City Guide: Atlanta
You may think I’m going out on a limb here, but I’ve seen the future of Atlanta—and it is not limited to monuments that honor soft drinks, billboards for major airlines or a sleek, well-publicized aquarium funded by a home-improvement guru. The future of Atlanta is in the spirit behind a soul food–themed tapas restaurant in a gentrifying part of the city. Its name, Rare Atlanta, is apt because it speaks to a fresh-faced entrepreneurial zeal in town, one that lures patrons to often ignored neighborhoods with dashes of Southern charm, African American soul and modern energy.
Rare Atlanta’s owner, Lorenzo Wyche, is one of the faces of that zeal. The restaurant is his follow-up to the Harlem Bar, a 1970s Blaxploitation-style lounge in the funky Old Fourth Ward, the hardscrabble neighborhood in the heart of Atlanta known as the birthplace of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
Discovering the old Fourth Ward
Wyche isn’t the only one who sees the Old Fourth Ward’s promise. In a town known for its creep-and-crawl traffic and unchecked sprawl, developers have been scrambling because of the district’s central location, wide-ranging architecture and proximity to the proposed Beltline, a 22-mile network of transit, trails and parks linking the city’s neighborhoods.
City officials say that some 8,000 people live in the Old Fourth Ward right now, but an influx of retail, restaurants and residences could boost the city’s tax base by $20 billion in the next 25 years. Over the past decade, multimillion-dollar condominiums have replaced abandoned buildings, artist galleries and multimedia businesses have moved into old industrial spaces, and merchants at a historic market are facing the reality of longer hours and more organic offerings for a clientele accustomed to shopping at Whole Foods.
What does this mean for business travelers? That Atlanta is getting its soul back, so you’ll have more reason to linger in a history-rich neighborhood that’s a mere cab ride or stroll from your hotel.
One evening in the middle of the week, I’m 10 minutes away from the Old Fourth, watching a trickle of Mercedes, Cadillacs and other luxury vehicles roll up to Rare Atlanta’s valet parking station. Drivers hand over their keys so they can walk through the front door into a world of offbeat chandeliers, shabbily chic antiques, brocaded walls and bright-red leather booths.
Walking past tables of couples, businessmen, giggling girlfriends and the like, I am seated at a corner spot in the back lounge, where a vintage Merrie Melodies cartoon plays over my head. My waiter recommends the salmon croquettes with pickled onions over herbed cream cheese, maybe even the braised ribs and coleslaw.
The ribs are an easy sell, but I opt for the collard-green pot stickers instead of the croquettes. My waiter brought the croquettes anyway—they were on him—and told me to let him know what I thought. Next time I won’t think twice about following his recommendations.
Restaurants—not just in the Old Fourth, but all around town—are capitalizing on this need for Southern flavor, turning out elevated regional classics in refined settings. Watershed in Decatur, for example, hosts a popular fried chicken night every Tuesday. Part owned by Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and James Beard Award–winning chef Scott Peacock, it’s known for selling out of its heaping plates of chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and fluffy biscuits by 8 p.m.
Meanwhile, Wisteria, a cozy little brick-walled nook near the Old Fourth in Inman Park, turns out black-eyed-pea hummus with olives and tomatoes and sweet-potato chips, as well as fried catfish over green tomatoes and eggplant with a crawfish ragout. Uptown in Buckhead, the tony Restaurant Eugene has joined the fray with a Sunday supper menu that includes cracklin’ pork osso buco over Anson Mills grits. And powerhouse eateries Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison serve pan-roasted Gulf snapper and veal sweetbreads over greens at Quinones, the sister restaurant of their famed Bacchanalia.
The city’s likely, flavorful past is also its future, and town councilmen hope to approve a master plan for development in this part of town that’s the nexus of all the attention and an indicator of where Atlanta may be going in the future. In the meantime, urban visionaries are striving to create places like Rare Atlanta. When I’m ready for the check, they tell me to come back soon, “only stay a little longer next time.”
PAIGE BOWERS is a freelance writer in Atlanta.