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The best restaurants in Atlanta 2009: Songs of the South

Abattoir's chicken liver and foie gras mousse/Credit: AJC

Abattoir's chicken liver and foie gras mousse/Credit: AJC

The lagging economy can’t stop Atlanta’s restaurants from setting a pace that’s continually being recognized nationally. We have great restaurants, and we’re not afraid to show it. With the entire ruckus, a brand new breed of regional cuisine has emerged. Restaurants that exude modernity while embracing what’s best about Southern cooking have blossomed as examples of what’s best about Atlanta dining now: farm-fresh ingredients, artisanal methods from cheese making to butchery and the love of preserving. Plus there’s always dessert, something these restaurants prove is at the top of any great Southern menu. These six restaurants exemplify what’s best about Atlanta restaurants now.


1170 Howell Mill Road, inside the White Provision complex, Atlanta, 404-892-3335

Atlanta’s most lauded restaurateurs, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, have created in Abattoir a personal statement that has already become, after recently opening this past summer, a benchmark in Atlanta dining. Much has been made of the meat-centric menu, created by Quatrano and chef Joshua Hopkins. But eating here is about so much more than offal, alternative meat cuts and innards. The vegetables, whether in a crisped salad of fresh farm lettuces crowned with a poached egg and bacon or in a pickling of cabbage served from a jar, are as much a reason to crow about Abattoir as the chicken liver and foie gras mousse laced with Armagnac. Add a weathered, modern farmhouse look, an excellent cocktail list and a staff that pleases, and Abattoir may be the best reason yet to embrace your inner carnivore while eating your veggies.

CAKES & ALE ****

54 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-377-7994

Chef-owner Billy Allin and wife Kristin have created in Cakes & Ale the perfect balance between farm fresh (the couple grows many of the vegetables on the menu in their back yard) and friendly. The menu, drawn nightly on a large blackboard, is part seasonal, part standard and all genius: My last meal here offered crisped spears of okra (soon to be gone, I’m sure), perfect in heat and texture, lightly battered with cornmeal to be dipped in house-made ranch dressing. Order your own; they are not to be shared. Ditto the hot orbs of arancini, laced with bee pollen and fennel, served in a papered cone like fair food. Fish is something Allin cooks better than most chefs in the city, even though the fresh corn and pole beans in brodo under a halibut steak could stand on their own. Desserts, from pastry chef Cynthia Wong, are playfully plebian: The soft, cream-filled “phatty cakes” have become city legend, and warm chocolate pudding with soft cream served in a pickling jar will conjure memories of mom’s apron strings. Editor’s note: If you’re noticing an extra star at the end of the restaurant’s name, that’s because there is one: No restaurant has proved its mettle more than Cakes & Ale since it’s opening, so it’s gone from a three- to four-star status.

4th & SWIFT ****

621 North Ave. N.E., Atlanta, 678-904-0160

The space is classic Atlanta: a roomy, cavernous affair drawn from the remnants of the Southern Dairies building; the stylish bar drapes one side of the massive room while a modern dining room is set on another. Both set the stage for chef-owner Jay Swift’s contemporary Southern menu. And from soup to nuts, Swift delivers – his soups are always a best start to a meal here, from creamy roasted corn to more fall-like inspirations of butternut squash with maple cream. A plate of Berkshire pork belly, loin, and house-made sausage has become a signature, served with the restaurant’s decadent macaroni-and-cheese. Swift’s hand is subtle, and it’s not unusual to see heirloom vegetables highlighted as nightly specials.


1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-355-2252

JCT Kitchen has, from the start, exemplified what’s best about modern Southern cooking. Chef-owner Ford Fry adds to fresh, well-sourced ingredients classical French technique and Southern sensibilities, creating a menu that turns our timeless notion of how we cook on its ear. From his otherworldly fried chicken (part crispy, part juicy) with mac-and cheese so rich and creamy it should have its own zip code to “angry” mussels spiced and peppered with serrano chile, bacon and a bit of onion in a broth that borders on creaminess, this kitchen offers a tasty take on all that’s right about the Southern dining now. Desserts set the bar high for other offerings; rarely do I find anything to argue about with milky, sugar-and-rum sopped tres leches topped with coconut, or soft gingerbread pudding cake with tart Meyer lemon curd. Barkeep Lara Creasy adds a sexy dimension to the cocktails, too: Try her “fields of gold” with Number 209 gin, chamomile-infused vermouth, local honey, lemon juice and fennel pollen.

Gingerbread pudding cake and lemon curd at JCT Kitchen/ Credit: AJC

Gingerbread pudding cake and lemon curd at JCT Kitchen/ Credit: AJC


620 Glen Iris Drive, Atlanta. 404-870-8707

Alluring Medjool dates wrapped with bacon and stuffed with marcona almonds notwithstanding, Repast’s menu has become a reflection of chef-owners and husband-and-wife team Joe Truex and Mihoko Obunai’s yin yang of talents and tastes. I’m not a fan of the all-Eastern selections, such as the congee-like lobster and king crab nabe yaki, but when these two put their heads together in the kitchen the results are a blessed meeting of East meets South. Stewed and curried okra with peanuts and dishes such as crab cakes “Repast style,” which are firmer and more purin pudding-like than their Western counterparts, marry Truex’s Southern roots with Obunai’s Japanese ancestry. And the truffled corn, creamed and served au gratin, is just plain mind numbing, no matter what side of the planet you’re on. Desserts are always special, and where Obunai’s touch is most appreciated, from a creamy olive oil cake with marcona almond ice cream to coconut cream in a crispy jasmine rice tart.

SHAUN’S ****

1029 Edgewood Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-577-4358

When chef-owner Shaun Doty’s eponymous restaurant in Inman Park opened in 2007, it was instantly to Atlanta what the Savings & Loan was to Bedford Falls: a genuine place to go and, in the restaurant’s case, eat. Since then, the East Village style chicken livers over toast, steak frites with fries “graisse de carnard” style and pork schnitzel with lemon and peanuts have become some of the best reasons to eat out in Atlanta. Doty cooks seasonally, so things change here as much as they remain the same, but let’s hope he always manages to keep the sticky toffee pudding on the menu, no matter the season. Its gooey, sticky butterscotch-y goodness gets my vote as one of the best desserts the city has to offer.

74 comments Add your comment


October 30th, 2009
11:27 pm

oh, and maybe i’m too late for this comment, but someone needs to tell shaun’s that marrow is only interesting in a city that isn’t that much of a foodie city. i’ve been having marrow ravioli etc… for years – actually, decades!. just not in atlanta.


October 30th, 2009
11:25 pm

been to cake & ale enough times to know that the atmosphere and the feeling of eating locally is more noteworthy than the food. it’s never awful, i guess. sometimes really good. but mostly must just okay. decent.

4th and swift…good all the time! and sometimes really really great. though heavy on the salt, i’ve noticed.


October 30th, 2009
10:16 pm

I’ve been to Repast, Cakes and Ale and Shaun’s, and would rank them in that order. I definitely agree with the first two being on a list of the city’s best. I think the entrees are better at Repast over Cakes and Ale, but I really enjoy the latter to sit at the bar and have appetizers and a dessert. Some day I’ll try Shaun’s again, but I’m afraid I’ll get stuck at that communal table and have to share my food.
For the person who complains that Rathbun’s isn’t listed, I have to say I went recently and thought it had lost a step. The prices had gone up and the food wasn’t what I remembered. I think I’ll try 4th and Swift and Abattoir before I try Rathbun’s again. Thanks for the tips, Meredith.


October 30th, 2009
10:05 pm

I’ve eaten at all 5 in a 1-5 rating with 1 sucking and 5 being outstanding:
Abattoir: 4.2 pretty good would go back
Cakes & Ale: 4.5
4th & Swift: 3.6
JCT: Consistently good 4, but I’ve only been for lunch
Repast: 1.5 (tasteless – I didn’t get it), but had the exact same experience at Holman & Finch. I will go back if someone else pays.
Shaun’s: 3 com si com sa


October 30th, 2009
10:48 am

I think CC is nearly spot on. Sorry if that offends but I hear it all too often (or read it, as the case may be here).

Also, most times you’ll see/read “we went there once, had something go wrong and will never go back”. As it relates to food reviews (speaking as someone who used to walk that trail), multiple visits are required to make a comprehensive judgement. You can’t form an opinion based on just one visit – you’d be selling yourself, and the people who might read what you have to say, short.

You may have had a bad server (who may have been let go since you visited). There may have been something going on that night that caused the glitch (unexpected large parties, etc).

And, since I’m standing up here on this big old soap box, let me just say that most of what I read people complain about is just that – a glitch. Just like with your PC, just like with your car, just like when I try to work my DVR and just like with nearly everything else in life.


October 30th, 2009
8:50 am

Dinning out for us has ceased! Where in Georgia you can actually get your money-worth? I have found and experienced that most of the places you dine are all about “Presentation” of the foods they serve. Families dine out to eat not to have a show-case put before them. What they advertise in magazines, papers, etc., is not what you get when you go there. Keeping with Southern Tradition….people go out to eat and enjoy what they have before them. By the time you select your food, the portion of food you get is not worth the money you pay. It takes a good person with Southern Traditions to feed those who come there to keep their business going…not walking away unsatisfied.

food focused

October 29th, 2009
10:31 pm

@ Bill: Wisteria should not ever be mentioned in this forum. It is the WORST “Southern” restaurant in the city.
@ everyone: Reread Ted’s post towards the top. As a restaurant owner, your feedback is best presented at the table. You paid for it. You should get what you wanted out of it.

John B.

October 29th, 2009
9:39 pm

The food I have had at Shaun’s does not jump out at me. It’s OK. Average bordering on pedestrian. I like the bar space though.


October 29th, 2009
8:16 pm

The beef tacos from the Chicago Supermarket on Buford Highway is by far the best meal in the city. Hands down.


October 29th, 2009
7:30 pm

The only restaurant of the five I’ve been to is Abattoir, it was a great experience. Nothing knocked you out, it snuck up on you – subtle tastes and textures that I was thinking about the next day.