Eating around Poncey-Highland
Visits to Majestic Diner, Sweet Auburn Barbecue, Soul Vegetarian, Atlanta Cupcake Factory, Righteous Room, Cafe 640, Flip Burger Boutique
"I haven't eaten here in years," I told the Stranger, who entered the Majestic Diner (1031 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-875-0276, www.majesticdiner.com) just behind me. It was about 9 p.m. and the restaurant was otherwise empty. The Stranger, probably in his late 30s, wore a leather biker jacket.
"It's freezing in here," I told him. "Good plan to wear that jacket."
"Shall we eat together?" he asked.
We slid into a booth. He said he was new to town. I told him I was contrarily drowning in nostalgia. Decades earlier, in my late 20s, I lived in Poncey-Highland, one block south on Blue Ridge Avenue, with my first partner.
"Our upstairs duplex looked directly into the windows of a whorehouse whose main customers were college boys," I told him. "We were awakened Sundays by the Salvation Army band, which played in front of the old Plaza Drugs."
The prices on the menu shocked me. The Stranger ordered the double-cheeseburger I used to order at 3 a.m. after partying. Layered with melting American cheese, the meat is better quality now, for sure. But the $9.25 price tag might ask you why you're not eating at Richard Blais' nearby Flip Burger Boutique.
I decided on the Olympic Omelette ($11.35) with fresh spinach, mushrooms, tomato, green bell peppers, feta cheese, and tzatziki sauce. It came with cold, lumpy grits. The omelette was decently cooked — airy despite the heavy ingredients — but not worth the money unless you're too drunk to drive to Waffle House.
The Stranger asked me what I did for a living back then. "I was a freelance poet, still am," I joked.
"Me too," he said. He handed me his pale green business card. It included his name, number, and the words "Everything You Need." I was in a Flannery O'Connor story.
My Majestic visit was part of a nostalgic exploration that began with an earlier dinner with friends at the new Sweet Auburn Barbecue (656 N. Highland Ave., 678-515-3550, www.sweetauburnbbq.com). It occurred to me then that most restaurants in the area have nostalgic throwback menus. Sweet Auburn serves, for example, traditional Southern barbecue, but owner Howard Hsu sometimes incorporates Asian touches like his Southern Seoul sandwich ($13) with Korean-style barbecued ribs.
Much of the food works deliciously, but service has been an ongoing problem for many diners, even after more than two months in business.
Another nostalgic outpost is the gloomy, untidy Soul Vegetarian Restaurant No. 2 (652 N. Highland Ave., 404-875-0145, www.soulvegetarian2.com). It's part of a small worldwide chain operated by the Hebrew Israelite Community of Jerusalem. The original is located in the West End. The restaurant has twice won Best of Atlanta awards from Creative Loafing — 2009 for Best Vegan and 2011 for Best Soul Food.
I have no idea why. Consider, for example, its pervasive use of kalebone — faux meat made from gluten. Morbidly curious, I ordered a tepid, gooey kalebone "country baked steak" (entrée, side salad, two sides, cornbread, $15.35) drenched in a tepid, weird-tasting brown gravy. I got a side of tepid cornbread literally so crumbly I couldn't lift it, but it wasn't bad scattered over some of Soul Veg's decent collards.
The worst was my starter of oily tasting, flour-dusted, fried cauliflower ($3.90). I ordered it because the menu said it was served with the restaurant's special sauces. I was given one sauce: ketchup. I asked for another. I received ketchupy barbecue sauce.
I left and staggered to the Atlanta Cupcake Factory (624 N. Highland Ave., 678-358-9195, www.theatlantacupcakefactory.com) to wipe away my misery. Someone shouted hello. I turned and it was the Stranger. "Why haven't you called me? Haven't you needed a good rhyme?" he asked.
"I need a cupcake," I said. "Come with me."If anything has become a nostalgic fetish in recent years, it's the cupcake. I picked something I'd never tried before — the gigantic pineapple rum bar. It's not a cupcake at all, but basically a delightful version of pineapple upside-down cake filling a plastic container. I stood at a table, consuming the incredibly rich, faintly boozy cake, forking up its layers of juicy pineapple, cream cheese, and sweet pastry. "It beats the vegan meal I just had by a mile," I said.
The Stranger lit a cigarette. "I bet. I'm actually a chef," he said, "but don't ask me where." I didn't believe him, but smiled.
Soon after, I visited Righteous Room (1051 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-874-0939). The pub reminds me of the hippie-biker bars of my distant youth. Maybe it's the intense smoke and the harsh music.
I used to stop by frequently for the great burger, but decided to try the Righteous Chicken ($11), a bowl of thyme-infused rice and sautéed spinach topped with chicken breast seared with caramelized onions and peppers, capers, and lemon. I was disappointed. The chicken was apparently cooked with a bushel of rosemary that overwhelmed all tastes. If you need aromatherapy, cover your head with a towel and bend over the bowl.
A week after my meal with friends at Sweet Auburn, we went to Cafe 640 (640 N. Highland Ave., 404-724-0711, www.cafe640.com), adjacent to the nostalgia-ridden, once seedy Highland Inn. Considering its successful blend of ambiance, service, price, and cooking, this was my best experience in the area. The eclectic menu mainly stresses sandwiches and starters that are more like sharable small plates.
I started with ropa vieja ($9.50), shredded flank steak braised in a mild tomato sauce. The menu says it's served over tortillas but should say "tortilla chips." It's basically nachos. Thanks to the flank steak's quality and the judicious use of ordinary toppings like jalapeños and cheese, Café 640's version surpasses the usual garbage-piled nachos.
For my entrée, I chose chipotle-glazed salmon baked on a cedar plank ($18). It was served with faintly garlicky Parmesan mashed potatoes and crispy grilled asparagus. Yes, it was kind of retro but not enough to inspire nostalgia. The salmon, Canadian, had plenty of fresh flavor but all other tastes receded to near-absence. I'd like at least the chipotle to have a stronger kick.
My final visit in the area was Flip Burger Boutique (644 N. Highland Ave., 404-815-1127, www.flipburgerboutique.com), part of Richard Blais' chain that flips the burger nostalgia into kinky form. Blais opened it recently after closing HD1, his effort to similarly glamorize hot dogs. The good news about ambiance is that the restaurant now features a huge upstairs patio. Unfortunately, my injured knees made ascending the stairs a risky undertaking. So I ate literally all by myself downstairs.
My burger, the Oaxaca ($9), was superb, cooked medium-rare, topped with messy avocados, cilantro-lime mayo, queso fresco, and pico de gallo. It's only $9 but, yeah, a side and a milk shake easily drive up your bill to $20.
I got the vodka-battered onion rings with beer mustard ($4): a crunchy, mildly oniony fusion of heaven and hell. I tried a vanilla milk shake with far too few pieces of Malted Whoppers. Sorry, guys, but this $5 shake is too small and still not up to Zesto's quality. Once again, leaving Flip, I ran into the Stranger. "Are you stalking me?" I asked.
He laughed and pointed to the old apartments across the street. "I live there," he said.
I told him how my first partner, Rick, the ultimate foodie, lived there after we split up in the Blue Ridge Apartment. "He ended up dying early in the AIDS epidemic," I said. The Stranger looked at me consolingly. "Which apartment is yours?" I asked, changing the subject quickly.
He pointed at his apartment. It turned out to be next to Rick's. "I'm so sorry," he said. I realized I had told nobody this part of my story of living on Blue Ridge. Feeling myself about to cry, I said goodbye to the Stranger. We hugged and I walked away quickly.
Memories — beautiful, maddening, inspiring, and, when you're old enough, they are almost everywhere, even bringing your heartbreak back in random, strange encounters.