Despite the ups and downs of 2021 due to the ongoing global health crisis, the Atlanta dining industry continues to showcase the resilience and wild creativity of the people working in its restaurants and bars. Dining rooms reopened and patios were given serious upgrades. New state and city policies brought to-go cocktails, on-street dining (parklets), and open-container districts to metro Atlanta. Unionization efforts in Georgia’s hospitality industry ramped up. And while food halls boomed in Atlanta, more pop-ups than ever before came on the scene, as people struck out on their own to launch dream businesses.
We’ve already asked Atlanta food writers, restaurant industry insiders, and a few Eater readers to name the best new restaurants and pop-ups of 2021, their best meals in Atlanta this year, and to offer up their favorite spots to regularly dine in Atlanta. Now, each shares their thoughts on what got them excited in 2021 for the future of restaurants and dining in Atlanta.
Check back Friday, December 31, for more Year in Eater feedback from the experts and from our readers.
Kris Martins, Eater Atlanta contributor
I really love the explosion of pop-ups. The variety and representation of cuisine is so exciting. The model is more accessible for pop-up owners and gives diners more to love about our food scene, while encouraging the growth of new talent and fresh perspectives. Plus, Mondays have never been more fun for dining out!
Mike Jordan, editor of Butter ATL
I really liked seeing more collaborations that seemed rooted in a genuine kinship of spirit, from the decision for Ration and Dram to become Dead End Drinks and host pop-ups, like Humble Mumble, to Lyla Lila earning major respect for two chef partners who named the joint after their daughters, all the way to Lorenzo Wyche linking up with the guys at Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar in College Park to open The Breakfast Boys. It is very much the best breakfast spot along that very brunchy strip. Teamwork makes the dream work, especially if that dream is a great Atlanta restaurant or dining experience.
Sam Worley, deputy editor of Atlanta magazine
I’m not overly attached to the traditional restaurant model—you sit down, someone waits on you, etc.—and I really like all these new businesses that blur the lines, whether that’s Kinship (sandwiches + terrific coffee drinks + butcher and grocery options), Poco Loco (breakfast burritos both fresh and frozen, plus a cold case full of various goodies), or Le Bon Nosh, the new all-day eatery in Buckhead that’s a bunch of things at once: restaurant, deli, coffee shop, wine bar, etc.
Another happy trend: Atlanta restaurants (Little Tart Bakeshop, Ticonderoga Club, JenChan’s) adding surcharges to the bill to cover employees benefits including health insurance—in hopes of making the industry a more sustainable place for workers. As Little Tart owner Sarah O’Brien explained in an Instagram post announcing the 4 percent fee that’s now a line item on receipts there: “It does not have to be terrible to work in the restaurant industry. It can be a personally rewarding and financially secure career.”
Chef Thip Athakhanh, owner of Snackboxe Bistro
This year, I attended an Asian bake sale at Sweet Auburn BBQ featuring local chefs, bakers, homemakers. It was there that I indulged in some of the most amazing desserts, pastries and got to meet some cool people.
Jennifer Zyman, Eater Atlanta contributor and host of podcast The Food That Binds
I loved seeing how many women, especially immigrant chefs, were lauded this year. After watching white men dominate the culinary scene, watching more women claim their space, whether in pop-up or restaurant form, gives me great hope for the next evolution of Atlanta dining. I also loved seeing more establishments, like Staplehouse (which creates work-life balance for culinary folks) supported by our city and thrive.
Beth McKibben, editor of Eater Atlanta
Sure, food is ultimately what draws people to a restaurant and can make or break it in terms of success, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there are other, often unseen aspects at play in the success of these businesses.
Patios, pop-ups, forward-thinking restaurant, city, and state policies, and parklets are what continue to keep me excited for the future of dining and restaurants in and around Atlanta. The major upgrades to restaurant patios and emphasis on providing quality all-season outdoor dining options have led to city policies surrounding on-street dining (aka parklets) becoming permanent, therefore promoting walkability and public transportation or ride sharing and de-emphasizing parking for cars. It’s also thrilling to see many Atlanta restaurant owners embracing putting their employees’ needs for work-life balance, health insurance, and living wages above profit. People power restaurants.
Then, there was the formation of entertainment districts and community gathering spaces with open-container policies and the legalization of to-go cocktails in Georgia. Both help bolster the economy and provide much-needed flexibility in operations and revenue for restaurants and bars in Atlanta (sorely needed during the ongoing health crisis).
Eater readers surveyed
Eater readers who participated in the 2021 Year in Eater dining survey listed the addition of parklets at Atlanta restaurants and smaller, more refined menus focused on a few solid dishes as exciting dining trends spotted this year. The return of brunch and the proliferation of brunch restaurants, pop-ups, casual fine dining as seen at restaurants like Lyla Lila and Little Bear, and the opening of more local, neighborhood bakeries and sundry shops around town also got Eater readers excited for the future of food in Atlanta.
All Year in Eater coverage [EATL]