pickled red onion modernized the flavor, and the frozen sweet tea perfectly balanced out the tang of the hot sauce. My neighbor in the power-company uniform laughed. "Good, right? I get a fish sandwich every Friday, and I'm not even Catholic!"
Krog Street Market is situated right on the Atlanta BeltLine, a manicured path for walkers and cyclists on an old railway line that, when completed, will form a 22-mile loop around the city center, connecting dozens of neighborhoods. (It's hard not to see the project, which began in 2005 and is scheduled to wrap up in the next few months, as an optimistic metaphor.)
One spring morning I rode my bicycle along the BeltLine to Ponce City Market. This structure used to be a Sears store and distribution warehouse, but is now a shopping center with chains like Williams Sonoma and West Elm, as well as small businesses and a food court. I left my Electra with the market's bike valet, who heard my voice and asked me if I was an Atlanta native. Then he asked, "What high school did you go to?" The answer to this question is like the secret password that gets you into the speakeasy. "Mays High," I said. "Grady," he said with pride, pointing to his chest. It's called Midtown High now, but I knew exactly what he meant.
More Trip Ideas: 30 Best Things to Do in Atlanta
In Ponce City Market, I headed to the Root Baking Co. in search of its famous chocolate sandwich, but at noon there were none left. When I ordered a slice of the coffee cake instead, the woman who took my order told me, in a charming European accent, "We mill our own flour." I asked her to repeat herself three times because I was sure I had misheard her. As she spoke, she washed a handful of okra varying in color from garnet red to leaf green. "It's for our grits bowl," she explained. Again, I asked her to repeat herself — this time because grits is not something you expect to hear in what I was by then pretty sure was a French accent.
After scarfing down the coffee cake, jazzed on sugar and caffeine, I went to Bombchel, a dress shop that showcases tie-dye and West African wax prints. On prominent display was the new novel by Ugandan superstar Jennifer Makumbi. The sales assistant explained that all the clothes are crafted sustainably by women in Liberia. She pointed to a photo of a woman smiling in front of an old-school treadle sewing machine. "Miss Beatrice made the skirt you tried on." And with that the skirt I tried on—a gorgeous blue wax print — became the skirt I just bought, along with a candle and a trio of waist beads.
More Trip Ideas: 15 Inspiring Places in the U.S. to Learn About Black History
Back on the BeltLine, my bike basket stuffed with purchases, I pedaled past a plethora of words and images. From the jumble of colors covering the walls of the underpass known as the Krog Street Tunnel to the curated images on the Wylie Street Corridor, vibrant street art is a trademark of the new Atlanta. The Civic Walls project is a collection of six murals designed to spark meaningful conversation. One piece reads PAINTINGS AIN'T POLICY, in the yellow and black font that evokes the iconic Black Lives Matter murals. Another portrays a defiant fist with long pink fingernails, alongside the words WE ARE HERE.
Together with the street art and grab-and-go food, Atlanta is also going through a renaissance in luxurious places to stay. The Candler Hotel — we used to call it the Coca-Cola building because it was built by Asa Griggs Candler, who founded the company — sits at the southern tip of downtown. Once a grand office building, it has retained its majestic marble lobby and brass mail drop, but it now has a modern feel. To me, the windows tell the story. I stayed in a room that overlooked Woodruff Park. The neon Coca-Cola sign, a local landmark, swirled in the distance. The curtains, a pattern that my mother would call a "moody floral," were decorated with dogwood blooms, not magnolias — Southern sumptuousness without evoking Tara, the plantation in Gone With the Wind. The restaurant, By George, was closed, but the bartender served me a classic boulevardier. It was perfect: strong, but not too sweet.
The Wylie Hotel is also steeped in history. Just a hop over from Ponce City Market, the white-brick structure is somehow hidden in plain sight. I have driven that stretch of road hundreds of times, but I never noticed the striking façade, just feet from the busy roadway. Its restaurant, Mrs. P's Bar & Kitchen, was the first drag bar in Atlanta, dating back to the 1950s. It remained open until the 80s, despite police harassment and multiple raids. The current Mrs. P's manages to be both plush and laid-back, and the cocktails (and surprisingly delicious mocktails) are served by tattooed bartenders who may offer to whip up a little something special suited to your taste.
After spending a few nights in staycation mode, I was happy to get back to my own stomping ground. Vesper is a bar in Glenwood Park that typifies the vibe of today's Atlanta. The bartenders are serious about their cocktails, but no one cares what you wear, as long as you look good in it. I swung by on a Sunday afternoon. The place was packed with folks eager to meet Andre Dickens, the mayoral candidate who went on to blow everyone's mind by making it to the runoff in November 2021, overtaking a former mayor. News of the spontaneous meet-and-greet spread via excited text messages and group chats. With his blend of idealism, practicality, and superb fashion, Dickens wowed us all. As he left, an elderly man addressed him as "Mr. Mayor." It turned out he was right.
Still buzzing from my Casino Royale cocktail, I overheard a table of drinkers devising a strategy to eat at Breakfast at Barney's, a new restaurant on the outskirts of downtown. The line, they said, is often wrapped around the block.
Pro tip: try going at 9:45 a.m. on a Tuesday, as I did. You'll have your pick of a table and space to peruse the menu, which offers Southern delicacies like salmon croquettes and eggs, shrimp and grits, and chicken wings and waffles. You'll also find lobster mac and cheese, pancakes garnished with actual gold, and "soul rolls" — which are kind of like Thanksgiving dinner deep-fried in an egg-roll wrapper. I'm not doing the rolls justice with this description — you just have to try them.
The surprise on the menu was the outrageous 24-layer red velvet cake. Skeptical, I didn't order any, but the manager brought a slice to my table anyway. Whole cakes are available for purchase; now I know what I'll be doing on my next birthday.
Also on the birthday itinerary is a visit to Lazy Betty. I didn't expect to discover an eight-course tasting menu with wine pairings next to an insurance office in a strip mall in Decatur, just northeast of Atlanta, but you take your miracles where you find them. My companion and I were seated at the chef's bar, where we could watch the kitchen choreography. The men and women at Lazy Betty work together like synchronized swimmers to produce course after amazing course. The biscuits were buttery and delicately layered; the Georgia shrimp causa — a variation on Peruvian comfort food served with a potato emulsion — was magical. Foie gras on pecan toast? Yes, please! The portion size was perfect: we ate all eight courses and were full, but still able to walk. At the end, we were handed little boxes containing perfectly crafted petits fours to take home.
Although I had planned to enjoy the chocolates for breakfast, I couldn't help eating them in my Lyft across town for a nightcap at Parlor, in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Castleberry Hill. Parlor is just that — a living room away from home where, on an average night, you'll find 20 or so folks lounging on sofas and overstuffed armchairs, ordering good bourbon and innovative tacos (the jerk shrimp and the lamb were standouts). The DJ plays mellow hip-hop, while the black-leather-clad servers steer you toward their favorite drinks on the menu. The crowd is cool yet friendly, as if they figure that being there gives everyone enough in common to be friends.
By the time my friend and I headed home, it was after 2 a.m. In the back of the Lyft I opened the window to see the skyline and the magnificent canopy of magnolias, oaks, and elms passing by.
The driver asked us if we'd had a good evening. Hearing my accent, he asked if I was an Atlanta native. Anticipating his next question I said, "Mays High School." And in true local fashion, he said, "I remember when it used to be Southwest High." "That was before my time," I told him.
We sailed through a few more stoplights before he spoke again. "This city has changed a lot."
"I know," I said. "Don't you just love it?"
Atlanta's Hottest Spots
Where to Stay
Candler Hotel: This grand, Hilton-operated hotel in the heart of downtown occupies a 1906 Beaux-Arts building that was the city's first skyscraper. Doubles from $207.
Wylie Hotel: A boutique property in the Old Fourth Ward that channels contemporary Southern charm—the 111 pet-friendly guest rooms feel high-tech yet cozy. Doubles from $180.
Where to Eat and Drink
Banshee: A stylish East Atlanta spot serving highbrow cuisine in chilled-out digs. Try the seared duck breast with griddled corn bread. Entrées $25 ‒ $36.
Breakfast at Barney's: This brunch go-to created a stir when it opened in 2020, debuting a $1,000 breakfast tower that includes, among other things, 24-karat-gold-garnished pancakes. Entrées $14 – $25.
Busy Bee Café: The fried catfish, candied yams, and collard greens have been causing lines out the door since 1947. Entrées $16 – $28.
By George: Chef Hugh Acheson offers his own take on Southern cuisine at his restaurant in the Candler Hotel. Entrées $25 – $75.
Estrellita: Filipino flavors run deep at this Grant Park favorite, where the star of the menu is ginataang bilo-bilo — plantains, jackfruit, and tapioca pearls in warm coconut milk. Entrées $11 ‒ $15.
Lazy Betty: Choose between the six- and eight-course tasting menus at this fine-dining restaurant in Candler Park. For a thrill, order the additional caviar service with organic vodka or Champagne. Tasting menus from $135.
Mrs. P's Bar & Kitchen: This plush dining room in the Wiley Hotel serves mini pork-belly tacos, chargrilled rib eye, and house pimento cheese. Entrées $19 – $38.
Parlor: Known for its intimate, cool-kid atmosphere, this Castleberry Hill cocktail lounge has DJs spinning everything from Motown to hip-hop. Entrées $25 ‒ $50.
Soul: Food & Culture: Inside Inman Park's Krog Street Market, this hit restaurant serves classic Atlanta flavors with a twist, like fried chicken with a brussels-sprout slaw. Entrées $8 ‒ $17.
Vesper: Come for the tapas and stay for the cocktails — the drinks menu takes inspiration from James Bond. Small plates $7 – $30.
Where to Shop
A version of this story first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Atlanta on My Mind.
- Meet the Couple Who Founded One of the Only U.S. Spaces Dedicated Solely to South Asian Art
- 8 AAPI Artists Worked Together to Depict the Diversity of L.A.'s Asian Neighborhoods — See the Photos
- This National Park Gateway Town in California Has an Underground Cave System, Stargazing, and an Incredible Inclusion Program
- Olympic Ice Skater Timothy Leduc Talks Travel, Skating on Cruise Ships, and Making History at the Winter Games