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.
Eats stands out among a sea of construction along Ponce de Leon Avenue where the borders of Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, and Virginia-Highland meet near the Eastside Beltline. As a modest, single-story building with stucco painted avocado green, Eats is squat in stature sitting in the shadow of Ponce City Market across the street and at least two construction sites which will eventually tower over the restaurant in the coming year.
Opened in 1993, Eats is a hold-out in Atlanta, a city where developers are known for snatching up properties at lightening speed, often razing historic or cherished buildings. Sometimes the decades-old businesses occupying those buildings are factored into future plans for these properties. But Eats hearkens back to a time when the city had some semblance of local character and wasn’t chock-full of bland mixed-use complexes dotting the landscape. It remains a restaurant staple in Atlanta serving uncomplicated, affordable food in an atmosphere which can only be described as charmingly old school. That Eats still exists at all on Ponce today comes down to the fact that owner Bob Hatcher ended up purchasing the building in 1998.
Hatcher bemoans the developments going up around the restaurant and wishes the city would focus on fixing existing infrastructure first before piling on new developments. Owning the building gives him breathing room to operate Eats the way he wants.
“If I was paying the going rate per square foot to have a lease here, I’d have to double the prices. And people still yell at me, my wife mainly, ‘You need to raise your prices,’” he says. “As long as I can pay everybody and make a little money, I’m all right with it.”
Prices hover between $10 and $12 a plate.
The concept for Eats sprung out of another Ponce restaurant institution, the burrito joint Tortillas, owned by Charlie Kerns, a childhood friend of Hatcher’s. They opened Eats together in what was a swingers club on Ponce, with Kerns devising the original menu and Hatcher running daily operations. Eventually, Kerns and Hatcher parted ways, with Hatcher taking full ownership of Eats. Kerns closed Tortillas in 2003, but still owns the Local just east of Eats on Ponce.
Eats is a counter-service restaurant specializing in jerk chicken, Southern vegetables made without animal fats (a nod to vegetarians,) and other comfort foods like chicken lasagna, chicken alfredo, meatloaf, and spaghetti and meatballs. There used to be a pasta station where people could build their own bowls, but it was scrapped during the pandemic. Hatcher says the restaurant’s popular jerk chicken was a surprise hit when it went up on the menu all those years ago.
“We don’t do it authentic. But it sure worked out.”
Traditionally, jerk chicken entails coating the bird in seasonings and spices and cooking it slowly on the grill, leaving it imbued with smoky flavor. At Eats, chicken is coated in dry rub and baked in the oven to the point of near charring. The dish remains a best seller to this day.
Eats regulars include everyone from residents from the surrounding neighborhoods, office workers, and folks from nearby construction sites to celebrities and local politicians. General manager Levi Nichols has worked at Eats for 23 years. The easygoing, come-as-you-are vibe at Eats is one of the things he loves most about the restaurant.
“It’s just an abundance of difference. We have business people to the music people to construction workers,” says Nichols. “Everyone. It’s just a little mix of everything.”
One has only to look to the walls of the restaurant to understand its beloved status as an Atlanta restaurant institution. Walls are covered with personal touches and memorabilia from people who’ve dine at Eats over the years. License plates plaster one side of Eats, with the first plate gifted to Hatcher by a server in 1994.
“Then, we didn’t have anything on the walls. And she had a vanity plate,” recalls Hatcher of the Washington license plate. “I put it on the wall and customers would just say, ‘Hey, you want my old [license plate]?’ Every one of these are from customers,” he says.
Other art adorning the walls at Eats includes a folk painting by a longtime regular, photographs of Atlanta characters, and a comic inspired by and signed by Blondie, the famed stripper from the Clermont Lounge down the street, and another iconic figure on Ponce.
“She had her lipstick on and she put her imprint on it, and it says, ‘To Bob, you always treat me right. Wish me luck, love Blondie,’” says Hatcher.
That same sentiment rings true for many of the restaurant’s regulars.
When photographer Jon Waits visits Eats, it feels like home away from home for him. He began dining at Eats on the day it opened in 1993, and even worked as a server for a couple of years when the restaurant crew consisted of mostly Atlanta creatives like himself.
“Bob was very instrumental in a lot of ways, just because he gave everybody (we didn’t use these words back then) a safe space to be who the hell you are,” says Waits. “He fostered a lot of people’s endeavors back in those days.”
Waits moved back to Atlanta less than two years ago after living elsewhere for over a decade. The city is nearly unrecognizable to him now, but there’s still Eats. He describes the restaurant as “this weird little beacon” countless people return to, even after years of being away from Atlanta. The food is as good as he remembers it, too.
“Things have been torn down, things have been built up, but Eats still remains on Ponce,” Waits says.
Eats, 600 Ponce De Leon Avenue, Atlanta. eatsonponce.net.
Open Wednesday - Monday, 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
Lia Picard (@helloitsliapicard) is a lifestyle writer who has called Atlanta home for nearly a decade. Her work frequently appears in Atlanta magazine, the New York Times, Eater, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.