What began as a year promising dozens of exciting new restaurants hitting the Atlanta dining scene, spiraled into chaos weeks later, as the global pandemic took hold in the United States. Restaurants and bars closed across the metro area at the end of March due to a statewide shutdown. It left owners and employees scrambling to create makeshift takeout businesses overnight launched from empty dining rooms. 2020 was just getting started.
Few could have predicted what would unfold over the next nine months for thousands of restaurants and bars throughout Atlanta, and what service industry workers here would endure.
The most read stories of 2020 from Eater Atlanta reflect a year of chaos, controversy, and a politically charged environment mixed with glimmers of hope for the dining scene. From photographs capturing eerily quiet Atlanta streets early in the pandemic and Georgia’s controversial reopening in April to a student-led protest march and a new alcohol home delivery bill, here are the top-read news stories of 2020.
During the first two weeks of the shelter-in-place order and dining room and bar closures, Eater Atlanta photographer Ryan Fleisher set out with his camera to capture the scenes at restaurants, parks, and city streets around town. Fleisher’s photos show rows of to-go bags ready for pick-up from restaurants, dining rooms transformed into neighborhood markets, chairs and tables stacked up on front patios, and calls for a rent strike spray-painted on buildings.
Readers loved the story behind the opening of Marietta cocktail bar and lounge the Third Door inside a restored 1920s gas station just off of the city’s historic town square. Owners Ted and Lara Ferreira tapped into the clandestine days of Prohibition-era speakeasies and the uninhibited glamour of the Roaring ’20s with the decor and cocktail menu for the bar. But opening the Third Door during a pandemic meant the Ferreiras had to rethink how they would transform the space into a safe and socially distant bar and lounge. Countertops and barstools were added to the planters on the patio to provide even more outdoor seating. Marietta’s newly established entertainment district now means the Third Door can serve cocktails to-go.
In August, Gov. Brian Kemp signed House Bill 879 into law, allowing a number of food and beverage businesses the option to deliver beer, wine, and liquor to homes across the state. Delivery began earlier this fall from many Atlanta wine shops and liquor stores, with more retail businesses offering the service each week. However, the bill isn’t perfect and leaves the state’s breweries, brewpubs, and distilleries out in the cold, thanks, in part, to Georgia’s three-tier alcohol distribution system. Read the full story behind what it means for the state’s beer and spirits producers to be left out of the delivery bill.
Atlanta food writer Mike Jordan set out this fall to discover whether Georgia truly has its own recognizable style of barbecue. After speaking with several Atlanta-area pitmasters about just what defines the state’s version of smoked meats, Jordan learned Georgia’s barbecue style depends on the person describing it.
Philadelphia-based restaurant delivery service Black and Mobile made its Atlanta debut this summer, delivering food exclusively from Black-owned restaurants to neighborhoods around the city. Founded by 25-year-old Philadelphia native David Cabello in 2017 and launched last year, Black and Mobile aims to partner with and highlight Black-owned restaurants within the communities and cities in which it serves. The company continues to hire drivers (or “messengers”) in Atlanta, including people delivering food via bicycle.
Chef Todd Richards, cookbook author and co-owner of Lake & Oak Neighborhood BBQ, announced in October he was opening Soul: Food & Culture at Krog Street Market. The soul food restaurant stall replaces Richards’ Southern Fried; the Nashville-style hot chicken stall he opened there in 2016. Inspired by his award-winning cookbook “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes”, the menu for Soul: Food & Culture features a hot fried catfish sandwich, chicken and waffles, and four distinct fried chicken sandwiches, ranging from crispy fried to spicy Buffalo. The food stall opens at Krog Street Market early next year.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp laid out his plan to reopen Georgia businesses, beginning April 24. That included allowing movie theaters to reopen and restaurants to resume dine-in service on April 27. It was a controversial decision that not only shocked Atlantans, but the nation, and left restaurant owners across the city with an impossible decision to make.
Buckhead Southern diner OK Cafe came under fire in June after installing a tone-deaf and insensitive banner reading “Lives That Matter Are Made With Positive Purpose” on the side of the building during a student-led march called Buckhead4BlackLives. The banner was quickly removed after the march. But it was controversial comments made by OK Cafe co-owner Susan DeRose following the protest over the recent police killings of unarmed Black men and women that kicked up a hornet’s nest. The incident also sparked the removal of artwork depicting the Confederate flag from the restaurant’s dining room.
Umi sushi in Buckhead faced backlash and threats of a boycott in October over enforcement of its dress code, which an Atlanta couple alleged was used to racially discriminate against them. Kaylan Colbert and her husband, William Johnson, say they arrived early on October 23 for their 5:15 p.m. reservation at Umi and were told by management that Johnson was in violation of the restaurant’s dress code for wearing white Nike Air Force 1 sneakers. After an exchange regarding the policy with management, the couple was denied service and asked to leave. The situation devolved further when Umi owner Farshid Arshid got involved.
In one of the most WTF moments of the pandemic, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that restaurants could resume dine-in service at the end of April. Restaurant owners across Atlanta were quick to react to the news, most calling the decision irresponsible. With COVID-19 cases still surging, the April 27 reopening came four days before Georgia’s shelter-in-place order for the public was set to expire, and five days ahead of the May 1 reopening guideline set by the Trump administration. Chef Deborah VanTrece, owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, put Gov. Kemp’s controversial decision into perspective, “The position we have been put in is unfathomable. Save your business or save your life?”