A new way to eat in Atlanta.
The idea of springtime in Paris is so culturally pervasive that not only are there films and songs that get their title from the season, but airfare prices jump at the first sight of a bud opening up. Much can be said of the effect the natural world has on our health, so much so that urban planners have taken note and integrated extensive paths and parks into cities. Atlanta is one of them. While most of the buzz surrounding the development of green spaces targets the obvious— better health and longevity—less is touted about the effect they have on the way we eat. Considering most of us eat three times a day, and others more frequently, it’s something to consider. With the completion of the city’s BeltLine Eastside Trail, a 2.25-mile stretch of brightly landscaped, paved pathway, we have a new reason to get out and move— so we can eat.
Atlanta’s BeltLine is an ambitious project that aims to connect more than 21 neighborhoods via 22.5 miles of trails. There are numerous access points throughout the BeltLine, usually conveniently located near or on one of the city’s major thoroughfares, or in popular areas. The Eastside Trail was the first in the series of sections set to open in the course of the BeltLine’s development. It also happens to be in my backyard.
In the short span from Irwin Street to Monroe Street and Piedmont Park there are no less than 20 restaurants, not to mention specialty food markets (for both humans and pets), and more slated to open through the year including Krog Street Market and the much anticipated Ponce City Market in 2014. From white-tablecloth to take-away, and Mexican to Mediterranean, no palate is left unsatisfied. There are bars, too, that eliminate the need to hire a cab, and grocery stores a brisk walk away when the milk gets low. But what does this mean for how we eat? For starters, the slow pace from home to trough gives us time to really think about what we eat. We’re often told to slow down when we eat, to let things digest, but what about slowing down how we get there? By doing so, the arrival to the restaurant becomes as much a part of the experience as actually being there.
Consider a brunch I organized last fall. We met at my house, and as a group, we walked a few blocks where we settled at a long table to eat. The meal wasn’t half as satisfying as the conversation made en route to the restaurant. The ability to leave your house and walk to myriad places, especially ones where meals are shared or begun, is the way of cities. It’s a fact Atlanta has not experienced because of our dependency on wheels rather than mass transit or, simply, our legs. When I lived in London, grocery shopping was done two to three times a week not because I liked shopping, but because my hands were incapable of carrying more than a few days’ worth of groceries. Regular trips meant I knew the guy at checkout and several clerks, not to mention there were countless calories burned. Walking also encourages exploration. Until I began trekking the Eastside Trail, I was familiar with only a handful of restaurants in my neighborhood, namely the ones my car stopped in front of at a light. After a few weeks of traversing the trail, I discovered places I wanted to visit, restaurants whose only flaw was that they didn’t pay the steep fee required for Main Street exposure or PR. And that’s too bad for a city teeming with untold kitchen talent.
Restaurants trend the way anything does in an age of social media. Living in small-town Mississippi, it did no good to tweet the virtues of the James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence’s restaurant City Grocery—because it was in everyone’s backyard. We were in the know, too, about the town because we were there, bellying up to the copper counter of the bar upstairs, talking to Chip, the barkeep who made everything better. I suspect patrons of Parish Foods & Goods in Inman Park, or the soon-to-open Bantam Pub, a hop off the BeltLine in Old Fourth Ward, feel the same way.
Then there’s the literal digging into a community that is the result of making food easily accessible. In addition to the groundbreaking of Urban Farm, a community garden off the Westside Trail in Adair Park, there’s another in the Ashview Heights neighborhood, which is directly on the BeltLine. Even though the community I live in doesn’t have a garden (yet), we began composting and will be donating what we collect to Truly Living Well. The point is, a new way of eating is happening.
Still, what gets lost in most conversations about food is the connection beyond the dinner table. As much as the BeltLine will stimulate our appetites and the economy, it will also spark the kinds of connections that make cities the great urban landscapes in which we dwell.
Mary Warner lives in Atlanta. You can follow her blog at coucouhome.com.