A Foodie's Guide to Athens
Anyone who grew up listening to music in the 80s and 90s has probably heard of Athens, Georgia. Home to famous groups like R.E.M., Widespread Panic, the Indigo Girls, the B-52s and so many more - It has been a music hot spot for years.
Beyond the music, if Asheville had a drunken sister city it would be Athens. Where Asheville holds the title of most breweries per capita, Athens is proud to hold the title of most bars per capita - with over 80 in a one mile stretch. Athens also boasts a tremendous number of local restaurants serving up locally sourced food and if there’s one person who can eat their way through this town, it’s me.
1 PM I arrive in Athens, hungry for some lunch. Having done some research, I already know there is no shortage of good food in this town. A friend has recommended Pulaski Heights BBQ, so that’s my first stop. They are located in the Leathers Building, a repurposed manufacturing facility that runs parallel to the train tracks. I’m immediately thrilled to find they have kept the character of the original building, with exposed brick and large windows plus a patio overlooking the tracks. After reviewing the menu, I find they not only have BBQ, but also tacos and ramen - a strange combo to be sure. I decide to stick with the namesake and order a half rack of ribs. For my sides, I select collards and the house smoked cauliflower, something I’ve never had. While waiting for my food, I take a look around. It’s a small place with a loft upstairs that provides a view of the train tracks and the Oconee greenway. By the time my food arrives, my stomach is grumbling. I can’t decide what to eat first. The ribs are good and so are the collards. I’m excited to try the cauliflower, but it’s a bit of a disappointment. Overall, I would definitely eat here again though - and so would my table neighbor, who says he’s here every week!
2 PM After lunch, I decide to do a little sight seeing. Athens is a well known college town with definite Southern Charm. My first stop is a historic landmark - The Tree That Owns Itself. A white oak, which was deeded to itself along with the surrounding property in the 1830s by Colonel William Jackson. Apparently Jackson so loved the tree and his fond memories of it, that he officially granted it autonomy in his will. The current tree, while large, is not the 180+ year old oak, but the “son of the tree” as a scion was used to keep the landmark alive. It lives in the middle of a cobblestone road and is definitely a uniquity.
Seeing the beautiful historic neighborhood surrounding the tree, I am inspired to do some more architectural sight seeing. I end up getting more than I bargained for as I drive down Milledge Avenue, home to fraternity and sorority row. Each chapter is housed in what appears to be huge antebellum mansions, although most were constructed in the 1950s and 60s. There are a few that are truly historic though and certainly they are all beautiful. While on my tour, I am even treated to a game of oversized beer pong on the trashed lawn of the Beta Theta Pi house. Go Dawgs!
4 PM After being out in the hot sun all afternoon, I decide to check in to my hotel. I am staying at Graduate Athens, which is arguably one of the hippest hotels I’ve ever seen. They have definitely captured the vibe of retro-collegiate as a decor theme. The rooms feature plaid in every color, chalkboards, composition notebooks, room keys that look like student IDs coupled with thrift store artwork and bold color palettes - think orange and lime green.
7 PM After a bit of rest, I decide to walk to dinner. Since the hotel is located right in downtown, everything is close by. Given it is a weekend night, I am surprised by the lack of traffic and the ample amount of parking downtown. On my way to dinner, I pass the historic Morton Building, which was constructed in 1910. Built on what was called “hot corner”, it was primarily an African American venue, hosting many famous musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It was once described as “the largest building of it’s kind owned by a colored man.” It’s great to see a landmark building like this being well-preserved. Beyond its rich history for the African American community, this building also had a part in Athens famous music scene as a rehearsal space for R.E.M. and the B-52s.
A little beyond the Morton Building, I arrive at Clocked! Diner. A tiny little restaurant which has a tremendous burger menu. There’s a bit of a wait, because they only have 30 seats - did I mention they are tiny? Luckily, there’s plenty to see while waiting. Just across the street is one example of the numerous street murals found all over Athens, a beautiful piece of public art titled BirdSong, which was commissioned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of AthFest, the annual music and arts festival held in downtown Athens every June. The mural features 20 species of songbirds - one for each year of the festival.
8 PM After much waiting, I am finally about to get my very own cheeseburger from Clocked! I decide to go with the Blackberry Bacon Jam burger, which sounds delicious. It comes with the usual fixings, plus gouda cheese, caramelized onions, special garlic dijon sauce and of course, housemade blackberry bacon jam. Let me just apologize to all of my local burger haunts in advance, because this is definitely one of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted. Despite waiting nearly an hour in the 90 degree heat and the painfully slow service, I would eat here every time I visit Athens. And if blackberry bacon jam doesn’t sound like your thing - don’t worry they have quite a few other specialty burger combos to choose from...peanut butter and bacon, the ring of fire, pimento cheeseburger and more.
Besides having killer burgers, Clocked! Is located on the same block as the super famous 40 Watt Club, one of the music venues widely credited with launching American punk rock and new wave music. So it’s the perfect place to grab a bite before a show.
9 AM I wake up well rested and ready for some more food. My first choice for breakfast is Mama’s Boy. Unfortunately, when I arrive, there is a massive line. The parking lot is packed, the overflow parking lot is packed and I think I’d like to eat breakfast before noon, so it’s on to plan B - Heirloom Cafe. It turns out they don’t open until 9:30 on the weekends, so I’m a bit early. Luckily they have a bocce ball court outside to pass the time. The parking lot quickly starts to fill up and my bocce game is gathering spectators when the restaurant finally opens. To their credit, they make a real effort to seat everyone in the order they arrived, despite there being no real order to the crowd.
There is no question I am going for the pecan pancakes for breakfast. “When in Georgia, eat Georgia pecans” is a personal motto of mine. This place serves a complimentary bread basket with cute little mini chocolate chip biscuits. The pancakes are delightful, but I rush a bit through breakfast because I can’t miss the Athens Farmer’s Market!
10:30 AM The Athens Farmers’ Market was named one of the “South’s Best Farmers’ Markets” by Southern Living, so I’ve set my expectations accordingly. It’s Saturday morning, so the market is busy but there is plenty of parking. At the entrance, I’m greeted by a couple of food trucks. The venue is nice, a public park and the market is housed on a covered tennis court. Once inside, I’m a little surprised at how small the market is. There are only around 25 vendors, which is less than some other markets I’ve been to. There is plenty of produce, a few weeks ahead of our growing season. They’ve got strawberries in mid-April, rhubarb, radishes, plenty of baked goods. There is even a kombucha made in Atlanta. I’m traveling, so I’m not really doing my weekly shopping. I pick up a pint of berries for snacking and a chocolate hazelnut cupcake from Harlow Bakery.
12 PM After the market, I go for a little more sightseeing. I can’t leave town without searching for the Bulldog Statues. This is another public art project, titled “We Let the Dawgs Out”, which was erected in 2003. There are nearly three dozen statues, so far I’ve found three. I guess I know what I’ll be doing for the rest of the afternoon!