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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