Last month, The Boy had a seminar with the Duke TIPS program at the University of Georgia in Athens. As a Georgia alumnus, I will use almost any excuse to go back to my very first home away from home. So the brainiac and I left as soon as he got off the bus and drove through parts of Georgia I didn’t know existed (does Waze do that to y’all too?). I was SURE that we could stop for a snack between Dublin and Athens but guess what? That’s a no. Well, except for the dirty gas station with the “special” pipes by the cash register and the odd vending machine in the bathroom that unfortunately The Boy got a good look at (Prongs? Really?). I was NOT going to buy ANY food from that place. So by the time we got to Athens about 8:30 p.m., The Boy was STARVED having not eaten since school lunch at 11:30 a.m. I drove up and down Atlanta Highway only to find that, shocker, the road had changed VERY greatly in the 20+ years since I graduated. Every time I saw something familiar, I couldn’t figure out how to get across the highway to get to it and I finally just begged Siri to find the closest Mexican restaurant. When we finally got there, of course there was an entire little league team standing outside waiting to be seated. But lo’ and behold, right next door was an old college favorite – DePalma’s Italian Cafe. And there wasn’t a wait – usually not a good sign.
I said a prayer that it would be as good as I remembered but did not have high hopes. I remembered that my favorite back in the day was Rigatoni Florentine. I knew I wouldn’t like a creamy cheese filled boat of pasta now so I played it simple and got wine. Lots of wine. And an order of Fettuccine Bolognese. The Boy insisted he was going to DIE unless he ordered an ENTIRE small cheese pizza. Against my better judgement, I allowed it (knowing we had a fridge back at the hotel and could snack on it later). Well the wine was pretty darn good as was his pizza. The Bolognese was better than I expected. The pasta was just al dente and well seasoned. The sauce wasn’t as rich as I would have liked but was simple and tasty. Not as good as I remembered 20 years ago but I had much simpler tastes and a much smaller budget back then. DePalma’s was pretty much a special occasion place to me in the early 90s. For the price and what we got, it wasn’t bad and, if we were back in Athens again, I might give it another go.
The next morning we breakfasted on crappy grocery store doughnuts before I took The Boy to his Video Game Programming class (he was SO among his people there). I took some time to wander The Georgia Museum of Art. Honestly, if you are ever in Athens, it is absolutely worth a visit. This was my second time there and I am always blown away by the art they have not only in their visiting galleries but in the permanent collection. It is free and open to the public and a wonderful way to kill a couple of hours. And because I was there so early on a Saturday morning, I practically had the place to myself. However, I obviously looked a little sketchy because I was tailed by a security guard the whole time. I’m clearly a security risk.
I actually went to high school not far from Athens and wanted to reconnect with a high school friend that I literally had not seen since June 5, 1988. She lives not too far away and also is a UGA alum so we met up for lunch at one of my old haunts, The Grit. Sadly, I am that person that tends to get the same damn thing every time I go to a favorite restaurant and, since the 90s, I’ve ALWAYS ordered the Cheese Smelt. Seriously, I’m the most boring ever. But that melted cheese, honey mustard and spinach on their delicious homemade bread is not to be scoffed at. Of course, Fern and I both noticed a Taqueria del Sol (an old Atlanta favorite of mine) across the street and almost bailed. But it was great to chat with an old friend and reconnect both with her and with the food of my youth.
Any time I’m in a new town, I try to find an Asian grocery as my area is sorely lacking in such things. I was able to find one on Videsh.com but is was boarded up! So I just asked Siri and she came through for once. I drove out to east Athens and found a small market that had a wide variety of Asian products. I was like a kid in a candy store! I bought spices, condiments, and dumpling wrappers to get me through until the next time I’m in a town with a decent sized Asian population. I also bought mango pickles that I haven’t yet been brave enough to try. But we LOVE the banana ketchup.
After picking up The Boy from Nerd Camp (as he and I both refer to it), it was back to the hotel to rest a bit before one of my bucket list restaurants. I’m always watchful of up and coming Southern chefs. Well, Hugh Acheson, although not originally from the South, is one I’ve watch for a while. And he’s not so much up and coming anymore. He’s pretty much established himself as one of the great Southern chefs of my generation. So his restaurant in Athens, Five and Ten, has been on my list for a while. I made reservations months ago and explained I’d be bringing a kid, albeit not a picky one. Although I’m not one to shy from bringing a kid to a restaurant, I’m also respectful if a restaurant has a no kids policy. But they welcomed my “adventurous eater” and me with open arms.
The Boy was a little overwhelmed by the menu and suggested I order for both of us. Chef J and I tend to share a bunch of small plates when we try a new place so we can taste as many things as possible. So that’s what I did for The Boy and I. We started with Pimiento Cheese with Bacon Marmalade and house made crackers. Yum. Very rich and the portion was large enough that I realized too late that I had ordered too much food. Next up was the Oysters Bienville. I’m not usually an oyster fan but these were just lovely. We also had the charcuterie platter which featured lovely house made pates, sausages and pickles. As one who despises okra, I of course had to taste it. And fell in love. Best pickle ever. The pork rillette was utterly decadent. Almost like the best pulled pork you’ve ever had but in pate form and way richer and more flavorful. Basically a little jar of delicious fat to spread on toast. . . droooool. The coolest thing we got though was the Coddled Egg with Grated Cured Egg Yolk. The server explained to me that they cure an egg yolk in salt until it is completely dried and then grate it as a garnish over the plate which included a lovely salad with bacon lardons and a coddled egg. That was my “safe” dish for The Boy in case the other things were a little too “out there” for him. Unfortunately, I think I stretched his palate a bit past his comfort level. He was polite and realized what a special dinner and special place this was, but next time, I’ll take Chef J as he’d appreciate it more!
The next morning, again after a crappy breakfast in our room, we drove downtown and The Boy and I walked through North Campus to the student center and Sanford Stadium. He was a little bit awestruck by the ginormous stadium. But he was pretty peeved when he realized we had walked down hill all the way from town. So it was an uphill struggle (in every sense of the word) to get a surly and hangry preteen boy to walk back to the car with little griping. But I promised him a bit more nostalgia in food form before we left.
So we popped into The Grill for some fries with feta dressing. I don’t know what most of you lived on in college, but if you were on a budget like me, you probably had things like fries for dinner or lunch. My roommate’s sister and brother-in-law owned The Grill back in the day (and it was cool to see photos of them around the place) and we ate there a LOT. And the thing I always got was the fries with feta dressing. The Boy gobbled them up!
It was wonderful to connect with familiar places and find some new ones in my very first home away from home. I can’t wait to make another trip to Athens, this time hopefully with the whole family. Maybe we’ll catch some Bulldog football to give The Boy the true SEC college experience. But whatever we do, at least I know we’ll eat well and continue to fall in love with one of the greatest college towns in the South.