Customers line up outside the Slutty Vegan, which serves naughty-named meatless burgers like the One Night Stand and Menage a Trois. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Tyson A. Horne
Photo: Tyson A. Horne

A year in dining: The biggest metro Atlanta food stories of 2019

It’s been a busy year for the metro Atlanta dining scene, with more than 200 restaurants unlocking their doors. Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor and dining critic Ligaya Figueras, dining critic Wendell Brock, and food and beer writer Bob Townsend give their take on the places, faces and foods that shaped the local culinary landscape in 2019.

MTH Pizza’s pies include the Jimmy Two Times (left), with tomato, fennel sausage, finocchiona and mozzarella; and the Hell Boy, with tomato, garlic, ‘nduja, Calabrian chile and basil. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Established owners crank out more concepts. Big names in the local scene didn’t rest on their laurels in 2019. Anne Quatrano debuted her all-day breakfast spot, Pancake Social, at Ponce City Market while Ford Fry claimed more Tex-Mex territory with Little Rey in Piedmont Heights. Both came with hits and misses.

In comparison, Todd Ginsberg and the folks behind General Muir branched out into barbecue with Wood’s Chapel in Summerhill, as Todd Mussman, Ryan Turner and Chris Hall, the trio behind Local Three and Muss & Turner’s, dove deep into pizza when they debuted MTH Pizza in Smyrna this fall. Both teams nailed their concepts from the get-go.

It’s been interesting to watch Tal Baum and Michael Patrick come onto the scene over the past few years. Baum attracted a following with her Bellina Alimentari at Ponce City Market, while Patrick turned his pasta biz into sit-town Italian spot Storico Fresco in Buckhead. This was a breakout year for both of them. Curiously, they both picked Westside Provisions District for their latest offerings, with Patrick’s Forza Storico offering a taste of Italy in the space vacated by Quatrano’s shuttered Little Bacch, and Baum celebrating Israeli cuisine with Aziza (and neighboring counter-serve spot Falafel Nation). It doesn’t stop there. Baum’s next Israeli concept, Rina, will open its doors on the Beltline’s Eastside Trail in mid-January.  — Ligaya Figueras

The Impossible Burger, Dixie-Style, is served at Grindhouse Killer Burgers on Memorial Drive. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fake meat goes mainstream. My, was fake meat the subject of conflict! Popeyes’ sparked a chicken sandwich war with Chick-fil-A in the same calendar year that the vegan patty battled to become the new all-American burger.

By February, more than a dozen Atlanta restaurants offered an Impossible Burger on their menu. Then, suddenly, they didn’t, because chain restaurants like Burger King, Red Robin and White Castle had gobbled up all of Impossible Foods’ fake meat.

One local indie restaurant didn’t suffer during the shortage: Slutty Vegan. At the peak of the fake meat craze, lines at owner Pinky Cole’s counter-serve spot in Westview averaged a two-hour wait to get “sluttified” with a bite of naughty-named meatless burgers like the One Night Stand and Menage a Trois.

Another clear indication that fake meat has gone mainstream: KFC tested Beyond Fried Chicken at a location in Smyrna in August. It sold out of the plant-based chicken nuggets and boneless wings in five hours.  — LF

Khanh Dang (left) and Dinh Tran are the owners of Vietvana Pho Noodle House in Avondale Estates. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Beyond Buford. For decades, Buford Highway has been the go-to spot for great international dining. More recently, Duluth (reachable via Buford Highway) has been the epicenter of great Korean food, and now we can enjoy great Sichuan as far north as John’s Creek.

But, 2019 saw a number of seriously good traditional Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Eritrean/Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Israeli restaurants popping up off the famous highway.

I’m thinking of Dinh Tran and Khanh Dang’s Vietvana Pho Noodle House in Avondale EstatesTakashi Otsuka’s Chirori, a one-of-a-kind robata-sake experience in Home Park; Haibin Wang and Qin Yinghua’s Hai Authentic Chinese in Decatur; and Tamar Telahun and Simon Gebru’s Feedel Bistro.

This trend is not just good news for diners seeking delicious food from distant lands inside I-285. These businesses are immigrant success stories, too, with a living connection to the pho, sake, handmade dumplings, teff injera, hummus and pita that bring us joy daily. — Wendell Brock 

8Arm plucked Chicomecoatl’s Maricela Vega from her work as a tamale-maker extraordinaire, naming her executive chef. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pop-ups on the rise. Scoop up bites of whole fish, lechon and lumpia from the dazzling tables set by the Filipino pop-up Kamayan ATL, and you’ll agree: The city’s underground dining scene is home to some truly remarkable eating experiences.

It’s also a proving ground for top talent: Two of the year’s biggest dining stories were born of pop-ups. Before opening in February, Lazy Betty Executive Chef Ron Hsu gave his tasting-menu format a trial run at a series of supper club-style seatings. Then, in March, 8Arm plucked Chicomecoatl’s Maricela Vega from her work as a tamale-maker extraordinaire, naming her executive chef of the restaurant founded by the late Angus Brown in 2016.

Junior’s Pizza, which the husband-and-wife team of Alex and Jennifer Aton began as a pop-up series in their home, opened in Summerhill in August, and now Summerhill awaits Parnass Savang and Rod Lassiter’s Talat Market, and Jarret Stieber’s Little Bear. “It is still too early to make a projected opening date guess, but we are making progress,” Stieber said.

For those eager to eat Filipino food off banana leaves on a regular basis, there’s hope: Kamayan ATL chef Amor Mia Orino said she’s eyeing a brick-and-mortar concept as part of the Pratt Pullman District in Kirkwood, which is being redeveloped.  — WB

Aix, where this bouillabaisse is served, opened on the Westside this year. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Enough already? Atlanta sure loves its tacos … and its steak frites … and its crab.

This year, Memorial Drive saw Supremo Taco added to a street that already includes Muchacho, Mi Barrio, a Tin Lizzy’s Cantina, plus nearby Mezcalito’s and Patria Cocina. Just off Memorial, El Tesoro joined the Mexican madness. And, don’t forget about Holy Taco in East Atlanta.

Just as predictable is the plethora of French restaurants in Atlanta: Hugh Acheson just started serving pot au feu and calf’s liver at By George at the Candler Hotel, a swanky boutique hideaway in the grand old Candler Building on Peachtree. Also this year, Nick Leahy’s Aix and Tin Tin appeared on the Westside, while Brasserie at the Bazati brought a taste of Paris to the Beltline.

Meanwhile, the city is simply crawling with crab, from Viet-Cajun to Gullah-Geechee. A September story in the AJC counted eight new crab shacks. What does it all mean, besides a lot of crackin’ and pickin’? “It’s a thing that people do when they want to bring family and friends together,” said Darius Williams, of Soul Crab in College Park. — WB

Notable chef debuts. A trio of Atlanta chefs became first-time restaurant owners.

In July, Terry Koval, longtime executive chef and partner at Wrecking Bar, opened the Deer and the Dove in Decatur with his wife, Jenn Koval, and restaurateur George Frangos. Described as “rustic, creative New American cuisine,” many of its dishes are prepared using the kitchen’s wood-burning oven and open hearth.

In August, former Watershed Executive Chef Zeb Stevenson and business partner Ross Jones debuted Redbird in a part of the Westside Provisions District space that once was home to Bacchanalia. The “mix-and-match” menu offers shareable snacks, cold dishes, and composed vegetable plates and larger proteins.

In November, longtime Gunshow Executive Chef Joey Ward opened Southern Belle in the Plaza on Ponce complex on Ponce de Leon Avenue with his wife, Atlanta attorney Emily Ward. The elegantly casual, no-reservations spot serves “a collection of plates and libations reflecting the modern American South.”  — Bob Townsend

Black owners shape southwest Atlanta’s food scene. According to the National Restaurant Association, black-owned restaurants grew by 49% between 2007 and 2012. While diversity, inclusion and barriers to access remain an issue in the food service industry, 29% of restaurants in Georgia are black-owned, the highest percentage among all U.S. states. And, in southwest Atlanta, some of the most dynamic concepts and dining pockets are being shaped by black operators.

College Park’s Main Street is bustling thanks to folks like Gee and Juan Smalls (Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar), Monique Rose Simms and chef Sammy Davis (The Real Milk and Honey), and Darius Williams (Soul Crab). And, Williams’ nearby Greens and Gravy also deserves some credit for turning that neighborhood into a destination.

In Castleberry Hill, Alphonzo Cross’ Parlor cocktail lounge and Cam Newton’s Fellaship cigar bar joined a growing roster of other successful black-owned concepts there, including Old Lady Gang and Escobar.  — LF

Boxcar is located above Hop City in Atlanta’s West End. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Malt Disney” and brewery restaurants go big. Will Atlanta’s bullish brewery building boom soon go bust? That’s difficult to know. But, one thing’s for sure: It’s a prime time for brewery restaurants.

Dubbed ”Malt Disney,” the Lee + White development in West End became a major drinking and dining nexus, with pioneering Monday Night Garage joined by Golda Kombucha, Boxcar and Hop City, ASW Distillery, and the kitchens at both Wild Heaven Beer and Best End Brewing.

Recently opened on the upper Westside, Bold Monk Brewing spent some $6 million to build-out a 17,000-square-foot former warehouse space on Ellsworth Industrial Boulevard. The sophisticated design and architecture from ASD Sky and details by Smith Hanes Studio are far beyond any brewpub Atlanta has known.

Other examples of new chef-driven breweries include the Lost Druid in Avondale, and Scepter Brewing Arts in Oakhurst. SweetWater put a first-class kitchen in its renovated taproom, and hired longtime Atlanta chef Nick Anderson to oversee the restaurant and catering operation. But, Anderson and SweetWater recently parted ways, leaving fans to wonder why.  — BT

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