Must eat places in Atlanta
Mary Mac's Tea Room on Ponce de Leon is a must. There are some great soul food places; one of the best is Our Way Cafe if you can make it out to Decatur/Avondale estates area. There are some incredible Indian places in Decatur. I can tell you more on those if you are interested in Indian.
The Steeplechase is in Kingston, which is slightly northwest of metro Atlanta. If you would care to dine closer to Kingston, may I make a few suggestions. They aren't the finest places in metro Atlanta necessarily, but they are very good.
Sam & Dave's BBQ 1 on Lower Roswell Road and Sam & Dave's BBQ 2 on Whitlock Ave are in Cobb County - Marietta area. They have what I believe is the best bbq in metro Atlanta. Even those who disagree rate it very well. Brisket is their specialty, but the pork, ribs, chicken, and sausage are also well received. Unlike many bbq establishments, their sides are all homemade.
There is a very good restaurant in downtown Cartersville operated by a talented chef who has returned to his hometown. I have not yet eaten there and do not recall the name.
Doug's Place in Emerson (immediately west of the Emerson exit about one mile) between Cartersville and Acworth is a meat and three place. Very busy, serving various meats and choices of various vegetables - this is very typically southern. The good is very good and the prices are very reasonable. The atmosphere is rustic/primitive but clean and efficient.
Henry's Louisiana Grille on Main Street in downtown Acworth is one of the very best Cajun restaurants in metro Atlanta. The best - Gumbeaux's - is in downtown Douglasville.
One of the best Japanese restaurants is Umezono (primarily Japanese patrons) on the southwest corner of Windy Hill Road and US 41 (South Cobb Parkway). Windy Hill is the first exit north of I-285 in Cobb County. US 41 is one mile west of I-75.
Most of the rest of the recommendations to your post are in Atlanta. Tasty China is the one exception. It is on the southeast corner of Franklin Road and the South GA 120 Loop. Franklin Road is the first road west of I-75. Several consider Tasty China to be one of the very best, if not the very best, Szechuan restaurant in the nation. Not everything is cooked with chili oil and Szechuan peppercorns, in case your taste preferences are for less heat.
Enjoy the Steeplechase and please let us hear about where you chose to eat and what you thought of the various places.
I just went to The Pecan Restaurant for some wonderful southern food along with other globally inspired items on the menu. I had their Curry Carrot Ginger Soup with lumpmeat crab & decorated with what tasted like a small fried something (sweet potato?) that was cinnamon dusted. That was wholesome yet not heavy and perfect for a light rainy day. I also had their delicious Blackened Tilapia Filet with Cajun Creme Sauce. Such a perfect balance of sauces with freshness infused in the dish. I loved it! Wish this restaurant was where I lived.
3725 Main Street, College Park, GA (404) 762-9444
It's close to the airport.
Thelma's Kitchen, Son's, Mary Macs or Collonade for your Meat & 3
Bacchanalia for Atlanta's best dining experience
Watershed, Restaurant Euguene, JCT for top-shelf Southern
Ann's Burger Shack or Vortex for a killer slab of meat
Babette's, La Tavola for Brunch
Highland Tap, Brick Store Pub, Fontaine's, Euclid Avenue Yacht Club to get your drink on
Rathbun's, Repast, Wisteria, Ecco for excellent food, great wine lists and something unique
Restaurant Eugene is wonderful. Check out restauranteugene.com for their menus. Chef Linton Hopkins is on the ballot for the James Beard award for best chef Southeast.
Make sure to stop at a roadside stand on the way to Steeplechase for some boiled peanuts. Steeplechase is always a blast -- I've heard they even have horses there!
Philosophical question: are there any "must eat" restaurants in Atlanta?
There was a Chowhound thread not too long ago about the "best food cities in North America", which of course covered Mexico, the U.S.A., and Canada. I don't remember Atlanta being mentioned one time, though I may be wrong. I think of Charelston, SC, a city a mere fraction of the size of Atlanta, as being a better food city than Atlanta by a country mile, and not even per capita.
That's not to say that one can't find good food in Atlanta. But there's a surprising lack of awesome food there, considering the size of the place. And I'd paint Charlotte with the same brush, though I've spent less time there.
I will say that Tasty China in Marietta is serving what I would assume to be something very close to authentic Szechuan cuisine, even to non-Chinese folk, and the food is amazing. It's hard to get Chinese restaurants to serve non-Chinese folk the "real stuff" anywhere in America, evidently, so this little place is a bit of a treasure. But be sure to ask for extra napkins: you will sweat. So, one base hit for Atlanta.
re: uptown jimmy
I was so glad, in reading along in your post, that Tasty China jumped out. It truly is a gem. While the original chef, Peter Chang, disappeared as he always does, the management showed their stuff and brought in some new chefs, directly from China I think, who picked right up where Peter left off. Great Chinese food, great food period, and a real credit to ATL.
Tasty China is amazing. We were blown away, and twice.
The chef actually stood at the kitchen doorway and smiled at us as we devoured his food. We were sweating and moaning and rolling our eyes, mopping our brows with stacks of napkins. The food is so good, so right, so real.
I had always heard about Szecuan food; it was a pleasure to experience it first-hand.
We eagerly await our return.
Wow, some of the responses here I totally disagree with. Calling Harold's or Haven or Tavern at Phipps or almost any of those listed a "must eat"?
Of course, thought, it depends on what you're looking for. Any more direction? Where are you coming from so we know what you can't get there?
The Varsity sucks. Period. It was the worst meal I ever had in the three years I lived in Atlanta, worse than school cafeteria food.
Great places include:
The Tavern at Phipps (I go there every time I'm back in Atlanta; try the "tavern chips" - six or seven varieties of gourmet nachos, the southwest shrimp and the cajun ones are the best! serves lunch and dinner, can be crowded on Friday night)
South City Kitchen (trendy upscale southern food)
Nicola's (garlicky Lebanese food)
Murphy's for brunch
Fat Matt's (best bbq)
Everybody's (great patio at the Emory location, smaller patio at the Virginia Highlands location; pizza, sandwiches, great big salads)
Your three years in Atlanta are far too few to qualify your opinion of The Varsity as one that should be trusted. If you don't like the food there, fine, but don't tell me that a visitor should not, time permitting, stop by for at least a frosted orange and some rings. Your designation of Fat Matt's as "best" suggests to me that you must have spent those short three years avoiding most of the other good BBQ spots in and around town
I gotta throw in Haven, which after my recent Valentine's dinner there is my new favorite restaurant in Atlanta. No, it's not special to the city or historic, and it wouldn't be on teh CH top 10 restaurants in Atlanta. However, it's very good, in-season food in an atmosphere without a hint of pretention. It's also not so super trendy where you can't get a table at 7:00 without a week's notice. In my opinion, that's a very hard combination to find.