As I walked through downtown Atlanta last week, I passed Blossom Tree, a Korean taco joint I’ve been happily eating at for years, which happens to be next to Anatolia, a not-bad Mediterranean joint where the college students like to smoke hookahs.
Then, I headed toward Fred’s Country Kitchen, a down-home Southern meat-and-three where the owner serves a homemade Greek yogurt.
It was an entirely ordinary path. I could’ve walked past a fast-casual Indian restaurant and a Vietnamese pho to-go counter to get a flawless Chicago-style dog.
And so on … but you get my point.
Downtown has become one of the most diverse places in Atlanta for a cheap, walkable lunch. Even restricted to the very heart of downtown, that rough triangle around Woodruff Park, the state Capitol and Grady Memorial Hospital, there’s an enormous spectrum of food offered.
While most of these places are closed by the evening, you’ll find lunch lines packed with hospital scrubs, pressed business suits, the coveralls of city workers, the backpacks of university students and the briefcases of professors.
Good luck, trying it all. I thought I’d taken a pretty thorough tour after spending several days scouting out the best lunches, but after I was done I got an email tipping me off to a Latin place that I’d skipped, Buenos Dias Cafe. She said the pupusas were great. Maybe next time.
Fred’s Country Kitchen
Atlanta long has been home to the meat-and-three, that practical, cheap Southern lunch plate. Though there are still quite a number, I imagine in years past there were probably even more places in downtown Atlanta that served the same menu as Fred’s Country Kitchen on Mitchell Street.
The friendly ladies who work behind the counter here will gladly scoop out cornbread casserole or green beans from the steam tables, along with fried chicken or meatloaf.
They will become even more animated if you ask for a cup of the yogurt. Owner Fred Razzaghi makes it fresh, just as a neighbor taught him to do when he was boy in Iran. Be sure to order it topped, which makes it sticky-sweet with ginger-infused honey, strawberries and walnuts.
Fred’s Country Kitchen, 132 Mitchell St., Atlanta. 404-524-5665, fredsatl.com.
Sweet Auburn Curb Market
This sprawling mall of food stalls dates back to well before the current food hall trend. After the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917, the market was founded in this location with only a tent for a roof.
Today, the place is a thriving combination of grocers and lunch counters. You can see a little of that history in the business that still happens here: Butchers offer whole hogs. Produce vendors sell collards by the bushel.
Yet, the lunch counters at Sweet Auburn have become a kind of incubator for the future restaurants of Atlanta. Grindhouse Killer Burgers, Bell Street Burritos and Arepa Mia all opened here before expanding to more locations throughout Atlanta.
There’s no mistaking that this is a favorite stop for employees of the nearby hospital; you’ll see their scrubs and lanyards everywhere.
But, what to eat? The options are too great to pick just one.
The overloaded Venezuelan pupusas served at Arepa Mia can rival any cheeseburger in terms of an indulgent, coma-inducing lunch. The curry chicken and steam veggies at the long-running Afrodish have a following. At Yumdiggity, order an all-beef frank Diggin’ Thru the Garden-style and you’ll be greeted with a perfect Chicago hot dog topped with mustard, relish, pickle, chopped onions, peppers, tomatoes and a generous dash of celery salt.
The double-crust pies at Panbury’s are lovely, lacquered and crisp. If you’ve got room, order the Southern Breakfast, a pie loaded with sausage and scrambled eggs. But, if you can only handle one more bite, try the chicken sausage roll, a tender mash of herbs, cheese and chicken wrapped in pastry dough. Some English say the recipe belongs to them, but the South Africans who opened Panbury’s claim it as their own.
Sweet Auburn Curb Market, 209 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta. thecurbmarket.com.
This short alley of lunch joints draws Georgia State University students looking for a quick lunch fix. There’s plenty of bad, cheap fare and boring chains, but among them are a couple of gems.
Naanstop (64 Broad St., Atlanta. 404-522-6226, naanstop.com) is, perhaps, one of the more unusual Indian restaurants to open in Atlanta in recent years. The service style is modeled mostly on Chipotle. You decide whether you’d like a rice bowl, a salad or a wrap (in this case, naan bread) and walk along a steam table selecting which ingredients to go on top. Chicken tikka masala and garbanzo-laden chola are hearty choices. Topped with the nasal-clearing heat of the chile-cilantro chutney, you might work up a sweat, but the yogurt chutney will cool you off.
Perhaps the biggest success on Broad is Dua Vietnamese (53 & 61 Broad St., Atlanta. 404-589-8889, yougotpho.com), a pho restaurant whose broths possess a rich, complex blend of aromatic spices. Since opening, Dua not only has expanded to two more locations in the suburbs, but also a second location on the same block downtown.
If you walk into Dua at 53 Broad St., you’ll find tables upstairs and in the basement where you can sit down and enjoy a steaming bowl of beef pho along with your heaping plate of basil, bean sprouts and sliced chiles. But, if you walk into Dua at 61 Broad St., you’ll find a quick counter that specializes in to-go orders.
As soon as you taste Dua’s broth, you’ll know that this restaurant’s success is much deserved.