When Atlantans want genuine Southern comfort (food, that is), they drop by the neighbors' place—next door in Decatur

Ericka McConnell

The received wisdom about Atlanta is true. It's a boomtown that's been endlessly reinventing and promoting itself, ever since Scarlett O'Hara turned those green velvet curtains into a gown. The city's latest restaurants only reinforce that image. In Buckhead, they're all glitter and luxe: think lobster, oysters, and truffles airlifted in from distant climes. In formerly run-down neighborhoods such as Midtown and Virginia-Highlands, they tend to be worldly and ironic, with languid servers handing out tapas and arty pizzas. But if you step across the city limits into the adjacent town of Decatur, you leave Atlanta's brassiness behind.

A classic Old South county seat laid out around a courthouse square, Decatur predates Atlanta by 20 years. Though the metropolis threatens to engulf it, the proud little town of 17,000 has never quite succumbed. Atlanta is all about bigger, taller, and shinier, while Decatur remains homely in the best sense of the word. It's also a place where differences aren't just tolerated, but welcomed—the influence of Agnes Scott College and nearby Emory University, and of its sizable African-American and East Asian populations and thriving lesbian and gay scene.

Atlanta's infamous sprawl, with its endless traffic jams and numbing suburban culture, has nudged people back to the city center. That includes downtown Decatur, where 24 restaurants and 15 boutiques have opened in the past five years. Food lovers from across the area have been heading over for a taste, and coming back for seconds. Like Decatur's population, most of these restaurants are wildly original and eccentric. They aren't temples of haute cuisine; they're more like the dining rooms of friends who happen to be fabulous chefs. Don't visit them to see and be seen, but rather to eat very well. Here are seven of the best.

WATERSHED 406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave.; 404/378-4900; dinner for two $50. A hometown location was a no-brainer for the group of women who started Watershed, including Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, herself an Emory alum. They renovated a former service station in a modern palette of aluminum and mint green. Chef Scott Peacock's food is a revelation of freshness and honesty. In his hands a four-vegetable plate, that old Southern tradition, loses its greasy heaviness and becomes so ethereal it needs its kernel-studded corn fritters for ballast. But don't think you'll eat lightly here: Irresistible creamed soups make you feel you've been sipping from the butter churn. The moist chocolate cake is so rich—yet not too dense or sweet—that a dollop of whipped cream acts as a foil. And then there's the newly legendary Tuesday-night fried chicken dinner, when free-range birds are fixed the old-fashioned way: quartered, brined, soaked for 24 hours in buttermilk, and pan-fried in iron skillets until they emerge moist and fork-tender.

ATLANTIC STAR 105 Sycamore Place; 404/377-8384; dinner for two $55. This enormous multilevel bistro, located in a former icehouse, has a French-accented menu with Southern touches. The long, inviting raw bar specializes in oysters from both coasts, ceviche, and stone-crab claws. An appetizer salad of sweet smoked trout, baby spinach, spiced pecans, and bacon-shallot dressing could be the centerpiece of a meal. Seared salmon on a bed of tiny lentils mixed with crisp lardons and laced with white-truffle oil should make anybody's short list of great dishes; ditto the flaky, warm apple tart with cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce. A languid afternoon snack on the restaurant's terrace—perhaps the grilled mushroom napoleon with a glass of crisp Côtes du Rhône—nicely punctuates a ramble around old Decatur.

SAGE ON SYCAMORE 121 Sycamore St.; 404/373-5574; dinner for two $45. Eight years ago, two husband-and-wife teams opened Le Giverny, one of Decatur's first authentic French restaurants, in a strip mall away from the center of town. Now wise to the downtown renaissance, they decided to locate their new restaurant at ground zero, in a pedestrian zone right on Court Square. Sage's menu is global-contemporary, but the sensibility comes straight from a bistro kitchen. The plates are amply laden, and pretty without being precious. The complex combinations almost always hit the mark—such as the Caesar salad, topped with curls of fried calamari and tossed with a smoky-hot chipotle dressing. Another winner is tender duck confit on a warm salad of roasted shallots and sweet peppers, dotted with goat cheese. Sage has a full bar, where you can pull up a stool next to a regular and try a juicy Black Angus burger with bacon, arugula, tomato, and guacamole on grilled brioche.

FOOD BUSINESS 115 Sycamore St.; 404/371-9121; dinner for two $40. Right next door is another restaurant in an old brick storefront—this one blown out to the rafters and rebuilt as a soaring trilevel loft displaying the work of local artists. Ron Eyester cooks standards with zing: his signature crab cakes are sauced with shocking-pink horseradish rémoulade. The pork tenderloin has a crust of Szechwan peppercorns; grilled scallops arrive with guacamole, pico de gallo, and cilantro cream. Regulars flip for the breads and desserts, made at the restaurant's own Metro Market nearby. The staff is knowledgeable and warm—unflappable, too. Last New Year's Eve, the restaurant held the reception for a midnight wedding in the square, to which bride, groom, and guests all wore in-line skates. Pure Decatur.

NOODLE 205 E. Ponce de Leon Ave.; 404/378-8622; dinner for two $30. The Shous, a trio of Chinese-Korean siblings, serve deft renditions of noodle dishes from all across Asia. Big, steaming bowls—a red curry and coconut broth, say, or Korean noodles with beef or pork in a sweet bean sauce—arrive with generous helpings of perfectly steamed vegetables (nowhere near raw, but retaining just that slightest crunch). Another former service station, it's a high-ceilinged space that's been whimsically redone. There's a collection of flea-market teapots in altarlike cabinets and, painted on the floor, a giant red chrysanthemum from which long noodles radiate across the restaurant.

SUPPER CLUB 308 W. Ponce de Leon Ave.; 404/370-1207; dinner for two $65. "Remember: smoking after 10 p.m. only; no weird check splitting; lusty hedonists preferred." The disclaimer on the menu at this impossibly romantic, organza-draped, and candlelit spot reflects the quirkiness of its self-trained chef-owner, Michele Niesen. Her little storefront has a homemade swank, with all kinds of nooks and alcoves for privacy. Although Niesen's culinary touchstones are France and Italy, she has also learned a few tricks in Mexico. A fish taco with intense chipotle-spiked slaw is a perennial. So are the chocolate truffles made by her next-door neighbor. You might also find cassoulet, pasta carbonara with Gorgonzola and spinach, or mussels in white wine and garlic. Niesen's handwritten wine card, organized under headings like "rustic and earthy" and "fruit-driven and easy," is small, well-chosen, and continually evolving—just like her menu.

EURASIA BISTRO 129 E. Ponce de Leon Ave.; 404/687-8822; dinner for two $45. The newest kid on the block occupies the most sophisticated space in Decatur, with a dramatic barrel-vaulted ceiling, railings and wine racks in sinuous wrought iron, and lighting that shows off a well-chosen collection of South Asian artifacts. The surprising French-Asian creations include spicy roast quail atop a zesty slaw of green papaya and red onion; a crusty grilled triple rack of lamb on a bed of sautéed mushrooms and greens in a Thai basil reduction; and filet mignon on a noodle cake served with a slightly sweet Indonesian curry.

Decatur's new chefs get ideas at the Dekalb Farmers Market, a local institution that takes place daily in a hangar-sized warehouse. From its staff to its merchandise to its clientele, this is the most international spot in Georgia. It's not a true farmers' market so much as a food department store, with wine, cheese, and deli departments, a bakery, a flower shop, and a coffee roaster. Stop by to admire the acres of exotic produce and the 60 varieties of fresh fish, or head to the condiments aisle to stock up on Major MacDonald's tomato-garlic-almond relish from Scotland, green curry paste from Thai Kitchen, aioli from Ferrer of Spain, and walnut-sage pesto from Atlanta's own Bella Cucina. Dekalb Farmers Market, 3000 E. Ponce de Leon Ave.; 404/377-6400.