Tried and True: The Vibrancy of Virginia-Highland and its Surrounding Streets
written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photos courtesy of VIRGINIA-HIGHLAND TOUR OF HOMES; PAIGE MOLINA; MURPHY’S; LA TAVOLA; SWEET AUBURN BBQ; AMY SINCLAIR; EVAN WEST; ALON’S BAKERY;
Let’s start with the end …of the street names, that is. Atlanta’s in-town, Virginia-Highland neighborhood is named for the intersection of Virginia and Highland avenues. Note that neither is plural. It’s a tiny distinction that is commonly misconstrued by visitors and locals alike, but one that media maven and 20-year-resident Mara Davis can be particular about pointing out.
Before becoming the host of Atlanta Eats radio, a weekly talk show about the city’s food scene and a contributor to Atlanta’s NPR WABE 90.1 FM, she gained her popularity as a personality on the late, great DAVE FM — and via the airwaves, first gave me the linguistic lesson. Now, years later, I ventured into the area to see how this crossroads of culture has endured and evolved with nearby burgeoning areas into “The Highlands.”
BEGINNINGS AND BISCUITS
Although my family calls Alpharetta home, the 45-minute distance to Virginia-Highland —or Va-Hi, for short — doesn’t stop us from making the occasional Sunday drive for a memorable brunch at Murphy’s. This 35 year veteran of the dining scene boasts contemporary, American comfort food and a loyal brunch following long before Instagramming your avocado toast was cool. Be warned — brunch is served on weekends from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis, and you’ll likely be waiting for a table. However, tucked within the restaurant is Murphy’s Wine Shop and browsing their selection of more than 350 wines in stock makes idle time a breeze.
It’s hard to imagine the iconic intersection without the restaurant’s splashy yellow awnings and inviting porch, or without its adjacent neighbor, the original Taco Mac, anchoring the southwest corner of Virginia and Highland avenues. Yet, there’s been quite a bit of turnover across the street that someone who hasn’t trekked down in a year or two might be surprised to discover.
Another set of sunshine yellow awnings advertising “Handmade Biscuits Morning, Noon and Night” appeared just a year ago, but the Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit signage above it brought instant lines. In the 900-square-foot space that Winter Wren clothing store formerly occupied, Atlantans can get a fresh taste of a Charleston, S.C. sensation. Created by Carrie Morey and named for her mother, Callie’s Charleston Biscuits were first created in 2005 and sold in retailers globally as well as shipped directly to homes before debuting as a brick-and-mortar. As her awning alludes, the King Street location, as does the Atlanta sequel, serves the tasty Southern tradition with creative accouterments from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily as well as from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday for late-night snacks. If you stop by this month, you can try holiday renditions like the gingerbread biscuit with vanilla frosting or the shortcake biscuit with chocolate frosting, whipped cream and crushed peppermint.
After one taste, I can attest Morey could have likely opened a second bakery anywhere, especially in the South and found success. So, why Va-Hi?
“When beginning the initial search for a second location, Atlanta was not top on my list to be honest,” Morey said. “But a friend of a friend contacted me and convinced me to come take a look at [this] space. I immediately fell in love with the space and the location. The tree-lined streets and shops that centered an old beautiful neighborhood got me daydreaming about families with their kids walking from their homes everyday to come to my bake shop. I have always had a romantic vision of Hot Little Biscuit being the local bake shop that centers a neighborhood.”
It’s a sweet notion that fits right in among friendly folks here. In fact, even if you slip on an extra “s” to Virginia- Highland, I’d be surprised if someone actually corrected you. Parking on the other hand, can get a little hairy — so since you’ve already found a coveted spot or left your keys with the valet, why not walk around a while?
With happy bellies and no eagerness to get back in the car, the next logical step is to stroll by the rest of the rainbow of awnings, doors and window displays fanning out in four directions. Since the neighborhood is so walkable, even with tots and teens in tow, finding a few gems is easy and there’s definitely no shortage of spots to appeal to every sweet tooth in your family.
Our Publisher Carl Danbury, Jr. admittedly has a weak spot for Paolo’s Gelato Italiano. Chocolate lovers —run, don’t walk to CACAO Atlanta. Others hurry to the original Alon’s Bakery —a staple on North Highland since 1992 — for some of the famous cinnamon sticks before they sell out. And for coffee lovers, a new favorite treat just might be spending “coffee hour” — midday or late afternoon —at San Francisco Coffee Roasting Co..
By dinnertime, it’s a different story. Loyal locals tend to agree that the time-honored, go-to staple has always been La Tavola Trattoria. Touted as one of Atlanta’s best restaurants by foodies like Davis, La Tavola consistently delivers one fabulous dish after the other in a cozy vibe. “You can’t miss with the veal meatballs and always fresh pasta,” she said.
Meanwhile, I have a different craving and it’s called Urban Cottage. The creative lifestyle boutique is full of furniture, accessories, gifts, kitchenware, fragrances, baby goods, boudoir finds and more to satiate eclectic décor styles, some of which even spills out onto the front porch. The name nods to a blend of rustic urban and modern cottage aesthetics —unique juxtapositions that are echoed throughout the nearby residential streets.
As much as its culinary prowess, the historic homes here draw crowds. This month marks the 22nd annual Virginia-Highland Tour of Homes, when eight properties open their doors for a festive, two-day celebration of architecture and interior design held Dec. 3 and 4. If you can catch it in time, this year’s line-up includes a custom modern home with beautiful gardens and rooftop deck, a recently renovated California-style bungalow, a charming 1925 cottage with recent updates, a classic 1917 bungalow with beautiful indoor and outdoor living spaces as well as a quintessential 1909 bungalow in which a recent renovation both restored original features and created modern living spaces to inspire us all.
Since we are being technical with our names and pronunciations, it’s worth pointing out as you travel south on Highland and approach Ponce de Leon Avenue, there’s a new neighborhood nickname used to distinguish the location —Poncey-Highland.
In the evenings, the historic dive bars located along this stretch —places like Manuel’s Tavern, known for their politically inclined crowd; Neighbor’s Pub, which was the first bar to serve Sweet- Water Brew; or Atkins Park, Atlanta’s oldest, continuously licensed tavern — draw an older crowd. There’s a soulful feeling that hangs in the air here, and you might hear it wafting in the blues music from Blind Willie’s or taste it in the bad-to-the-bone meats at Sweet Auburn Barbecue.
While the latter has only been open a handful of years comparatively, its handprint on the community by founders and siblings Howard and Anita Hsu belies so. Before opening the Highland restaurant, they built their business from a food truck and were the driving force behind the creation of the Atlanta Food Truck Park & Market. Not just another Georgia BBQ joint, Sweet Auburn mixes soul with Seoul, drawing on their Hsu heritage to create irresistible menu mash-ups like the pimento cheese wontons with bacon marmalade and sweet Thai chili sauce, the jerk-spice collards or smoked wings tossed in Wu Tang sauce. It’s another delicious example of how unique combinations happen at a crossroads.
For those whose sights are set on a slightly more elevated experience, look no further than a mile from the Poncey-Highland intersection to Nine Mile Station, a beer garden located on the rooftop of Ponce City Market.
Nostalgically named for the streetcar that once carried locals to the area pre-1920s via Nine Mile Circle,the sleek, indoor-outdoor space offers one-of-a-kind, unobstructed sights stretching from downtown and Midtown to Buckhead and beyond. The rooftop’s completion this past October was celebrated in conjunction with the 90th anniversary of the now transformed Sears, Roebuck & Co. building, and aims to be a cultural touchstone for locals and tourists alike for many years to come.
Before toasting the skyline sunset with a craft beer from their rotating taps or a glass of bubbly from the “sparkling bar,” guests must purchase admission to Skyline Park via the manually operated freight elevator ($10 for adults and $7 for kids 12 and under) or by pre-booking their experience online.
Some may say it’s a steep price to pay, but on a special occasion, when you find yourself exploring Va-Hi, the Highlands or whatever nickname it garners next, you might enjoy the view from the top. Try it and let us know if that’s true.