In 2022, Eater is highlighting some of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants and food institutions through a series of photo essays, profiles, and personal stories. The restaurants featured are a mix of longtime familiar favorites and less well-known venerable establishments serving a wide variety of cuisines and communities in Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. These restaurants serve as the foundation of the Atlanta dining scene, and continue to stand the test of time here.
First established in 1918 as an open-air market, the Municipal Market, known locally as Sweet Auburn Curb Market, holds pride of place on Edgewood Avenue. Over the last 100 years, it’s helped feed the surrounding community, provided economic opportunities for local business owners, weathered the Great Depression and several recessions, and stood witness to the changing physical and social landscape of Atlanta.
Today, the thriving market features over 30 local food businesses, including a cooking school, butchers and fishmongers, stands selling produce and baked goods, and a dozen Atlanta restaurant stalls. Born from the ashes of a raging inferno, the Municipal Market continues to tell the story of Atlanta — and of its many enterprising small business owners — through food.
In May 1917, the Great Atlanta Fire burned through the neighborhood where the Municipal Market now stands along Edgewood Avenue on the border between downtown Atlanta and Sweet Auburn. The unrelenting blaze raged throughout the day, traveling more than a mile north from its origin near Decatur Street to just beyond Ponce de Leon Avenue in Virginia-Highland. Nearly 2,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, leaving hundreds of people in the Old Fourth Ward and Sweet Auburn neighborhoods without homes or work.
In the aftermath of the fire, a group from the Atlanta Woman’s Club suggested transforming a portion of the area on Edgewood into an open-air market where farmers could sell livestock and produce to help revitalize the neighborhood. That market’s success led to the building of the brick structure folks see today, which opened as the Municipal Market in 1924.
While Black people were allowed to shop inside the market at the time, Black vendors were made to sell their goods along the curb on Edgewood, leading locals to dub it Sweet Auburn Curb Market, due to its proximity to Atlanta’s famed Auburn Avenue and the neighborhood of Sweet Auburn. The name stuck: Though it’s officially the Municipal Market, longtime residents of Atlanta still refer to it as “the Curb Market” or “Sweet Auburn Curb Market.”
“It’s amazing to see people who tell you that ‘I used to come here with my grandmother. I used to come here with my mother, and this is where we get our collard greens,’” says market general manager Pam Joiner, who originally came to the Curb Market as a consultant 17 years ago and quickly became the market’s permanent GM.
The market is a microcosm of Atlanta, reflected in the food and goods sold here as well as the vendors.
“I think the market itself reflects the culture of the city of Atlanta. We have such a cross-section. We have African Americans, Ethiopians, Vietnamese, Koreans, South Africans, and Indians from India,” she says. “Our culture is just across the board.”
The Curb Market is self-sustaining, which means it doesn’t receive outside funding. The city owns the building, and as a public market affiliated with the city of Atlanta, the market isn’t allowed to include a souvenir shop or advertise on billboards or large signage above the building. Joiner reports directly to the city-appointed board of directors and must balance the needs of customers and vendors with those of the board. She describes her work at the Curb Market as the “hardest job” she’s ever held, but points to the rewards of seeing local business owners find success.
“Miss D’s [Pralines] is one of my favorite examples. She went from the table to the top,” Joiner says, recalling the story of owner Dionne Gant, who relocated to Atlanta from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. “She moved to the area, set up a 4-foot table, and sold pralines. I had to tell her to charge more money because you’re not charging enough for these.”
Gant’s popular pralines are now sold at shops around Atlanta, including kiosks inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and Atlanta hotel guests might find Gant’s pralines on their pillows in place of chocolates. She’s still based out of the Curb Market.
Part of Joiner’s job is to help guide new and seasoned merchants at the market on customer expectations. This also includes keeping prices reasonable; meals at restaurant stalls are closer to $10 than $20. Every stall serves something different, too.
“I chose the location based on the diversity of the people, both inside and outside the market,” says Tilapia Express owner Farrah Abdi, who opened his seafood restaurant stall at the market 20 years ago. “I stay because it’s like a family and fun.”
Three Peaches Gelato and Coffee owner Kendra Bauser, who founded her dairy-free gelato company in 2018, was selling at local markets around Atlanta, including inside the Curb Market. While helping restock Sisi Lola Spices one day in 2020, she noticed the vacant space once home to tea shop Just Add Honey. The market was searching for a replacement, preferring to provide the space to a coffee shop.
“When I started my business, my vision was to have a gelato and coffee shop specializing in healthier fare — non-dairy, low-glycemic, and vegan options,” Bauser says. “This small space was the perfect place to hone that vision. The chips fell into place, and now I have the ideal place to develop my concept.”
Bauser and her two daughters are now looking for space to expand production. They plan to continue calling the Curb Market home base.
But after weathering other tough economic times, the pandemic prompted one financial downturn no one could have predicted. The market shut down for two weeks in March 2020 while it pivoted to online ordering, and purchased masks and other supplies for the vendors and staff. To help stall owners at the market cope with the lack of foot traffic during those first few months, rent was reduced by 30 percent. The market even shifted back to its roots, with people picking up their online orders outside at the curb.
“It’s through good and bad times,” says Joiner. “We’re not like the landlord with the top hat, pay your rent or get out. We work with our tenants. What will it take?”
For most of the stall owners, Joiner says, this is how they support their families, even put their children through college. When they’re ready to retire or move on, it’s not unusual for the stall business to be sold to another person, activating a new lease agreement at the market. It’s a continuous life cycle, from one vendor to another.
While people might see the Curb Market as a food hall or an incubator for new businesses, especially after popular stalls like Grindhouse Killer Burgers, Arepa Mia, and Bell Street Burritos found success beyond its walls, Joiner says neither of those labels fits. The businesses work together to be a part of the self-sustaining mission behind the market.
“I just finished going through lease renewals for some leases that have reached their lease end,” she says. “It always makes me smile when I have a restaurant I know has been here 20, 25 years. And I think, okay, you want three or five [more] years, and they say, ‘No, we’re going to stay. And we’re here.’”
Jennifer Zyman is a restaurant critic and host of the podcast The Food That Binds, a podcast about food and relationships. She was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and raised in Atlanta, where she continues to live with her family. She is a graduate of Emory University and California Culinary Academy. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Atlanta magazine, Bon Appetit, Creative Loafing, The Kitchn, National Geographic, Serious Eats, Southern Living, and Thrillist.