Over the past few years, Atlanta has quietly become one of the great culinary destinations of the South. And with a continuing influx of transplants from all over the world, the city’s flavor profile has grown beyond fried chicken and the requisite comforts of soul food.
From the food truck explosion of 2013 to the revitalization of areas like the Sweet Auburn District, Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park, Atlanta is developing a reputation for unique flavors offered in great spaces by amazing entrepreneurs with stories to tell. Naturally, Black restaurateurs are taking many of these culinary strides, pushing the envelope in more ways than one.
Here are a few of our favorites, a variety of styles, cuisines and experiences for you to add to make your next visit to the ATL complete.
Le Petit Marché, 1984 Hosea L Williams Dr. NE
In 2008, Marchet Sparks recreated a European corner market in the multicultural Kirkwood neighborhood just as it was starting to see a rebirth. Armed with no more than a mini-press, a couple crock-pots and hot plates, three tables and Pop (her father), she served lunch daily.
“I seriously did not have any intentions on putting out this kind of food volume,” Sparks recalls, “but people were way more interested in my prepared foods than my retail.” With the support of her parents (“Mom” continues to prepare the Soup of the Day at Le Petit Marché), she’s transformed a struggling market into a quaint restaurant that’s a cornerstone of the Kirkwood community.
The sun-drenched dining room is the kind of place diners could come for breakfast and easily still be around when lunchtime comes. The menu consists of creative variations on some of your favorites: French Toasts Sandwiches (yes, you read that right); the Signature Spicy BLT, and the Grits Stack, or the Sweet Potato Pie Cake (yes, you read that right too), courtesy of Fannie Cakes Bakery.
The Sparks family has created a sense of family that extends beyond their staff and regulars to anyone that walks into the restaurant, with a relaxed attitude and openness that keeps customers coming back.
Stir It Up, 84 12th St. NE
Tucked away amid the modern architecture of the newly redeveloped Crescent District in Atlanta’s Midtown is a piece of authentic Jamaican hospitality that might make you forget you’re in the city. Originally located in the bohemian neighborhood of Little Five Points, Stir It Up brings Jamaican “country cooking” to the heart of the South.
“When you live in the country, you’re left with the earth provisions,” explains owner Vivian Compton. “So if you’re used to eating the more quick-serve Jamaican cuisine, it can taste a little different.”
The restaurant’s elegant patio transports diners to the Caribbean and blocks out the hustle and bustle of its surroundings. The welcoming vibe continues inside the homey dining room, with rich wood paneling paired with softer beige cushions on the wall, a fireplace and traditional tabletops. The menu, executed by Compton’s son “Chef Chris,” openly embraces all of the cultural origins of Jamaica—from Indian inspired curry to the Spanish-derived Escoveitch and Jerk of the Maroons.
Country cooking takes time, so leave your expectations at the door, sit back, relax and enjoy the vibes and amazing house cocktails. The deceptively sweet Stir It Up Rum Punch is a favorite.
M Bar, 186 Auburn Ave. NE
Located in the heart of Atlanta’s Historic Sweet Auburn District, M Bar delivers on its website’s promise of “elegant, sexy and stylish.” While the M stands for “Music, Martinis, Mojitos, Margaritas and Mimosas,” the food is just as much of a star here as the signature drinks. M Bar’s menu is fun and strikes the same balance of modern, laid-back and cool as the decor, designed by owner and mixologist Damien Gordon.
With creative names like “F… Chix-Fil-A” chicken strips; the 32 oz. “Face Down in a Fish Bowl,” served only to a minimum of three; “Kale Yeah Fries,” flashed fried spring kale buds; and the “Beautiful Bih” martini, the menu perfectly embodies the ambience.
“M Bar is a fly, chic place to drink, eat good and be amongst friends without the normal hassle,” says marketing director Yaw Botchey. In other words, M Bar has all the appeal of a bottle service club’s VIP section minus the exorbitant door admission and pretense. It’s the perfect place to pregame with your girls, end the night with the new boo you just met, or even meet a first date for drinks with the possibility of more. M Bar could easily be your only stop of the night, with great music, great drinks and beautiful young urban professionals to keep you entertained.
Soul Vegetarian, 879 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd.
Now the largest chain of vegan restaurants in the world, Soul Vegetarian opened its first location in Atlanta in 1979. After a couple of location changes, it came to settle in the city’s West End neighborhood, where it continues to thrive even with another successful Atlanta location in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood.
The restaurant operates under the auspices of the Hebrew Israelite Community of Jerusalem, which culturally follows a vegan diet. Offering meat-free interpolations of Southern and BBQ classics, Soul Vegetarian has become a staple, not only in Atlanta, but now in over a dozen locations across the US, Africa and Israel.
With their proprietary “Kalebone” used in place of meat in many dishes, the vegan macaroni and cheese which might even fool your grandmother. And with their Dream Kream take on ice cream, Soul Vegetarian might make a convert out of the greatest carnivore among us.
According to manager Xakai Ben Israel, the secret ingredient at Soul Vegetarian is the love that they pour into each dish. “We believe that you have to have a good spirit with good intentions to have a good result,” he says. “So the amount of energy that we put into it separates us from other restaurants.”
The Spinning Pie, 259 Peters St. SW
When The Spinning Pie (known affectionately as Spin) opened its doors in 2012, it took over an amazing legacy with big shoes to fill. The location used to be home to Atlanta’s first pizza bar, Slice. “Slice was cool before people really understood how cool this concept was,” says Spin’s general manager Sharif Colon. “Now people know what to expect when they come to Spin, and we make sure to deliver every time.”
Located on the busiest block of the Castleberry Hill neighborhood, Spin offers what Colon says is undeniably the best slice in the city, as well as other Italian-inspired menu items all delivered at a very reasonable price point. Today, Spin is the coolest hangout spot for the under-30 crowd. It doesn’t hurt that it conveniently lies less than five minutes from the Atlanta University Center.
During the day, Spin is the preferred lunch destination and meeting space for creatives. “I don’t think there are enough places that invest in their staff and their guests like we do,” states Colon. “We want people to feel like this is the space they want to be in.” Spin’s owner, Courtland Jackson, also owns 255 Tapas Bar, just two doors down.
Studio No. 7, 393 Marietta St.
Part bar, part art space, part restaurant, Studio No. 7 may be one of the most unique spaces in Atlanta. And the restaurant prides itself on wearing its three hats well. The same emphasis is put on its Asian and Caribbean street-food inspired menu (which changes seasonally) as it does on its growing offering of small batch spirits and curated artistic experiences.
“I wanted a photography studio when I first moved here,” says founder and creative director Shannon Evans. “But when I first got here from D.C., I couldn’t find any place like this that was kind of chill, a place where I could hang out. Everything felt like a nightclub.”
Studio No. 7 is housed in a sparsely decorated, revamped industrial space that easily lends itself to rearrangement, allowing for artists of all types to come in and do their thing. Even the kitchen is open to culinary artists who may not have a platform of their own in which to present their food to the world. For Evans, the goal is to eventually be able to offer a menu that changes to reflect each artistic installation that comes to Studio No. 7.
Scales 925, 30 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd.
While T.I.’s influence can be found throughout the restaurant (the name is a nod to his birth date and sign), there is much more to Scales 925 than its celebrity lineage. The 7,000 square-foot, four-story tall restaurant maintains an intimate feel, with each floor offering a different experience.
The main dining room, with its dark decor and heavy wood, embodies an old-school speakeasy vibe. Above are a private Chef’s Gallery, a rooftop patio with panoramic views and a relaxed cigar bar, which will soon be restricted to an elite private club. Along with the cigar bar, members will also receive access to a secret entrance that allows direct passage from an adjoining parking deck to the venue; a cigar locker for their personal stash and accessories; and access to exclusive events.
How does one join? You have to be referred. Then Tip has to approve your application. Even membership won’t get you access to Tip’s private Blue Room, a mancave reserved for the restaurant’s celebrity patrons. According to Chef Sammy Davis, who brings the culinary credibility that will soon have Scales 925 standing alongside the city’s established upscale eateries, the menu aims to bring traditional Southern comfort to the city.
Busy Bee Café, 810 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive SW
When Tracy Gates left Alabama A&M University to run Busy Bee Café in her ailing father’s place, she also took over his mission to revive and continue the legacy created by the restaurant’s founder, Lucy Jackson.
“I was lucky enough to have some of Miss Lucy’s original cooking staff here when I started, who taught me how the food should look and taste,” Gates says. “You really have to love this to do it. You can start with a recipe, but you need to know what to do when the season changes and it affects the product.”
For years, Busy Bee has been closed on Saturdays, a decision made to accommodate a population shift that found many customers moving outside of the city. But customers continued to turn to the restaurant for traditional Sunday dinner. In 2016, the restaurant will be re-opening on Saturdays to accommodate the increase in tourist traffic, not only from word of mouth, but also from accolades all over the culinary world, with renowned chefs recommending Busy Bees to the Food Network, Southern Living, the Travel Channel and more.