Day Trippin’ in Decatur

Thanks to a Charming Historic Square and Community-Oriented Atmosphere, There Are Plenty of Reasons to Visit this Artsy Yet Homey City

Photo courtesy of James Camp Photography

Written by John Manasso

Perched over her computer one summer night, my wife blurted out, “Erin Murphy just saw Owen Wilson at Cakes & Ale!”

It hardly surprised me. This same friend had encountered Billy Bob Thornton within the previous 18 months in Oakhurst Village outside a favorite City of Decatur hangout, so to see that another movie star was at a restaurant that earned a spot on Bon Appetit’s list of the country’s 50 best new restaurants for a second straight year wasn’t exactly news.

As Georgia’s state government has offered incentives to the film and television industries, directors and producers have descended upon our leafy, four-square-mile city of 18,000, with its renovated 100-year-old craftsman bungalows and charming historic courthouse square. In May 2011, the New York Times Travel section christened Decatur “the love child of Berkeley and Mayberry.”


Photo courtesy of Decatur Development Authority

Berkeley, perhaps, for the decidedly artsy and urban-pioneering roots that begat the city’s gentrification a few decades ago; Mayberry for its homey, small-town feel. Because of its walkability – the city was founded in 1823, 24 years before Atlanta, whose downtown sits only 5 miles west – many parents walk or ride bikes with their children to school. In fact, the schools, immune from drastic budgets that have ravaged nearby systems, have become a huge draw that has launched a baby boom with a resulting 9 percent increase in student enrollment in 2011 and a 12 percent one this year to a total of 3,630. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Decatur eight-graders earned the top reading scores in the metro area on the standardized CRCT tests with 100 percent of students passing.

Such a community-oriented atmosphere has created a cozy culture in which residents often choose not to depart the city limits to dine out or have a beer, which has helped bars and restaurants thrive. Art galleries and boutiques populate the downtown storefronts and festivals (arts, “beach party,” wine, beer, barbecue, book), most of which are held on the square, dot the calendar every month from May to October. Labor Day’s Book Festival might be the best known, but my personal favorite is October’s Craft Beer Festival, for which I have volunteered for five years running. It’s much easier than purchasing tickets, which cost $40 and only 4,000 of which go on sale for the five-hour event. In recent years, the event has sold out in a matter of hours – or less. If you aren’t lucky enough to swing a ticket, you can
still take in the vibrant scene from one of the restaurants or bars that line the square.

Among the most famous is the Brick Store, which offers dozens
upon dozens of craft and imported brews and specializes in Belgian beers. A personal favorite is Mac McGee’s, an Irish bar that offers scores of whiskeys, including “flights” of three at reduced prices. By this correspondent’s count, Decatur boasts 12 bars and plenty of other restaurants with liquor licenses. The Brick Store owns a gastro-pub spin-off around the corner called Leon’s, where diners can play bocce as they wait to eat frites Belgian-style with a choice of mayonnaises, including bacon and horseradish. Another well-worn spot is Oakhurst’s Universal Joint, where PGA golfer Stewart Cink stops to grab a burger after playing East Lake Golf Club, located a mere 1.1 miles south.

Photo courtesy of John Manasso

Yes, Decaturites seem to love their beer and other culinary vices, which has given rise to the moniker “Homer Simpson Corner” for a trio of businesses located on College Avenue between Feld and Cambridge avenues. Revolution Doughnuts, home to salted caramel creations sprinkled with bacon, craft beer store Ale Yeah! and Avellino’s Pizzeria occupy three of the small shops. One of my favorite trips on a Friday afternoon starts by sticking an empty growler in my backpack, walking the quarter mile to my daughter’s school, picking her up and stopping off on the way home at Ale Yeah! to fill up the growler with a nice brew. As for Avellino’s, my 92-year-old grandmother, the child of Italian immigrants who has lived her entire life in Lower Manhattan, gives it her seal of approval. Just beware of the
ghost pepper topping.

Photo courtesy of Mai & Bri Photography

In addition to Avellino’s, Decatur has a number of other pizzerias, but the most noteworthy is Sapori di Napoli, which was founded by two brothers born in Naples, the epicenter of Italy’s pizza tradition. To make their artisanal pizzas, the paesans imported a 5,000-pound wood-burning oven from the city of their birth.

You would need more than a daytrip to hit all of Decatur’s best restaurants, such as Parker’s on Ponce steakhouse, Spanish-inspired Iberian Pig (check out the cocktails), the schnitzel specialists at 7 Hens, and an excellent Italian spot, No. 246, not to mention all the great shops (pop in Little Shop of Stories for a treat to take home to the kids). Just be careful: If you visit, like me, you might not want to leave.

Follow the Butterfly to Inman Park
Written by Susan Sexton

Known as Atlanta’s first garden suburb circa 1890, the Inman Park community was once the playground of the rich and famous. Asa Candler, founder of the Coca-Cola Company, called Inman Park home during this successful period of Inman Park’s growth. The easily accessible area, located 2 miles east of downtown Atlanta, is a blend of old and new worlds, with shady, pristine streets where streetcars used to run. A stroll in Inman Park is one of life’s simple pleasures. To visit, follow the butterfly — the longstanding symbol of the community — which graces most windows as a distinctive mark of the close-knit neighborhood.

A fusion of new condos and historic homes, Inman Park has just as much of a modern feel as it does a retro vibe. What’s more, after making a comeback in the ’70s, the once-counterculture neighborhood is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has become a thriving, upscale destination for many — whether for a daytrip or a lifetime.

Take to the Streets
The Inman Park Festival held every April is often called Atlanta’s best street festival with The Feed and Seed Marching Abominables Band performing on festival Saturday. The winding streets filled with spring blooms offer a glance at the spectacular Victorian homes while you peruse the eclectic artists’ market. And you don’t want to miss the live dance and drama performances held in the Trolley Barn.

Fine Cuisine in Casual Settings
In-town living is often about contrasts, and to see this, look no farther than the local selection of restaurants and eateries. Sotto Sotto features upscale Italian fare in a casual yet elegant atmosphere, while Fritti offers a hip, family-friendly patio with more casual fare. Be sure to try one of the 26 flavorful Fritti pizzas. Parish is known for artsy Southern cooking and a green market not to be missed. Two Urban Licks is sure to impress an important date with its high-energy atmosphere and wood-fired meats and fish. Rathbun’s, on the other hand, is a snazzy, local favorite for American fine dining with renowned steaks. Experience a taste of Europe at Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant, where you’ll find an intriguing Sherry list and simply sumptuous tapas.

An In-town Oasis
Nestled upstairs in the IPV building on Highland Avenue, Passion Nails transports you to a tropical paradise. The décor is soothing yet spacious, with quality service levels for manis and pedis. Upon arrival, expect to be offered a refreshing glass of wine while you settle into a vibrating massage chair. If you are a cigar aficionado, or need to park your significant other for a while, try the nearby Highland Cigar with a friendly, happening atmosphere and expansive selection of drinks and smokes.  Enjoy the plush leather furniture and walk-in humidor as well.

The Oldest In-Town Village of Virginia Highland
Written by Susan Sexton

Virginia Highland, a quaint, tree-lined neighborhood defined by the intersection of Virginia and Highland avenues, is one of the oldest in-town villages and is known for its craftsman bungalows and distinctive architectural details. Once farmlands and a country retreat, this destination makes a great daytrip from Atlanta’s Northside.

Most of the bungalows in Virginia Highland were built in the 1920s before an exodus of residents to the suburbs in the 1950s. A return to in-town living resumed, beginning back in the 1970s. Today, the neighborhood is a bustling community of families, dogs, young adults and original residents who enjoy a city-like, walking neighborhood filled with on-trend retail shops, high-end spas and salons as well as cozy restaurants and entertaining nightlife. Pull up a chair at one of the sidewalk cafes, sit back and enjoy!

For a Delicious Nosh
Newcomer Goin’ Coastal offers fresh, sustainable seafood with fishing village décor. Try some of the weekly specials, and you’re sure to become a regular! If fish isn’t your dish, Fontaine’s will enchant your palate with an authentic New Orleans ambiance and stand-up oyster bar. Savor one of the best Blood Mary’s in town and relax on the flower-filled back porch while taking in the local flavor. Wander into Highland Tap for a famous sidecar martini and pair it with a savory steak or burger for a hearty lunch or dinner. The bar is known for its friendly service and ”Cheers” like atmosphere, and is a perfect place to while away a leisurely afternoon. Perhaps the sweetest finish found in this neighborhood is Paolo’s. Featuring some of the best gelato this side of Italy, the tiny, eclectic shop is a fun place to be seen while enjoying your cone on the curbside benches. Known for specialty flavors, no trip to Virginia Highland would be complete without a stop to this local favorite!

Shop til You Drop
If you’re still hungry, walk back in time at the Belly General Store for delicious to-go items, but my guess is the next tug will be at your purse strings. And if interesting boutiques and fashionable new lines are your go-to styles, the area boasts some of the most interesting retail shops in Atlanta. Mitzi & Romano, the catbird seat on the corner, offers trendy shoes, accessories and apparel for ladies, while Festivity is known for its reasonably priced, unique jewelry, gifts and accessories. Bill Hallman is the choice brand of apparel, accessories and shoes for local celebs and is known for introducing new lines and trends first.

Lively and Fun Entertainment
One of the oldest watering holes in Atlanta is Atkins Park, a congenial, loud and lively bar with solid fare and strong cocktails. A popular local hangout, it has been a VA-Hi favorite for years. Blind Willie’s, a tiny hole in the wall that packs in talented artists, is Atlanta’s premier blues club.