“I’ve been to Atlanta, but only through the airport” is a common refrain. More than 100 million people a year pass through the world’s busiest airport, but relatively few make it beyond the confines of the concrete terminals to indulge in the delectable dishes at the city’s thousands of restaurants.
But there is a way to savor the flavors of the South without exiting through security. The restaurants at Hartsfield-Jackson include a James Beard Award finalist, one owned by a famous hip-hop artist, and outposts of some of the city’s most beloved and iconic kitchens.
PIECE OF CAKE
Where: Concourse A
Started by two women in their homes in 1985, Piece of Cake now has several Atlanta locations and ships their made-from-scratch cakes all over the country. If you’ve been to any celebration in the South, chances are you’ve tasted a slice of a buttery, moist cake out of their signature red-and-white box.
Even the fastest walking travelers slow down as they approach the tempting display of cake slices and cupcakes. Two of the most popular items are the red velvet cake and the caramel cake, which is referred to as their “gateway cake”—customers taste it once, and then keep coming back for more.
Other selections include carrot cake, white chocolate, and strawberry. The slices are huge, so you can share with a traveling companion. Or not.
Where: Concourse B
Fried chicken has been the specialty at Paschal’s since 1947 when brothers James and Robert Paschal started serving this southern favorite, making it at their home and transporting it to their 30-seat restaurant. The dish is still referred to as 1947 Fried Chicken on the menu at its downtown Atlanta location.
Be sure to try the holy southern trinity of fried chicken, collard greens, and mac and cheese—the South is the only place on the planet where macaroni and cheese is considered a vegetable.
Insider Tip: The original restaurant has an important place in our country’s history as the unofficial meeting spot in the 1960s for leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis.
Where: Concourse C and F
An iconic and beloved Atlanta institution, the main branch The Varsity opened in 1928 and is the largest drive-in restaurant in the world, welcoming up to 30,000 guests a day. The restaurant even boasts its own lingo for its small menu of fast-food favorites. Order a heavy dog (hot dog with extra chili), a glorified steak (hamburger with mayo, lettuce, and tomato), ring one (onion rings), a naked dog (plain hot dog), and an F.O. – its famous Frosted Orange drink.
Insider Tip: Several presidents have eaten at The Varsity, including Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.
CHICKEN + BEER
Where: Concourse D
Hometown hip-hop artist Ludacris opened this take on southern comfort food in late 2016. Named after his third studio album, Chicken + Beer serves southern favorites like shrimp and grits, crawfish and corn fritters, pork belly sliders, battered catfish, and of course, fried chicken. Classics are prepared with a southern twist, like the chicken patty melt made with collard pesto chicken. Even the mixed green salad gets a taste of the South with toppings of spiced peanuts and grit croutons.
For a real treat, order Luda’s chicken and pecan waffles with whiskey syrup, spinach, and andouille sausage. To satisfy your sweet tooth, try the bourbon peach shortcake or southern fried apple pie.
ONE FLEW SOUTH
Where: Terminal E
If time allows, visit the upscale dining experience at the critically acclaimed One Flew South, a finalist for a 2014 James Beard Award. The restaurant refers to its travel-inspired cuisine as “Southernational.” While it boasts an impressive selection of sushi, the flavors of the South can be found in dishes like the Dirty South, an open face meatloaf sandwich topped with pimento cheese, sautéed spinach, bacon, bbq sauce, and a fried egg. Other recommended dishes include pork belly sliders, and mussels and collard greens.
Insider Tip: Not familiar with pimento cheese? It’s the pâté of the South, made with grated cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, pimentos, and a variety of spices.