Atlanta nightlife gold

An after-hours scene on Edgewood and Auburn avenues finally arrives

Fifteen years ago, fresh out of New York film school and in search of a place to live in Atlanta, Karl Injex moved with his girlfriend into an apartment above an old Jamaican bakery on Edgewood Avenue. He loved the gritty, intown neighborhood but soon learned that very little happened there after dark – of a legal variety, anyway.

"Back then, all the energy was going into Castleberry; that's where the arts community was focused," says Injex, a DJ who's a partner in SoundTable, a new, two-story restaurant and bar opening later this month across the street from his former apartment. Comparing Castleberry Hill to Brooklyn's hippest 'hood, he explains: "That was our sort of Williamsburg. Edgewood was kind of like the stepchild, like Red Hook."

As recently as five years ago, the first glimmers of real investment in Edgewood Avenue had only just appearred, in the form of Rolling Bones BBQ near the Downtown Connector, and the Javaology coffee shop – now replaced by Danneman's – at Boulevard.

But after decades of neglect on Edgewood, the street linking downtown to Inman Park has become a destination for savvy diners – drawn by word-of-mouth to Dynamic Dish and others – and is gradually cultivating a nightlife scene that already packs impressive variety into a few historic blocks.

Given Edgewood's proximity both to downtown and to the tourism magnet that is the Martin Luther King Historic District, its latter-day resurgence might seem like a no-brainer. But in the harsh world of economic development, there's often no such thing. Nick Patel, director of operations at Harlem Bar, which opened in 2006, compares the area to the East Atlanta of the '90s.

East Atlanta has grown into a nightlife district lined with bars and restaurants – but it started small, with pioneering venues including the Fountainhead, the Earl and the Echo Lounge. Those places, Patel says, "struck out first before anyone else was over there. Then everyone followed."

A similar phenomenon is now occuring on Edgewood and Auburn.

On a recent Friday night at Café Circa, a softly lit restaurant and bar with live soul music and a lounge vibe, a predominantly African-American crowd hung out. Young couples leaned over tables to chat as older buppies sipped drinks. Next door, local watering hole the Corner Tavern drew a steady crowd of regulars for drinks and pool.

Down the street at Noni's, a group of Agnes Scott College students danced to Starfucker and hip-hop throwbacks while Zooey Deschanel lookalikes mouthed the lyrics. In the back of the restaurant, a group of fashionably scruffy creatives relaxed after a meal. On Saturday nights, the restaurant becomes an unabashed, foggy-windowed dance party crammed with a hipsterish and gay-heavy crowd.

A few blocks away in the shadow of the interstate, Harlem Bar boasts a cool factor evocative of an underground jazz club and an attractive, well-dressed clientele that looks like it came straight from the set of a Hennessy ad.

On nearby Auburn Avenue, one of Atlanta's most historic thoroughfares, Pal's Lounge, a tiny, '50s-era cocktail bar at the corner of Bell Street, has somehow managed to hang on through the area's decline. On Tuesday nights, you're likely to find a packed house that's flocked to Yo Karaoke, an event hosted every week by artist Fahamu Pecou.

"There's that group that goes out and hits all the restaurants, bars and nightlife spots before they've become mainstream and popular," says Harlem Bar's Patel. "And Edgewood is that slightly ahead-of-the-curve kind of place. There are restaurants and clubs that people have to actually search out. If you live in Buckhead, you're not coming down here unless you're looking for it. We've got that younger clientele that understands – and knows – where they're going when they come to this neighborhood."

Much like Manhattan's Harlem, the much smaller Edgewood-Auburn district is brimming with history. During segregation, the neighborhood was the epicenter of business and culture for black Atlanta. Two generations of Kings preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Royal Peacock Club showcased such stars as Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin and James Brown. The streets were lined with thriving stores, restaurants and barber shops.

"Right behind our building is where Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife are buried," says Kevin Holt, co-owner of Café Circa. "Two blocks down the street is where he lived. This grocery store is where he shopped. Right around the corner is where he went to church. Everybody who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement was at some point in this location. The building we're in was part of that history."

After integration, African-Americans began to take their business outside the district, and the construction of the Downtown Connector sliced through its heart. The neighborhood began a downward spiral, exacerbated by white flight. Devon Lee, the 31-year-old great-grandson of Pal's founder – and now the bar's current owner – says the toll caused by years of crime, vagrancy and vacancy hasn't been easy to wipe away.

"You wouldn't have seen the progress on Edgewood if the city hadn't done something with the less-than-desirable elements," he says.

Just as Cabbagetown and the Old Fourth Ward have attracted new residents and development, the Edgewood-Auburn corridor is also seeing changes. The demolition of Grady Homes and increased police patrols have served to clear out some – but not all – of the panhandlers and street criminals who frequented the area. Likewise, the closing of the nearby Hilliard Street Residence Hotel – dubbed "Pink City" by locals for its reputation as a prostitution pit stop – has helped reduce the stigma of lawlessness the area gained over the years.

Noni's owner Matt Ruppert touts Edgewood's noncorporate-ness: "It's the only place left where there's this really good city feel to the storefronts. It's real mom-and-pop businesses with really cool turn-of-the-century architecture."

Says Injex: "It still has that feeling of an emerging street, rather than a Midtown, circa 1999. It's not reached critical mass and it's still growing – and has room to grow."

And that growth is just around the corner. Pal's Lounge owner Lee is currently renovating his family's former Arcade Billiards, a classic pool hall. Ruppert and a partner recently set up shop in the space formerly occupied by the Bureau, a trendy restaurant, and launched Pizzeria Vesuvius, where they dish out Neopolitan-style, thin-crust wood-burning-oven pizza. Near the end of March, Injex and Top Flr owners Darren Carr and Jeff Myers will open restaurant/bar SoundTable in what's sure to bring even more activity to the corridor.

"You walk down Auburn and Edgewood and you say, 'There's something happening,'" Pecou says. "It isn't just a street. There's an energy and spirit to it. More and more, people are taking a chance to try and revitalize that community – and make it mean something again. They've got a little ways to go. But people are taking it back from the negative vibe that has been there the last few years. You gotta take it back."