One of the most common questions I get from visitors and Atlanta residents alike is "Where can I go for some southern food?" This is an especially popular question when people have guests in town who have never experienced Southern cooking. They are eager to show them what it's all about - from collard greens to grits to fried chicken and sweet tea.
Atlanta has a lot of great Southern restaurants, and there are many different styles of Southern cooking. You can find meat-and-three cafeteria style restaurants with no frills or a white table cloth dining experience with a modern take on Southern classics. It all depends on what you (or your visiting guests) are in the mood for. While this list doesn't include all of Atlanta's Southern and soul food restaurants, here are a few that I'd recommend for a taste of the south.
JCT. Kitchen and Bar
JCT. Kitchen, located in the hip West Midtown area, is one of those southern spots with upscale versions of all of your favorites. They are known for their fried chicken - and they run out on busy nights, so get there early. You'll find a large range of entrees including several seafood options and, of course, indulgent sides including a bacon mac and cheese. One of the cool things about JCT is the upper-level bar, where you sip cocktails, enjoy live music and snack on some small plates. They also host a Sunday Supper served family style for a true down home experience.
Empire State South
Empire State South is located in Midtown and is considered by many to be one of the best new restaurants in Atlanta's recent history. Conceived by Athens powerhouse chef Hugh Acheson (whom you may have seen on Top Chef Masters or as a judge on Top Chef), this is another upscale Southern restaurant. Though the food has been modernized, the restaurant itself has a really casual, comfortable feel to it.
The dishes are served creatively - the appetizer "In Jars," which is a variety of dips and spreads served in small mason jars, is not to be missed. They also have a very reasonably priced wine selection, making it a great place to share a meal with friends. The food here is all about local = so you know you're getting fresh, seasonal dishes that are truly representative of Georgia and the South. Empire State South is my top pick for giving out of town guests a Southern food experience while showing them how "big city chic" Atlanta can be.
South City Kitchen
South City Kitchen is my final recommendation for some gussied up Southern food. With two locations - Midtown and Vinings - it's convenient to many different parts of town. The Midtown location is located right in the nightlife district, making it a great starting point for an evening out at some of Atlanta's top bars and clubs. South City Kitchen is a solid choice to find all the Southern food you want without too many gourmet twists. It's nice enough for an evening out but it's welcoming enough to suit any crowd. You'll get your fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits and banana pudding and go home full and happy!
Mary Mac's Tea Room
Mary Mac's Tea Room is an Atlanta classic. It's well known for Southern food, and though it's not the best food you'll ever have - it's truly an experience. This is humble home cooking in a casual, sit-down restaurant environment. Many people like Mary Mac's because you get a heaping portion of yummy food and special bonus treats like Pot Likker (the liquid that is left behind after boiling greens, used as a dip for your cornbread) and the occasional backrub from your sweet Southern server (seriously!). If you're looking for Southern food in Atlanta and don't care for anything fancy, Mary Macs is the place to go.
Carver's, open only at lunch, tops many people's soul food list. Served in a cafeteria style setting, people line up and wait to enjoy a belly filling lunch of meat-and-three favorites - that's an entree like fried chicken or meatloaf accompanied by sides ranging from fried okra to collard greens to macaroni and cheese. Carver's is cash only and popular items do tend to run out. The menu changes daily and everything is homemade.
Busy Bee Cafe
Busy Bee Cafe is similar to Carver's - it's a casual diner-style cafe that's all about home cooking. The southern favorites (and rotating daily specials) are all there, but they've also expanded to offer a larger variety of food including sandwiches and salads. Many diners have said Busy Bee has the best fried chicken they've ever had!