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Which is a better dining city: Atlanta or Charleston?

Atlanta (credit: Wikimedia)

The Charleston Food + Wine Festival, which kicks off March 4, has not only become the preeminent gastronomic event in the Southeast, but it also shows off this coastal city’s vibrant restaurant scene to all the top names in the American food world.

People around the country think of Charleston as the Southern restaurant town. What about Atlanta? How do the two cities compare, and how have they marketed themselves differently? This was the subject of yesterday’s Sunday Column.

FESTIVAL INSPIRES A DINING DEBATE

Have you ever had the experience of telling someone you like a certain restaurant and they give you that “oh, -I-thought-you-knew-something-about-food” response?

That happened to me a couple of years ago when I was talking to a friend from Charleston soon after I had returned from a vacation there and made enthusiastic comments about a popular Italian restaurant in town. “We had a really nice meal at Al di La, ” I said, adding, “It’s always such a pleasure going out to eat in Charleston.”

I expected her to cluck approvingly and say, “Yes, that is a fun place.” Instead, she was nearly aghast.

“Have you even been to Italy?” she asked. How could I possibly praise that red-sauce menu at Al Di La when we have Sotto Sotto in Atlanta? She was sick of Charleston restaurants. Too many tourist traps. Too much pandering to conservative tastes. So few chefs doing anything new.

Yes, I countered, but Charleston has that pleasurable human scale to it. Restaurants like Al di La are true storefront bistros in neighborhoods where people walk to dinner. They thrive because they give their guests the food and service they want at a fair price. I really don’t remember what I ate at Al di La, but I recall that the lighting was just right, and the worn wooden table was the kind of furniture I feel good putting my elbows on.

My friend countered with a list of a dozen places she always wants to eat at whenever she comes to Atlanta. “It’s just a much better restaurant town in every way, ” she concluded.

That may be. But ask any avid restaurant-goer in the country, and they’ll tell you Charleston has Atlanta beat hands down. This may be largely due to the BB+T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, which every year grows bigger, bolder and more important, and every year attracts the food world to this lovely coastal city. Through this festival — which takes place this year March 4-7 — Charleston lays claim to being the dining capital of the South.

The city comes alive for the event with grand tasting tents, a wine stroll along the shops of King Street, winemaker dinners in private homes, culinary competitions, excursions to sites outside the city and a big, Southern barbecue to bring the weekend to a close.

But for many attendees, the best events are the dine-arounds in which local chefs host national culinary stars to create five-course collaborative meals. Headliners include Atlantans Linton Hopkins from Restaurant Eugene, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison from Bacchanalia and Kevin Gillespie from Woodfire Grill.

Yet it is easy to fall in love with the Charleston food scene. Attendees experience both the intrinsic character of local Low country foodways as well as an energetic federation of restaurants that work together to promote a vision of local dining culture. It is a complete package in every way.

The coastal seafood is fantastic, and it is hard to tire of shrimp and grits or she-crab soup no matter how touristy these dishes may have become. Charleston’s top chefs such as Mike Lata (FIG), Robert Stehling (Hominy Grill) and Sean Brock (McCrady’s) are as accomplished as chefs anywhere.

I’ve dined enough in Charleston to know that once you get past that top tier, the dining choices don’t compare well to Atlanta. I always love having a salade nicoise at the pretty bistro called 39 Rue de Jean, but it isn’t as French a French restaurant as Anis, Atmosphere or a host of other choices around Atlanta. Charleston’s Raval is a fun wine bar, but you’ll get better serrano ham and more interesting wines at Krog Bar.

Being the fiend for Asian cuisines that I am, I don’t think I could survive living in Charleston for long before I had to make a five-hour Buford Highway run.

All the same, the city is packed with little spots you don’t think too hard about — you just pop into because they fit your mood and make your day go better.

I think Atlanta has a lot to learn from Charleston about how dining fits into the fabric of a city. It also has a lot to learn about how a bodacious food festival can advance a regional cooking style. Thanks to the Charlestonians and Atlantans uniting that weekend, it will truly be the capital of Southern cooking.

30 comments Add your comment

David Hughes

February 22nd, 2010
9:38 am

The Festival dates for 2010 are March 4-7!

Sarah

February 22nd, 2010
9:43 am

Living in Atlanta, by way of New Orleans, I love to seek out great spots to eat, and Atlanta has many. But what you said about Atlanta having a lot to learn about food fitting into the culture is exactly right. It’s what places like New Orleans and Charleston have done, and what makes them great food cities, as opposed to cities with great food. I went to Charleston’s Food + Wine Fest last year, thinking the whole time that Atlanta could never pull this off in such a charming way. I even helped Linton Hopkins and Hugh Acheson shell peanuts on stage during the “Iron Chef” competition (Team Georgia won, beating out Lata and Brock), but I have to admit that when I think of great food cities, I’m still on Team South Carolina.

Louis Prima

February 22nd, 2010
9:45 am

Eating in Charleston every summer during vacation for some twenty-odd summers has always been something our family looks forward to… principally from the perspective of finding the best/freshest seafood platters (@ places like The Wreck). “Fine dining” in Charleston is fine enough, but the ATL has a much wider selection on the higher end, albeit w/o the atmosphere of a nearby ocean and a historic architectural canvass to work with. Obviously, most food opinions vary, and I’m also very happy on the Bu-Hi. (Heading to New Orleans today with some Roadfood.com recommendations in my pocket.) It’s the little spots that you HAVE to think about…that’s why we count on you to sift through the chaff for us!

Phil

February 22nd, 2010
10:07 am

Having lived in Charleston for seven years before moving to Atlanta I would never, ever have thought one could compare Charleston’s dining scene to Atlanta’s. Atlanta is the big leagues and Charleston the minor. This doesn’t mean that Charleston doesn’t have its share of fine dining establishments, but they are very, very limited and tend to cater heavily to tourists. If you like the idea of spending $30 on a fried piece of fish with a heavy sauce on top served with grits in an overly conservative atmosphere, then Charleston maybe the scene for you. But, seriously, outside of that and the bar food catering to the college crowd, there isn’t that much to offer. And, if you happen to have a taste for ethnic food, then you are completely out of luck in Charleston. I personally feel Savannah offers a better all around dining scene than Charleston, but again, simply not in a league w/ Atlanta.

Gene

February 22nd, 2010
10:23 am

I think you hit the nail on the head. While for the price point, I’d probably prefer FIG or McCrady’s to our top tier options here – I wouldn’t last a week there w/o my pho, roti canai, banh mi or pajeon.

I recommend you check out Glass Onion next time your in Chuckie. It’s down Hwy 17 from Al Di La. Best shells & cheese I have ever had..

John Kessler

February 22nd, 2010
12:14 pm

Thanks, David…fixed.

The Nerve

February 22nd, 2010
12:18 pm

If someone would open a decent Mexican place in Charleston, they would make a killing.

The Nerve

February 22nd, 2010
12:24 pm

Gene if you don’t mind me asking, where have you found the best bahn mi. I have only had the one from Star Provisions and am now on a quest for more. Thanks.

Louis Prima

February 22nd, 2010
12:33 pm

Lee’s Bakery for delicious and inexpensive bahn mi…on the Buford Hwy near the Clairmont intersection.

The Nerve

February 22nd, 2010
12:34 pm

Thanks Louis.

Christian Boyles

February 22nd, 2010
1:16 pm

The Nerve, have you tried Santi’s? It’s on Meeting St., but in the industrial part. It’s more akin to something you’d find on Buford Highway. My family lives in Charleston and it’s the only decent mex I’ve found there. Gene, I’ve heard good things about Glass Onion from my family. I plan to try it next visit.

jimmy

February 22nd, 2010
2:17 pm

Someone mentioned a good dining scene in Savannah? I’ve yet to find anything upscale with any character like you’d find in Charleston.

Gene

February 22nd, 2010
2:49 pm

Lee’s is good. I really like Quoc Huong’s as well but I read somewhere that they’re having cleanliness issues.

Dunwoody Don

February 22nd, 2010
3:01 pm

I lean toward Phil’s opinion, with one glaring exception – Oyster Po’ Boy. For my money, the best in the South [including ATL, NOLA, Panama City, etc.] is served at Hyman’s on Meeting St., so long as its washed down with a Bloody Mary or 2. The shrimp and scallop versions aren’t bad, either.

Linda

February 22nd, 2010
4:48 pm

Having lived for many years in both cities, AND having worked in the food and beverage industry, I must say that Charleston wins, hands down. But this is true for good reason…Charleston’s number one industry is tourism. The restaurants HAVE to be good. Atlanta is a city people visit, for sure, but tourism is not the main revenue generator.

BPJ

February 23rd, 2010
2:33 pm

Charleston is fun to walk around in, and the historic district is cute, although it’s starting to feel like a theme park. But for the quality and variety of restaurants, it’s not even fair to compare the two places. Someone already said it: Atlanta is major league, Charleston minor.

Mr. Kessler may be the best writer the AJC has, and this column isn’t so much about restaurants but about what he calls “that pleasurable human scale”. I know what he means. I’m a frequent visitor to Paris, and I know that part of the dining experience there is the stroll around the city before or after dinner. It’s not the same experience as driving home after dinner (and if you walk, you don’t have to worry about whether that 3rd glass of wine will lead to an accident).

But we don’t eat “human scale”. My evaluation of a restaurant depends on food, service, ambience – a number of factors, but not my experience of the surrounding city. And Atlanta has a number of places where that pleasurable human scale abounds: I think of recent walks to Shaun’s in Inman Park, Tamarind in Midtown, Watershed in Decatur, or this past Saturday, when my wife and I strolled around Virginia-Highland after a wonderful meal at La Tavola.

So take down that stupid photo of Atlanta with the interstate highway, and insert a photo of one of the neighborhoods I just mentioned!

Stephanie

February 23rd, 2010
2:54 pm

I’m an Atlanta supporter, but I think that Magnolia’s in Charleston needs to be added to the list.

BlondeHoney

February 23rd, 2010
3:35 pm

My son is in Charleston now attending Nuclear Power school at the Charleston Naval Weapons station and a few months ago I took him to dinner at McCrady’s. We had an amazing meal and I agree with John regarding the human scale factor; that’s just missing in Atlanta’s awesome dining scene

Shane

February 23rd, 2010
4:05 pm

Hyman’s Seafood and Poogan’s Porch. Can’t beat them!

David

February 23rd, 2010
4:17 pm

Raval is no more. It closed a couple months ago. A new restaurant and bar has opened in its place, Closed For Business…definitely not as cultured, but a fun place, nonetheless.

Michael

February 23rd, 2010
4:29 pm

I lived in CHS (01-05) for college and have been in ATL since 07. While they both have great food, I’ve noticed that to get to the “good stuff” in Atlanta (Eugene, Aria, Abbatoir, Bacch., etc.) you have to have a chunk of change. Not so in CHS- much more affordable and accessible financially.

And yes- the pedestrian, human scale is important. I’d be able to eat at maaaany more places if I could walk there from my apt. or catch a train/cab (right in midtown by the high in the “center of things”) than have to drive to Inman Park. I walked everywhere in Charleston.

@ Shane – Hyman’s, seriously? Someone’s been reading hotel guidebooks haha. If you want fried seafood, you need to go to Dave’s Seafood on Coming St. Tiny little shack, open til 5, cheap, best in the city.

Hominy Grill is also overrated. Their biscuits are dry and crumbly, much like Flying Biscuit. High Cotton, however, is where it’s @

Miguel

February 23rd, 2010
4:55 pm

Here, here BPJ. I live in Atlanta but have a beach home very close to Charleston and visit often.

Atlanta is a MAJOR metro city that is simply not walkable unless you live in one of the neighborhoods you mentioned. There is not much we can do to increase our cute factor. Sherman burned us down but left Charleston intact. That being said, there are probably more excellent restaurants in Virginia Highland and Inman Park alone than all of Charleston. Not to mention Atlanta has numerous high end steakhouses, all of the new excellent eateries downtown and one thing Charleston sorely lacks, any type of ethnic cuisine we are so lucky to have by virtue of Buford Highway, Duluth etc….This one’s a no brainer.

BPJ

February 23rd, 2010
5:02 pm

In my experience Atlanta can be surprisingly pleasant to walk around in. We live a short walk from Tamarind and a nice half-hour walk from Va.-Highland. For the restaurants mentioned above in Decatur and Inman Park, we rode MARTA and then walked. Yes, it’s safe!

Chai Eang

February 23rd, 2010
5:20 pm

I like to point that Charleston does at less one great Asian restaurant; Basil Thai Cuisine
I had my fair share of Thai from Bangkok to New York, and it beats the best that ATL
has to offer. John, the next time you are in town you should go. If you need a diner partner,
let me know and Ill take you

BPJ

February 23rd, 2010
6:47 pm

Final comment: Savannah is more pleasant to walk around in than Los Angeles is, but one wouldn’t compare them in the same paragraph as restaurant cities. (& there are some pleasant walking-around neighborhoods in LA)

Stef

February 23rd, 2010
7:28 pm

Chucktown is a different place than it was when I moved here 13 years ago from Atlanta. It’s definitely grown up and our chefs can hold their own (and often do) against the best in the country.

It’s the ethnic flavors that we sorely lack here — we don’t have a Chambodia. But, the burgeoning immigrant population is starting to open new restaurants in the low-rent district on Dorchester Road, so there’s hope. We’ve had an explosion of Asian fusion joints lately — unfortunately they all seem to serve crazy American-style sushi rolls — but at least we’re getting somewhere. The best pho in the city is served in the front of a kids’ party place called Party Kingdom – seriously. So there’s that.

RK

March 4th, 2010
10:42 am

Anyone look at the DialIdol graphs? They are a bit strange: http://www.dialidol.com/asp/predictions/dihardgraphs.asp

RK

March 4th, 2010
10:47 am

Beth

March 11th, 2010
5:38 pm

The Nerve- there is a wonderful Mexican restaurant in Charleston, it’s called Santi’s. Located on Meeting St. and serves authentic Mexican. Absolutely delicious!

[...] I wonder if part of the issue is that judges nationwide can cast votes, and more of them have spent time dining in Charleston than in Atlanta. But I also wonder if Atlanta’s food scene is in a bit of a rut, while Charleston’s continues to get better. I’ve written about this subject before. [...]