Athens offers college-town dining at its best

The vegetable and egg scrambler at Mama’s Boy in Athens, served with cheese grits and a biscuit.

Combined ShapeCaption
The vegetable and egg scrambler at Mama’s Boy in Athens, served with cheese grits and a biscuit.

Fall brings lots of visitors to Athens, whether they're fans of Georgia Bulldogs football games, or parents checking in with their kids attending the University of Georgia. Usually, in both cases, at least one meal in the Classic City is involved.

While many are familiar with high-profile spots such as celebrity chef Hugh Acheson’s Five and Ten and The National, Athens has a pretty diverse dining scene, with a lot of interesting places that out-of-towners might not know about.

One definite must-try: Mama's Boy (197 Oak St.), a breakfast and lunch spot. Be sure to slather those big, square biscuits with some of the raspberry jam provided at the table.

The farm-fresh menu at Mama’s Boy includes various hashes (all served with a poached egg); breakfast tacos; omelets; sandwiches (biscuit and otherwise); burgers; and even Chocolate Cake for Breakfast (served with a chocolate drizzle, whipped cream and fresh fruit). Plus, as my daughter Olivia noted, “the cinnamon bun is the size of a dinner plate!”

One caveat: Get there early or be prepared to wait.

If you're in a hurry, consider Big City Bread (393 N. Finley St.), which has a similar menu, plus bread and pastries made fresh daily in its own bakery.

If you want a traditional Southern breakfast, veteran Athens musician Brian Burke of the Normaltown Flyers suggests the Mayflower (171 E. Broad St.), located near the UGA Arch. It has been serving hungry Athenians since 1948.

Looking for a really good burger and fries? At Clocked! (259 W. Washington St., just up from the famed 40 Watt Club), the burgers have "excellent grilled fresh meat and fresh roll-type buns," said Athenian Laura Margeson. And the thick, seasoned fries come with the skins on. They also do some funky specials, such as an Australian burger that struck the fancy of former Atlanta DJ Craig Ashwood, who hails from Down Under, and whose son Gavin goes to UGA. The Aussie burger, he said, includes a fried egg and sometimes a beet slice on top. "Sounds crazy, but it tastes great. Pretty much the way we used to have them back in Australia."

The burgers and shakes also come highly recommended at The Grill (171 College Ave.), open 24 hours downtown, but my daughter said "feta fries" are the must-order (chunky, crinkle-cut fries that you dip into a cup of feta cheese dressing).

Want something a bit more upscale? Check out the Last Resort Grill, which was a legendary folk music club back in the 1960s and '70s. The Southwestern-Southern cuisine ranges from cornbread-dusted trout to chili-infused chicken, but, whatever you order, be sure to try the crabcakes (easily the best I've ever had). And, for dessert, there's the white chocolate Oreo crust cheesecake. Atlantan Sravanthi Meka, who attended UGA, said she "would kill for a piece" of that treat.

She also loves the "amazing" small plates at South Kitchen & Bar (247 E. Washington St.) in the old Georgian hotel building. Added Athens native Tom Hodgson: "The Tater Tots fried in duck fat at the South Kitchen & Bar. Oh my!"

A favorite with Athens' older crowd is the Italian fare at DePalma's (401 E. Broad St. downtown, with two other locations on the east and west sides of town). Former Mayor Doc Eldridge, now president of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, swears by the spicy penne Charmaine with double sausage ("I have been going there for years and order it every time.") Retired UGA professor Wally Eberhard, another DePalma's devotee, tends to go with the daily special.

If barbecue is what you crave, music historian William Orten Carlton, known locally as "Ort," recommends Pulaski Heights BBQ (675 Pulaski St.). "It has the best barbecue pork I've found in Athens, and there are many runners-up." Also, the pork green chili "is exquisite." But, be aware, it's a BYOB place.

Partial to the brunch staple shrimp and grits? Athens CPA Carlton Powell said the version at Mama Jewel's Kitchen (1075 Baxter St.), where he dines every Sunday, is "probably the best I've ever eaten, and they're very generous with the shrimp." (He also loves their chicken salad, which changes daily.) Meanwhile, Dave Williams, who works at the UGA Athletic Association, votes for Marker 7 Coastal Grill (1195 S. Milledge Ave.), where "the shrimp and grits will make you sass your granny." Their deck is very popular, too.

Atlantan Helen Castronis, whose daddy was a beloved UGA assistant football coach, really likes the Rooftop at the Georgia Theatre (215 N. Lumpkin St., atop the famed music venue). "I try to go several times a year, and football season is always a fun time to go. The burgers and grilled pimento cheese are wonderful."

Matt Stinchcomb, a former Georgia Bulldog and NFL player who's with the SEC Network, said the Mayberry chicken biscuit sandwich at Home.Made (1072 Baxter St.) is "a two-hander, and a must-have." The pimento cheese there also draws raves.

The pork steamed buns at the World Famous (351 N. Hull St.) "are probably my single favorite food item in Athens," my son Bill said, thanks to their "amazing combo of sweet chili mayo and hoisin, with some miso pickles."

He recommends the lamb burger at Royal Peasant (1675 S. Lumpkin St.), a great neighborhood pub in Five Points. Also popular there are the fish and chips, as well as English Premier League soccer on the TV.

Then, there's the buffet at Food for the Soul (1965 W. Broad St.), which Bill touts as "the best soul food in Athens."

Athens has plenty of pizza joints, but a lot of young folks (including my niece Caroline Billman and her husband, Nick) opt for Ted's Most Best (254 W. Washington St.). The slices are big, plus there are calzones, panini, meatballs and salads, and it has its own bocce ball court.

Other Athens faves:

» Rosemary and garlic fries with garlic aoli at Trappeze Pub (269 N. Hull St.)

» Cheese grits at the Pine (1235 S. Milledge Ave.)

» Tender brisket at Saucehouse (830 W. Broad St.)

» Fried shrimp at George's Low Country Table (2095 S. Milledge Ave.)

» Jerk chicken at Kelly's Jamaican Foods (1583 S. Lumpkin St.)

» Yucca (fried cassava) at Cali N Tito's (1427 S. Lumpkin St.)

» And the seafood platter at Five Bar (269 N. Hull St.) — one of those slightly pricier places UGA students favor when family is visiting, my daughter said, "so their parents can pay for it."

About the Author