2020 started out with dozens of exciting new restaurants on the horizon and a thriving dining scene reflecting the diverse communities and cultures of people living in and around Atlanta. Few could have predicted what was about to go down for the thousands of Atlanta restaurants and bars and the industry’s workforce over the course of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
Despite impossible odds this year, the health crisis showcased the resiliency and immense creativity of the people working in Atlanta’s restaurants and bars. Dining rooms transformed into makeshift markets overnight. New takeout operations were born from kitchens throughout Atlanta. Chefs and bartenders who suddenly found themselves unemployed launched successful dream businesses and pop-ups.
As the year draws to a close, and, as is tradition, Eater surveyed Atlanta food writers and restaurant industry authorities on everything from their best takeout meals of 2020 to what they think might be next for the city’s dining scene.
The experts have already given their top takeout standbys for 2020. Now, Atlanta’s food authorities name the new restaurants that excited them most this year. Responses are cut, pasted, and lightly edited.
Jennifer Zyman — Atlanta food writer and dining critic Atlanta magazine, Thrillist, Eater Atlanta, AJC; founder of “The Blissful Glutton”
Mujo; the Chastain; Buena Gente
Mujo Omakase out of Cooks and Soldiers. I love Shuko in New York, and sushi was one of the meals I craved most at the beginning of the pandemic. Sitting side-by-side and having omakase meals are a thing of the past (for the time being.) So, finding such an exceptional and bespoke curbside experience with quality ingredients and such pedigree was a real bright spot in an otherwise dark time. I also was happy to see [chef] Christopher Grossman at the helm of his own place at the Chastain, and the people behind Buena Gente open a storefront.
Mike Jordan — Atlanta food and beverage writer Eater Atlanta, Playboy, Rolling Stone, the Wall Street Journal, Atlanta magazine; editor-in-chief of Butter ATL
Chef Robert Butts; Three Taverns Imaginarium
Way more people need to know about chef Robert Butts. Former executive chef at Simon’s, he’s the chef de cuisine at Twisted Soul [Cookhouse and Pours], and has led several pop-up dinners from chef Deborah VanTrece’s kitchen — two of which I had the pleasure of attending. The most recent was in conjunction with culinary event group Sincére Fare, which worked together to put on a “Southern Holiday” event with paired specialty cocktails, an amazing smoked cornish hen dish that I’m still dating in my mind, and desserts by Briana Riddock. Butts has energy, personality and serious talent, particularly if you like a good bourbon-braised short rib, which he’s mastered. Expect to read, and hopefully eat, more from him in 2021. As for beer, Three Taverns’ Imaginarium. Those guys are gunning for the title of Atlanta’s top craft brewery. Not only the beer — OMG the orange creamsicle — but the location is also top-notch.
Deborah VanTrece — chef and owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours
Lake and Oak Neighborhood Barbecue
Lake and Oak would be the newcomer that excited me. It’s in my neighborhood and is owned by outstanding chefs!
Sarah Kim — partner Our Bar ATL
This was surprisingly tough to call; there were a lot of great establishments that opened up this year despite the pandemic. This is probably a popular choice, but I would have to say chef Jarrett’s Little Bear in Summerhill. Their undeniably creative, enthusiastic, and respectful approach to all the delicious cuisines and culinary traditions of the world earns my vote.
Federico Castellucci — President and CEO of Castellucci Hospitality Group (Cooks and Soldiers, the Iberian Pig, Double Zero, Sugo)
Little Bear. I’ve been a fan of Jarrett’s for almost a decade. He’s the only chef/restaurateur I know that writes expletives in his menus and it works. I laugh every time I read one of his menus. He’s one of the most creative chefs we have in Atlanta right now. Back in 2012, we did a pop-up with Steady Hand [Pour] (RIP) after they left their location in Emory Village. Jarrett did a tasting menu alongside the pop-up as a borderline joke. I still remember one of the courses was a cigarette. His irreverent attitude towards fine dining is what makes his food so exciting.
Beth McKibben — editor of Eater Atlanta
Talat Market, Estrellita, Little Bear, Lake and Oak
Talat Market, Little Bear, Estrellita, and Lake and Oak. To me, these four restaurants best represent what’s so remarkable about the current Atlanta food scene and where it’s headed. Two veteran pop-ups, Talat Market and Little Bear, became full-fledge restaurants this year, bringing masterful Thai dishes and wildly creative yet unpretentious meals to Summerhill. While chefs Parnass Lim Savang and Rod Lassiter and chef Jarrett Stieber continue to slay takeout at Talat Market and Little Bear, I’m looking forward to the day I can dine at these restaurants and leisurely savor every last bite at both. Then there’s the homey comfort on the menu at Filipino restaurant Estrellita in Grant Park. I will drive (and have driven) in traffic for the pancit and lechon kawali. Another restaurant I look forward to spending time in once the pandemic ends. I’m thrilled for chef Todd Richards who is finally at the helm of this own restaurant and launched a restaurant group with Lake and Oak partner chef Josh Lee. These two chefs infuse so much heart into the barbecue and sides at Lake and Oak. If Atlanta didn’t have a barbecue style before, it might now, thanks to Richards and Lee. I suspect we’ll see much more from these two exceptional chefs over the coming year.