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glum food in Athens, GA, or: are Latinos going to save the South?

  • d

I'm wrapping up a two-and-a-half year stint in Athens, and wondering whether there's hope for the food scene in town. Also wondering whether the problems here are specific to Athens or signs of more general regional phenomena. Of course it may also be that this is just how people eat in college towns.

Let's start with the positives: Excellent, cheap tacos at Agua Linda and reasonably good stuff at the new Peruvian chicken spot across the street. Like many out-of-the-way towns in the South, we've got gads of new Latino immigrants. They're probably our best hope.

Five Star Day does a good job with inexpensive, Southern-inspired food.

On the downside, there isn't any passable barbecue in a five-county radius, as far as I know. Downhome fare is okay at Wilson's, but mostly for the entrees rather than the sides, and of course the sides are what you're after. Eating at Automatic for the People (or whatever it's called) is a frustrating and grim experience.

Asian food: it just can't be done. There's no pizza to speak of. Honestly there isn't really a decent diner.

In fairness I'm leaving out the Five and Ten, and I've only been to the new Italian place in the Bottleworks once. And my tone is deliberately polemical. But out of curiosity, are there Athenians here who disagree? Or, for that matter, are there places I haven't listed that I should try in my last couple of weeks here?

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  1. I just moved away from Athens a week ago and one thing that I know I'll miss is the variety of food. I think for the size of the town, Athens has more unique and decent restaurants per capita than any other I've known. Lunch at Harry B's is a rite that will be hard to give up and I'll miss Achim's K-bobs. True, the ethnic scene is grim. There is no Chinese, Mediterranean or Spanish to speak of (though the new Cuban/Colombian place by Aqua Linda is pretty good).

    I'd suggest trying Bischero once more. The pizza there is as good as anything this side of Tuscany - or at least the Lower East Side. Also, head out to Caliente Cab (or whatever the new name is) if the weather's nice.

    Disclaimer: Besides Athens, the only home I've known is Bainbridge, GA, a town of about 10,000 with three non-chain restaurants. Were I a transplanted Atlantan, my views would be quite different, I'm sure.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Bryant

      Transplanted Atlantans are the main problem with Athens' food scene, if you ask me. Look at the wastelands of Alps, the East Side, the ATL Hwy...and the largely-pointless upscaling of downtown.

      I ate lunch at Mia Madonna today, and recommend it. Clocked is indeed good, but I see nothing particularly offensive about The Grill. Westside Peking is the only Chinese I'll eat here, and I do like it.

      Though it's cheap and tasty, I don't get too worked up on the Mexican/Latin/Caribbean/South American food in town. La Parilla (Prince Avenue and the Loop in Winn-Dixie center) is good. There's nothing exactly wrong with Caliente, Agua Linda, etc. but I used to live in South Florida, and there seemed to be considerably less pandering to the generic American palate down there.

      If I had only a few more weeks in town, I would eat breakfast at the Bluebird and Big City, lunch at Wilson's and the Grit, dinner and drinks at Speakeasy (and skip 5* altogether). I'd also try to eat Cecelia's cake @ Last Resort and get some cue from the place across Milledge from Bi-Lo (if it's open). If it's not, I'd hit Kelly's Jerk. I'd also eat Taco Stand, because it's terrible, but it's home.

      1. re: f

        I think this is a great, thoughtful post, and you're absolutely right about Atlanta's influence. (This is via the influx of HOPE students from Marietta, yes?)

        Couldn't disagree more about breakfast at Big City Bread, though. When I arrived I adored the place because of its bright funkiness and so forth, but the food and coffee are usually quite bad, and worse now that they've turned into a proper restaurant. Blue Sky has just gone through a similar transformation, and I can't imagine it's been improved either. Why does every coffee place in town feel it needs to grow into a restaurant?

        1. re: Derek

          HOPE students from Marietta is EXACTLY how I would put that influence, Derek!

          And I think that has a lot to do with what's happening @ Blue Sky (and Cookies & Co and Infusia, which I didn't much care for from the beginning, but which is hopelessly upscaled/menu-expanded now.

          I like Big City's baked goods, but don't eat their meals (breakfast in this instance being a selection from the pastry case and some Righteous Juice), so maybe that's where some of our differing opinion stems from. Yeah, the menu items never much appealed to me. And I, too, find the ambiance a major draw.

        2. re: f

          The wait at the bluebird cafe has always been a long wait for us. With nothing better to do, I began checking out the cool atmosphere. I think that I made the fatal mistake to glance over at the Health Dept. score there and thought it was a mistake. Seriously, what is the cut off point for a "condemned" score? I was a little worried after I put on my glasses and noticed that the big black number that the health department gave read a "65".

          1. re: John12

            I haven't been able to go back since I made the mistake of looking at Bluebird's health score. And it wasn't for tickytacky stuff, it was things like "improper storage of food".

            1. re: AmyWatts

              Back when I was in school, the wife of one of my teachers was an original owner of the bluebird. He told us a very appetizing story about the place back then- like the cooks smoking cigarettes while cooking and letting the ash fall into the food. Delicious!

      2. I think glum is a bit too strong of a term to describe the Athens food scene. The Last Resort is great, Depalmas is okay, Harry B's is pretty good. And the East/West Bistro is pretty good eats as well.

        As far as Southern "soul" fare goes, I've always enjoyed Weaver D's (the automatic place); not really sure why you are so down on them. Wilson's is good, if not a bit pricey for what you get. And Five Star is one of my favorite places to eat when I visit. I think the pizza situation is "glum" because you are in a college town where cheap, crappy pizza is an artform. (BTW, is it true that Rocky's has closed?)

        While I haven't been to the Italian place in the Bottleworks (isn't it owned by the Fritti / Sotto Sotto guys???), check out Mia Madonna downtown (located behind the Morton Theater and across the street from the Last Resort); ate there a month ago and thought it was really good.

        I have not tried Agua Linda or the Peruvian Chicken place, but certainly will on my next trip.

        It sounds like you are not pleased with the variety offered by the Classic City. If so, then trust me when I say it has improved dramatically in the 9 years since I lived there. With all the press/noteriety the Five and Ten has received, perhaps Athens can become a true foodie haven in the future. But glum? I don't think so.

        3 Replies
        1. re: JayP

          One oversight in my initial post: Clocked is a fine diner.

          Maybe I was unfair to Weaver D's. Nothing I ate seemed worth coming back for. I wasn't under the impression -- to pick one example -- that much time or effort had gone into the greens. The available (as opposed to posted) selection of food was extraordinarily small, but I understand that's a danger at smaller, lunch-oriented places.

          As a northern transplant, it's possible I just got excited about the atmosphere at down home restaurants when I arrived, but it wasn't ultimately enough to sustain my interest. A friend of mine (off list) pointed out that maybe down home food is best cooked and enjoyed, you know, at home.

          A question that still interests me: In small and mid-sized towns in Georgia and the Carolinas, say, is the best inexpensive / midpriced restaurant often Mexican or Central American?

          1. re: Derek

            I know nothing of the food situation in Athen(only been to ATL and Savannah, and that was a long time ago) but the Hispanic community is definiely improving souther food options. In medium sized cities like winston-salem and greensboro they are on of the few places you can get good cheap food with fresh ingredients art a low price. If more of these places would only get a beer license. cerveza and cabeza, yum!

          2. re: JayP

            I have always enjoyed Weaver D's as well and do not understand the complaint. It is not the best place I have ever dined but it is quite pleasant.
            Our last two visits to Last Resort have been disappointing at best which is unfortunate b/c it used to be one of our favorites. There are a couple of new places that are trying and at least things are better than when The Peddler and T-Bones were the epitome of fine dining. If the Hoyt House (@ Foundry Park Inn) could ever get its kitchen straightened out it could have great possibilities. Porterhouse Grill is, unfortunately, hit or miss, but the new place on the other side of town, Basil's (?) is supposed to be nice. I have not eaten there so relying on word of mouth. Effie Lord's and Chonell's used to be great meat & three's but I have not been to either in forever so can not report and would appreciate an update. Also, Gus Garcia's was always good for creole/cajun. Five and Ten is wonderful and is setting the standard. Hopefully every thing else will catch up.
            Yes, Rocky's has closed as has Charlie Williams' Pine Crest Lodge.

          3. We absolutely loved Athens! Ate at The Last Resort (lunch) and it was terrific. Living in Central Florida, formerly in South Florida, and before that NYC/NJ, we were astounded at the amount of land and the amazing homes one could have in this part of the country at such reasonable prices. And the property taxes were so low it was hard to believe.

            The poster, who complained about the dearth of quality enthnic places, is most likely right. He's lived there for 2-1/2 years. We were there only for a day trip from Chateau Elan. But, I got to tell you it's a beautiful town.

            1. When I visit my dad in GA, I drive the back roads because I drive a very small car and 1) I-85 scares me in that car 2) the back road route is beautiful and back roads is one of the reasons I have that car. So, as I go through Athens via "the loop" what's my closest and best bet for lunch? Thanks.

              1. Mike and Ed's is good bar b cue, especially hickory ribs. fresh air is also good if you like vinegar base. some good cue on the road to Greensboro (2 places cant think of names). apparently a good cue joint in Lexington as well.

                but all in all you are right, Athens could stand a few real more real food places. it is glum.

                decent cajun food at gautreaux's out at Barnett Shoals and Gaines school.

                best Chinese i have found is place over on west side in Kroger/Home Depot shopping center, chef ming I think is the name.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Big Plato

                  I agree, Chef Ming's is the only Chinese Restaurant I will dine at in Athens. The food is consistently amazing. ---Fresh seafood, vegetables and ingredients. All at amazingly low prices for the huge portion sizes

                  Try the Shrimp in Black Bean sauce. It will not disappoint.... They leave the sketchiness out of Chinese dining in the Athens area.

                  --The Culinary Queen

                2. as for pizza in athens, don't overlook Transmetropolitan, across from the Gap on Broad, i think?? anyway, the food is way better than Rocky's and it is a fun place to go

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: bluepears

                    Pizza done New York style? Give Little Italy's slice a try. It has the best taste for the money. If you happen to enjoy garlic, olive oil, and basil, order a Pesto Pizza-a delicious circumference of crust with a thin, crisp base to hold the toppings. For about $10.00 for a large, you can't go wrong. -One caveat- They only take cash or check.

                    DePalma's also has excellent pizza, however, you will pay a substantial amount if you venture away from the typical toping of cheese only.

                  2. achim's k-bob..i wish i was back in Athens for that curry sauce and fries combo. god damn that's good.

                    1. I think athens has a good restaurant situation compared to other towns around the same size. I'm from north carolina, so I wasnt expecting anyone to know how to do barbecue down here. If I do have one complaint, it's this: where is the fried chicken? For a town in the deep south, athens is really lacking in this regard. but other than that, i'm quite pleased with the restos here. some of my favorites and least favorites:

                      big city cafe (their proscuitto di parma sandwich is really good, i love their cake)
                      cali n titos (gran combo with tostones = awesome)
                      shokitini (good sushi, cool space)
                      Transmetropolitan (decent thin pizza, good salads)
                      speakeasy (i love their tapas and they really know how to mix a drink well)
                      five & ten (one of the finest restaurants i've ever eaten at)
                      mama's boy (their milkshakes, sides, and breakfast dishes are wonderful)
                      harry bissets (great lunch-one of the few places that knows how to do crawfish)
                      achims k bob (called uncle ottos now, same great food)
                      clocked (fun, adventurous menu, best burgers in town)

                      least favorites
                      five star day (overrated, unclean, overcooked entrees and lackluster sides)
                      gyrowrap (not good)
                      taco stand (likewise)
                      the varsity (do NOT understand the appeal. they berate you as you order? fun)
                      the basil press (paid $100 for a dinner i felt i could have easily made myself. not cool)
                      last resort (only been there once, but it was a bad experience in about every way)

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: batdown

                        I agree with batdown on most, but happen to like the meatloaf and trout at five star and a greasy gyro at gyro wrap ( though very unlike Greece and last time I was there one of the cooks had unknowingly sliced himself and was dripping blood, gag. Don't think I'll go back, except to buy flat breads)

                        Big city Has never moved me, I cant help but see them as an understocked bakery, good if they have any.

                        Pizza? Little Italy is possibly the scuzziest place in town, sort of irrelevant if you know pizza in the north east. a good slice is a good slice. And depalmas puts on some pricey airs but the crust is respectable (ask for it crispy) and the sauce not sweet.

                        I have never had an order entirely correct at transmet but what was right was good and they have fixed what was wrong (a roasted red potato instead of roasted red pepper calzone)

                        Last Resort for dinner has always been a disaster for me as well, The cakes, Cecilia's, leave a greasy mouth feel I despise.

                        Don't understand why any one would go to Basil press with Five and Ten in town, in fact if I could afford it would go there for many a meal.

                        As for Mexican/South American... Fillet al la plancha or Camerone a Diable (SP?)
                        at Aqua Linda, cubin sandwich at the place next door, whats his names tamales at Super Marcado on fri.s and the place on barber on sat.. one dollar!

                        good burger? can't manage your self? Mamas boy or Clocked.

                        gotta go to bed, running a fever, m

                        1. re: mfc423

                          The place on Barber? Please elaborate if possible. Never noticed ...

                          1. re: Dax

                            the carniceria on barber, next to lee's package store

                            1. re: batdown

                              Super Marcado has perhaps noted the competition, they now carry head on shrimp as well.

                        2. re: batdown

                          Mama's Boy? I hate to rag on the neighborhood joint, but I so wanted to make them the reason for my daily amble down Carr's Hill, but their breakfast always makes me feel bloated and sick. I got an egg scramble that looked like barf. To be fair, I do like their poached eggs with salmon croquets as long as the egg yolk isn't chunky hard. It's like a flip a coin... heads and they'll be hard, tails - soft... but it got like the coin turned two-headed. As dodgy as is the Bluebird's la-de-da hippie kid service, I consistently get satisfaction from their avocado omelet with a side of salsa. yum!

                          Clocked is just unacceptable. Their problem is that their staff rotates from the front to the back... nobody on staff gets to really learn their job. food quality is inconsistent, service flighty... three times I walked in during the hour before closing and was turned away because they wouldn't be able to get my food to me before closing time. Uh, isn't it true that everywhere else in the eating out universe, doesn't a foot in the door before closing afford ya service??? I can see otherwise with high end dining, but at a diner joint? They sure struck out with me! I did tell them that I would not again be crossing their threshold. Instead I'll be ambling down Washington St. for a JB dog.

                        3. oh derek...boo to you :) I think that you are right about Agua Linda (mmm) but have you tried a pizza at Bischero? or a shrimp & grit special at Harry Bisset's? Have you experienced a gastronomic blowout at K-Bobs? In my (admittedly) yankee opinion, you have to take a drive outside of athens for anything else. (although Jot-em-Down bbq seems to make people feel happy - I haven't tried it yet) I think the thing is to not expect IT ALL in this little town... I think if you are willing to try the local stuff you'd at least have the experience to speak of. (I tried boiled peanuts & ewwww I don't get it...look like a litterbox episode... but glad I tried) I think there are great little "homey" places to try outside of Athens proper and well worth it. (of course you can always hit the Sonic for a chili dog & malted milkshake which rocks)

                          1. I vouch for Cali-n-Tito's. It used to be Caliente Cab before they got run off from that awesome spot on Oglethorpe; now it's on Lumpkin. For BBQ there is a new place on Boulevard called White Tiger that has great BBQ sandwiches. The Globe downtown has really good food nowadays though the service can be slow. I also think The Farm 255 has great food, and you cannot go wrong at The Grit.

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: lordybess

                              I would urge anyone thinking of eating at the Globe to inspect their Health Dept. score....

                              1. re: uptown jimmy

                                As any fyi, here are the ACC overall scores plus immediate and emerging hazard grades. Nevertheless, the scores do me little good unless I can read the actual violations.


                                1. re: Dax

                                  I may be a little pickier than some, but an overall grade of 83 don't cut it for me in most circumstances. I've spent a lifetime in the restaurant business, and it just isn't that difficult to keep things in the 90s. Did I read the chart wrong? I would hope the kitchen is cleaner than the bathrooms! Good lord!

                                  We love the Globe for a Scotch and a Hefeweizen in the early evening, and I did eat there once. But even with a great health score I wouldn't recommend the food. I WOULD recommend them cleaning those glasses better, get some Cascade up in the mix, that sort of thing. ; )

                                  1. re: uptown jimmy

                                    Yes, the health score could be higher, but the hamburgers are quite tasty and cute. I really like the food there. One just has to set aside some serious time for a dining experience, as things tend not to arrive quickly at one's table.

                                    1. re: hillarybrown

                                      We have always frequented the globe, and I'm a big fan of the twin pines burgers too. The fish and chips are -usually- very good.

                                      1. re: charlottecooks

                                        Also, sitting at the bar speeds up your order.

                                2. re: uptown jimmy

                                  Well done Jimmy! A savvy customer always should inspect the Health Dept. score before being seated. Unless you like playing game of Russian Roulette...having that chance of tasting your not-quite digested food once more. .or possibly multiple times just isn't worth it.

                              2. I'm new to the this site and I've just read your message on the board and have a question. What exactly is Peruvian food? I'm in Charlotte, NC and there is a new Peruvian restaurant opening near me and I have no idea what they serve. Please help me out with this so I'll know if it's a place I may or may not want to try. I know this was posted several months ago but if there is anyone else out there that might be able to answer my question, please do.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: martha cheves

                                  Hmm. Seafood, starches, pasta (weird Italian influences), lots of red onions and lime. Peruvian food is more all over the map than any other Latin cuisine I can think of. But it's almost all delicious.

                                  1. re: hillarybrown

                                    Martha you might want to repost on the general board for better ideas about Peruvian dishses or maybe the South Board for specific recs to Peruvian in Charlotte. But yeah, what Hillary said. Lots of potatoes definitely.

                                    Here is an article about a place that was in Charlotte, not sure if it's still there.


                                2. Gonna bump this thread again. We finally have a pretty darned good approximation of an authentic Mission Burrito in town, and it's served at a chain! Wally's Mexican Cantina, to be exact, located in the Beechwood shopping center. Moe's and Barberito's are pale imitations, really, and let's not even mention Taco Stand (shudder), but Wally's is flat-out tasty, though not quite the measure of the ones I used to subsist on in, you guessed it, the Mission District of San Francisco.

                                  Wally's gets the ratios and spice mixtures right in their burritos, they seem to use better-quality ingredients, and they don't overcook the meats. Nice for a quick lunch or dinner. We're talking California mexican, here, not "authentic" Mexican, of course. But the Mission burrito has an honored place amongst low-end grub, be sure.

                                  Don't really care for their tacos, though.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: uptown jimmy

                                    I'm kind of obsessed with their tofu burrito (with green sauce subbed for the standard salsa).

                                    But then, I also love Taco Stand. They're just very different.

                                  2. Derek, three and one-half years later, I can confirm to you that the restaurant scene in Athens remains glum. Yes, there is Five & Ten, some decent Southern food, a nice Italian restaurant, one good Sushi restaurant, and really that's about it. The ethnic food eateries continue to pander to the middle-of-the-road and typically bland palate of the vast majority of southern diners. (Look at the restaurants that do the best business -- big chains such as Ryan's Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Logan's Roadhouse, etc.) There are a few contenders downtown -- and quite a few pretenders -- but honestly the best consistent food and service that I have had is offered on the terrace at The Athens Country Club. Chef Chris McCook knows what he is doing in his kitchen.

                                    8 Replies
                                    1. re: kungfudie

                                      Nonsense. There are plenty of ethnic eateries that do not pander at all.

                                      1. re: hillarybrown

                                        Agree with Hillary, And now we have the National where I am going for lunch today, yippeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!

                                      2. re: kungfudie

                                        Those restaurants that you say do the best business are the very same restaurants that do the best business everywhere. Olive Garden has one of the biggest restaurants in Times Square, and I'm sure we'd agree that there are other Italian options in NYC.

                                        For a town our size, I think that we have a decent set of unique choices at all price ranges. I would agree, though, that there are some really bad overpriced "pretenders" out there (especially downtown).

                                        Incidentally, what would you say is the "good" sushi place? There is only one that I have not been to and I'm wondering if I should try it or settle for my current selection for "least bad".

                                        1. re: littlecsr

                                          I was wondering about the good sushi place myself. Where???? If I remember, none are good.

                                          1. re: charlottecooks

                                            The rice is best at Shokitini. I would eat vegetarian sushi there fairly happily.

                                            1. re: hillarybrown

                                              The foodies in Athens really need to get a grip on reality. The food and service in the independent restaurants are highly inconsistent. This is primarily the result of the labor pool in Athens. In terms of ethnic food, where are the good Thai and Vietnamese restaurants? Where are the great Chinese restaurants? The Mexican food is watered-down Tex Mex. There is not a single decent French restaurant. The barbecue is simply horrible in Athens. Go to Harold's on the south side of Atlanta for real BBQ. Also, if the cuisine is so good, why doesn't Athens have a real food critic?

                                              1. re: kungfudie

                                                Foodie is bad word.

                                                You are going to the wrong places if you're only finding tex-mex food at the various latin eateries. While Athens is not great for the more traditional, labor intensive dishes such as those with moles and other creative sauces, places like La Jalisco, the place that took over the Huddle House on Tallahassee and even Aqua Linda offer great taqueria options such as al pastor, chorizo, birria, and carnitas (on tacos or tortas, plus other preps). Plus there are some other Latin eateries (ie chicharonnes at the place in Normal Town) that have some good dishes. Is this LA? No.

                                                I'll put an unsauced rack of JB's ribs up against nearly anyone, particularly lots of Memphis, Birmingham, Al or KC glamor restaurants. Athens pulled pork options are sad, but then again pulled pork is not usual to the area (chopped is).

                                                Siri Thai is fine but I'll agree it won't wow you. It's basically good for Athens. I don't eat Viet in Athens. Not worth it. I agree that the "Chinese" options suck in town. Athens is also lucky to have a few stores that cater to Asian cuisines so you have to try to make do at home.

                                                I can think of at least one food critic that does a very admiral job in seeking out the best in town. I may not always agree with said person's reviews, but I respect her opinion and definitely consider her a real food critic.

                                                1. re: kungfudie

                                                  Most places don't have a real food critic.

                                                  Real Mexican restaurants: Taqueria La Jalisco, Taqueria el Sol de Zacatecas, La Estrella, Taqueria El Ranchito. There's also a new place that opened up out by the mall that's a Latin food store but also appears to serve food (Sabor Latino).

                                                  We also have Peruvian (Las Conchitas Caliente), Salvadoran (El Guanaco, Antojitos Salvadorenos, Tu Metapan), and miscellaneous (Cali N Tito's).

                                                  You're correct in that we don't have great Asian options. We're working on that. And, no, we don't have French, but even Atlanta is limited in that area.

                                                  As far as BBQ is concerned, I think the best stuff is found between Athens and Atlanta (Hometown, in Lawrenceville), but there is good cue to be located, such as at Paul's in Lexington, at Jot 'Em Down (it's uneven, but the sauces are great) on Whitehall Road, and at Barbecue Shack on Lexington Road.

                                                  No one is arguing that Athens can compete food-wise against most cities, but against most towns of 100K folks, it's doing pretty well.