Off The Beaten Path Athens
Discover the art of getting lost in Athens.
There are a few ways to get to Athens, Georgia from where we are nestled in the Upstate of South Carolina. All the routes, at some point, involve I-85—but inevitably you will branch off from the busy interstate and begin heading to Georgia’s six-largest city by way of “scenic” highways. It matter less how you get to Athens (we’re more interested in what to do once you’ve arrived), but the experience of a place is anchored to the way in which it is arrived. My wife and I come in on U.S. Route 441.
We leave the interstate and begin heading down a long stretch of road at highway speed, admiring the open landscape of northern Georgia. We look at large homes built in Greco style, farms with cattle freckling the rolling pastureland, an abundance of trees. Before we know it, we’re entering the fringes of Athens. There are industrial parks on the right side of the highway, looming like rusty, steel storms. On the opposite side is the J&J Flea Market that markets itself as “The Largest Flea Market in Georgia.” There are barbeque joints with that deeply southern, gritty veneer that all but confirms the quality of the smoked meat inside. And then, we suddenly find ourselves in a district of apartments marketed to college students. This is how we know we are close.
The whole ride in is captivating. As we cross over a creek and under a train trestle, we are alert and anticipatory for the experience of this new place. We’ve never been.
Athens is a college town. The University of Georgia is in its 232nd year and is deeply entrenched in the city it calls home. And any student will tell you the best place to grab a quick coffee and (sweet) snack is Zombie Coffee and Donuts on E. Broad Street. This is where we stop and form a game plan for the day’s excursion. Because, and this is important, while Athens is technically the kind of town you can experience on foot, I strongly recommend you plan on having a set of wheels.
We decide on brunch at Heirloom Café and Fresh Market on N. Chase Street. Heirloom is pivoted on a corner in the Boulevard Neighborhood, a historic district made of homes straight out of the antebellum south. Cars are parked beneath large oaks lining the streets for miles. People are on their porches, people are out walking, people are in their yards. We instantly get the feeling that we belong.
Even more so when we’re seated in a corner of Heirloom’s dining room at a table with a charming, southern tablecloth. The place is intentional about its hominess. It wants you to know that you’re not out of your element, that you haven’t stumbled into some supercilious, avant-garde dining experience. That you’re right where you belong. To this end, as soon as drink orders are taken (I ordered the Jailbreak1), two quaint, Heath bar scones are delivered to the table. Right away it becomes clear we have made the right decision.
It was suggested to me, and I will make the same suggestion to you, to try the “Love on a Biscuit.” This homemade, buttermilk biscuit is served with roast beef and two poached eggs, drenched in maitake gravy, and feathered with sliced radishes and arugula. Heirloom prides itself on reinventing down-home, southern recipes. And their “Love on a Biscuit” is a savory example of that endeavor.
After brunch (all that love on the biscuit left no room for dessert), the neighborhood calls to us. My wife and I share an enthusiasm for southern architecture and so, naturally, before heading back to the car we get lost in the Boulevard Neighborhood. The houses are all different, varying in shapes and sizes and architectural signature and surrounding horticulture and residential flare. It’s the kind of neighborhood that shaped my childhood cinematic experience (think Hocus Pocus, Jumanji, Home Alone). It’s enough just to get lost.
We leave the neighborhood and make our way to Creature Comfort Brewery on W. Hancock Avenue. In the growing industry of microbreweries, CCB checks all the boxes. There are tours on the hour every hour; in the lull of tours being administered we sit and drink one of their craft beers.
After CCB, with our bellies full of beer, we make our way to the Georgia Museum of Art. The Mickalene Thomas exhibit alone is worth the drive to Athens, but I can’t promise it will still be there when you find the time to make the trip. But don’t worry, the GMA’s permanent collection is enthralling with many of its Impressionist/Post-Impressionist2 works standing out as some of my favorite pieces in the galleries.
Before heading to dinner, we decide to make a last stop at The State Botanical Garden of Georgia. We’ve missed peak botanical garden weather, but there’s still something about the place.3 Around the gardens are opportunities for hiking nature trails. We don’t take them but strongly encourage you to. Instead, we pack back up in the car and head back to W. Hancock Avenue, where we end our trip with The National.
The National is an elegant restaurant reminiscent of European cafes with a strip of seating outdoors by the sidewalk under the shade of two sycamore trees. Inside there are two main rooms: one is a small dining area, the other a barroom. The walls are clean white with wood accents; the aviation theme is developed subtly through canvases painted blue which are hung around the rooms. There are paintings or linoleum cutouts, all in different hues of blue and depicting an aviatic vehicle or pilot accessories or a deconstructed plane, hanging in frames. Everything is intentional, everything in its place. We order the Hummus with Lamb.
We have to pace ourselves. The spiced ground lamb is sweet. It, with the hummus, coats the roof of my mouth. The pita is toasted perfectly; we each trade bite after bite. Each time I get something new: the piquillo peppers and mint, the pomegranate molasses. Our bodies are still in Athens, but our bodies don’t matter anymore. We’ve left the US completely; the aviatic details working on our subconscious. We have flown far away from W. Hancock Avenue. We are in the Mediterranean. With each bite we solidify more and more the experience, until it becomes our reality. I’m sitting on the streets of Spain sharing tapas with my wife.
And then we order dinner.
Dani gets the Roasted Chicken Breast, which is served on a butternut squash-chickpea pancake with bok choy, red onion with lime, radishes, cilantro, green sauce, and chili oil. The first bite overwhelms. The chicken is cooked perfectly, elevated by the cilantro and lime.
I order the Monkfish, served on a bed of black rice with chanterelle mushrooms and romesco sauce.4 A quick Google search of monkfish results in some rather unpleasant information and an image of what the imagination might call a sea monster. Monkfish, members of the genus Lophius, are also sometimes called frog-fish or sea-devils. They’re black and have skin that looks like oil. They have flat heads with a mouth like a gash. Their teeth are small and sharp and when the mouth is open you can see its pale, pink tongue. It’s what you would imagine to be the offspring of an eel and a shark. But sitting beneath the sycamores, my consciousness some thousands of miles away, I take a bite, and then another, and then another. And then another.
Going home is hard. It’s even harder when you’re lost. As we settle up at the National we don’t speak. We don’t share any words on the way to the car. We sit in silence as we cruise down 441, away from Athens, away from the day. Eventually, Dani breaks the silence.
“That was great,” she says. And she’s right.
1 The Jailbreak is an iced coffee with Irish whiskey and the option of half & half (which I highly recommend—just look at the pictures!), and it comes highly recommended.
2 A lot of these paintings are by UGA alum and showcase a lot of craftsmanship with respects to brushwork in Impressionism and form play in the Cubist/Modernism paintings.
3 With the plants not being in bloom—let’s just face it, they were pretty much dead—I am afforded the opportunity to see the groundwork and design of the gardens, vast and intricate gridlines and terraces of plant systems, rhododendrons and willowleaf jessamine and peonies. Standing in the midst of all of it, in its shades of brown and gray, I imagine it in an explosion of colors, full bloom.
4 I asked for the romesco ingredients. They are as follows: roasted red peppers, garlic oil, slow roasted tomatoes, almonds, salt and pepper. Believe me, it’s unbelievable.