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Chris Watkins is an Atlanta-based content creator with a deep love and connection to the Atlanta dining and nightlife scene. In his past life he was the Atlanta editor for Thrillist with bylines in the pages of Jezebel Magazine, Men’s Book Atlanta, and Where Atlanta Magazine. He currently operates Watkins Branding, a digital marketing and social media agency with focus on the restaurant and hospitality industry.
*Please note that some of these businesses might have changing hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check websites for the most up-to-date information.
Every major city has those restaurants you have to try. You know the ones we’re talking about. They occupy a certain place in locals’ hearts and bear a reputation of being the go-to place to experience the flavors and vibes that embody what a city is all about. The dining destinations residents say, “You can’t visit *insert awesome city like Atlanta* without eating at *insert one of our many well-known and time-tested restaurants*. And with ATL being a foodie city, we’ve got quite a few with that street cred you’d be remiss if you didn’t try. From classic soul food haunts and brunch bastions to blues-belting barbecue joints and fine dining forays, these are Atlanta’s most iconic restaurants.
ATL has a flavor all its own, and these tried, and true dining destinations are the must-try restaurants you can’t afford to miss.
Mary Mac’s Tea Room
Mary Mac’s Tea Room has delivered on serving up down-home faves like fried green tomatoes, fried chicken and copious amounts of sweet tea (never order unsweet here; it’s blasphemy) since opening its doors in 1945. Yes, for 75 years, it’s been a legend in Atlanta’s culinary story, and if you ask anyone where to go for a healthy dose of proper Southern cooking, this Ponce de Leon icon will be first on the list.
From the outside, The Colonnade may not be much to look at with its vintage wood paneling and retirement community vibes, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And inside the Atlanta institution that’s been around since 1927 is a lively and loyal crowd of regulars that live by Cheshire Bridge Road restaurant’s penchant for stellar fried chicken and comforting nightly specials.
The Busy Bee Cafe
Where: Vine City
The Busy Bee Cafe is essential ATL dining. No pretense. Just great food and a history that spans more than 70 years in serving up consistent, time-tested recipes you won’t soon forget. A favorite of celebrities and politicians alike over the years, the West End soul food diner is a necessary stop to explore for their signature fried chicken, vegetables and other Southern delicacies.
Where: Castleberry Hill
With a storied history going back to 1947, Paschal’s has cemented a legacy in Castleberry Hill as one of Atlanta’s foremost destinations for fall-out-of-your-seat fried chicken — it’s that good. After you pick yourself up off the floor and calm your nerves with their award-winning peach cobbler, immerse yourself in the restaurant’s civil rights heritage where it served as the central meeting place for the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson and more leaders of the movement.
Since opening in 1967, little has changed at Downtown stalwart Pittypat’s Porch. And that’s part of its mystique as one of Atlanta’s most iconic establishments. Named after Scarlett O’Hara’s aunt in the film “Gone With the Wind,” dining at Pittypat’s is like traveling back in time. A time of prim and proper Southern dining on pewter and floral adorned plates piled high with Georgia catfish, Southern sides and pecan pie. Complete the antebellum experience by sipping stiff mint juleps on their upstairs vintage rocking chairs. It’s what Pittypat would’ve wanted.
With a name like Eats, you know what you’re getting yourself into. The casual Ponce de Leon cafeteria opened its doors in 1993 as a no-nonsense respite from the day’s worries. Since then, it’s become an Atlanta institution best known for its uncompromising meat and three plates of their famous jerk chicken, meatloaf and veggies. These comforting dishes, combined with cheap prices, made it a welcome addition to the nearby college community and workers searching for the best bang for their buck. That continues to resonate to this day.
Manuel’s Tavern has always been a burgeoning destination for beers and bright conversations. After opening in 1956, it became the foremost neighborhood bar and meeting spot for politicians, journalists and locals to either catch a sports game or debate the latest politics. The latter was its claim to fame. Even former President Jimmy Carter was a regular, and if you take a look around at the slices of nostalgia adorning the walls, you’ll see why this Eastside establishment is so highly revered. It now sits on the National Register of Historic Places (if that tells you anything about the Poncey-Highland mainstay).
Fat Matt’s Rib Shack
Fat Matt’s Rib Shack is an ATL icon through and through, and a consistent player on residents’ lists of their favorite barbecue spots. Whether it’s racks upon racks of saucy, savory ribs, pulled pork sandwiches or comforting sides, you know you’re in for a treat when you pull up to the neon-lit Morningside ‘cue house.
Catering to an older crowd as the go-to destination for marathon dancing and bar-driven eats like tater tots, nachos and wings, Johnny’s Hideaway has lived a storied history in Buckhead for over 40 years. The old school disco with little pretense has welcomed countless celebrities, played as the backdrop to Hollywood movies and reinvented itself over the years by offering a mix of classic hits and modern tunes to draw in younger patrons. Based on its long reputation of being the place to dance like nobody’s watching and fill your spirit with nostalgia and great vibes, it’s a vital piece of old Atlanta’s story.
Bring on the brunch! A Virginia-Highland staple for 40 years, Murphy’s penchant for delivering game-changing comfort food and brunch has cemented its legacy as one of the most beloved destinations to enjoy a weekend breakfast/lunch feast. Park yourself in front of signature favorites like the chilaquiles, crab cake Benedict, banana-covered French toast and more hits that will have you making a standing appointment at this Atlanta icon.
You’ve heard the rally cry from eager carhops ready to serve. “What’ll ya have?” isn’t an easy question to answer when there’s so much to choose from at the world’s largest drive-in restaurant, The Varsity. This downtown Atlanta institution has been keeping college students, sports revelers and locals fed with coma-inducing chili-cheese dogs, onion rings and more fabulous fast food since 1928. And don’t get us started on the Frosted Orange shake. The Varsity is an Atlanta icon like no other.
Japanese fare doesn’t get any better than Nakato. As the oldest Asian restaurant in Atlanta, it’s called the luxe neighborhood of Buckhead home for more than 45 years and is still going strong welcoming a new generation of sushi and omakase lovers. The real star of the show is the authenticity of technique and service where time-honored traditions of private tatami dining, high-flying hibachi and razor-thin cuts of sashimi impart elements of wonder that keep patrons coming back for more.
Far East flavors of China, Japan and Thailand combine for a global melange of flavors at Grand China. Since 1978, the Buckhead institution has been a neighborhood favorite featuring an extensive menu that would take weeks to eat through. Whether you’ve got a taste for Peking duck, shrimp lo mein, beef pad Thai, sushi or ramen, Grand China has you covered no matter the mood.
The Silver Skillet
Where: Home Park
Atlanta loves a good diner, especially for breakfast, and The Silver Skillet has been the go-to since 1956. That’s a long time, and the Midtown eatery is still bursting with 1950s nostalgia. Its vintage decor has made it a top filming location for many tv shows and movies. The Silver Skillet can be seen in “Traveling Man,” “Remember the Titans” and “I’ll Fly Away,” plus many more movies, TV shows and music videos. For folks looking for an essential Southern breakfast, you can’t go wrong with their famous country ham with red-eye gravy, country-fried steak and cheese eggs. Top it all off with their signature and award-winning lemon icebox pie and you’re already ahead of the game.
Serving up “food that pleases,” Majestic Diner has been a long-standing fixture in Poncey-Highland since 1929. As one of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants, the time-tested greasy spoon brings many quality breakfast and lunch options daily. You’ll find everything from burgers and sandwiches to omelets, pancakes and waffles.
Where: Various Locations
Since opening in 2008, Sublime Doughnuts has been one of Atlanta’s favorite stops for doughnut deliciousness. And while not technically a restaurant, the numerous accolades under its belt and a reputation for bringing unique flavors to life in doughnut form made it a must-add to this list. I don’t make the rules, sorry. From its raspberry-filled dark chocolate-covered heart doughnuts and A-Town cream to its orange-glazed dream star and fresh strawberries-n-cream, this is one dough dealer not to miss.