Sunday, August 15, 2010

Travel: Atlanta

I travel pretty regularly for work, and generally speaking, I enjoy it. I love having the opportunity to get lost in a brand-new city: exploring new places, creating new experiences, and leaving with a long list of favorites to revisit next time around. But when I found out I would be heading to Atlanta during the absolute hottest part of the year... well, let's just say I wasn't exactly rushing to pack my bags. Never having been to Atlanta, I didn't know a lot about the city, but you don't need to be a travel expert to know that visiting any place nicknamed "Hotlanta" in late July is not exactly going to be pleasant.

Luckily, I was wrong. Well, kind of wrong; the weather was, in fact, miserable. It was the sort of suffocating heat that steams up your sunglasses the minute you step outside and doesn't let you take a breath until you're well within the safety of air conditioning. But the city itself was full of pleasant surprises.

Pleasant surprise #1: The subway system (also known as MARTA) is incredibly easy to use. Though it consists of just four lines which intersect at one station, it's relatively quick to catch a train and the multiple-day passes are cheap, cheap, cheap. Even better, you can ride it to the airport.

99% of my traveling is done without the benefit of a rental car, so I am all about cities with easily accessible public transit. Upon arriving at the airport, I paid $13 for a four-day unlimited-use pass. I rode MARTA from the airport to my hotel, to work each day, around the city to explore, and back to the airport four days later. I certainly couldn't have done all that on $13 worth of gas.

Pleasant surprise #2: My amazing hotel. 

I know what you're thinking... don't I usually stay at a conference hotel close to where I'll be working? The answer is yes, usually. There were several hotels to choose from near the convention center, but they all seemed really overpriced.

Not knowing anything about Atlanta (or about the conference hotels), I got on TripAdvisor and started reading about the downtown area. The general concensus was that downtown Atlanta was a ghost town every night; devoid of locals, but filled with overpriced hotels and restaurants catering to tourists. I read one particularly helpful forum that pointed out the convention center's proximity to the subway. The convention center was either going to be a 20-minute walk from a downtown hotel, or a 20-minute subway ride from a more exciting part of town. By now, I think you know what I chose.

I decided to stay in Midtown, a bustling area with plenty of clubs, restaurants, museums, and shopping. Here was my truly inspired choice: The Artmore Hotel.

Less than half a block from the Arts Center subway stop, the Artmore is a former Best Western which has been completely remodeled and reimagined as a contemporary boutique hotel.

At the check-in desk, I was greeted with a textured wave wall, dark wood floors, stone gray walls, and sleek furniture (not to mention sweet, sweet air conditioning). All the TV sets were tuned to Turner Classic Movies. Out the window, I could see a central courtyard with chaise lounges, couches, high-top outdoor tables with barstools, and a beautiful waterfall/firepit in the center. 

The courtyard view from my window
The central water feature doubles as a firepit at night
Looking toward the hotel entrance: bar tables and more couches

My room was even better. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe on the walls. The courtyard view. TCM playing on a low volume on my TV. And this personalized note on my pillow.

Dear Megan,
We are pleased to welcome you to the Artmore Hotel!
We have prepared this room especially for your arrival.
If there is anything that would make your stay more
enjoyable, we are at your service. Just let us know!
Warmest regards,
Maria Martinez
Assist. Guest Experience Manager

Wow. In five years of work travel, I've never found a personalized note in my hotel room. Who does that?

Did I mention the Aveda bath products? The corner-mounted flat screen TV? The softest, thickest bath towels I have ever used? The huge wet bar?? 

The Artmore hosts DJ nights in the courtyard on weekends, and the hotel bar was hopping all the time. Name-drop alert: the Artmore blog claims Zooey Deschanel stayed there just a few weeks before me. I LOVE Zooey Deschanel, so I had a feeling I was going to love the Artmore.

(Here's where I turn  on the infomercial voice.) How much would you expect to pay for a room like this? $200? $300? Keep in mind, the conference hotel "specials" were almost all above $200 a night.

At the Artmore, I paid $101.  No kidding.  I don't think I will ever stay anywhere else in Atlanta. Next time I travel to Atlanta, you can bet I will be booking a room at the Artmore.

Pleasant Surprise #3: Decatur.

I don't get a lot of free time when I'm traveling for work (usually because I'm... well... working), but I happened to have a free afternoon on my second day in town. Before I left, I found this infinitely helpful page listing what kind of things you can find near each MARTA station. Because I was traveling exclusively on foot or by MARTA, this became my bible.

I was intrigued by the description of Decatur, a stop on the eastern end of the blue line:
"This may be the most interesting station in the system because it pops you into a nice old town square. In a very short walk you'll find at least 20 restaurants, a top-notch music venue (Eddie's Attic), Brickstore with a wonderful second floor Belgian beer tasting room, and many little shops."
OK, did anyone else start salivating at "Belgian beer tasting room?" I think we all know why I really went to Decatur. 

But seriously - Decatur was absolutely worth the 25-minute subway ride. It's situated as if someone put in the subway, then built a grassy town square over the top of the station (and for all I know, maybe that's actually how it happened.) Surrounding the square are restaurants from tapas to sushi, flanked by tons of independent boutiques and shops. I did see a Ruby Tuesday's and a Ted's Montana Grill, but that was only after walking several blocks away from the town square. Otherwise, every single business was a non-chain. In other words, I'd found a legitimately non-tourist-oriented neighborhood.

Heliotrope had your typical Fred Flare merchandise mixed with artsy items from vintage travel calendars to sock monkeys (conveniently, two of my obsessions). In Squash Blossom, I found lots of great clothing, accessories, and shoes, but more importantly, a bulldog who escaped from behind the counter, licked my leg, then stared lazily up at me. I wanted to kidnap him immediately. I am sure he would have been on board with it.

And, of course, I had a late lunch at the Brickstore Pub. Brickstore has a gorgeous brick interior with high ceilings, worn leather menus, comfortable booths, and of course, the upstairs Belgian beer tasting room. The menu lists at least fifteen beers on tap, and pages more available in bottles. Wow... just wow.

Enjoying a beer in the Brickstore Pub

Pleasant Surprise #4: The food.

Oysters at Ray's in the City, served on dry ice

OK, so this one isn't exactly a surprise. How can you go wrong in the land of fried green tomatoes, shrimp-and-grits, buttermilk fried chicken, and pimento cheese? (All of which I ate, by the way.)

My first night in town, I went a little overboard with the Southern cooking at South City Kitchen. Fried green tomatoes were served in a stack, spread thick with goat cheese then fried until crisp. The she-crab soup, usually one of my favorites, was a little lackluster, but all was forgiven when my buttermilk fried chicken arrived. Served over buttermilk-whipped potatoes and green beans, this chicken was crisp on the outside with juicy, succulent meat on the inside. I somehow managed to make it through the entire plate but had to be rolled home afterward.

That's my Houblon Chouffe in the foreground;
Belgian beer tasting room in the background
Having a late lunch in Decatur the next day was a no-brainer: I was going to the Brickstore Pub come hell or high water. Belgian beer is my absolute favorite, and Brickstore had a mind-boggling selection. I started with the Houblon Chouffe, billed as a mix between an IPA, a Dubbel, and a Tripel. Though I was highly tempted by the beer brat on the lunch menu, I decided to have two small plates as my lunch instead.

Pimento cheese is a staple in Atlanta - it was on nearly every restaurant menu I saw, though the specifics of its preparation varied widely. At Brickstore, diagonally-cut toasts were topped with a mix of cheddar cheese, a little garlic, and roasted red pepper coulis, all served on top of a little Sriracha. I make a version of these for parties, and this dish inspired me to kick up the heat the next time I bust out my own pimento cheese appetizers.

Pimento cheese at Brickstore Pub

The menu item I enjoyed most wasn't even that southern. For my second small plate, I ordered pierogies fried in brown butter with caramelized onion and crispy sage. Ooooh, I love brown butter and sage, and these pierogies did not let me down.

So much deliciousness packed into such a small plate

Just seeing that picture again makes me salivate. These were savory and a little sweet, topped with pecans and filled with creamy potato puree. My next mission in the kitchen will be attempting to replicate these wonderful little creations.

Before leaving Atlanta, I boasted to everyone I knew that I was going to be eating at the Woodfire Grill, where one of my favorite-ever Top Chef contestants, Kevin Gillespie, is executive chef. On the show, he was known for his slow-cooking techniques as well as amazing creations centered around pork. The week before we left, one of my co-workers made a reservation for four, mapped out the restaurant, and figured out exactly how we were going to get there. We were all SO excited.

When we all got to Atlanta, she dropped the bomb on us. Like the rest of us, she'd been going around for days talking about our Woodfire Grill reservation when a friend had said to her, "isn't that restauant really far from Atlanta?" Just to make sure, she'd double-checked the zip code, she told us, and found that her initial attempt to map the restaurant had been wrong. The restaurant we'd thought was twenty minutes from downtown was actually an hour and a half away. We had all been boasting for days about visiting this restaurant, and now it seemed we had no choice but to cancel our reservation. Words can't express how disappointed I was - it was the one thing I was really looking forward to doing in Atlanta.

The worst part? I am 99% sure she was wrong. Later, I checked the restaurant website and was aghast to read that the restaurant is in Buckhead, just a few subway stops away from where I stayed. Noooooooooo! Clearly, it was never an hour and a half away. We could have gotten there with a twenty-minute cab ride, and of course, could have kept our initial reservation. If only I had taken the time to double-check!

(Actually, it's probably just as well because I'm sure I would have shelled out lots of money only to end up in a pork belly-induced coma. I guess I'll leave that one for next time...!)

The Verdict: Though I was only in Atlanta four short days, I really did enjoy the city thanks to the great public transportation system and the fact that I ventured outside tourist-trap downtown. I would absolutely go back.

Just not in July.

The Rundown...
Where I stayed:
The Artmore Hotel

Late July/early August 2010

Where I ate & drank:
South City Kitchen
Studio Lounge @ the Artmore
Brickstore Pub
Ray's in the City

Where I didn't eat OR drink:
Woodfire Grill

Where I shopped:
Squash Blossom
Lenox Square Mall

How I got around:


  1. Fantastic travel article. Should it be sent on to a travel magazine? Well, maybe not Budget Travel. Or, maybe with that hotel deal...

  2. I'll be honest, this does not look like the Atlanta I saw when I passed through on a Greyhound bus. I actually want to go to this Atlanta; probably because I only saw the dirty center of downtown and none of the cool outlying areas!

  3. Megan, I love your articles. Ever consider going for the Next Food Network Star? I think you are a shoe in!!! I used to buzz through Atlanta when I lived in Florida and drove back to Iowa for visits. I must have missed this part of town! Sounds heavenly.