From the Office and Backyard to the Road, Boat, or Plane–Backstories and
Side Stories While on Assignment. Updates on Personal Projects, Too.

Archive for December, 2006

I wrote this after a late fall 2006 trip… thanks to Athens friend Ian McFarlane for helping out. The piece has not been printed yet, except online. So I guess you could call this a world premiere…


If Athens, Georgia was edible, it’d be a tall slice of cake – red velvet, caramel, or Hummingbird maybe – something classic but decadent, a youthful attraction, a sweet comfort.

Or maybe it would be a grilled cheese sandwich. That’s what a woman we’d just met told us she’d had that night for dinner over at Farm 255 (a hot new Athens restaurant that cooks food from its own farm and others nearby). “It had this really great, salty cheese… just incredible,” she explained to us, and a few others in the small crowd of mostly 20-to-30-somethings outside 283 Bar. It was about midnight (early for this town), and the conversation was turning around the low rents to be had in Athens (one guy said his apartment is $350/month), the merits of vegetarianism, and whether or not going organic is worth it. Oh, and whether the bands would be better that night at the 40-Watt Club or the Caledonia Lounge.

We’d entered what some locals call the “two-mile-radius,” the walkable hub of the city, where besides boutiques and office spaces, the storefronts of Athens look pretty much a toss-up between music venues/bars and cafes/coffee shops. On streets like Clayton, Broad, Washington and College, everyone from guys with Mohawk haircuts to business types, to young women in preppy pink sweaters sit inside and out (lots of sidewalk seating here), often with glowing lap-tops open, courtesy of the Wi-Fi that’s just about everywhere.

The mid-sized town in the rolling hills of North Georgia is home to the 32,000-student University of Georgia, which puts football in the limelight, and keeps the city’s median age hovering around 25. But we didn’t come for the famed Bulldog football – in fact we strategically booked our fall visit on non-game dates, to avoid the jam of cars and people decked out in red-and-black. For this trip, we were more interested in parking the car and walking around the often classically-designed city (plenty of Greek Revival and Gothic influence here), experiencing some of the near-mythical rock and food scene. Athens is where the beehive-wearing B-52s got their start in the late 1970s, and R.E.M. began playing in the 1980s, solidifying the southern city’s status as fertile ground for indie rock. Particularly with R.E.M., scenery like the town’s old train trestles, soul food restaurants, abandoned churches and country shacks have been woven into music lyrics, album covers and videos – making Athens a familiar place, even for those who’ve never been there. (Band members of the B-52s and R.E.M. still live in Athens, and several other groups have since gained fame after beginnings there, including the Indigo Girls and Widespread Panic.)

R.E.M. steeple
We began our Athens road trip by opting for two-lane state roads, driving out on SC 61 to SC 78 to Augusta and on up to Athens. It’s a good five-hour drive through scenic countryside – cotton and hayfields, poultry farms and hunt clubs, and pasture after pasture of horses and cattle.

We decided on the drive that we’d eat our way through Athens to get to know it better. And we got started right away by stopping off at one of the four Taco Stand locations – known for 30 years for the fresh, crunchy tacos wrapped in white paper. (The price was good, too… two tacos and a rootbeer, $4.50.) Not too much later, we were sitting at the bar at Harry Bissett’s dipping hot crawfish egg rolls into a Creole sesame sauce. (The local businessman who ate oysters Rockefeller next to us insisted we take a free newspaper with articles about the next Bulldog football game.) And in the morning, we drank hot coffee and ate the hefty and healthy(?) wheat biscuits at the Bluebird Café, a longtime vegetarian haunt.

We hadn’t had anything too grand yet, but we were beginning to see the town through its often-quirky mix of food and ambiance. Let’s talk condiments first. In Athens, there’s apple butter in a squeeze bottle on most tables at the Bluebird Café. We found soy sauce and hot sauce is a given at The Grit (along with the case of tall, frosted cakes). And at Weaver D.’s Fine Foods, bottles of pepper vinegar and squeeze Parkay are as “automatic” as the heaping servings of slow-cooked oxtail, collards and cornbread.

Big City Bread
Over at Big City Bread, where the baking of breads, scones and muffins begins daily at 4 a.m., we met 30-year-old Matthew Scott, the chef/owner who just happens to have worked in the kitchen at Magnolias in Charleston from 1997 to 2000. In Athens, he tells us, “there’s a Southern-baked fusion of cooking” that mixes well with the folk art and music scene, and translates into some inventive uses for down-home ingredients like bacon grease. “We sell a crazy amount of French toast,” he says, about the made-to-order breakfast crowd that fills the bakery’s large, tree-covered patio every morning. (Big City also offers lunch daily, and dinners on most weekends.)

Still hungry for Athens, we later checked out Farm 255, where music and food have often mixed since six young friends opened the place in 2005. Most had backgrounds in agriculture, but none had restaurant experience when they started, co-owner Olivia Sargeant tells us. (While she talks, a handsome singer from Venezuela strums his guitar in front of a red, upright piano… part of the line-up of nightly live music, and late night dancing on weekends.) Sargeant says that once the friends decided to renovate a 1930s building for the restaurant, she spent nearly a year looking for sources of great, fresh ingredients – and the owners still build their menu around what they find at small-scale farms and ranches. The results change daily, and that night we tried a cheese plate with selections from New Zealand and an organic Georgia dairy farm, a perfect burger of grassfed beef, an entrée of butter-crumb North Georgia trout with a caper sauce, a garlicky garbanzo bean and squid salad, and a rosemary cake made with olive oil (not butter) and served with crème fresche. Wow.

What’s particularly cool about all of these places is that they are in walking distance – or a short drive – from each other, and from the handful of downtown hotels. We stayed in one of the big new suites in the 119-room Foundry Park Inn, which also has on its premises a pub, restaurant, spa and one of the town’s most popular music venues, The Melting Point. Much of this is housed in 19th century buildings, including the circa-1830 Hoyt House and a foundry from the 1850s.

Besides eating out (which looks to be a daily ritual for residents), we did lots of walking, some shopping, and a few short drives to see the neighborhoods and scenery. We saw a guy with lamb chop sideburns standing on a chair, changing out that week’s dozen or more concert posters in the window at the record shop Wuxtry. We watched a tattooed woman in a tank top get out of a red, mid-1960s Ford and carry a painting into the 40 Watt. We stopped to look at the dreamy pink and purple chiffon dresses in the window at Minx, a vintage clothing store on West Clayton Street. We drank coffee and opened our laptops. And whenever cake was offered, we said yes.

– Sandy Lang, November 2006


Greens, peas and mac and cheese at Weaver D’s.

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