Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Issue Five of Life & Thyme, The Nostalgia Issue. Buy your copy at our online shop.
To paraphrase Chef Hugh Acheson, it ain’t easy to put your finger on what makes Athens, Georgia, so darn special. Despite the fact that the Classic City sits within marching range of Atlanta’s increasingly urban sprawl, Athens has remained unapologetically unique—almost defiant. It possesses a certain cadence, a quality of life—along with its own challenges—that makes living here incredibly worthwhile.
I say that with a bit of bias, as it’s been a decade since I called Athens home, once attending the University of Georgia, which is the town’s largest economic contributor. In the years since passed, I’ve lovingly called Nashville, Tennessee, home—although I’m constantly trying to find ways to convince my wife it’s time to pack up and head on back to Old Glory. Hell, I even got my pilot’s license so I could shorten the five-and-a-half hour drive down to a quick two-hour hop over the mountains.
Most folks are hip to Athens through music. I could forget more great Athens bands than I care to remember, but to recall said memory you might take note of the following: R.E.M. The B-52s, Neutral Milk Hotel, Danger Mouse, Flat Duo Jets, Drive-By Truckers, Bloodkin, The Whigs, Pylon, Widespread Panic, Vic Chesnutt, Futurebirds, Love Tractor—okay, I’ll stop there. The great thing about music is it can be enjoyed in the recorded form from near or afar.
What I can’t enjoy is the Creole popcorn from Bissett’s, or the grilled ostrich from East West Bistro, or even the hamburger steak from Wilson’s whilst sitting on my couch in Nashville. No, the only way to experience said eats is to go visit—although I must say, the aforementioned institutions and dishes are no longer a part of Athens’ culinary repertoire.
The sad truth is restaurant survival in a college town has odds heavily stacked against it. A slew of new students create their own memories and favorite meals every four to five years. Things change, and bad shit happens—like the closing of Sons of Italy, and therefore the loss of one of the greatest known sandwiches to mankind, “The Jimbo.” I spent nearly every spare dollar I earned playing music in the club scene on drowning beer buckets, spinning the jukebox, and eating Jimbos at Sons. Returning to Athens without Sons is like going to see your favorite band with a new replacement lead singer—unbridled enthusiasm with an underlying, painful loss.
Nevertheless, I decided to re-visit my alma mater in search of the old and new. What I found is Athens is as much about old fashioned cheap eats, hangover goodness, and fine dining as nearly any city 10 times her size. I’m still in love with her.
Go eat in Athens, Georgia. As the Widespread Panic boys once said, ain’t life grand?
Last Resort Grill
174-184 W. Clayton Street
Friday, 8 p.m. — Growing up in Atlanta, my thoughts of fine dining were more aligned with high-end chains than locally-owned restaurants. Perhaps my parents were cheap, or my mom was just that good of a cook, but we’d always rather eat at home than dine with the masses. That all changed when I attended university. The place that changed me was Last Resort Grill. In the early ‘90s, the menu seemed out-of-the-box. Opened in 1992 by Melissa Clegg, a creative, progressive Southern cuisine, “Resort” laid the groundwork for many Athens restaurants to come. Classics like praline chicken, shrimp and grits, and their New Struggleville shrimp pasta are standouts. Last Resort prided itself on being affordable, accommodating, innovating—and giving back by supporting nearly five dozen community organizations. There, I could afford to take a date and impress without squashing my beer budget, and it remains a relevant favorite for not only myself, but also the entire family, allowing the mural-rendered building to become an Athens dining icon.
171 E. Broad Street
Saturday, 9 a.m. — I’m of the belief that if you are truly in love with a place, by all means maximize every moment of time you have in said place. So I’m up early to grab a hearty breakfast for the day ahead. The Mayflower is the longest running restaurant to occupy the same location in downtown Athens. Owner Ricky Vaughn has been commanding the flattop for over 30 years, dishing out fried eggs, hash, omelets, biscuits and gravy, and hot cakes with ease. When pressed on his signature dish, Vaughn confidently replies, “The whole menu is signature.” Rightfully so, The Mayflower has existed since 1948, and it was my go-to spot to grab a serious breakfast prior to an exam on North Campus. Owning the actual building, along with good food at the right price have all helped keep The Mayflower alive. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the clientele spans several generations; grandparents, parents and now their kiddos all can grab a steak and egg breakfast lovingly prepared in the same manner for over 60 years. And I’m serious about the steak and eggs—they’re that good.
ADD Drug Store
1695 S. Lumpkin Street
Saturday, 12 p.m. — I’m beginning to realize I’m in for the long haul on this trip—too many destinations, too much food, and not enough time. I’m soon to be huffing and puffing like a six year old who wants one more story before bedtime; it’s dawning on me that I’ll never be able to hit all my haunts in just a short weekend. Even so, I’m on a mission to try. Walking into ADD Drug is like stepping back in time. Part pharmacy, part retail store, but at the heart of it, the lunch counter truly serves as the meeting place for the community—this is what defines this institution. Founded by Jim Horton in 1961 and purchased by my buddy Kevin Florence in 2012, Florence tells me his mantra when buying the business was, “If nobody knows it’s sold, we’ve done our job.” Shakes, malts, burgers, fried bologna sandwiches, tuna salad and pimento cheese are all the classics, but I’ve come with a bit of insider knowledge. A secret menu item, or request, if you will—something to give me a quick fix of nostalgia. When ordered correctly, Florence and the folks behind the counter will whip you up the closest resemblance to the Jimbo you can find—a deep fried chicken finger coated in hot sauce, sandwiched with cheese between toasted bread, and drizzled with a dressing du jour. I’m beginning to feel less bitter about the loss of Sons, and I’m thinking it might be time to call the wife and tell her this ole dawg is returning home.
Cali N Tito’s
1427 S. Lumpkin Street
Saturday, 4 p.m. — Time to start happy hour. During my days, a beat-up old school bus surrounded by picnic tables and quirky landscaping known as Caliente Cab on Tallassee Road was immediately popular for its BYOB concept. I still remember the evening my friends and I brought a keg to the outdoor establishment. Nevertheless, after some real estate legal scrabble, the restaurant moved closer to campus off Lumpkin Street while picking up a new name to boot. Okay, so here’s the deal. I’m going to stop bitching about losing the Jimbo. I’ve let it go, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Cali N Tito’s El Sandwich Cubano is the best sandwich in America. Perfectly cooked chicken, white American cheese, griddled onions and jalapeno, and more mayo than you’d ever knowingly add to your own sandwich—all pressed between light and airy Cuban bread. It’s what dreams are made of, my friends—especially when washed down with a local Terrapin beer or three and some salty plantains. As it is, it takes nearly all of my willpower to stop eating at just half the sandwich, opting for another beer to whet my appetite for a late night dinner.
5 & 10
1073 S. Milledge Avenue
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. — If Last Resort opened my eyes to the idea of superior form of local dining, Hugh Acheson’s 5 & 10 certainly defined it. Acheson opened 5 & 10 in early 2000, earning a nod as Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2002, and has since been nominated six times for a James Beard Award, winning in 2012. He’s also graced the small screen as a favorite contestant-turned-judge in the Top Chef series. Sure, the guy has won some praise, but there’s good reason. Hard fucking work. I don’t mean that in the sense that Acheson has worked to gain the attention of others; rather, he has worked hard to do right. I had my first dish at 5 & 10 circa 2001. It was Acheson’s take on Frogmore stew, which he transformed from low-country boil into an actual stew. The dish, although constantly evolving, still remains a signature dish of the restaurant. Since switching to a new location—a stone’s throw from the original—Acheson is now involved in four other Georgia establishments, including Athens’ neighbor, The National, The Florence in Savannah, and Atlanta’s Empire State South. He also finds time to contribute to the community with social work initiatives, like revamping local schools’ home economic programs. Savoring my meal, I reminisce on my years since leaving Athens. I’ve been fortunate to dine and enjoy spreads at some of the finest restaurants throughout America, Canada, France and the Middle East. Dinner at 5 & 10 reminds me the greatest of such meals is attainable even in a city like Athens, you just might have to work hard to find it. After an expertly curated and sturdy old fashioned at the bar, I should chalk it up and call it a night. Yet, like the sirens’ song, downtown Athens is sweetly singing her tune, luring me in for a night of revelry.
Little Italy Pizzeria
125 N. Lumpkin Street
Sunday, 2 a.m. — After a day of eating, one might think the last thing you’d need is more food. That is of course, a stupid assumption. After all, I’ve just been drinking downtown for the past four hours—having my choice of roughly 80 watering holes. After sneaking in for the encore at the Georgia Theatre, I followed the haze of neon down Lumpkin Street until my nose picked up the faint scent of yeast and melted cheese. How could a responsible adult such as myself not grab a slice to sop up the booze of an Athens evening? After all, it should help with tomorrow’s hangover. Little Italy is just that—a late-night favorite for students, faculty and visitors, which accepts those of any and all creed (cash only, of course). I found myself hanging out at Little Italy all too often during my college years, and one would be remiss to come here and not anxiously await hearing your order number to drunkenly devour the goodness. Apparently, I’m not the only one keeping them in business. The Cortese family-owned restaurant has been serving hand-tossed pizza and subs piled high in the Athens area for over 19 years. A few shakes of parm and red pepper on the last bite, and I cap off a day of incredible gastronomy. Sweet dreams.
1000 W. Broad Street
Sunday, 12:30 p.m. — Mere hours ago, I was pretty sure my friends and I had solved all the world’s problems during our drunken conversation at Little Italy. That was until morning rolled around. Must. Have. Grease. Fortunately, The Varsity (or, the “Greasy V”)—most notably an Atlanta institution, but also the longest running restaurant in Athens (it moved locations from downtown to Broad and Milledge, allowing The Mayflower to also hold record)—opens at 10:30 a.m. I can’t summon the strength to arrive until nearly two hours later. Hearing the words, “What’ll Ya Have?” is akin to seeing an airport beacon in the night sky when fuel reserves have nearly hit rock bottom. I need a chili cheese dog, a slaw dog, onion rings, a Coca Cola, and of course, an F.O. (frosted orange). Such sustenance will allow for survival. How the hell did I do what I did last night, night after night, back in the day? Shit, I’m old. These are all the considerations firing in my mind until my stomach and nausea finally settle into an acceptable form of normality. I’m sure I’ll pay for it later, but I’m currently riding high, until the realization hits—it’s time to go home.
And nobody wants to go home. Nobody except those who are lucky enough to call Athens, Georgia, home.