It looks like a scene from a movie, or perhaps one of those family TV shows: a diner, filled with sunlight. Bright yellow flowers sit on the counter, which is occupied by a diverse collection of regulars sipping coffee and chatting with waiters. Children's drawings adorn the walls, along with perfectly shabby and appropriately arty prints — just the right mix of quirky personality and enviable taste. "Good morning!" one of the owners chirps as a group of customers walks in. "Sit wherever you'd like!"
It's all so congenial, so bright and happy and friendly, it should be fiction. But it's very, very real. Home Grown, situated on Memorial Drive near its intersection with Moreland Avenue, is a picturesque representation of its straightforward aspirations and its eclectic neighborhood. At one table, men in mechanic's uniforms chat over plates of meat and veggies. At another, some dudes who look like they haven't changed out of the clothes they played in at the Earl the previous evening eat a 1 p.m. breakfast.
Beyond the sunny front room and its counter, a back room holds booths and tables, and beyond that is an art gallery. Yes, an art gallery, called Cornbred, run by the artist Emer, who's also a server at the restaurant. Across the street is the community art center WonderRoot's garden, overgrown with sunflowers. Up the block, guys hawk gleaming rims from a hot gravel lot. This is Reynoldstown, and Home Grown has slipped right in, instantly becoming what feels like the heart of the neighborhood.
Home Grown takes its name seriously. Most of what's served is grown by local farmers. The menu is short and changes daily, depending on what's available. Owner Lisa Spooner says farmers stop by the restaurant with their produce, and the menu is created around whatever they bring.
This is a way of doing things that's familiar to many high-end chefs, but not as common for a wallet-friendly diner. Proponents of locavorism are famous for hand-wringing over their perceived elitism, and very few solutions have been offered to combat that perception. As usual, the solution lies in simple actions, not high-minded theories. A low-key spot in the heart of one of Atlanta's working-class neighborhoods that just happens to serve seasonal, local food is a huge step in the right direction.
Chef and owner Kevin Clark has worked all over town, from Paul's in Brookhaven to Rolling Bones over on Edgewood Avenue. When former occupant Mammy's Kitchen closed, Clark took the opportunity to open his own place in his own neighborhood. His food is simple Southern classics. Biscuits, eggs and pancakes in the morning, meat and veggies at lunch. Clark and Spooner are considering opening for dinner some time in the future, but the concept and menu wouldn't change with the hours. "We'd serve the exact same thing we do now," Spooner says.
At its best, that means straightforward Southern goodness, such as a fried pork chop with gravy, the exterior crispy, the interior juicy, the smooth gravy with the exact right amount of salt. Breakfast provides flaky, square biscuits with the standard egg/meat/cheese combinations. Medium-heft pancakes outshine French toast, which was a tad limp. For breakfast, Home Grown and its friendly, multifarious staff offers an uplifting atmosphere with which to start your day rather than mind-blowing food.
But at lunch, it's occasionally possible to have your mind blown. Creamed corn is like a decadent bowl of summer, sweet and creamy with the extra richness of real dairy. Fried green tomatoes have that wonderful balance of under-ripe tang and greasy crunch. Collards are a tad undercooked and underseasoned, but the strident green freshness that speaks to the quality of their origins makes up for that, as does a dash of pepper vinegar provided on the table.
Roasted chicken and meatloaf were both uncomplicated and satisfying, particularly given their price. In fact, all the lunch entrées are available as the "blue collar lunch plate," which includes a side and a drink for $8.
The kitchen tends to have a heavy hand with black pepper and sometimes salt — a side of lima beans was overseasoned, and pinto beans had boatloads of garlic and pepper and not much else. And while I know it's a Southern tradition, I found the sweetness of anything with barbecue sauce to be overwhelming. It was especially distracting in a bowl of shrimp and grits — the shrimp themselves were perfectly cooked, the grits delicious, but the sauce overpowered the whole dish.
Homemade pies provide a sweet end to a meal here. They are sugar bombs of comfort, particularly the lemon and blackberry icebox pie, which held blackberry bursts of sweet/sour goodness in its sticky lemon filling. Grits pie should be considered an instant classic of leftovers innovation — the grits from the previous day making for a custardy good time as pie filling.
The food here may not be perfect, but it is honest, and the warm and welcoming vibe makes everything taste that much better. Home Grown is an evolution, for locavorism, for Reynoldstown, and for Atlanta.