We — the (ahem) brain trust of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution features department — sat around a conference table recently and took a vote. Should we call the booming warehouse district near the Atlanta reservoir west Midtown, as city burghers would like, or the Westside Provisions District, a moniker promoted by developers?
Neither, we decided. Most everyone we know refers to it as the westside in conversation, so we decided the name should carry over to print.
One point we didn’t have any disagreement over: The westside is ground zero for dining in Atlanta. There isn’t a better place anywhere in the metro area to eat. Rather than reaching any kind of saturation point, the district keeps filling in and fleshing out both in terms of its architectural footprint and the breadth and ambition of its dining options.
Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison planted the seed more than a decade ago with their decision to move their successful Buckhead restaurant, Bacchanalia, to an abandoned meatpacking plant and open a carefully curated gourmet market, Star Provisions, alongside.
Today, the city’s most heralded new dining destinations open among the dwindling ranks of machine shops and auto garages.
Bacchanalia has grown into one of the country’s finest restaurants, with a five-course menu that offers the city’s most reliable splurge.
Miller Union has articulated a particularly Atlantan take on Southern farm-to-table dining — a kind of warehouse/farmhouse with a killer wine list and chef Steven Satterfield’s direct and soulful cooking.
The Optimist, which opened last year under the helm of restaurateur Ford Fry and chef Adam Evans, has racked up every award in the press, locally and nationally, that a new restaurant could hope for. Deservedly so. Its grand setting in a vaulted-ceiling building — once used as a country ham processor — and its turbocharged vision of an urban fish camp remain exciting.
These restaurants represent the very best in Atlanta dining, but now let us praise the up-and-comers, both the new chefs who have taken over established kitchens and the new dining concepts that demand exploration.
Your first stop should be Abattoir, where chef Hector Santiago has landed after making the decision to close his Poncey-Highland mainstay, Pura Vida Tapas, late last year. Santiago cooks with a nod to his Puerto Rican heritage, an interest in advanced cooking techniques, and an eye for plating dishes in a way that makes your mind let out a small “wow.”
He stands halved radishes upright in a bed of aji amarillo (spicy yellow pepper) mashed potato, their tendrils waving in the air like hands in a gospel choir. What a novel way to scoop and dip. A pork chop and manila clams arrive with a luxurious blanket of corn masa-thickened poblano pepper sauce. The best part is the chop’s rind, snipped and fried into crisp chicharrrones that you crunch on. By all means, ask to see the nightly butcher menu, which features the off cuts that might make sensitive souls squeamish. Chicken hearts with chewy dried corn nubbins in a spicy broth were a recent highlight. There’s a great Spanish plural noun that describes Santiago’s spirit of brazen audacity, if not an occasional item on his butcher menu.
Adam Waller is coming on his one-year anniversary as head chef at Bocado, and the menu looks like it’s all his now. Well, mostly, save the restaurant’s signature burger stack, created by former chef Todd Ginsberg. While Ginsberg explores Jewish deli cooking at the General Muir, Waller has lightened the fare at Bocado in subtle, welcome ways. His salads, which would find a welcome home in a health-food cafe, can be flat-out brilliant. Local apples and baby mustard greens come together with curls of sharp cheddar. Quinoa, field peas, cukes and chunks of super-creamy avocado taste like a tricked-out tabbouleh until you discover the indulgent smear of cashew-lime butter in the bottom of the bowl, which turns the textures creamy. Waller does a similar trick with the Brazil nut pesto supporting a bowl of black rice, kabocha squash, pistachios and sultanas. It isn’t all rabbit food here, as the pitch-perfect steak tartare suggests. And there’s always that burger.
Chef E.J. Hodgkinson, a former second in command to Kevin Gillespie at Woodfire Grill, has taken over the kitchen at JCT. Kitchen & Bar. Don’t go expecting a major revamp — this place earns its fealty for easy-to-like Southern bistro favorites such as shrimp and grits, fried chicken and grilled steak. But you’ll have a lot of fun rediscovering this spot if you haven’t been there in a while, starting with the bar bites. Which is better, the fried chicken skins with housemade hot sauce or the sweet and (surprisingly) spicy caramel corn? You might need both to have a taste-off with your cocktail.
A little further afield you’ll find Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano and Caffè Gio — the two newest bids from Antico Pizza Napoletana maestro Giovanni di Palma. Chicken isn’t an object of adoration the way pizza can be, so you won’t find the same crowds and madness. But the chicken dinners, which come with bread, salad and potatoes to sop up all the juices, are soul-satisfying. Newer menu items include chicken parmesan and steak pizzaiolo. Prices aren’t low: You might gasp if you pay $48 for a pan of lemon-garlic chicken (a portion slightly larger than a whole chicken) and a small side salad, but it will feed four comfortably and taste reliably fantastic. A little bread thrown in the bag would be a nice gesture, though. Caffè Gio serves ample, expensive sandwiches and imported gelato.
Yum Bunz, the new fast-casual Chinese restaurant from the Real Chow Baby’s Mike Blum and Miso Izakaya’s Guy Wong, specializes in bao. Bao? Those steamed, doughy, white Chinese buns with various fillings. They’ve improved a bit since opening — the fillings of Sichuan chicken or barbecued pork have the loose texture they need. But these buns may remind you more of the best-quality ones you’ll find in the freezer section of Super H Mart than the tender, finger-burning wonders you bought on the streets of New York, Vancouver or Hong Kong. Better are the crisp-bottomed potstickers and the appealing rice bowls that you assemble from the choice of sauces, meats and nonmeats. Turkey meatballs with Thai green curry over brown rice might hit the spot for a quick westside lunch.
JCT. Kitchen & Bar
1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-355-2252, jctkitchen.com.
Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano/Caffè Gio
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