Food tour: Athens’ lineup of restaurants, breweries elevates it beyond college town status

A spread of food from Slater's in Athens. / Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

Credit: Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

Credit: Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

A spread of food from Slater's in Athens. / Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

Though it’s home to the University of Georgia, the hour-plus ride from Atlanta to Athens often feels like skipping school.

Located in Georgia’s smallest county, the central city is compact, easily navigated on foot or by rideshare, and known for its live music scene, celebrated along the Athens Music Walk of Fame.

But more recently, it’s become known as the “All-American Beer Town,” highlighting the local breweries along the Athens Beer Trail.

Athens Trolley Tours offers Beer Trail Tours in Athens and the surrounding area.
Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com/ Stephens Limo

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

And several new bars and restaurants around the Five Points neighborhood have created a culinary destination.

During a day and a half in the Classic City, I managed to take in a good bit of both scenes.

On the beer front, the new Athens Trolley Tours offers transportation to six local breweries: Akademia, Athentic, Creature Comforts, Southern Brewing, Terrapin and Normaltown.

TJ Stephens is the owner/operator of the new Athens Beer Trail Trolly Tour.
Bob Townsend for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Credit: Bob Townsend

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Credit: Bob Townsend

Tours run from 3-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, with more routes and days planned for the future.

Trolley Tours owner TJ Stephens bought Stephens Limo Service from his dad, then decided to grow the business by adding trollies and offering historic and educational tours.

“Partnering with Visit Athens (the marketing organization and convention and visitors bureau of Athens-Clarke County) and the Beer Trail was a natural transition,” Stephens said, ringing the trolley’s bell as he pulled up outside Normaltown Brewing. “We make a loop, and people can hop on and hop off along the route.”

Owner/brewer Erich Fietkau in the tap room at Normaltown Brewing Company in Athens.
Bob Townsend for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Credit: Bob Townsend

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Credit: Bob Townsend

At Normaltown, the brewery and taproom rest side by side in the same small space, giving visitors a view of the entire operation. When we stopped in, owner/brewer Erich Fietkau was behind the bar, explaining the offerings and pouring beer.

“Obviously it’s a fantastic idea,” Fietkau said of the Beer Trail and trolly. “But it’s going to take time for people to understand what it is, and how it’s working.”

Certainly, Five & Ten, which opened in 2000, and The National, which opened in 2007, are the city’s landmark fine dining destinations.

Both restaurants were founded or co-founded by chef and cookbook author Hugh Acheson, known for his lively presence on “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Masters.”

“It used to be that Athens was pretty much simple continental food, but we’ve changed that over the years,” Acheson said. “Many people have changed that now and have done well. You’ve got Puma Yu’s, which is a contemporary cool Thai place, and there’s The Lark Winespace, which is both a wine bar and shop.”

In the Five Points space that was originally home to Five & Ten, Slater’s Steakhouse is the new upscale concept from Jerry and Krista Slater of The Expat.

The interior of Slater's in Athens. / Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

Credit: Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

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Credit: Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

With the motto, “home of fine steaks and stiff drinks,” the cozy, renovated layout features an L-shaped bar with classic cocktails and make-your-own martini service.

“It’s something that wasn’t really represented in Athens,” Jerry Slater said. “The old-vibe steakhouse, with the red velvet curtains, the cold martinis, and the wedge salad. We made the space more intimate by separating the bar and the two dining rooms. Now we joke and say it’s ‘Mad Men’ without the misogyny.”

In addition to their current businesses, which also include The Lark Winespace, the Slaters are doubling down with two more concepts (they also write a weekly column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

They’re in the construction stage of a cocktail bar called Nighthawks Lounge, hoping to open it in late March or early April. After that, they’re debuting a Vietnamese restaurant in partnership with Expat chef Kenny Nguyen.

“We’re trying to make a little money, and give the awesome people that we have a chance to move up,” Jerry Slater said. “The idea is, we all rise together.”

Bar Bruno Athens, GA
Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Across the street from Slater’s Steakhouse, Bar Bruno is a wine and apertivo-focused spot that was previously occupied by the Asian fusion restaurant Dinner Party.

The bar comes from Shae and Ryan Sims of the nearby Italian-American restaurant ZZ & Simone’s and is run by Athens food and drink aficionado Greg Smolik. The menu features grappa and amaro flights, small plates including baccala, an Italian fish dish, and pastries.

Bar Bruno in Athens / Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

Credit: Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

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Credit: Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

“My family had a restaurant in Rome, and I missed the rustic, casual, comfortable feel of a Roman bar, so I wanted to apply that here, and Ryan and Shae were totally on board,” Smolik said. “I’m constantly thinking of fun kinds of Mediterranean-style drinks. Coffee is a vital part of my culture, and I’m bringing in coffee from Naples and Rome.”

Greg Smolik, Bar Bruno food and wine expert.
Courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Right now, Bar Bruno is open Thursdays-Sundays, but Smolik plans to add more days, starting with Wednesdays.

“I really feel that the presentation is good here,” he said. “It’s important to be relaxed. You’re a guest. Enjoy yourself. There’s no hurry here. It’s Athens.”

IF YOU VISIT

Athens Beer Trail. Multiple breweries throughout Athens. visitathensga.com/athens-beer-trail.

Athens Music Walk of Fame. Bounded by Pulaski Street, West Washington Street, North Lumpkin Street, and West Clayton Street. visitathensga.com/music/athens-music-walk-of-fame.

Athens Trolley Tours. 325 Old Epps Bridge Road, Athens. 706-353-6248, athenstrolleytours.com.

Bar Bruno. 1664 S. Lumpkin St., Athens. 770-215-9100, instagram.com/barbrunoathens.

The Expat. 1680 S. Lumpkin St., Athens. 706-521-5041. theexpatathens.com.

Five & Ten. 1073 S. Milledge Ave., Athens. 706-546-7300, fiveandten.com.

The Lark Winespace. 493 Prince Ave., Athens. 706-850-5455, thelarkwinespace.com.

The National. 232 W. Hancock Ave., Athens. 706-549-3450, thenationalrestaurant.com.

Puma Yu’s. 355 Oneta St., Athens. pumayus.com.

Slater’s Steakhouse. 1653 S. Lumpkin St., Athens. 706-395-6082, slatersathens.com.

ZZ & Simone’s. 1540 S. Lumpkin St., Athens. 706-395-6556, zzandsimones.com.

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