June 13, 2012

On my recent trip to Atlanta I was very pleasantly surprised. At work I organize trade shows and have been sent to some fairly “groanworthy” places — Anaheim (aka strip mall and chain heaven) and more recently Dallas (which I will try to avoid at all costs in the future). With those convention cities under my belt, my expectations were pretty low, but Atlanta gave me an experience I won’t soon forget.

Downtown Atlanta

I arrived the evening before exhibit set up and had some time to kill. Fortunately, I have a friend who lives in the area, which always helps. He picked me up at the airport and we headed over to his house in Decataur to catch up over a beer and play with his dogs before heading to nearby Ponce de Leon Ave. This strip reminded me a bit of some of the neighborhood hubs in Seattle and from what I’ve heard, like my hometown, Atlanta is a city of neighborhoods. Sure downtown has skyscrapers and hosts some of the bigger attractions, but the neighborhoods are where all the really hip bars, shops, and restaurants are.

We dropped into Leon’s Full Service, a restaurant and scratch bar that is housed in what used to be a gas station and auto repair shop. Aside from the large open windows leading into the bar, it is completely transformed today with lots of nice details and woodwork inside and a landscaped patio outside. We grabbed a cool drink and then headed to the bocce ball pit in front for a few games while we waited for his wife to arrive. Luckily, the weather outside was pleasant (warm but not humid) since a rain storm had come through the day before.

Shops on Ponce de Leon Avenue

Just after she arrived, we got seated at our patio table where I was told the cocktails were not to be overlooked and I was very glad I heeded this advice. I ordered the “Air Mail” with rum, honey, lime, bitters, and a splash of prosecco, which was absolutely divine. To start off our meal we had the zuchini fritters, which, though fried like a hush puppy, weren’t overly greasy or heavy, especially when paired with a light yogurt sauce with a hint of goat cheese. For my main I picked the leg of lamb over a bed of quinoa with mustard greens. The lamb was perfect, juicy and tender, and the flavorful quinoa salad was probably the best I’d ever had.

After dinner we had to swing through Brick Store Pub, which has a gorgeous wood and exposed brick interior and an overwhelming draught beer list. They have a particularly good selection of Belgian beers (my personal favorite) and serve everything in the appropriate beer glass. When I arrived at the downtown Holiday Inn later that evening I went to bed perfectly satisfied and already pretty pleased with Atlanta.

Centennial Park

The next morning, I woke up early and decided to go for a jog in nearby Centennial Park, the gathering place for the 1996 Summer Olympics. It was another warm, but not humid day and I knew I would be spending most of it inside the convention hall so I wanted to get some fresh air. The park was very well kept with numerous fountains and man made streams and of course its iconic torches that are lit up at night. It’s hard to believe this area of town was a total eye sore two decades ago. Made possible by the state government and many generous sponsors commemorated in “brick quilts” throughout the park’s walkways, Centennial has been a catalyst for new development in the downtown area. The World of Coca-Cola, the CNN center, and the world renounced Georgia Aquarium are all located here as well as a strip of restaurants and bars on Marietta Street.

I did a few laps and got fully oriented with the area before showering and heading to the Georgia World Congress Center, which had a few surprises itself. For example during my search for food and other services I discovered this lush koi pond and terrace on the 2nd level of the building. It was the perfect place to scarf down a salad and get some quiet time away from the pounding and beeping forklifts of the convention hall.

Convention Center Koi Pond

That night I finished work around 9:30pm and was completely starving, tired, and grumpy from spending my whole Saturday running around dealing with logistics in an un-airconditioned work zone. I met a few colleagues at Cafe Intermezzo, an Italian place a few blocks from our hotel. The interior was slightly upscale, but the big screens playing NBA games gave it a relaxed atmosphere. I had a delicious and filling chicken sandwich with gouda cheese and granny smith apples and then passed by the dessert case on my way to the restroom and knew that I wouldn’t be able to pass up dessert. That case was a beautiful thing to behold with at least two dozen fancy cakes on display. I picked the Reese’s chocolate cheesecake for our group, which was ridiculously rich and helped me make a miraculous recovery from my previously sour mood. On the walk back to the hotel we got to enjoy the spectacle of tourists riding in horse drawn carriages on Andrew Young International Blvd, some of which had lit up exteriors reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty’s pumpkin carriage.

Cinderella horse drawn carriages

Before the show opened the next day, I took my booth staff over to check out the CNN Center and have a quick lunch at Dantanna’s, a sports bar with steaks and seafood. We ordered salads and sandwiches and were all quite hungry so we cleaned our plates, but I would say this was one of the lesser meals I ate in Atlanta. It was okay and definitely better than the convention hall food, but that’s not saying too much.

CNN Center from Centennial Park

Later that evening we headed over to Ray’s in the City for a team seafood dinner. The waiter upsold us on the hot and cold seafood towers, which had just about every type of shellfish imaginable — oysters, shrimp, crab, lobster, calamari, and on and on. They were practically a meal unto themselves and I was wishing I’d just ordered a salad when my soy ginger ahi tuna arrived. It was really delicious, but I just couldn’t finish the generous portion of fish on my own. If I went there again, I would probably stick to the sushi menu, which looked absolutely delicious and would have been a lot lighter.

The next few days were filled with work and followed up by dinners out. The first was at Ted’s Montana Grill, a chain owned by Ted Turner of CNN fame. It’s an upscale burger and steak joint with over a dozen different burger preparations all offered with either a beef or bison paddy. That night they had a banjo player, which was great to listen to while we waited for a table. For dinner I opted for the “Green and Hot” burger with monterrey jack cheese, homemade guacamole, fresh jalapenos, and a bison paddy on a brioche bun. It was ridiculously good with just the right amount of spice and the meat had a really unique flavor.

Drinking an Old Atlantan at South City Kitchen

The following night we headed to Midtown, the “happening” area just north of downtown. Here there is more of a nightlife scene with lots of people walking around and a huge concentration of bars, shops, restaurants, and clubs. There are tons of great places here: Echo, Cypress Pint and Plate, Tap, Baraondo, One Midtown Kitchen, and Empire State South to mention a few. For my group I picked South City Kitchen for its upscale southern cuisine. The restaurant is somewhat small and homey so I was happy they could accommodate a reservation for such a large group. It really feels like you are inside someone’s house, especially with the narrow staircase leading up to the bathroom and the enclosed front porch seating.

To get started I tried the Old Atlantan, a whiskey drink with soda, orange bitters, lemon juice, and muddled strawberry. It may look like the girliest drink out there, but the combination of tart, sweet, and bitter would please any discriminating whiskey drinker. Following cocktails we tried an assortment of southern inspired appetizers of which the BBQ pork hoecake and fried green tomatoes were my favorite. For dinner, to prove we were clearly from out of town and looking to experience “southern fare,” everyone at the table ordered either the shrimp grits or fried chicken. I was no exception and thoroughly enjoyed my crispy fried chicken with collars and the accompanying mashed potatoes, which were probably the best I have ever tasted.

Finger lickin' good

My last night in Atlanta, was surprisingly my most eventful. I closed down my work event just before 8pm and didn’t expect to do much since it had been a truly exhausting week and all of my colleagues had flown home earlier in the day. However, on my way through Centennial Park I couldn’t help but get drawn in by the crowd of people at a free music festival featuring local R&B and funk artists. I walked in and immediately stuck out like a sore thumb since I was one of maybe 10 white people out of hundreds of concert goers. Sometimes it is good to feel a little uncomfortable. It reminded me a bit of my days living in Hawaii and being “the token white girl.”

The music was very entertaining and upbeat, but the people watching was even better. Aside from all the cute little kids running around in the fountain, people everywhere were decked out in the brightest, most flamboyant attire I’ve ever seen. Neon colors and offbeat jewelry were the norm and I could see that Atlanta has a truly distinct sense of style. To paint you a picture, one performer was wearing spring green ankle boots, a multicolored flowing mini dress, and a wide-brimmed black hat.

Concert at Centennial Park

After checking out the concert for a half hour or so, my stomach was really starting to complain so I walked up Marietta Street to find a place to eat. STATS, a large, but inviting sports bar won out since it seemed like the most happening place. I went up to the large, rooftop patio and headed straight to the bar. It’s usually the best place for faster service and also the best place to be social if you are dining alone. I ordered a strong basil vodka cocktail and the Thai steak salad, which was very good and definitely much better than typical sports bar fare. The head bartender there took excellent care of me while I sat and watched a few games on the big screens. As the night got later, the bar filled up and I soon had people on both sides of me watching the end of the San Antonio vs. Oklahoma basketball game. Everyone was really friendly and I found myself chatting away about Seattle, Atlanta, politics, clean energy, family, and every other topic under the sun.

Before I knew it, a quick drink and dinner had turned into several rounds of drinks (compliments of my new acquaintances) and the bar was closing down. Knowing I had to catch a plane in the morning I said farewell to my new friends and headed back to the hotel. The next morning, though still very sleep deprived and a tad hungover, I felt totally exhilarated by my experience in Atlanta. There really is something to that southern hospitality.

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