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Coming of Age

Somewhere between flash and charm, Atlanta finds its place on the culinary map

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There's no doubt Atlanta's dining scene has undergone a revolution in the last 35 years. In looking back over the first issues of Creative Loafing, it was hard to find anything in the food pages that would pass muster now. Not only was there no mention of ethnic food, but the endless descriptions of steaks and salads could put anyone's taste buds to sleep.

And then in 1974, something changed. Bob Amick arrived on the scene with his restaurant, Mick's, closely followed by the Pleasant Peasant. The Peasant brought intimate, European-style dining to a city that was still doing most of its eating out in country clubs and hotel restaurants.

"Atlanta really wasn't a restaurant town," Amick says. "You couldn't get a piece of fresh fish. Most people served frozen vegetables."

The fact that Amick is still at the forefront of the Atlanta restaurant scene, more than 30 years later, says a lot for his ability to foresee what the dining public wants and is ready for. With six Atlanta blockbuster successes, including Two Urban Licks and Trois in his Concentrics restaurant group, as well as many more projects in the works, Amick's sense for what will be in style just around the corner is well-honed. His name has become synonymous with the city's emerging brand of glitz and excitement in the restaurant world.

But it could be said that Atlanta's dining scene is going through its own midlife crisis. While the rest of the serious food towns in the South – Charleston, New Orleans – become destinations for the new breed of haute country cooking, Atlanta has a history of rejecting its role as the premier Southern city and looking more to other large, ostentatious metropolises for its motivation. Despite the abundance of incredible produce and food history, our famous and new restaurants tend to mold themselves after Chicago and L.A., France and London, almost anywhere but the South. I asked Amick if we weren't in danger of missing the boat a little by ignoring the real regional personality that seems to be working so well for other Southern cities.

"We're not a typical Southern city," he says. "We're not going to have that huge, regional Southern culture. Atlanta sees itself as a small New York or Chicago. We're a big city, and we're doing big-city restaurants."

Even so, a crop of new restaurants that claim Southern influence have opened in the past year: SAGA, Sweet Lowdown, JCT Kitchen, Rare. Some of these still have the sharp taste of marketing behind them rather than the gentle touch of authentic personality, and many owners and chefs mention "concept" over and over when discussing the impetus for their establishments. So, when outsiders look at Atlanta, do they see a city that's hot in its own right, or are they secretly snickering at our comb-over?

John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford , Miss., and a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine, has been doing a lot of eating in Atlanta recently and sees a major change taking place here.

"There was a time not long ago when people would ask me 'Where do you like to eat in Atlanta?' and I would say Birmingham. And that's changing now. I think Atlanta is embracing its regionality. It's embracing its sense of place, and I don't mean that in a Pittypat's Porch or a Cracker Barrel kind of way. I mean that Atlanta is maturing and flexing its muscle and realizing that its own foods are worthy of a white tablecloth."

Edge cites chefs such as Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene, saying "I think the best chefs out there today in Atlanta aren't cooking purposefully Southern food, and if they are, they're putting that Southern food on the same footing as, you know, Japanese. Look at Linton, who's got country ham and biscuits on the same menu as just-off-the-jet-from-Tokyo hamachi. I think that that's emblematic of the maturity in Atlanta that I didn't see before, and that's what I'm interested in."

He also cites Rare, the newly opened soul-food tapas restaurant, for having a deeply Southern and playful nature that is embracing both the past and the future. "Atlanta is the hometown of the African-American middle-class dream," he says. "And here's a place that's serving up, finally, food that represents and embraces that and doesn't shy away from it."

And so perhaps Atlanta is finally finding its place, both as a representation of the South and as a member of the national big-city restaurant scene. Atlanta has always been a boomtown, since the days when it served as the vital crossroads for the Confederate army. I've often joked that the city's restaurant and nightlife scene models itself on L.A., Miami and Las Vegas, but that without beaches or casinos the impersonation comes off as a little silly, like an old guy in Gucci sunglasses.

But the truth is, being a boomtown is as much an authentic part of Atlanta's personality as is its Southernness, and what Atlanta should be is precisely what it's becoming – part flash, part charm. I do hope that the charm and the slow, sweet nature of the regional cuisine that is emerging in the South become just as prevalent as the ever-bigger, ever-swanker restaurant temples to fashion that the town so dearly loves. But I think Atlanta can be proud of the dichotomy of its dining scene, and that what is going on is less of a crisis and more of a diversification and maturation.

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