Now that I have graduated and I’m leaving the area, I feel I can be a little more open about where I have been living, cooking, and eating out: Athens, GA. This city is consistently ranked in the top 10 college towns in the country, and for good reason. With the exception of six weekends in the fall, this is a fantastic place to live. And the food….dear, God. The food is fantastic. Honestly, if you divide the number of really good restaurants by the total number of restaurants…you’d be impressed. Below are some of my favorite places in this town. Note that this is not a complete list of places, and note I’m purposefully (to some extent) NOT recommending the (honestly, not so great) places that EVERYONE says to visit because of vegan or REM connections. I’m also not recommending anything I consider to be a “blundergrad” bar–and there are many. This is a list for intense foodies. Since I think choosing my “favorite” restaurant is equally as hard as choosing my favorite movie or favorite book or Beatles song, places are alphabetized.
- 2 Story Coffee House. 1680 S. Lumpkin This local chain is in Five Points directly across from Earth Fare. This place is just magical; they roast their own beans, serve a fantastic cup of coffee, they have quiet areas with white boards for studying purposes, and they run tabs like bars. You really just can’t get any better than this. Honestly, if you frequent this place even half as much as I did, you will discover its warm-fuzzy, “Cheers”-like vibe; sometimes you just wanna go where everybody knows your name.
- 5 and 10. 1073 South Milledge
Hugh Acheson is one of the more famous chefs in the American South (thanks in part to Top Chef), and he’s got his hand in at least three restaurants in Athens–5&10 being the “flagship”. This is one of the pricier places in town, but it’s well worth it (and, if you’re–say–a grad student and want a “cheap way to splurge” there’s a daily prix fixe). The standards on the menu include a frogmore stew; sadly, I have not seen the sweetbreads for a while (but if you’re there and see them on the menu, ORDER THEM).
- Big City Bread. 393 North Finley Street
Started as a bakery, but then they began serving real food too. Huge outdoor area–where dogs are allowed. In my opinion, they have the best burger in town: the lamb burger. Overall, their brunches are southern and classic, their lunches are mini-dinners, and the dinners are honestly very game heavy (lamb, duck, rabbit, etc.). Prices have gone up over the years to the point where this now is “fine dining” (at least for a grad student budget); however, it’s still good bang for your buck. Oh, and they have a BUNCH of individualized pastries for those with sweet teeth.
- The Branded Butcher. 225 North Lumpkin. This is a relatively new restaurant, opening in late Spring of 2012. Honestly, I hope it sticks around, but it’s in kind of a cursed location (in the years I’ve been in Athens, I think there have been at least three restaurants in this spot). The menu is very seasonal and local, so it changes frequently. And as the name suggests, this is NOT the place to take vegetarians. The house-cured meats are to DIE for, though. Especially the Scottish egg.
- Cali n Titos. 1427 S Lumpkin St.
This is one of the weirdest, most unique places you will ever visit in your life. It’s a cuban sandwich place that not only is affordable (if cash-only AND b.y.o.b.), but also has some of the tastiest food. I’ve never met a person who has had a less-than-fantastic dining experience here. My favorite has to be the “Cubano Especial” (grilled steak, grilled hot dog, ham and eggs, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, cheese, jalapenos, and mayo. It’s so unhealthy, and SO GOOD!!). The fish tacos are also pretty legit. And you have to get the fried plantains for a side.
- Cinco y Diez. 1653 S. Lumpkin
Yet another restaurant (semi)-controlled by Acheson (note that the name is 5&10 in Spanish). This is a VERY new restaurant, opening in 2014 in the location of the OLD 5&10. Athens needed a good Mexican restaurant desperately–all the others are the queso-smearing, chimichangas till midnight places catering to drunk college kids. I went right when they opened and were still getting their groove, but the service, food, and atmosphere are all great.
- Hendershots. 237 Prince Avenue.
This is a pretty awesome place. First, it’s HUGE. Second, it’s a coffee shop in which you easily could spend all day–the chairs and set up are that comfy. They have ridiculous amounts of free parking. As the day progresses, they slowly turn more into a bar (most places in Athens need a liquor license to survive). They have live music or open mike nights or SOMETHING almost every night, and definitely on weekends too. The one thing they need to work on: they took over an old pizza place. There’s this HUGE brick oven that they’re just not using. They could totally start making some awesome hot food to go with the rest of their awesomeness.
- Highwire Lounge. 269 N. Hull Street.
This is really the only “cocktail” lounge in Athens. They are attached to, and have the same food-menu as Trappeze–which is the only real “gastropub”. The bar-food is decent, and has the typical-Athens quirky items like “vegetarian Reuben” and “raspberry ketchup.” But, again…this is the place to go if you want a really good cocktail. They have some classics like “Dark and Stormy” (made with Blenheim’s, aka, THE BEST GINGER ALE ON THE PLANET) and “The Bees’ Knees” in addition to their seasonal cocktails. Oh, one last thing: if you love trivia, go here Monday nights starting at 8pm. The first place prize is a $100 bar tab!
- Mama’s Boy. 197 Oak Street.
This is the best place for brunch. Ever. It’s usually pretty packed, and they don’t do reservations–just “phone ins”. But it’s fantastic. It caters to every single guilty pleasure there is. You want chocolate for breakfast? That’s an option. How about peach French toast? Yup. The biscuits are to DIE for, and while I am very picky about my grits they do a good job. My favorite item on the menu? The salmon eggs benedict.
- The National. 232 West Hancock.
Athenians are torn frequently on which restaurant is better: the National or the 5&10. It’s the National. Trust me. And this is not a diss to Hugh Acheson–he’s got his hand in this place too. There’s just something magical about the National. As a graduate student, I would always go for the small plates–you can get two for the price of an entree and you get to taste more. The pizzas change with frequency and are typically pretty awesome. The boquerones are a guilty pleasure. While I’m not a vegetarian, I’ve heard that their veggie platter is one of the best meat-free dishes in town. Oh, and they’re next to the local cineplex–they run dinner and a movie specials Sundays and Mondays.
- Speakeasy. 269 East Broad Street.
Two words are needed to describe this place and their cuisine: “Southern tapas.” What more do you need? This place has a little bit of an odd vibe–it’s very popular on a regular basis with older crowds (which is great even if you’re young, because it’s quiet); however, I have seen herds of sorority chicks there for some “let’s all dress alike” formal. The menu does not change as much as I honestly would like to see, but the stand-bys are good. And ironically…I don’t think I’ve ever ordered a cocktail here (but they do store liquor under the seats like the name might suggest).
IF YOU ARE NOT JUST VISITING AND ACTUALLY LIVE IN ATHENS (MAYBE ON A BUDGET) HERE ARE SOME TIPS:
- For meat, go to the Dairy Technology Center (kid you not, it exists) on Fridays from 10-4. They cannot advertise due to some weird policy, but they have a Facebook page which also has their most recent price lists. The meat changes from week to week–pigs are slaughtered approximately every two weeks, beef every three, and lambs are only slaughtered in the fall. They have the best bacon you’ve ever had in your life. They also make multiple kinds of sausage (including chorizo and andouille). And it’s cheap. And SO TASTY. It’s truly fantastic meat.
- One thing you have to try is the end-of-summer “Taste of Athens” celebration at Cine. It’s part of a week-long (at least) celebration of local food. For $10 (if you buy in advance), you get tickets to a silent auction. But…more importantly…you get to take part in the tapas “competition”. Approximately 12-20 of the best restaurants in town will submit an entry, and YOU GET TO EAT IT. FOR $10.
- A final thing to consider is Washington Farms. They’re kind out in the boonies (as you would expect a farm to be), and honestly they’re a LITTLE too kid-friendly for me, but…first, they have fresh berries. You buy a bucket, get to pick them yourself, and they’re delicious. They also have pumpkin patches in the fall. And corn mazes around Halloween. But despite my agoraphobia, it’s actually kinda cool.