Some of Atlanta's oldest restaurants

Feb 20, 2013 -- 10:58am

Atlanta may not be New York, Boston, or Chicago when it comes to restaurants that date back to the 1800s, but the city contains a handful of gems that trace their roots back to the 1920s. Good old Southern cooking never goes out of style, and these Atlanta-area eateries prove that day in and day out. From burgers to veggies and even some out-of-this-world desserts, Atlanta has a history of great restaurants. And with new chefs moving into the area each year, there is always a new dish to try, even if the restaurant is almost 100 years old.

The Colonnade

1879 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta

This Atlanta institution has a history that dates all the way back to 1927. It's been at this location on Cheshire Bridge Road since 1962. Nothing has changed in the food department since the opening in 1927.

"It's fantastic," said longtime Atlantan and real estate investor Greg Boris, who knew the original owner. "It's the best fried chicken, and every day, it's fresh veggies."

As you might have guessed, Colonnade is best known for its Southern dishes. That means fried chicken, beef ribs, and chicken-fried steak. Then we hit the sides, and there are about 30 of them each day. From apple sauce to mac and cheese, and it wouldn't be a Southern favorite if it didn't have that staple, fried okra.

As is tradition in the South, a basket of yeast rolls and cornbread muffins comes with your meal. Also a tradition, the servers are well-trained and attentive, and the atmosphere is relaxing and positive.
And the Atlanta Journal Constitution just voted the Colonnade as having the best sweet tea in Atlanta.

Taking the best of Atlanta's past and incorporating it into the future is what the Colonnade does, and they do it well.

The Varsity
61 North Ave., Atlanta

You haven't been to Atlanta unless you've made a stop at the original Varsity located on North Avenue. For almost 90 years, The Varsity has been the one constant in Atlanta. It's a restaurant, and it's a drive-in (there aren't many of those left) that can handle up to 600 cars. It's huge, and the crowds can be huge on any given day.

It's nothing fancy, and part of the building standing today is the original structure. The food is addicting in a good sort of way. Naked dogs, burgers, onion rings, and frosted oranges -- the menu is pretty simple, but nerve-racking when it comes time to make that decision.

"We are what we are," said Gordon Muir, whose grandfather, Frank Gordy, opened the restaurant after going to school at nearby Georgia Tech. "The food hasn't changed."

"What'll ya have?" is the famous catch-phrase that you will hear all over the restaurant. You also have your order in mind when you get to the front of the line, because the Varsity kitchen is a fast-moving machine.

How fast?

"In 1974, [my] dad took my brother and I to The Varsity; he had been, we hadn't, so he knew about the fast pace," explained longtime Atlanta resident Courtney Capps. "He told us to study the menu so we'd know exactly what we wanted, because we had to be ready, and he put us in line with the original 'what'll ya have, what'll ya have, what'll ya have' guy with that big growling voice."

Capps said that both he and his brother choked trying to get their orders out. In the days to come, they would practice their order so they wouldn't make that mistake again.

The Varsity is Atlanta, so show some respect, and have your order ready the next time you're asked "What'll ya have?"

Mary Mac's Tea Room

224 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta

Mary Mac's Tea Room represents the "old guard" of Atlanta's restaurants, and they do it well. Serving some of the best Southern food you'll find anywhere since 1945, Mary Mac's reputation brings in CEOs, celebrities, presidents, and visitors from all over the world each and every week.

Like The Varsity, Mary Mac's is one of those "must eat" places when in Atlanta. Unlike The Varsity, Mary Mac's offers comfort food with fresh cooked vegetables, and that includes the likes of picked beets and something called pot liquor, which apparently is the droppings from all the cooking going on in the kitchen. The servers will bring you some so you can dip your cornbread or muffin in for a special treat.

At Mary Mac's, there is a pencil on every table, and you fill out your own order. Is that tradition in the South?

"Not really," said Mary Mac's goodwill ambassador Jo Carter. "It's so if the order is incorrect, it's not the server's fault."

Mary Mac's is a landmark in Atlanta, and they do embrace the best of Southern traditions. You will be welcomed like part of the family with Southern hospitality.


Greenwood's Restaurant

1087 Green St., Roswell

Talk to the good folks of Roswell, Georgia, and they will tell you everything you need to know about Greenwood's.

"Come hungry," said one patron waiting outside the front door to Greenwood's on a recent weeknight.

"Save room for pie," offered up another.

Greenwood's sits in a building in Historic Roswell that may well date back to the time when Roswell was best known as a mill town. Its food is also a throwback to a simpler time.

"Greenwood's was doing farm-to-table before farm-to-table was cool," stated Melissa Libby of the popular Atlanta blog Atlanta Dish.

All of Greenwood's veggies are meat- and dairy-free, and they also like to support local farms and growers. Home-cooked meals like meatloaf, pork chops, and shrimp and grits are staples on the menu. Veggies like sweet potatoes, collard greens, and steamed cabbage are other can't-miss items.

Greenwood's knows they are something unique, and they appreciate all the love the city of Roswell has shown them over the years. It's really a two-way street.

"The Roswell community and the surrounding areas have been a vital part of our success," said Allison Wooten of Greenwood's. "We are humbled by the loyalty of three and four generations of families that have graciously supported us over the last three decades."

Greenwood's may not have been around as long as Colonnade or Mary Mac's, but I expect it to be, and it has the feel of 100-year-old dining establishment.


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