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Decatur: Best emerging restaurant nabe?

Even during last winter's snowstorm, the restaurants were up and running (AJC Staff)

Even during last winter's snowstorm, the restaurants were up and running (AJC Staff)

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.”

35 comments Add your comment

1164mgc

October 31st, 2011
1:06 pm

“nabe?”
This is good news for Decatur. I always liked the town, but haven’t been back for years. I’m looking forward to seeing all the “new” restaurants!

Ramona Clef

October 31st, 2011
1:45 pm

If your readers want to sample a variety of Decatur restaurants this weekend, they can still buy tickets to the Decatur Wine Festival. Fifteen! of Decatur’s restaurants and food businesses will be providing samples, including Feast, Iberian Pig, Sapori di Napoli, LEON’s, Parkers on Ponce, and several others.

Michele

October 31st, 2011
2:02 pm

While all the other restaurants mentioned are really good, I’m always surprised by the omission of a stalwart, Cafe Lily. Been there for ages, never have had a bad meal there and often a very good one. The Sunday brunch is yummy (though mourn the elimination of the bread baskey), the lunch is a great value and the Pinchitos at dinner so good that ordering anything else becomes a challenge. The lemon sponge custard dessert is a classic that I wish many would aspire too instead of fancied up but lacking efforts. Also appreciate the range on the menu which means anything from a pasta or light entree to a full dinner is a possibility. Should get credit as one that’s been there since the beginning of the Decatur renaissance.

Edward

October 31st, 2011
2:22 pm

Downtown Decatur is one of the best locales around for some quality dining. Leon’s and Feast are certainly two of my favorites. And it is easy to get there via MARTA and not have to worry about traffic or parking.

Brink

October 31st, 2011
2:34 pm

I have no idea but it is one of the better parts of the metro area.

The Walrus

October 31st, 2011
3:10 pm

I second Cafe Lily. It must be mentioned.

Georgia Downtown

October 31st, 2011
3:23 pm

Decatur is great. Woodstock’s downtown is also thriving with new eateries: Ipp’s Pastaria, Vingenzo’s, Hot Dog Heaven, Pure Taqueria, Freight Kitchen & Tap, Canyon’s Burger Company, J.Christopher’s, Cotton Mill Deli, Copper Coin Coffee, Tea Leaves & Thyme, Firestone Wood Fired Pizza & Grill, Wink Woodstock, Magnolia Thomas Restaurant, Mom’s Table and Yoguri. It really is impressive on a weekend to see all the tags from Cobb and Fulton coming into Woodstock.

MARTA Rida

October 31st, 2011
3:28 pm

Enjoying going to Decatur square for some bar hopping. Then let MARTA be my designated driver home, last train runs at 1:20 am. The best setup in the metro, so many different places and experiences.

th

October 31st, 2011
3:51 pm

Love Wahoo Grill!!

Get Real

October 31st, 2011
3:55 pm

Inman Park has:

Rathbun’s
Rathbun’s Steak
Soto Soto
Fritti
One eared Stag
P’Sheen
Highland Bakery
Victory Sandwhich
Etc.
Etc.

It is not even close….

Jan

October 31st, 2011
3:58 pm

How about Big Tex Cantina? Killer comfort food…

My Dad can beat up your Dad

October 31st, 2011
4:05 pm

@Get Real:
Really? I must have missed the part about this article being about a contest…

ziza

October 31st, 2011
4:06 pm

Get Real, I love Inman Park and love dining there. I think the difference with Downtown Decatur is the ease of walking from restaurant to restaurant, parking and being able to walk easily to any of several good restaurants. And the availability of the square to be able to sit down and chill there as well. And if there is music that night, all the better. Decatur has what so many neighborhoods in Metro Atlanta are lacking and that is an identifiable downtown hub where so many good restaurants and activity are centered around. Makes for a much more cohesive enjoyable, strollable outing without having to dodge crazy motorists. I’ve walked Inman Park many times and I can tell you that that corner where Fritti and Sotto Sotto are is pretty scary as motorists barrel down there quite speedily. When I was in the Decatur Square the other night for a friend’s birthday party, I was quite pleasantly surprised at the congeniality of folks (also another facet Inman Park is lacking sorry to say), ease of parking, and it was quite wonderful to have a drink and the Pub and then stroll over to the Pig for dinner. Love IP but DD gets my vote for a relaxing pleasant time with great dining and great walkability.

Shep

October 31st, 2011
4:30 pm

I moved from Decature to Midtown back in 2006 and I have regreeted the move many times over. I should have stayed in Decatur. I much nicer place to be and a responsive and competent city that cares.

Tyrone Biggums

October 31st, 2011
5:00 pm

Woodstock?? This must be a joke.

Bugs

October 31st, 2011
5:00 pm

As someone who has been in Decatur for 9 years, I hadn’t really stepped back and noticed how far the city has come. Nice article.

Quagmire

October 31st, 2011
5:01 pm

Popeye’s on Cobb Pkway…………….with hot sauce

Cale

October 31st, 2011
5:02 pm

Hey @GetReal, title of the article refers to best emerging restaurant neighborhood. Inman Park is certainly good but most of their top restaurants have been around a minute. There is no question that Decatur is the hot neighborhood for new restaurants right now.

Brad

October 31st, 2011
5:03 pm

Farmburger…

Candice

October 31st, 2011
5:04 pm

Macon is HOT right now. We just got a Popeye’s, KFC, Mrs. Winners and Zaxby’s! And did I mention, Golden Corral? Decatur and inman Park don’t have nothing on us.

PapaDoc

October 31st, 2011
5:12 pm

Love Decatur. 246 is superb. Eddie’s Attic is the best listening room in the ATL and adds to the overall ambiance of Decatur. Love to make my way across town to the Square.
What’s up with Watershed these days? I know it closed, but are there plans?

cafeej

October 31st, 2011
5:56 pm

Current plans are for Watershed to move to south Buckhead.

PapaDoc

November 1st, 2011
9:38 am

Wow. that’s quite a change. Was Watershed not getting the volume they needed? It always seemed pretty busy to me.

Brink

November 1st, 2011
12:16 pm

@Brad – Farmburger is awful. You have to be a fool to go there.

Joshua

November 1st, 2011
12:27 pm

There are a few notable omissions from your list of great Decatur restaurants, who work hard to deserve credit. In no particular order, these are the best: Sushi Avenue, Parker’s, Bhojanic, Zyka, and Community Q.

Edward

November 1st, 2011
3:36 pm

Parker’s on Ponce is good, I just wish they’d throw away that god-awful bottle of truffle oil they ruin their mac&cheese with. They would have great mac&cheese if they’d stop trying to truffle it.

My only complaint with Farmburger is the seating. I shouldn’t have to stand holding a tray of food waiting on a table for 20 minutes after paying $20 for a burger-fries-drink. I can only imagine how good the burger would be if I got to eat it before it started getting cold.

Jakob

November 1st, 2011
10:52 pm

Parkers uses canned truffles not truffle oil.I would know, I used to work there.

Suduko Princess

November 2nd, 2011
5:28 pm

I know why Cafe Lily is never mentioned. The owners think that their “unique” menu, their corner spot (leased when going to the Post Office up the street took 15 minutes, not 45 minutes) and the attitude allowed Cafe Lily to…do Cafe Lily…

Edward

November 3rd, 2011
9:23 am

Jakob, thanks for the info, but it doesn’t change that the otherwise excellent mac&cheese is rendered disgusting by the addition.

Steve

November 3rd, 2011
11:46 am

Parkers is one opf my favorites…the new diner is grbage…we should have gotten something much better in that spot. Wahoo, also fantastic!

Sally

November 3rd, 2011
12:53 pm

Many fine restaurants in Decatur. I didn’t see the Iberian Pig mentioned. On the square. Excellent. I’m still mourning the closing of Watershed. :(

Maggie

November 3rd, 2011
12:55 pm

With all that Decatur has to offer you mention Parkers?! Over priced and lackluster.

Iberian Pig, Wahoo, and Feast are my go to for a delicious meal…If I want something cheaper, but still yummy Raging Burrito (thai chicken salad), Noodle, or Saba (in Oakhurst). Decatur is definitely the spot for pedestrian friendly dining and shopping in the city, no where else offers the same variety and quantity of quality places.

Adena Reliford

November 3rd, 2011
7:37 pm

Before I tell you the story about my redemption, I want you consider a nice pair ofcordovanJohnson and Murphy shoes.

Pete

November 6th, 2011
12:31 pm

@Suduko princess: What on earth are you talking about? Your post makes no sense. Can’t figure out if you like CL or hate them! Whether yo like them or not, you certainly can’t deny their presence as one of the most definitive Decatur restaurants.

Foodie wish

November 7th, 2011
9:11 am

Decatur is a great place for dining and we often wander over…found Harbour the other night…its just opened but the Seafood was yummy…the service needs some help, but its a cute place and I hope it succeeds.