The 15 Most Essential Food Experiences in Atlanta
From award-winning eateries to century-old diners, these are places in ATL you need to check if you’re looking for the best meals around.
Atlanta has long since established itself as one of the nation’s best food cities. Its eclectic community really is something special, and that shows in the variety of must-hit restaurants throughout ATL’s city limits. The vegan culture here continues to grow with popular establishments such as Slutty Vegan and Soul Vegetarian No. 2, while classic spots like The Colonnade, Busy Bee Cafe, and The Varsity provide a nostalgic atmosphere that’s as compelling as the meal. The choices here can sometimes be overwhelming, but that’s what we’re here for. Here are the most essential dining experiences that the city has to offer.
Old Fourth Ward
Staplehouse was an instant hit when it opened in 2015, and it’s no wonder why. Chef-owner Ryan Smith prepares whimsically plated dishes with a minimalist’s approach that lets ingredients shine. When it’s open for regular service, the menu changes often and you’re guaranteed seasonal produce as well as delectable menu staples like the fluffy potato rolls. These days, Staplehouse has artfully reinvented itself as a market. Guests can purchase beer and wine as well as provisions like produce and charcuterie. Most importantly, diners can still eat Smith’s food in takeout form. The menu is limited and features items like grains with mushrooms and a farm egg, and smoked brisket sold by the pound. Enjoy it on their back patio or take it home with you.
From Soul Vegetarian No. 2 to Herban Fix, the vegan and vegetarian food scene in Atlanta is definitely alive and well, and there’s no better entry point into the plant-based side of the city than Slutty Vegan. The fast-food vegan joint serves up classic American comfort food like burgers, po' boys, chicken sandwiches, and hotdogs—but with spirited service and raunchy names like the One Night Stand, Sloppy Toppy, Heaux Boy, Side Heaux, and more. Slutty Vegan is the tasty vegan comfort food that you never knew you needed, and more importantly, just walking into one of the restaurants is an unforgettable experience. With all of the new locations popping up across Metro Atlanta, Pinky Cole’s fun vegan empire is growing so much that it has expanded to cities such as Athens, Birmingham, and Brooklyn.
Chicken wings are one of the defining culinary characteristics of Atlanta, and although there are countless sports bars or neighborhood eateries where you can find mouthwatering wings, Phew’s Pies’ signature Lemon Pepper Wet pizza. Rather than merely adding lemon pepper sprinkles on top of a pizza, Phew’s situates fresh and shredded mozzarella, parmesan cheese, and dried basil over a delicious lemon pepper base. The cherry on top, however, isn’t a cherry at all—in the center of the Lemon Pepper Wet is a garnish of two actual lemon pepper chicken wings. It doesn’t get any more Atlanta than that.
It’s not an Atlanta festival or day at the park without King of Pops. Atlanta’s ubiquitous popsicle brand can be found scattered around the city pedaling fruity pops from under their signature rainbow umbrellas. Sure, you can buy them at Whole Foods now but that’s not nearly as fun as buying one when you’re working up a sweat on the BeltLine.
Lunch at the Busy Bee, a restaurant that’s been making bellies happy with fried chicken since 1947, is a must. When the dining room is open, it’s almost always bustling with locals and tourists alike chowing down on soul food. It doesn’t hurt that the Busy Bee counts President Obama and Killer Mike among its visitors, either. While it would be nice to eat in their cozy dining room lined with photos of celebrity guests, getting takeout will give you the fried chicken fix you crave. Order some to-go along with a side of yams and macaroni and cheese.
East Atlanta Village
Waking up early to chase your dreams and work towards goals is no easy matter, so after you get that precious first cup of coffee from one of Atlanta’s best coffee shops, also take a moment to reward yourself with a delicious bagel from Emerald City Bagels. In addition to classic bagel flavors like everything, plain, and blueberry, Emerald City’s selection includes the extraordinary jalapeno cheese bagel, the sweet cinnamon sugar bagel, and the savory pretzel bagel. Whatever flavor you ultimately end up choosing, you can make your order as simple—like the classic bagel and cream cheese combo—or complex—like the Starliter (a combination of hot pastrami, grilled onion, and spicy mustard) as possible. Plus, pick-up orders and deliveries are also available, making Atlanta’s best bagels even more accessible.
When friends came to town to visit in the Before Times, this was the place to take them. Owned by Top Chef contestant Kevin Gillespie, Gunshow is an open-concept restaurant with a high-energy atmosphere. The music is loud, the lights are bright, and the food and drinks are extremely well-executed. Gunshow is known for its inventiveness with dishes like crispy pork belly with confit sweet potato, pickled red onion, and watermelon. What is particularly cool about this establishment is that dishes and cocktails are presented to guests tableside by the chefs, cooks, and bartenders that prepared them. Gunshow is the place to be for the fully interactive dining experience.
Modern Jewish deli fare can be enjoyed at this Atlanta gem near the CDC. Many hangovers have been cured with the help of the smoked hash made with crispy pastrami and runny eggs, or the double stack burger topped with American cheese and pickles or maybe even a bowl of matzoh ball soup. And don’t get us started on the Avenue A, an open-faced bagel topped with cream cheese, smoked salmon, grapefruit, and avocado. Whatever you order for your meal, don’t leave without a black and white cookie. And maybe swing next-door to TGM Bread, which sells loaves, buns, and English muffins. The General Muir’s award-winning dishes are something every Atlanta native - or traveler - should experience.
It’s impossible to talk about Atlanta institutions without mentioning the Colonnade. It’s staunchly old school—no computers here, but credit cards are accepted now—and known for Southern comfort food. The interiors are not what you’d call modern, but they are definitely comfortable. The 95-year-old restaurant is famous for its $13 happy hour special, but that’s discontinued for now. Still, one can go and feast on reasonably priced fried chicken, fried okra, coconut cream pie, and martinis (or you can do curbside takeout).
Two words: Comfy. Chicken. There are many delicious items on the breakfast and lunch menus at this beloved greasy spoon, but the comfy chicken biscuits make hearts sing with joy. It’s why there will be hours-long waits on the weekend. A big fluffy biscuit is split in half and topped with fried chicken and a hearty ladle of pork sausage gravy. If you must order something else, try the pimento cheese sandwich served grilled on Texas toast.
Canoe is the place to go when Atlantans are celebrating a birthday. Or an anniversary. Or anything, really! It’s located just outside the city in Vinings and is one of the few places you can actually dine on the river. It’s luxurious and lodge-like with a dinner menu stacked for carnivores with slow-braised rabbit and a duck n’ beef burger. The pro move, though, is to go for brunch when you can enjoy the view from almost any table in the restaurant (or, even better, sit outside). The pastry basket and brioche French toast will leave you comatose in the best way possible.
Little Five Points and Midtown
The 20-foot laughing skull outside of the Vortex’s Little Five Points location has been a fixture of Atlanta’s landscape since 1995. Known for its general irreverence, the Vortex is a can’t-miss Atlanta destination. When it comes to ordering food, think gluttonous. They’re famous for their over-the-top “Bypass Burgers,” (anything beyond a “Single Bypass Burger” comes with restrictions) but a regular (plain) burger is still delicious. Their signature burgers come stacked with ridiculous topping combinations like the Elvis which has peanut butter and fried plantains on it. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of booze to drown it all in. The Midtown location also houses comedy club Laughing Skull Lounge which is back in action.
You won’t find a more robust oyster list in Atlanta than the one at Kimball House. Not only are there plenty of oysters from around the country to choose from, but the menu includes incredibly helpful descriptions, too. (Who wouldn’t want to throw back an oyster with notes of vidalia onion and breakfast radish?) While you’re working your way through those bivalves, go ahead and order a cocktail or two like a classic Sazerac or one of its rotating creations.
The Varsity has been an Atlanta institution since 1928. Shouts of “What’ll ya have?” will greet you when you order. There are burgers, hotdogs, and, of course, peach hand pies. Whatever you order, though, should be accompanied by a Frosted Orange milkshake. It’s a blend of vanilla ice cream and the Varsity’s Orange drink.
Decatur and Inman Park
Revolution Doughnuts produces the city’s top doughnuts all year long, but their peach sliders are a must. What better way to make the most of our state fruit than by putting them in sugar-dusted fried dough? There’s a catch, though: These are only available during peach season, so get them while they’re hot.
Joshua Robinson is an Atlanta-based contributor for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @roshrisky.
Okla Jones is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about food, fine arts, and entertainment. His work also appears in ESSENCE, Creative Loafing Atlanta, and Consequence of Sound. Follow him on Instagram at @coolhandoak.