ON A RECENT FRIDAY afternoon, I had just sat down for a routine visit to my regular nail salon when I overheard the woman next to me enthusiastically plotting her evening plans into her cell phone.
“Let’s meet at The Optimist,” she said. “I’ve been really wanting to get back down there.”
Me too, I thought, a tad wistfully. Tucked off Howell Mill Road in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood — also known as the Westside — local favorite restaurateur Ford Fry’s chic oyster bar/fish camp-esque eatery opened in 2012, but continues to rank high on praise from national media as well as from suburban dwellers who are not only nonplussed by extra mileage for a special meal; they crave it.
Many nights, we are more than content to stay in our neck of the woods or cozy up at home. Then there are evening plans that inspire a fresh manicure, or days that call for browsing one-of-a-kind boutiques, where the experience of shopping is as exquisite as the merchandise.
But, let’s be real —if those are the qualifiers, Atlanta is replete with options of similar caliber, right? Why the Westside?
OPENING NEW DOORS
It’s a question we posed to the owners of Little Barn Apothecary + Co., who opened its flagship concept shop inside Westside Provisions District (WSPD) —West Midtown’s centerpiece of an eclectic and bustling community — last month. Little Barn Apothecary co-founders Brad Scoggins and Joshua Morgan debuted their Atlanta-based luxurious line of self-care goods in January 2015 and built a strong following for their pure, plant-based items online as well as at more than 200 spas, hotels and shops around the world.
They seemingly could go brick-and-mortar anywhere, but they see WSPD as a pioneering shopping and dining destination that they love to visit in their spare time. “It’s a dream come true to be part of it, and to be among such great brands in the neighborhood,” the duo wrote via email. I imagine for their neighbors, ranging from Anne Quatrano’s Bacchanalia and Star Provisions, mainstays of Atlanta accolade-amassing dining scene dating back to 1999, to fashionable names like Sid and Ann Mashburn, and oh, so many more, the feeling may be mutual.
Scoggins and Morgan spent months researching top products from around the globe to create a retail experience unparalleled elsewhere in the city. The exploration bar is a relaxing and nurturing space that gives customers the chance to try nurturing remedies firsthand, and in addition to their collection from Little Barn Apothecary, many brands offered in the shop are available in Georgia for the first time.
Half a mile down Howell Mill, past The Optimist, bibliophiles will find their curated haven in the artfully arranged shelves at Cover. Warning: this is not a place to enter if you’re short on time, unless you secretly want to be late. What makes Cover different isn’t just its meticulous, museum- like design; the store only carries works of nonfiction, especially in the categories of food, wine, art and design.
“The store is surrounded by the types of people and culture that inspire the books we carry,” said owner Katie Barringer. “There’s a real cohesion between what is inside the space and outside the doors.”
BRICK BY BRICK
West Midtown didn’t become this hip cultural center overnight. Branded reminders throughout WSPD date back the collective to 2008, however its story starts much earlier. Once home to Atlanta’s first modern meatpacking facility, the area had fallen on hard times by the late ’90s. Due to a partnership between two adjacent developments, Westside Urban Market and White Provision, the latter in part by Jamestown, at the heart of WSPD, you’ll find a footbridge above still-active train tracks linking the north and south ends.
“WSPD was conceived as Atlanta’s ‘design main street’ and that concept has stayed with the district,” said Michael Phillips, president of Jamestown, who is nationally recognized for his ability to build distinctive urban communities and credited as a driving force behind several adaptive reuse developments, including New York’s Chelsea Market and Industry City, Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, Calif. and Ponce City Market. Regardless of which way you turn, you’re headed toward “Really Good Stuff,” according to signs also marked with the outline of a pig, nodding back to the area’s roots — as do the brickwork backdrops and industrial aesthetic. I noticed a common appreciation for the old and timeless, whether in the vintage trinkets at Brick+Mortar, a leather jacket at Billy Reid or the sound of train rambling by, reminiscent of early Atlanta’s rise as a railroad hub. Despite its affinity for nostalgia, there’s definitely still a sense of movement to what’s next.
One can’t miss the construction fences heralding the coming of a new Design Within Reach (DWR) location, just as devout foodies wouldn’t miss headlines that Quatrano’s Little Bach has closed and Bacchanalia is moving, although not away from the Westside altogether.
“We are excited to complete the new DWR space, which will add a great collection of home goods to WSPD and create ease of access with improved parking,” Phillips said. “[Quatrano] will continue to have a presence with her Star Provisions outpost while we implement our longstanding plan to create a more open and engaging courtyard for our community.”
He also said that as the Westside continues to evolve from its origin with improved infrastructure, new developments and institutions like The Masquerade concert venue moving to the neighborhood, WSPD is at the heart of these changes.
Or, we could also say, it’s at their stomach. Considering Phillips also serves as the lowercase vice-chairman for the James Beard Foundation, it is no surprise this vibrant community center has attracted some of our city’s most beloved chefs and people that enjoy their meals.
“WSPD is home to some of the best food Atlanta has to offer,” Phillips said. “People want experiences when they shop today, so our goal is always to create an environment that allows people to engage and interact with the retailers and their products, with food as the common factor that brings people together.”
With an overwhelming number of options, and signs pointing you to goodness in all directions, where should empty bellies go first? An appropriate start is the place that speared Fry’s famous forage into Atlanta’s dining scene: JCT Kitchen.
Executive Chef Brian Horn was Fry’s first culinary employee, and looked around with a smile when he commented on how much he’s seen the area change in less than a decade. One thing that hasn’t is his simple approach to cooking in a part of the country where seasonal vegetables are practically religion. The popular JCT Fried Chicken plate served with collard greens, to-die-for buttermilk biscuits and homemade hot sauce is as much a crowd-pleaser for out-of-town guests as local aficionados. The kitchen turns out an impressive number nightly, both in the main dining room as well as from the upstairs bar menu.
So, why would the chicken cross Howell Mill Road? Our best guess would be to dine at Cooks & Soldiers. Northside residents have long known the comforts from a Castellucci Hospitality Group kitchen —the esteemed family of restaurateurs trace back to the now-closed Roasted Garlic restaurants and the casually elegant Sugo in Johns Creek.
While the skyline, wine lists and faces may change, the level of excellence guests can expect holds true at their Basque-inspired venture. Owner Fred Castellucci points to some of Atlanta’s affluent neighborhoods like Midtown and Buckhead, Downtown tourism and conventions, and Georgia Tech’s campus as reasons why the Westside was the only area he considered for the restaurant.
Perhaps the adjacent college campuses, as well as The Goat Farm and Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center, are to thank for its tangible pulse of energy. There’s also the considerable number of coffee shops-per-square mile like Brash, Octane, Revelator to consider. Choosing which is responsible, however, seems as complex as the classic chicken-before-the-egg argument.
Oh, and that reminds us to add West Egg Café to the ever-growing list of worthy restaurants. Whether you come to experience their brunch or Oddbird hot chicken pop-up, held the second Wednesday of each month, is a win-win dilemma.
Though shop doors might start to close as the sun lowers in the West, that pulsing energy cranks up a notch around the bars —many that serve late-night menus —including Ormsby’s, a tavern tucked below Room & Board offering a wide range of traditional games and not-so-traditional tavern fare; Little Trouble, known for cocktails, a neo-noir atmosphere and Asian street foods; Marcel, yet another helmed by Fry and Horn; and more. In fact, one could stay up all night and still have more tables to try.
For those that simply want to soak up the sunset, take a seat on O-Ku’s spacious rooftop. Inspired by its sister restaurant in Charleston, O-Ku Atlanta provides a fresh and innovative take on Japanese sushi and cuisine. From the perch’s unique vantage point, I saw a different perspective of the Atlanta skyline: the Westside view.
What a fabulous way to spend a Friday night.
WHERE TO PARK?
SURFACE PARKING is available throughout WSPD. They offer free parking in the deck, located underneath the White Provision Residences at 1100 Howell Mill Road/ Gratuity-based valet service is also available in the side lot by JCT Kitchen, in the lot behind 1170 Howell Mill Road and in front of O-Ku.
WHAT TO DO?
PAELLA ON THE PORCH is a new Friday tradition at Cooks & Soldiers, where guests can enjoy $9 plates of paella on the patio. The restaurant also has several exciting events coming up this October. The first week of October, Cooks & Soldiers will host two special events in celebration of CHG Restaurant Week including a J.C. Vizcarra wine tasting Oct. 5 and pig roast Oct. 7. The restaurant will also host James Beard Award-nominated chef Katie Button from Asheville, N.C. onOct. 27, for a guest chef dinner honoring the release of her cookbook,“Curate.” cooksandsoldiers.com
FOR A DIFFERENT KIND of foodie haven, sign up for a cooking class at Preserving Place, located inside the WSPD. This unique “farm-to-store” retail concept focusing on food preservation has a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen used to make small-batch, handmade jams, pickles and condiments, as well as a culinary school, teaching students how to cook and put up their own food at home. preservingplace.com
PERHAPS ONE OF THE BEST ways to experience the full buzz of Westside’s chefs and local food fans is during the WSPD Farmers Market. Filling the lane behind YEAH! Burger each Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Dec. 18, expect live cooking demonstrations on ways to use seasonal produce, fun activities for kids, live music and community wellness programs –while supporting the local economy. cfmatl.org/westside
[A version of this article originally appeared in Points North Atlanta Magazine | photography courtesy of WESTSIDE PROVISIONS DISTRICT; CHRIS BURDEN; BOBBY RUSSELL; ANDREW THOMAS LEE; MARY CAROLINE RUSSELL; HEIDI GELDHAUSER]