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Athens, GA - updates, anybody?

Howdy! Just thought maybe it was time for a new general-purpose thread on "The Classic City" (never understood why that nickname was warranted, but hey! that's just me). We don't eat out much, but when we do we don't mind commenting on it. Chime in and share your latest experiences, won't you? There's a lot of restaurants in Athens, and new ones open and old ones close all the time, so let's get things current, shall we?

The National - We were given gift certificates to this restaurant by friends, and so we gave the place another shot after not being altogether impressed on our first visit back when they opened. Wow. Lovely experience, just really good food and spot-on service. We had a beef dish and a fish dish, an app and a dessert, forgot the details, but everything was superb. I'm not the only one in town who thinks they needed a little time to get the kinks worked out when they opened, which is typical, but this restaurant is now firing on all cylinders, from what we can tell. We went back for apps and wine at the bar recently, and again the experience was perfect. Really, really good food.

Just Pho - We got excited back when this place opened, as I fell in love with Vietnamese food back in my SF days and craved it for years after moving to Athens. Alas, we've had better food. The Pho we've had in Atlanta and Charleston is much better, and the Cha Gio we've had in SF is faaaar better, and the Banh Mi we recently tried for the first time at Hong's on Buford Hwy in Atlanta was divine, but Just Pho is just mediocre, as far as we can tell. And the service was sorta sad, too. Oh well.

Taqueria del Sol - We like the food here, don't love it, don't quite get what all the fuss is about. There are MUCH better tacos to be found elsewhere in Athens. Not a big fan of flour tortillas with my taco meat, either. A nice beer and liquor selection, but in a rather sterile atmosphere.

Jot 'Em Down - They've moved over to Old Macon Hwy, just off Milledge Ave., right at the loop. Really, really good Q. I'm a Carolina boy, and these folks make it just about as good as any of the Western NC-style places still in bidness up in my old NC home. Real smoke from real wood, good sides, etc. The new location has a lovely down-home feel to it, the staff is sweet-tempered and helpful, heck, what's not to like? The utter lack of anything green on the menu, I suppose, but who needs a salad when the Q is this good? Yea, baby.

Inoko Sushi Express - Tried this between shifts the other day. We used to work for Inoko and his partner Kizawa back when they owned Utage downtown. Utage was one of the better sushi joints we ever tried, lovely atmosphere, excellent sushi, etc. But Inoko sold the place a while back, and sushi in Athens has utterly failed to be better than decent ever since. I was excited to hear that Inoko was back in the sushi bidness, but I think perhaps Kizawa was the real sushi master at Utage back in the glory days, and he's long since moved on to other climes. Sigh. I miss Kizawa. He was a very talented sushi chef, and a perfectionist as well, and he was a sweety in a stiff old-school Japanese sort of way. He used to call me "Kooky JJ". Anyway, the fish at Express is pretty darned good, but the rice is consistently undercooked, under-seasoned, and pebbly. And after all, sushi is all about the rice, in the end. This will not be a regular haunt for us. Again, sigh.

That's all we have for now, except for the place I work at these days, where the food is very, very good, and where I eat every day for my shift meal, but which will go unmentioned and unloved here for the time being out of concern for my journalistic integrity and sense of objectivity.

BTW, there's some new fish house downtown. Anybody tried it? I'm a confirmed skeptic when it comes to a fish house so far from any large body of water, and these days, what with fish stocks plummeting around the world, well, hmph: I'll just leave it at that.

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  1. Last time we went to Athens we had lunch at the Sultans place in Bogart. Very good first impression, has the potential to become our favorite restaurant in the area. Middle Eastern food. It was a few months ago, but I think we had a combo appetizer and a combo platter or two. Solid A.

    1. is the new fish house called Square One? I have heard good things, and will try it when I get back down there.

      In athens resto news, Bill Hamby is getting torn a new one for his flagpole editorial:

      it's honestly pretty comical. I totally agree about the National and your sushi assessment, although I have had pretty good sushi at Shokitini. I like the atmosphere of the place and the sushi is the best in town (although, unfortunately, that is not saying much). It is pricey for athens but when I crave sushi it's the best place I think. I always order the chef's choice and they always surprise me with something original and tasty.

      8 Replies
      1. re: batdown

        And Hamby should be ripped. Thats the most ridiculous thing I've ever read.

        1. re: carolinadawg

          I agree. Most disturbing is his admission that he does not top off his server's wages if they dont make enough in tips to equal minimum wage. That's worker exploitation, no matter how you slice it - the commentators are right.

          1. re: batdown

            I've never seen anything quite like Hamby's rant, not in such a public place, anyway.

            As a former Athens restauranteur, I understand his frustrations and deeply, deeply sympathize with him on so many levels. There is a vast gulf between what typical Athens customers imagine the life of a local restauranteur to be vs what that life is really like. But to write and submit for publishing such a self-satisfied rant is just crazy. I don't know how this whole thing will affect his business, but lordy mercy that was an ill-advised lecture.

            Back on topic, I never was a fan of 5 Star Day. And the uniformly surly service is a major turn-off. I know from experience that the so-called "fast-casual" service model can work really well for everyone involved, but there's a negative feedback loop that sometimes get set up when a bunch of students and starving artists are serving a bunch of students and starving artists, and in Athens, well, sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same....

            1. re: uptown jimmy

              I'm not a big fan of five star's food or service, but they were the place to go for meatloaf. I just hope Hamby's ill-advised rant doesnt hurt the downtown location too much. They should live or die by their own volition.

              1. re: batdown

                Goof lord, how do you think Hamby's employees are taking all this? Oh, the drama!

                But it is, after all, a tempest in a teapot.

                1. re: uptown jimmy

                  Wow. Now the franchise president is apologizing in the Letters section of the Flagpole. Amazing.

          2. re: carolinadawg

            That editorial and the comments are pure awesomeness. But how is it legal to pay counter service employees less than minimum wage? And 20% tipping for counter service? My parents old restaurant in town was counter service meat and 3 and we never asked for nor received anything in the way of tips. Maybe I got a dollar once in 6+ years of working there.

            1. re: Dax

              That rant from Hamby is a true gem... how did he think that was a good idea?

              To address a couple points from above, I'd say this:

              1. Servers wages - Nationally there are separate minimum wages for tipped employees. Right here in Athens that is also the case. In some states, this is as low as $2.13!
              2. Oprah IS totally wrong. 10% is not acceptable.
              3. El Sol, at the Shell Station on Tallassee just outside the Loop is just over a year old but, is probably the best mexican in athens and never listed on these threads.
              4. Sushi... there is no good sushi in Athens. period. closest good sushi I know of is at a place called Bond St. in South Beach, FL.
              5. Love the National.
              6. Back to Hamby, Can you believe he is pushing the idea of selling Bottle water.!$&*%#! bottled water is such an evil.
              7. Buying local is great, and definitely has nothing to do with buying bottled water.

        2. Update: really superb fried catfish now served at Jot 'Em Down.

          1. Anybody else tried Fuel? On Prince? I was unimpressed with my burger at lunch. But I'm notoriously picky about my burgers.

            6 Replies
            1. re: AmyWatts

              Nice atmosphere. Food isn't impressive.

              1. re: AmyWatts

                The food was good, service was ok, but I couldn't stand the gasoline theme they wouldn't let go. Gas/fuel is not appetising. I think they'll be gone by christmas if they don't work on a rebranding campaign

                1. re: mbur5099

                  not yummy. totally drive right past.

                2. re: AmyWatts

                  It's closed. Don't miss it.

                  901 E Market St, Charlottesville, VA 22902

                    1. re: bbqdawg

                      Places links not necessarily working. They refer to the one in Athens on Prince which closed.

                3. On one's first visit to Athens, do you think The National is a better dinner choice than Five and Ten? I have reservations at Five and Ten, but now I'm wondering if we should try The National instead. Picking out a restaurant for an outing with the in-laws is just too much pressure!

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: buckeye.mary

                    I would stay with five and ten personally. Especially since everything is beautiful and in season as far as produce right now. Plus, they are doing the prix fix option all night now so that is fun if people are open to trying whatever. If you are in town for lunch also then the national has an amazing and affordable lunch.

                    1. re: jsa7405

                      Thanks! Good to know about prix fixe all night.

                      1. re: buckeye.mary

                        both are two of athens best but, I prefer the National.

                    2. re: buckeye.mary

                      I think 5 & 10 is world-class. The National is maybe a notch off that, so we almost always go to 5 & 10.

                      But The National is a wonderful little spot. They've definitely gotten their game tight.

                    3. I'm still partial to Last Resort - I'm always amazed at how reasonable the prices remain, and the food is consistently good.

                      1. in athens for business. made a few stops during my time here:

                        five & ten - good service. decor and ambiance were very nice; southern but funky. i like that they were able to minimize the noise despite the hard surfaces. i started with the carrot-jalapeno soup, which was disappointing. the jalapeno heat overpowered almost everything else. there was very little carrot flavor. there was some cilantro cream but given the heat there needed to be more. in addition, the consistency was poor; the soup was overreduced and halfway to being a puree. my entree was trout wrapped in ham, with mashed potatoes with leeks, fennel slaw, and summer squash, with a lemon-caper beurre blanc. this, as opposed to the carrot soup, was excellent. a great harmony of flavors. it almost tended towards being too heavy for a summer dish (especially with the potatoes), and there needed to be more summer squash (with its associated sugars) to cut the savoryness, but all in all very good. i was disappointed that the prix fixe menu was not being offered all night, as had been reported here.

                        the national - the best meal i had while in athens. i started with the cucumber gazpacho, which was fabulous. a great combination of flavors, with the added shrimp being an especially nice touch. the entree i had was chicken with harissa, lemon yogurt, almonds, rice with chickpeas and okra. this was almost as good as the gazpacho. a touch of heat with the harissa was nice. a substantial meal that was not too heavy and felt appropriately summerish. the decor was very nice, somewhat similar to five & ten. service was very good. the middle east via georgia turned out very well.

                        i went on tuesday, and even though i couldn't go to a movie after dinner, i regret not doing the $25 monday and tuesday three course prix fixe plus movie ticket. that is an amazing deal, even without the movie ticket, although i didn't hear any restrictions. if it had prevented the cucumber gazpacho it wouldn't have been worth it.

                        i thought both places were a little schizophrenic. five & ten seemed to emphasize local food and flavors, but there was tuna tartare and other non-local, non-seasonal items on the menu (avocado anyone?). the national had a mostly coastal spanish, slightly mediterranean approach, however some of the entrees and one or two starters were more new american, local southern flavors. i thought the national's approach made a bit more sense.

                        the grill - tasty breakfast. classic spot, good service. food was nothing extraordinary, although the homefries + feta dressing was great.

                        weaver d's - great ambiance, friendly service. things were tasty, but i thought the fried chicken was a bit greasy and fatty. the breading was very tasty though, and the sweet tea was great.

                        1. nice to see an athens update.

                          my girlfriend and i had lunch at the national yesterday and i must say it was fantastic. we've eaten dinner there twice before over the past year and were slightly disappointed (the food was fine--good even--but nothing to write home about especially for the price), but our lunch yesterday was great. she had the daily special, samosas with a wonderful cucumber yogurt relish, and i had the NC trout BLT. the trout was perfectly prepared and worked well with the crispy, thick cut bacon. and, oh man, the french fries and homemade ketchup were amazing. for $23 total, this was one of the best lunches i can remember.

                          i also second jimmy's assessment of just pho. the pho isn't as good as what you can find on beauford highway (or vietnam, for that matter), but not bad. beware of the rice dishes, notably the ginger chicken. we tried this recently and it was disgusting. there was far too much fish sauce (and i love fish sauce) and the rice was too hard to eat. all the same, it's nice to have a vietnamese option in town. stick with the pho tai and you'll be fine.

                          regarding mexican food, i'd like to put in a plug for el azteca on lexington highway. it's got a diverse menu with many of the dishes only so-so, BUT the burrito san felipe is massive and always wonderful. i usually get it with beans and skip the meat (it's unnecessary and somewhat low quality meat). the queso-hot sauce mixture that covers the whole thing is great and the size of it guarantees that i'll get another meal out of it at home. definitely worth a try, if you haven't already. also, the guys that run it are really friendly, which is a plus.

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: five pound possum

                            I have to say, I was disappointed by El Azteca...

                            I am looking for Sonoran or Oaxacan styles of mexican food... For example, does anyone in town make a good Mole? Or, on the Sonoran tip, how about an enchilada sauce that actually has a flavor (other than canned tomato!)?

                            1. re: milkcrate57

                              I don't think we've got either Sonoran or Oaxacan.

                              1. re: milkcrate57

                                There is sometimes a place on 441 N before the J+J on the right, I say sometimes because he had moved in town for a bit, where they make their own mole. Just not sure if he is opened or closed at the moment. I have no idea what it miight be called.

                              2. re: five pound possum

                                The 2nd La Parilla location, on Hog Mountain Rd. in Watkinsville, serves amazing "Mexican tacos" and a wonderful "special burrito". We get them with the pork, and man, that's good eating. Our server told us he thinks the food in Watkinsville is better than the food at the Athens location.

                                Anyway, it's sit-down American-Mexican with plenty to satisfy the local gringos, but they have several choice items that are authentic and quite delicious. And the atmosphere is nice, the beer super-cold, the service great, etc. All my Mexican buddies swear by La Parilla. Our tacos at La Jalisco were nowhere near as good as the ones at La Parilla, for what it's worth.

                                1. re: uptown jimmy

                                  I like the tacos at La Parrilla (chorizo and carnitas, I think) but I like most of the tacos at the place on Talahassee better (the former Huddle house, whatever it's name is this week) - except their carnitas which were cubed. Their two sauces are definitely better, plus they sometimes have birria. Atmosphere there is a little sterile. I still haven't tried the place next door, the former Caliente Cab (among other names).

                                  1. re: Dax

                                    I'm going to the Talahassee place. You guys are giving it tops in Athens, I'm there. Lord, I love a good authentic taco.

                                    1. re: uptown jimmy

                                      Ahh, I meant Tallassee Rd! I liked the chorizo best I think and the al pastor. Taqueria el Sol I think it's called (now)? I need to try some of their other stuff. I like the tacos at Aqua Linda too and they have a lot of options, but they're not any better than el Sol.

                              3. We recently tried Thai Spoon, the place on Lumpkin near the Globe and Little Italy. Really good food, much to our surprise. The pad Thai was excellent, as was the basil duck dish, and the chicken and coconut soup and the mushroom soup were fantastic. The service was sweet and friendly, and we just had a great time. We're very excited to have some good Asian food available in town. I wish we had discovered this place sooner.

                                We also tried Taste of India, on Broad. Really good food, lovely atmosphere. Expensive, though, so I'll probably stick to the lunch buffet from now on.

                                Athens has really good Thai and Indian food? Heck yes! I been holed up out here in the sticks too long. It's good to be working (and eating) downtown again.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: uptown jimmy

                                  Or okay middle-of-the-road Thai and Indian food... neither is terrible. Neither is great. Thai Spoon is pretty weak on its tofu and sue gai.

                                  1. re: hillarybrown

                                    Neither are merely "okay" or "middle-of-the-road", IMO.

                                    And they're certainly not "great"

                                    But really good, I think, especially for Athens. But of course Hillary's mileage may vary...

                                    1. re: uptown jimmy

                                      I prefer Siri for Thai in Athens. It also has its problems. Yes, if you want Indian food and you don't want to drive to Atlanta (or its suburbs), you should go to Taste of India. I have had worse, and I have had far better not all that far away. Neither has a ton of competition in town.

                                      1. re: hillarybrown

                                        Thai Spoon is the only place in town that serves Mee Krob which was the first Thai food I loved 25 years ago and missed here in Athens. Rhat being said the Spoon's version is a littly heavy on the sauce and too sweet and not spicy enough but it isn't bad. Over all Id agree that it is good not great. Siri Thai has better prettier food; clearer more vibrant tastes and textures but could use more variety especially compared to some of the better Thai places in Atlanta. Still very good if not great.

                                        Thai Spoon
                                        149 N Lumpkin St, Athens, GA 30601