City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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Where do you take out of towners? Try these

Mary Mac's, always busy (photos by Becky Stein unless otherwise noted)

Mary Mac's, always busy (photos by Becky Stein unless otherwise noted)

When our Italian friends Alessandro and Rita came to spend their vacation with us, we wanted to regale them with food. We cooked grand dinners, we went out to our favorite restaurants, we drove them to Charleston to feast on shrimp and oysters.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

Then, on their last morning in town before a late afternoon flight back to Europe, they conferred quietly in Italian before coming to me with a request.

“John,” Alessandro asked, “Do you think we might take our breakfast at the, uh — What do you call it? — Waffle House?”

Forget the triggerfish crudo and heirloom tomato salad. They wanted their Southern food vacation scattered, smothered and chunked.

It is easy to forget that out-of-town visitors aren’t always looking for the best food, but rather the truest sense of place.

Many of us will face this quandary during the holidays. Our friends and family from New York to Alabama, and from India to Korea, will want to go out and eat somewhere that feels distinctively Atlantan.

Here is one man’s admittedly opinionated idea of where to take your guests:

The Cafeteria at Your DeKalb Farmers Market

This is usually my first stop with out-of-town guests. What better way to combine a big food shop with a sightseeing expedition. While weekends can get crazy, the weekdays are prime time to add a lunch break to the outing. It isn’t everywhere you can heap your plate with mashed rutabagas, “Afghanistan rice” (with raisins and spices), butternut squash lasagna, fried chicken and a samosa. There’s also a full salad bar that has everything from sprouted raw beans to curried chicken salad to shredded beets.

My best tip: Look for the roasted turkey thighs stewing into falling-apart shreds in their juices. You can find and pick out the turkey oysters — those delectable knobs of meat at the leg joint that I consider the best morsel on the bird.

3000 East Ponce De Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-377-6400.

That's what I'll have (credit: AJC Staff)

That's what I'll have (credit: AJC Staff)

The Varsity

Not having grown up in Atlanta, I have no nostalgic attachment to the food, The french fries are greasy, the hot dogs are hot dogs, the fried pies a fun curio, and the famous Frosted Orange drink is what you’d get if you poured melted Creamsicles into a Slurpee machine. Nothing wrong with that, I’d just rather have a Creamsicle.

On the other hand, I love bringing folks here for the architecture. With its vast expanses of tile and terrazzo, its chrome railings and its arcade of dining space high above the parking lot, the Varsity evokes a midcentury vision of a bright future as well as Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom. Plus, there’s that chorus of “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?” — a sound as true to this place as the cry of seagulls on the beach.

61 North Ave., Midtown, 404-881-1706.

Carver’s Country Kitchen

Sometimes the lunch counters at little markets or drugstores are so good they engulf and take over the retail business. This is the tradition celebrated with schlocky good cheer at Cracker Barrel. But it’s the real deal at Carver’s, where a few dusty canned goods and such crowd about the long picnic tables that fill the small space.

When owner Robert Carver died earlier, this year, we all wondered if this Westside restaurant would survive. Carver’s son, Robbie Carver, has taken his place behind the counter, while Sharon Carter (Robert’s widow and Robbie’s stepmother) still prepares her daily lineup of pot pie, barbecued pork, turkey and fried chicken with a dozen or more vegetables. I’d skip the rubbery-skinned fried chicken for the sweet, comforting pork. Or, better yet, load up on vegetables: great rutabaga, collard greens, squash casserole and other heaps of soft, rich love. You have to save room for Coca-Cola cake — a house specialty.

1118 West Marietta St., Atlanta, 404-794-4410.

Sizzling goodness at Honey Pig

Sizzling goodness at Honey Pig

Honey Pig

I always take guests to Buford Highway or Duluth for one of those Korean meals where you end up with a hundred small dishes and beer bottles scattered across the table. None impresses them more than Honey Pig, the ever-popular spot where guests griddle raw meat and fish at the table over heated iron domes. My guests are always surprised by the stylish decor of this restaurant — the way slabs of unfinished concrete and stacks of cinder blocks figure into a high-gloss design. They also loved cooking the tiles of house-specialty kurobuta pork belly, as well as beef tongue and (if they prefer) seafood or chicken, then wrapping them in lettuce leaves or slick rice papers with dabs of sauce. They always go nuts for the final show, when a waiter combines all the leftovers with rice and and one fast-cooking octopus leg to make amazing fried rice.

3473 Old Norcross Road, Duluth, 770-476-9292.

Neal McCarthy and Steven Satterfield of Miller Union

Neal McCarthy and Steven Satterfield of Miller Union

Miller Union

So where do you take your out-of-towners for that one nice meal out? If my friends are as into edgy food as I am, I like to take them to One Eared Stag, Cakes & Ale or Empire State South. These are all restaurants with highly creative chefs who take chances and bring eclectic styles of cooking and influences into their versions of Southern fare.

Steven Satterfield at Miller Union is a different kind of chef. His cooking is focused and unadorned. He gets the local vernacular and knows the market. Here’s where the soup special is an Army green puree of Swiss chard made with rich chicken stock and no perceptible cream. And it’s brilliant. Chard everywhere else tastes like a waste of good chlorophyll. Here you taste its soul — the nutty sweetness of spinach, the meaty heft of kale, the acid tang of sorrel, all in one. He griddles pastured Georgia chicken until the skin crisps and lays it over slippery mushrooms and a glossy smear of chestnut puree laid like a primer coat on the plate. You cut the chicken, the juices turn the puree to sauce, the wine list offers up a terrific Côtes du Rhône, the service shines, the room glows…and here’s Atlanta at its finest.

999 Brady Ave., Atlanta, 678-733-8550.

Open up and say "Fox Brothers"

Open up and say "Fox Brothers"

Fox Bros. BBQ

Everyone wants barbecue when they come here, and after you make it clear we’re not in North Carolina or Memphis or any other Southern barbecue capital, you’ve got to choose a restaurant. If you have a favorite little joint close to your house, go there. It’s better than anything back in Philadelphia. If not, then go to Fox Brothers and pig out on fried jalapeño chips, smoked wings and an order of the chili-cheese-smothered tater tots called “The Lopez.” Then it’s time for a barbecue plate.

The front room of Fox Brothers has not been rebuilt since a falling tree took it down earlier this year, but the white canvas wedding tent that currently replaces it only adds to the fun.

1238 DeKalb Ave., Atlanta, 404-577-4030.

A veggie plate at Mary Mac's

A veggie plate at Mary Mac's

Mary Mac’s Tea Room

I love taking people to the Busy Bee Cafe for fried chicken because everyone wants fried chicken. But lately I have new appreciation for that Midtown stalwart: Mary Mac’s. Some of my praise goes to the logistics. That dedicated parking lot helps, and then the restaurant is so vast you never really have to wait long for a table. The little rituals charm everyone. That cup of delicious potlikker with a cornbread muffin for newcomers. The chits you fill out yourself to turn into the kitchen.

The fried chicken is fine, but I’d probably direct folks to fried pork chops or smothered chicken. I’d also make sure they’d sample my favorite vegetables here — the creamed corn still crisp off the cob and the terrific cheese and vegetable souffle that tastes like the love child of ratatouille and squash casserole.

224 Ponce De Leon Ave., Midtown, 404-876-1800.

Holeman & Finch

I always make sure my people experience late-night cocktails and snacks at this classic pub at least once. If we make for the 10 p.m. burger, great — that’s a notch in the old Atlanta belt. If not, the city’s most appealing small-plates menu has plenty for both meat fanatics and those who are more into local vegetables.

Stay late, drink, have fun. Pick a designated driver. Because after Holemen, you’re going to Waffle House.

2277 Peachtree Road, Buckhead, 404-948-1175.

49 comments Add your comment

[...] Where do you take out of towners? Try these [...]


November 22nd, 2012
9:28 am

Many of my guests are foreign born, so they typically request “soul foods” or traditional southern fare. Twice I’ve been burned at Mary Mac’s, with guest’s sad faces and my embarrassment at a really terrible meal. But The Colonnade has never disappointed. Fox Bros. BBQ is a favorite, as well as Holeman & Finch. Another venue would be Man Chun Hong for some Sichuan Chinese that Peter Chang (the most over-rated Asian chef in history) wishes he could prepare so well. For a more intimate spot, Pasta da Pulcinella never disappoints.


November 22nd, 2012
10:40 am

Every time I hear that Mary Mac’s is still open I’m surprised. I’ve never understood the allure.


November 22nd, 2012
11:38 am

When my mother-in-law comes to town, I give her cab fare to go to Pitty Pat’s Porch!

Deb A

November 22nd, 2012
2:12 pm

It’s pricey and the food itself is only ok, but for the experience and the view, it is hard to beat the Sun Dial, especially on a clear day or night.


November 22nd, 2012
5:37 pm

Ever since the Dunk and Dine closed, Waffle House is as good as Atlanta has to offer.


November 23rd, 2012
5:47 am

At lease this is one of the rare reviews in which the author states the obvious about the Varsity – the food is garbage.


November 23rd, 2012
6:30 am

Dave….Mary Macs was good back in the day with the old ownership. Lets say, the new owners have made some mistakes!

Judge Smails

November 23rd, 2012
9:05 am

Back in the 60s and 70s,Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was the place to take our guests. The food was amazing and the atmosphere was memorable to say the least!


November 23rd, 2012
10:01 am

“…cab fare to Pity Pat’s Porch.” Funny stuff Balt! Waffle House is hard to beat, particularly now that its CEO is a do-it-yourself porn star. Is that scattered, smothered and UN-covered??


November 23rd, 2012
10:10 am

What? No mention of The Colonnade? Tsk! Tsk! A true favorite, whether visiting or if you live here.

Paul J

November 23rd, 2012
11:23 am

It’s a great post! I really love eating and exploring diff. foods. Articles like this intrigues me a lot. and I am now starving. Hehehe LOL.


November 23rd, 2012
8:22 pm

Took my mother to the colonade because they have that tearoom classic, tomato aspic.

The old Pho Hoa Binh, nothing says ambiance like a tray of chicken feet on a nearby table.

Preston Barnes

November 25th, 2012
8:00 pm

I have a few spots that I do that with as well. I live on the west side of town and one of my favorite local spots is Wallace BBQ in Austell. Pork plate with fries and a side of onion rings. Next is Gumbeauxs in Douglasville. The rib eye is amazing, but I make sure everyone has room for the bread pudding and ice cream after! New spots are Hankook Taqueria for everything and on Buford hwy Mings BBQ and Cheif Liu’s. fox brothers I love, but Community Q has the best Mac and cheese ever!
Sorry to seem so excited, but this is the type of useful info I love to recieve and share with others.
Btw…I know all who read this are already aware of the best beef brisket in town is at Heirloom Market BBQ.


November 26th, 2012
12:01 pm

I like to take out of town guests to Six Feet Under. Always good.

Krystle Meyer

November 26th, 2012
2:22 pm

OMG how can u forgot Cheesecake factory!!1 There yumyums are 2 die for also another place i luv iz RuSans for authenitic Sushi yummers!


November 26th, 2012
3:16 pm

This is a great list. I would just add that we have a pretty good selection of Indo-Pak places as well, especially compared to the rest of the southeast. I’d suggest Sabri or Mughal’s off Jimmy Carter and, in a pinch, Zyka.


November 26th, 2012
4:44 pm

I know proximity has something to do with it, but my fav place to take out-of-towners is Swallow at the Hollow. Great BBQ, great atmosphere & fantastic pie that servers walk across from Greenwood’s. Yum!


November 27th, 2012
8:35 am

I find this to be an odd list. Is it about Atlanta institutions? If so, why is H&F on it? Is it about Southern Fare? If so why are DFM Cafe and Honey Pig on it? If it is a combination, then why aren’t Greenwoods on Green St and Watershed ( they are ATL area institutions and Southern) listed. The list has some merits, but still lacks an identity Also, I think Atlanta is known for it’s steakhouses. How about a mention for Hal’s?


November 27th, 2012
8:42 am

Krystle Meyer……..great idea, Sushi. When my out-of-own guests & family come from Arkansas & Kentucky, take them to RuSans. They will find another destination for next year for sure! Thanks for the tip!

Sylvester Babbinty

November 27th, 2012
10:51 am

@Krystle Meyere! You cannot be serious! Cheesecake factory is a chain! They have them in Los Angeles for goodness sake! And RuSan’s is probably the worst sushi ever!

Oh yeah, and Carver’s grocery really ain’t that good! Tastes out of a can.


November 27th, 2012
11:30 am

Not surprised some moron would mention Cheesecake Factory…but you have to be able to back your car in to go there.


November 27th, 2012
11:37 am

Oooh, and the Vortex (in Little 5)…a good experience all around!


November 27th, 2012
12:01 pm

We have a customer from NY that requests the Colonnade each time he and his wife visit. It is a classic of Atlanta dining style prior to 1990. Great service and food. Last time there, we sat a few tables down from former mayor Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery and their families. For bbq, we go to BBQ1 in Marietta, but in Atlanta, go for Fatt Macks or Fox Bros. A visit to Decatur is a nice local experience and there are several local owned places to choose from there. If they want casual local pizza, go to Fellini’s. Best location on Peachtree in Garden Hills. For bakery, try Henri’s. Good not great, but an old Atlanta bakery still doing things the traditional way.


November 27th, 2012
12:26 pm

I have a new place to take visitors and friends for some real comfort food. you have to take them to Georgia Rib Company off Johnson’s Ferry. They have a thick cut brisket that is literally to die for. Add teh Collard Greens and their home made juicy mac and cheese and you will be stuffed for hours. great portions and tons of flavor.


November 27th, 2012
2:38 pm

If you are on the north side of Atlanta I highly recommend taking Out-of-Towners to “Table & Main” in Roswell.. Good food and Casual Atmosphere..


November 27th, 2012
2:39 pm

Mary Mac’s is always a winner regardless of your guests’ country of origin. I had some clients in from Honduras a few years back and they had heard of Harold’s BBQ – we were up in Norcross and instead of the long drive, I took them to JR’s BBQ – ever tried to explain Brunswick stew to a foreigner?


November 27th, 2012
3:13 pm

Eats and or R. Thomas


November 27th, 2012
3:28 pm

57th Fighter Group At Peachtree Dekalb Airport

J Anderson

November 27th, 2012
3:29 pm

Colonnade never disappoints….

Emily K.

November 27th, 2012
3:51 pm

I always take out of town guests to Mimi’s Cafe. Everyone raves about their food, especially the brunch and lunch options. And very affordable too!


November 27th, 2012
4:48 pm

Two Urban Licks, 6 Ft Under, Tin Lizzy’s, Twist, Murphy’s


November 27th, 2012
4:50 pm

The Varsity, are you kidding me. Spent most of my life in Atlanta and lived near The Varsity for awhile, have eaten there several times. The worst food ever, never understood what people saw in that place. Would never recommend to anyone.


November 27th, 2012
10:21 pm

Local 3 for dinner or brunch for some quirky farm-to-table awesomeness; Antico Pizza for the best pizza ever; Lobster Bar at Chops to see the celebs on the town; The Optimist to show the out-of-town folk the best new restaurant in the U.S. of A. The Varsity – you’ve got to be kidding


November 27th, 2012
10:43 pm

Just hosted business guests from across North America at Bacchanalia, and many exclaimed it was the best dining experience they had ever enjoyed. Great menu with many local features.


November 28th, 2012
3:17 am

I am glad someone pointed out the crap that Varsity is. A level above Krystal’s is about the only good thing I can say about it. The only good thing it has going is the energetic vibe of the place.

I would take people to the vortex if they are old enough. Damn good burgers. Quirky enough to qualify as a local thing. Plenty of beer.

Rumi’s in Sandy Springs:one of the best kabob places in the country. Or go to one of the other Sandy Springs places like Mirage or Persepolis if you want more vegetarian places.

Brickery has a damn good burger and fries even if it is known to be more of a dinner with jewish grandparents hangout place.


November 28th, 2012
7:41 am

Krystle…….you may want to re-think that Cheesecake Factory idea. Your out of town friends can go to any city and try that food. Not unique to Atl or the South.


November 28th, 2012
11:13 am

Enter your comments here


November 28th, 2012
11:27 am

When my parents visit, they want Colonnade and OK Cafe. I don’t mind either place, especially since Colonnade also serves some powerful drinks. More epicurean guests appreciate Holeman & Finch, Sufi’s, Empire State South, Iberian Pig, No. 246, Sound Table, Ecco…


November 28th, 2012
11:28 am

What about Dantes’ Down the Hatch , I have loved this place to eat , the ambiance is always welcoming an the food is delicious. I hear that the resteraunt will be gone in the Sping . I love the reptiles he has wwhich are either crocodiles or alligators . And he has some very enteresting peices of art in the resteraunt and the menu gives you the story of the resteraunt.

Nelson Jones

November 28th, 2012
11:28 am

I love dating and or going out to eat with a date, usually my favorites are never mentioned but after all Atlanta, post the Olympic’s,truly is an International city whom has terribly out-grown itself.

Italian- Magganios’, though a chain, nobody does Calamari better, soaked in buttermilk over night! Excellent! My all time favorite meal is simply Calamari & Spinach salad.
Salad Bar- Lettuce Souprise You, the only one left is Braircliff & North Druid Hills, but nobody does all you can eat salad better, primarily because you’re doing it self!
Romantic- The 57th Fighter Group, Sinatra in the back ground, good food, dim candle light while planes and jest are taking off and landing in the back ground.
Chic- Goldfish {Perimeter Mall} Chilean Sea Bass, Fried Trout with creamed Spinach, the hostesses are so hot, the aquarium is so beautiful, I love taking potential clients here, always makes me feel like the big wig!
The ‘Hood- Haven, in Brookhaven on Dresden Road, this is the anhor restuarant that helped to put us here in Brookhaven on the map. 5Star, wine wall, hot hostesses, excellent food and amibance.
Everyday- Donnie’s {Clairmont & Buford Hwy.} Talk about a great daily hot meal, one meat & two veges you’re not going to find a better deal with a drink for $6. Always smiling Nicky and always fresh, healthy food!


November 28th, 2012
12:52 pm

Southside is in the house. Don’t forget Paschals at Castleberry, Pecan in College Park, across form the Old College Park depot and the Feed Store across from the College Park train station. Sometimes Paschal can be hit and miss but, mostly hit. I’ve never had creamed collard greens until I went to The Feed Store and their shrimp and grits is outstanding. I wish the Feed Store would reconsider it’s hours.
Good eats anyway you look at it.


November 28th, 2012
1:12 pm

Busy Bee Cafe, 810 Martin Luther King Junior Drive Southwest Atlanta, GA 30314 404-525-9212 is the only stop you need to make. Classic definition of a hole in the wall but the food that comes out of there is so ridiculously delicious you will have to come back for more. Start with the fried chicken, yams and greens but come back for the fried corn, the smothered chicken, the fried fish, etc. Best soul food place in the city. You may have a wait and they are NOT open on Saturday but you will not be disappointed. Oh and they have a killer fried turkey for your holiday events.


November 28th, 2012
4:53 pm

Vintage Pizza in chamblee


November 28th, 2012
9:37 pm

Hands down the Colonnade. Best ever. Varsity too! But Colonnade No. One.


November 28th, 2012
10:20 pm

By choosing Mary Mac’s you have lost all credibility as a food critic. 30 years ago when Margaret Lupo still ran the place it was great and even later when her son took over, but now—yeech.

Shame on you John Kessler.


November 29th, 2012
5:27 am

our way cafe in avondale is WAY good! delish!

George P Burdell

November 29th, 2012
7:55 am

While I haven’t eaten at all the places on the list, I agree with the choices.

Many of the comments reveal the bland pedestrian tastes of many Atlantans. Cheesecake Factory? Maggiano’s? Mimi’s? Really?


November 29th, 2012
9:51 am

I love Our Way Cafe in Decatur. The food is yummy and the people are welcoming. It’s like going home to mama for comfort food. I always go there when I need a comfort.