Hotlanta

Atlanta is definitely having a moment. It’s crazy how hot it is right now, and I don’t mean hot as in Fahrenheit, as you might expect. I mean HOT, like this city is on fire!

I just spent the weekend in Atlanta visiting my two best friends, Kathy and Susan. We’ve been best friends since Eighth grade, and for the past 25+ years we’ve been getting together annually for a girls’ “weekend” (which has somehow morphed into something that more closely resembles a week). This year, to celebrate mutual milestone birthdays, we decided to spend a couple of days in Atlanta followed by four days in Mexico.

My early a.m. flight from O’Hare started out with a highly unexpected queue at security. So much for flying through the TSA Pre-Check line  apparently, everyone and their elderly mother now has TSA Pre-Check. There must have been 800 people in the line, and that’s no exaggeration. Mind blown  And I wasn’t alone. Everyone who joined the line after me had the same look of confusion and disbelief. Eventually, airport security opened a second Pre-Check line, and things started to move along. Once through security, I was greeted with this wonderful homage to our World Series hopefuls and Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

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Susan and Kathy laid out a full agenda for our 2-day “staycation” in Atlanta. (It took a planning “meeting” with plenty of liquid inspiration to develop the itinerary, but they totally nailed it!) The schedule included some of their favorite places, as well as some out-of-the-ordinary activities that they wouldn’t typically do in their own hometown. We all know how easy it is to get bogged down in the day-to-day and forget to take advantage of opportunities that are right in our own back yards, like strolling in the botanical gardens or biking in the park…but more on that in a bit.

The three of us grew up in Atlanta back when it was just a sleepy southern town known for its stately Georgian mansions, gracious magnolia trees and colorful dogwood displays…and, of course, Peachtree Street, the infamous north-south thoroughfare that connects the city to the verdant suburbs. Downtown Atlanta was strictly a 9-5 weekday destination for the suit-and-tie crowd. After 5:00 pm and on weekends, the downtown area was a ghost town, as businessmen (and I do mean men) would battle the outbound traffic to get home to the safety of their leafy enclaves.

As the largest city in the southeast region, Atlanta was certainly more cosmopolitan and business savvy than its neighbors like Greenville, Raleigh, Nashville, Memphis and so on —  but it was still steeped in antebellum tradition and as slow to develop as a lilting Southern drawl.

I relocated to Chicago in 1988, which was right around the time that Atlanta’s development boom started to take hold. The change over the next decade was unmistakable. New and diversified business opportunities brought an influx of new wealth and new residents. The city boundaries started to creep ever-outward. Every time I would come back to visit Kathy and Susan, I was astounded by the change. Old homes and familiar buildings were being torn down one by one to make way for McMansions and strip malls. Peachtree Street was widened to accommodate the increasing traffic. Downtown got a new sibling called Midtown. And then, in 1996, the Olympics happened, officially putting Atlanta on the map as a recognized travel destination. The subsequent evolution towards what has become today’s Atlanta has been as unstoppable as General Sherman’s troops marching ever onward.

Day one of our girls’ “weekend” Atlanta itinerary started with lunch at Le Bilboquet, located in the new Buckhead development, a ridiculously posh outdoor shopping, dining and living community that caters to the uber-wealthy elite of which Atlanta has no apparent shortage. The stick-thin hostess, with her dramatically blunt bangs and affected French accent, seated us at one of the outdoor tables, as Hermes and Tod’s taunted us from across the street. While we debated which rose we would be ordering, I couldn’t help but notice our neighboring patrons with their designer clothes, high heels and pocketbook dogs. Looking down at my simple knit dress and black flats, I felt a sense of inadequacy wash over me like cheap perfume. All of a sudden, as if on cue, a red Ferrari pulled up to the valet stand to put a punctuation mark on the moment. Is this the same Atlanta I grew up in? And where is that cigar smoke coming from?

Our lunch was a delightful blend of good food and great company (in 35 years, we’ve never run out of things to talk about). I thoroughly enjoyed the French onion soup (made with apple cider for a delicate sweetness) followed by a beautiful Salade Nicoise with expertly seared tuna. The girls ordered the Cajun chicken which appears to be the restaurant’s signature dish and for good reason. The boneless chicken breast was incredibly tender and juicy (likely benefitting from a sous vide preparation) and nestled in a rich and elegant buttery sauce, as only the French can do.

With full bellies and a little rose running through our veins, we were ready to move on. As we got up to leave, I discovered the source of the offending smoke – ironically a middle-aged woman with a pocket dog and a strange penchant for smoking cigars at lunch. Don’t they have laws against smoking in restaurants these days? I guess not in the new Hotlanta.

I was thankful that the afternoon portion of our itinerary was designated as “rest and relaxation” time, as I had risen at 5:00 am to make my flight and was itching for a little shut-eye before the evening events.

Still full from lunch, we readied for our 7:00 pm dinner reservation at Tom Tom in the fun and funky Virginia Highlands neighborhood. As our Uber driver cut through Piedmont Park, I was impressed by the amount of activity all around — bikers, joggers, dog walkers, food trucks, softball games, and even a high school football game under Friday night lights. This definitely isn’t the dark and solitary (and a little scary) Piedmont Park that I used to know!

Virginia Highlands has been around for as long as I can remember but continues to assimilate to the times. In the 60s and 70s,  it was full of head shops and hippie stores selling tie-dye and incense, like a mini Haight-Ashbury.  In the 80s, it became party central with five bars up and down every block. Today, most of the bars have been replaced with chef-driven destination restaurants and the bars that remain have become trendy cocktail lounges and pubs. Atlanta is well on its way to becoming a veritable foodie town!

Despite suffering from an accute lack of hunger, I somehow found a way to polish off every morsel of Tom Tom’s delicious lamb sliders. Then, we were off again. Jumping into another Uber (which are plentiful in VH), we set off for the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. While that may seem like an odd nighttime destination, we were on our way to see Chihuly at Night, and I could hardly wait! Dale Chihuly is my favorite living artist. I’ve been following his work for three decades and have seen a number of his garden installations, from London’s Kew Gardens to his permanent collection in Seattle and even a previous show at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens many years ago…but never at night. As expected, the massive glass sculptures are even more beautiful when illuminated. The sparkling icy blue works were particularly awe-inspiring.

And to add to the wow factor, the Botanical Gardens benefit from a particularly advantageous location with the Midtown Atlanta skyline in the distance, a perfect backdrop for Chihuly’s outstanding works. It was definitely a night to remember. But it was time to head home and rest up for tomorrow’s activities.

Day two: We’re cooking dinner at Kathy’s house tonight, so before we tackle our first activity, Susan and I run to the grocery to procure the ingredients we need and get the meat marinating for the kabobs we will make later in the day. That accomplished, we pick up Kathy and head back to Piedmont Park. It’s Saturday, and the park is again teeming with people and alive with activity. I comment that it reminds me of New York’s Central Park but on a slightly smaller scale. We hop on bikes and start our trek towards the Beltline.

The Beltline is an urban walking and biking path similar to New York’s Highline and Chicago’s 606 Trail. It snakes through an area that was, until recently, occupied by abandoned buildings and derelict warehouses. With the recent revitalization, however, those same defunct properties are now filled with trendy bars and restaurants, quirky businesses, art galleries, yoga studios, and fashionable industrial-modern condos. We rode the Beltline all the way to the end, passing under bridges bedecked with street art and past bizarre and intriguing sculptures/art installations. We had eyed several interesting restaurants along the trail, and toyed with the idea of parking ourselves at a bar to watch the Georgia-Vanderbilt game (a long-standing inner-friendship rivalry), but ultimately decided on Ponce City Market as our chosen lunch destination. And what an incredible destination it is! Located in the old Sears-Roebuck warehouse, Ponce City Market is a massive, sprawling destination for eating, drinking and shopping…and a food-lover’s utopia. My eyes popped when I saw the tantalizing array of restaurants and world-spanning cuisines, from Moroccan to Vietnamese and even, much to my surprise, South African biltong! And not a single Dunkin Donuts, Subway or McDonald’s to be found. What a glorious sight!

We selected a cute Italian spot and hunkered into a bottle of rose (Italian this time) and some delicious paninis — one of which featured a locally made Italian sausage that was truly outstanding –while attempting to stream the GA-Vandy game on Susan’s phone. (I wouldn’t be so cruel as to rub in the glorious outcome of that game in such a public forum.)

I could’ve spent all day at Ponce City Market, but once again, it was time to move on. We had a tight schedule to keep, and if we were going to make our pedicure appointments, we had to hop back on our bikes and roll. I told the girls that next time I visit, I want to do the same outing all over again, but spend even more time exploring the depths of Ponce City Market.

After a quick shower, we headed over to Kathy’s house armed with all the ingredients we needed for our dinner of yogurt-marinated kabobs (recipe post to follow), orzo salad and grilled asparagus. Susan, a wonderful cook in her own right, served as my faithful sous chef, while Kathy played the important role of sous-sous chef, basically following behind us and keeping the decks clean.

img_2222Kathy’s husband, Bill, expertly manned the Big Green Egg and turned out some pretty darn tasty kabobs! Special thanks to Colleen and Stuart for the yummy tiramisu and the great company. A fun night was had by all!

But with an early flight in the morning, it was time to return to Susan’s to catch the end of game one of the Cubs-Dodgers series and hit the hay. Our staycation has ended, but the fun has just begun. Mexico here we come!!

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