This week’s Sunday column looked at some of the restaurants that are making Decatur (in my opinion) the city’s top new dining destination.
I’ve already heard from a number of people who thought I left some great restaurants out of the story.
Here are a couple of the emailed comments I’ve received. Any others you feel we neglected to mention? And if you know the Decatur dining choices, do you agree that the food scene in this near-in suburb has really come of age?
- “I have dined at [Cafe] Alsace for years and it is 4+ stars hands down; I find everything to be prepared with finesse and served gracefully. Likewise, Java Monkey is surely a core dining establishment which has added vibrancy thru its poetry slams, readings and wine tastings. I found these omissions to be an insult to their respective owners. (Oh yeah, why no mention of Sawickis? For about 5 years they’ve been selling very high quality meats and food, as well as preparing unique hot and cold sandwiches – have you ever had their sliced pork with crunchy lemons? I think they are one of the top sandwich makers in town.)”
- “I read you all the time but I’m really upset with you because every time you write about Decatur restaurants, you leave out one of the best. Feast, on E. Howard has been in Decatur about six years and continues to bring back a loyal following of customers. It’s comfortable and romantic and the food is great. It’s neighborhood restaurant that feels welcoming…like someone’s home.”
The Acunto pizza oven lays claim as the Maserati of kitchen equipment — beautiful, sleek and powerful. Handcrafted in Italy, these racing-car-red ovens can transform a pile of burning wood into an inferno capable of cooking a pizza in 90 seconds.
Of the three restaurants in greater Atlanta that boast Acunto ovens, two sit 500 feet apart in Decatur. The new pizzeria Sapori di Napoli occupies former office space and promises to give the east side of metro Atlanta some of the cheesy magic of Antico Pizza Napoletana on the west side. No. 246, about two blocks from Sapori di Napoli, offers a hugely ambitious Italian menu in the space that old-time residents knew for decades as the Square Table, a down-home diner.
The Square Table was a stalwart of a very different Decatur.
After 15 years of steady growth and diversification of its core restaurant community, Decatur has emerged as greater Atlanta’s most vibrant dining destination. This close-in suburb with its pedestrian-friendly downtown has become a draw for diners from throughout the region, and establishments such as Cakes & Ale and Leon’s Full Service show up as food and drink trendsetters in national magazines. It’s been quite a change for a city that long accepted its role as a quiet bedrock community for its upstart neighbor to the west, Atlanta.
“People from outside used to think of Decatur as a crappy little town,” says Cakes & Ale’s owner and chef, Billy Allin, recalling the 1980s and early 1990s when the city was still recovering from the reconfiguration of its town center for the MARTA line more than a decade before. Few if any businesses ventured onto the town’s square, accessible only to pedestrians. “But now it’s hopping. There’s such a nice variety, and people walk to the square to see where they can find a table.”
Sean Dammann, president of the Decatur Business Association, says Decatur’s reputation as a “safe, walkable community” is key to its success. “You have the option of having three or four places that you want to go to. You have that buzz of being in something a little bigger.”
That buzz is new to a town that used to pretty much tuck itself in before 10 o’clock most nights. Earlier this year, Allin moved Cakes & Ale from a retail strip on the edge of downtown to a row of three vacant storefronts on the square, just down from the sensationally popular Iberian Pig. Around the same time, No. 246 and Sapori di Napoli opened nearby. All restaurants are a stone’s throw from the street corner where revelers can imbibe some of the city’s best craft cocktails at Leon’s Full Service, then sober up over gyros and coffee at the new Decatur Diner. Three years ago, none of this existed.
“You can have a comprehensive dining experience in Decatur now,” says Fisher Paty, a partner in Oakhurst Realty, which has brokered some recent downtown rentals. “You can go to one restaurant, then go grab a drink somewhere else, then get dessert at the Chocolate Bar or the Cakes & Ale Bakery. You can have a
real night on the town in an hour and a half. People are coming to Decatur for that experience.”
Paty contrasts Decatur with Midtown, which is also renowned for restaurants such as Empire State South and Ecco. “You can’t really restaurant-hop the same way,” he notes. “Sometimes when you’re in between buildings it feels sort of desolate.”
Most longtime Decaturites agree the turnaround started in 1997 with the opening of two businesses. The Brick Store Pub, with its comprehensive selection of draft beers and nearly encyclopedic library of bottled beers, quickly put itself on the national stage as one of the nation’s top beer bars. The food rarely rose above standards for pub grub, but the brews attracted pilgrims from throughout the beer nation. On many nights in the late 1990s, the Brick Store gave off a warm, Edward Hopper glow against the otherwise dark and desolate square.
On the other side of town, Watershed quietly opened in a converted service station as a hybrid card shop/sandwich joint/wine bar. Oenophilic Indigo Girl Emily Saliers was one of the partners, and she occasionally stepped behind the bar to pour and enthuse over glasses of merlot. The operators soon discovered the locals needed more food and drink and cards and gifts. So the business gradually morphed into a full-service restaurant under the direction of consulting chef Scott Peacock. The menu that emerged, with its iconic fried chicken, earned national attention for its early vision of Southern farm-to-table cooking. Peacock quietly dropped “consulting” from his title and went on to earn a James Beard Foundation award for his cooking at Watershed.
In its heyday, Watershed was the definitive Decatur restaurant, but it also stood apart among restaurants with more casual agendas. Most focused on inexpensive lunches to serve worker bees (there is more than a million square feet of office space downtown) and the 2,500 jurors summoned to duty at the county courthouse every week. Others made an attempt to appeal to young families looking for early, kid-friendly meals. Only a very few, such as Cafe Lily, targeted adults looking to drink and dine.
Nor were restaurants encouraged by an extended renovation of the square, which effectively replaced open space with scaffolding and other signs of construction for 16 months during 2005-07. Some restaurants didn’t survive the severe reduction of foot traffic.
Yet the city fostered a pro-business climate that made permitting and licensing a doable process for those willing to play by its rules. New businesses came in.
“Sometimes building permitting delayed our construction a little bit,” said Allin of Cakes & Ale’s recent move to a new spot on the square. “But I understood they wanted it done right. This is a building that has been around since the 1920s. They wanted to make sure we did it justice.”
While parts of Atlanta — such as Atlantic Station, the Edgewood Retail District and Brookhaven — went about building “outdoor lifestyle centers” with a mix of retail, entertainment and lodging, Decatur already had its infrastructure in place.
“Every building is individual,” Paty says. “It all happened organically.”
The city just seemed to fill in. Dusty gift shops, empty delis and the kinds of doctor’s offices that promise “discreet testing” died off and made room for new businesses that complemented the exploding mix of options.
Now, every night is a party. Allin says 50 percent of his clientele comes from other parts of the metro area, and many say they plan to restaurant-hop once in town.
“You know what’s amazing?” Allin asks. “Even though we don’t have valet service, very few people have complained about parking. They know they’re here to walk around, shop and eat. That’s Decatur.”