EAT LIKE A LOCAL
At old-style eateries in this peachy city, folks from the deep-fried Deep South can indulge in heaping helpings of genuine home-style meals that cost under $12 for two courses and a drink
When it comes to finding affordable meals, travelers to Atlanta need help. Long before the Olympics, sometime between the moment Jimmy Carter left for the White House and Ted wed Jane, Atlanta became a moneyed megalopolis. What was once the quintessential southern city is now the quintessential commuter nightmare, and the construction boom of the '80s and '90s spawned a wide-flung proliferation of slick bistros, greasy sports bars, and high-priced yuppie bait, none of which makes for acceptable budget dining. But there's an old guard of Atlanta restaurants-many in business since your Daddy was knee-high to a bulldog-where cooking still comes from the heart and value is common sense. If you follow the advice of a native, you'll find that Atlanta still hosts some Olympian bargains, where you can get two courses of genuine local cooking, plus coffee, for $12 or less.
Mary Mac's Tea Room 224 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404/876-1800, marymacs.com Three abundant courses of southern comfort food from $8.75. (Lunch dishes are generally $1 cheaper than dinner dishes, priced below.)
Atlanta's heedless wrecking-ball mentality somehow missed Ponce de Leon, a prewar thoroughfare running east from Midtown where Mary Mac's is found. So driving "Ponce" is like making a trip back in time. Linger awhile in 1945 at Mary Mac's, a hallowed hall for utterly authentic home-style southern cooking since FDR ruled the roost from Warm Springs. It should tell you something that Jessica Tandy ate here to perfect her Oscar-winning character in Driving Miss Daisy. Grab a card on the way in and mark your choices from a full roster of southern greats (country fried steak you don't need a knife to cut, chicken pot pie erupting with steam, sweet potato souffl, with a Christmasy dose of brown sugar). All main courses cost $9.75 and come with two gut-busting side dishes. Extra sides, chosen from a list of 37 (including the beloved "pot likker," the soupy leftovers from cooked greens), cost $2 each. Don't miss the very southern sweet tea (and I do mean sweet) for $1.25. Many locals recall with palpable contempt the restaurant's ill-advised flirtation with trendy dishes (gazpacho, y'all?) back in the late '90s, but I'm pleased to report that Mary Mac's is back in the nostalgia business. With a single spoonful of black-eyed peas, my taste buds pined for my dear departed Nana's kitchen. My grandfather, an old-guard Atlanta boy who's still with us, risked his cardiologist's ire by stealing my helping of Mary Mac's well-seasoned fried chicken, which would barely stain a napkin. We finished with a blob of banana pudding (dessert is $2 with a meal) that's so fantastically sugary my most apt description of it is "silly." If there's just one place that makes me yearn for the genteel, naive Atlanta of years past, it's Mary Mac's.
Thomas Marketplace Restaurant 16 Forest Parkway, 404/361-1367. Long list of garden-fresh classics with two sides, $5.50-$12.
Atlanta's Hartsfield airport handles some 80 million flyers a year. That's a lot of traffic, and many a southerner makes Thomas Marketplace the first stop upon touchdown or the last before lift-off. It's just a scoot from the airport (you can practically watch the in-flight movies as you dine), amidst Atlanta's main greenmarket. Many of the cooks and waitresses have worked for the family-owned restaurant for a quarter century or more, and they know their craft. Some devotees swear by the delicately breaded fried catfish ($9 for two pieces, including two sides). You know food's been fried to perfection when it's actually refreshing. Some devotees tell of the vegetable side dishes (two free with a meal or $2.50 each), which travel about 100 feet from the stalls to your plate-the creamed corn is so stalk-fresh it squelches as you chew. Some folks, like me, dream about the chicken salad ($7 including two sides), smooth and sprightly with fresh grapes, celery, and pepper, and so sought-after that it's often gone by the middle of lunch. But the peak is definitely that old southern standby, fried green tomatoes ($4.50). They're breaded and cooked upon ordering and served during that critical minutes-wide window when they're neither too hot to eat nor too soggy with age. I received a dozen slices, crispy and flaky, which attracted the attention of a stately Georgia lady as she glided by. "Ooh," she sighed upon sight of them. "May I pull up a chair?" I'm glad she wasn't serious, because I would have wrestled her for them.
Eats 600 Ponce de Leon Avenue, 404/888-9149. Pay student-center prices (no less than $3.50) for a pile of the simple greats
It ain't nothing fussy, but this dimly lit bohemian nosh pit has been a favored fallback for Atlanta's cash-poor youngsters since opening in 1993. Found on Ponce a tad east of Mary Mac's, it does two things-pasta and spicy jerk chicken-and it does them well. Approach the pierced chick behind the counter and choose your own adventure. Six kinds of pasta (including linguine, ziti, and cheese-filled spinach tortellini) can be paired with six kinds of sauces (from a moist pesto, $3.50, to ragout with either ground beef or turkey, $5) and embellished with a few extras such as plump meatballs, Italian sausage, or a side salad ($1.50 each). Or, ask the blue-haired dude for tangy lemon pepper chicken (half a bird for $4) with black beans and rice ($1 more) or corn bread (45> a square), or perhaps a vegetarian plate groaning with green beans, collard greens, couscous, baby lima beans, and a full ear of corn on the cob ($1 a veggie). Once you've got your goodies-grabbing a bottle of beer, $2.25-mount the scuffed wooden eating platform (that's right, under the air ducts and the inexplicable giant photo of a doctor examining a baby's ear) to absorb your heaping helpings. It's not just low-concept, it's no-concept, but that's what keeps the costs slight, the budget-dining awards streaming in, and the under-35 set allegiant. And is the food good? Heck yes. I know people who return week after week to try every possible pasta permutation.