Decatur, Georgia: A Hop-Skip From Atlanta, One Adventurous Food Scene Awaits

Sure, you're familiar with Nashville and Atlanta. But what about the smaller southern cities packing just as much flavor? In The Hidden South, Chris Chamberlain takes a look at a region of the South that is most certainly worth traveling to for the food.

Normally this column seeks to point travelers in search of a new dining experience to out-of-the-way locations — in smaller towns around the South. But sometimes the best finds can be hiding in plain sight. Decatur is a suburb within the sprawling shadow of Atlanta, located on the MARTA line for easy ingress and egress — but with a discrete personality all its own.

While there are certainly plenty of great restaurants within the urban core of the ATL, more and more diners are venturing out to Decatur, where you can undertake a dinearound and drinkaround without worrying about taxis or how to get your car from establishment to establishment. Because after all, this is the urban South, where we residents believe that we have a God-given right to park for free within a 100-foot walk of any destination we choose. It's called "the mall mentality."

Nearly two decades ago when it was built, that MARTA line literally tore the town of Decatur apart and completely reconfigured its flow. The town center was moved to allow for tunneling, track and station construction. On the plus side, what was rebuilt is now an eminently walkable, cozy town laid out around a square that is the home to several excellent dining destinations.

One of the best-known restaurants in Decatur is Cakes & Ale, located just a few steps from where the trains disgorge packs of hungry Atlantans on a nightly basis. True to its name (which comes from a quote in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night), Cakes & Ale serves some fine drinks and has an attached bakery. But the highlights of the menu are the simple American dishes created with the finest of local ingredients and served in an unassuming atmosphere, a philosophy that chef/owner Billy Allin learned during his years working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Even the Red Staters of Georgia drop their guard and embrace their inner hippies reading over Allin's menus.

Just around the corner, but worlds apart culinarily speaking, is No. 246, perhaps the best Italian restaurant in the Atlanta area. Ford Fry, the brains and toque behind JCT Kitchen and The Optimist, partnered with Drew Belline to create the menu and concept behind this new favorite. Rather than bogging down in heavy, meat-laden, red sauce Italian dishes that many Carrabba's-loving Southerners have become accustomed to, No. 246 seeks to make the vegetable the star of the plate. Seasonality and availability of local produce drives the creative decision-making process in the kitchen, although old country Italian techniques are always emphasized.

Both No. 246 and another neighbor, Sapori di Napoli, feature hand-crafted Italian Acunto wood-fired ovens, essential tools in the creation of perfect Neapolitan-style pizzas and other roasted dishes. At Sapori di Napoli, the Florio brothers, who operate the establishment, seek to take diners on a trip to their favorite weekend vacation spot growing up — Agerola, a small country town on the Almalfi coast where their father was born. Their Southern Italian cuisine emphasizes pizza over pasta, but it's the family atmosphere (and those amazing pies) that keep the regulars coming back.

If you're into Alsatian more than Italian, Benedicte Cooper has been expanding the palates of Atlanta diners since 1997 with her creative takes on the regional food of France, Germany and Switzerland at Cafe Alsace. Her spaetzle is an uncommon treat in the dumplin'-lovin' South, and her Boeuf Bourguignon would make Julia proud. (Plus you don't have to spend a full day in the kitchen trying to reproduce it.)

The ethnic tour of Decatur continues at Colbeh Persian Kitchen & Bar, where the kitchen offers the expected roster of meat skewers, but really shines with their rich Persian stews. Adventurous patrons dive into bowls of Fesenjon featuring a traditional seared walnut pomegranate that you won't encounter at just any old House of Kabob. Three different sirloin-based stews will appease any rabid carnivores and reward them with bold Middle Eastern flavors.

After all the international dining options, sometimes a traveler just needs a strong drink before boarding the public transit back home. Fortunately, Decatur offers two excellent options for just that. The Pinewood Tippling Room is a relative newcomer to the area. It aims to occupy the space of both a neighborhood hang and a high-minded cocktail bar, and so far it is being accepted as both. Thanks to a bar stocked with interesting bottles and an extensive program of house-made mixers, bitters and syrups, The Pinewood has created a cocktail menu that is comparable to some of the best lounges in the mixologist meccas of Manhattan, Chicago and San Francisco, but without the big city prices. It's also probably your best bet to find a snoot of 20 Year Old Pappy Van Winkle in the area.

In the old days, full service meant getting your gas pumped, your oil checked and your windshield cleaned. But at Leon's Full Service, it's an attitude of customer service that raises this American gastropub to the top of the list of Decatur favorites. Food & Wine named Leon's one of the 50 Best Bars in America, and most visitors to this converted service station on Ponce would probably concur. A broad selection of craft brews and a deep roster of spirits from around the globe make this a drinker's paradise, while creative bar snacks help line your stomach for another snort. How can you not love a joint that serves a simple dish of "bacon in a glass" for $5 with an optional $.50 peanut butter supplement?

This sort of combination of down home and upscale is what characterizes the best of Decatur dining. The opportunity to enjoy an appetizer from Iran, a fine Neapolitan pizza and a great cocktail with a side of bacon within a few minutes crawl from one another makes Decatur definitely worth a $5 MARTA round trip fare the next time you find yourself in Hotlanta.

Cakes & Ale

155 Sycamore St

Decatur, GA 30030

(404) 377-7994

No. 246

129 E Ponce De Leon Ave

Decatur, GA 30030

(678) 399-8246

Sapori di Napoli

314 Church St

Decatur, GA 30030

(404) 371-0001

Cafe Alsace

121 E Ponce De Leon Ave

Decatur, GA 30030

(404) 373-5622

Colbeh Persian Kitchen & Bar

123 E Court Sq

Decatur, GA 30030

(404) 373-1226

The Pinewood Tippling Room

254 W Ponce De Leon Ave

Decatur, GA 30030

(404) 373-5507

Leon's Full Service

131 E Ponce De Leon Ave

Decatur, GA 30030

(404) 687-0500

Read more The Hidden South columns on Food Republic: