Do you remember when Virginia-Highland was seedy and Grant Park was scary? In 20 years, both 'hoods have changed radically. "The Highlands," then a rather edgy address, is now a prestigious, expensive one. Grant Park, where I live, is on the verge of a complete transformation, too. Soon, the homeless who wander our streets will have to carry passports and dress in period clothing required by the people who enforce our designation as a historic district.
Back in the day, Virginia-Highland was where you went for kind of healthy, hippy-dippy cuisine at the original Murphy's and Eats 'n' Sweets. Capo's, where La Tavola is now located, was the city's original favorite boutique restaurant with waits in excess of two hours on weekends. You could shop at Stone Soup Natural Foods, which originally was located in the building that became Virginia's, my favorite coffeehouse.
Now the operator of Stone Soup, closed in the early '90s, has opened Stone Soup Kitchen (584 Woodward Ave., 404-524-1222) in Grant Park. It's in a storefront next to a Mexican video shop that was formerly occupied by a taqueria.
You'll definitely get a retro feeling as soon as you walk through the door. It's not just the yellow walls, open kitchen, homey soups and sprout-filled specials, some of which are labeled on a chalkboard as vegan or merely vegetarian. Some of the service is way too chilled out. The man running the counter where all orders are placed seems unable to focus for more than 15 seconds before he is distracted. During one visit, I had to repeat my simple order so many times, I was tempted to sing it while tap dancing. During another visit, my sandwich floated 15 minutes in oblivion and was suddenly jetted to the table by two profusely sweet and apologetic people.
But the quirkiness of the staff is part of the place's charm, too. I chatted at length with a young server from New York who said she was getting out of Atlanta as soon as possible. "Atlanta is like a collection of small towns with no place interesting to go," she told me. "People don't even walk around downtown."
No kidding? Atlanta's downtown was rebuilt in the '60s when the city's leaders feared that any development that encouraged people to gather would result in race riots. It's only been in recent years that people have begun to live downtown but, barring major redevelopment, Atlanta's downtown will never be as vibrant as the small town-ish neighborhoods like Grant Park that ring it.
Stone Soup -- I hope you know the children's story for which it is named -- is a welcome addition to Grant Park. Open for lunch and breakfast only, it's performing the same function Metro Fresh does in Midtown, which is to offer diners uncomplicated, inexpensive, mainly wholesome food. It's a little too enriched with nostalgia for my taste -- avocado, lettuce, tomato and sprouts on whole wheat bread? -- but it beats Church's Fried Chicken on Hill Street.
Soups change daily, but my faves have been the regular menu pair of corn chowder and a Thai curry over rice noodles. The latter, sweet with coconut milk, is full of chicken and greens with a garnish of cilantro. The corn chowder is my usual choice. The corn's natural sweetness is tempered with spicy poblano peppers. Cream mixed with lobster and chicken broths makes the soup complex. I've tried a couple of special soups, including a gumbo with lots of okra, tomatoes, sausage and chicken. It wasn't a real gumbo, but it was tasty nonetheless.
I must say I like the soups a lot better than the sandwich wraps. Curried chicken was dry and, um, over-curried. A vegetarian wrap was way too oniony. In fact, I've found the kitchen generally uses onions too heavily. If breathing on clients is an issue for you, I suggest you inquire about the use of onions in anything you order.
The buzz boy club -- smoked turkey, bacon and avocado on whole wheat -- and pimento cheese on a croissant are both features from Stone Soup's earlier days. Eat them and you'll hear the Mamas and the Papas playing in your head. That's not so bad. There's also a tofu burger and a chicken Philly-style cheesesteak.
I've only tried a lemon bar -- more nostalgia -- for dessert. There are also pastries from the Bread Garden, a peach cobbler, and a few cakes, including a carrot cake, of course.
Around the corner
Not a stone's throw from Stone Soup is the B's BBQ Cafe (313 Boulevard, 404-523-2334). This is in the location of the Automatic, Todd Semrau's experiment with a funky, retro drive-thru cafe and coffee shop. He recently closed the short-lived experiment, as well as his longtime Heaping Bowl and Brew in East Atlanta.
The new tenants bring a third style of barbecue to the Grant Park area. At Daddy D'z on Memorial Drive, you get your 'cue Georgia-style. At Rolling Bones on Edgewood Avenue, you get it Texas-style. At B's, you get mustard-based sauce from a family that has owned barbecue restaurants in both the Carolinas.
Frankly, I've had mixed success at the restaurant. I've twice ordered the half-slab of ribs. One order was way too fatty, but the other was lean and succulent. I love the sauce. It forms a sweet, sharp glaze on the meat. But here's a warning: Request extra. If you don't, you won't get any and the meat does need the extra anointment.
I've also ordered the chicken twice and it was severely overcooked both times. I could eat the dark meat, but the white meat was so stringy and dry, it was basically inedible. Without extra sauce, you won't have a prayer of swallowing it.
You'll also find jambalaya, wings, pork chops and home-style vegetables, which are available as sides. They are the usual collards, mac-n-cheese, cole slaw, fried okra and more. I've liked all of them.
B's is also open for breakfast at 6 a.m. daily, but I have not sampled any of the croissant sandwiches or shrimp and gravy over grits. Let me know.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at email@example.com.