The Atlanta food scene is vibrant and diverse. Any and every cuisine is available here. But the multitudinous ways Southern chefs have chosen to tweak, expand, reinvent or lovingly turn traditional dishes utterly inside-out, is one of the most interesting aspects of dining here. Moreover, Atlanta's farm-to-table ethic is not just a chic food phrase, but an authentic way of life. Expect plates that highlight the abundance of fresh, gorgeously-rich local products.

Empire State South
999 Peachtree St. Midtown

Chef Hugh Acheson with one of his popular "Snackies In Jars" -- Pork rillette, trout mousse, pimento cheese & bacon marmalade, boiled peanut hummus

Dining room and bar of Empire State South

Atlanta has a number of celebrity chefs these days, but certainly Hugh Acheson’s stint as a contestant, then later as judge on Bravo TV’s Top Chef Master has lent his Empire extra star-power. He was also a five time (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011) James Beard nominee and 2012 winner for "Best Chef Southeast." Fortunately, all the adulation hasn’t seemed to affect the atmosphere at Acheson’s restaurant, which is still straightforward and unpretentious -- through breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Start the day off with a towering build-your-own breakfast biscuit sandwich. Or sample one of the daily quiches made with local cheeses. Pepper jelly on grilled cheese is divine. Lunch choices include Smoked Trout Mousse, Country Fried Lamb Terrine, or Charred Octopus with Grilled Cucumber and Lemon Confit.

For dinner selections start with the house favorite -- an assortment of treats in jars: Pork Rillette, Trout Mousse, Pickles, Pimento Cheese & Bacon Marmalade, Boiled Peanut Hummus. GA Rabbit Sausage is another Empire specialty. GA Shrimp with Harissa Mayo, Chorizo, Carrot Blossoms, and Puri Bread make for another exceptional plate. You could easily make a meal from Acheson’s starters. His “Snackies” as he calls them are essential to his brand and a personal favorite.

Main Entrées include the following: GA Blue Catfish with GA Olive Oil & GA Shrimp; Pork Loin with Smoked Figs, Fritters and Red Sorrel; Ricotta and Egg Ravioli with Green Beans, Chanterelles, Squash and Shoyu.

Brunch is served on Sunday. Wine pairings are available on request. See Chef Acheson’s recipe for traditional (and indispensable) Southern Sweet Tea, also in this issue.

The Spence
75 Fifth St. NW

Chef Richard Blais

Interior dining room and bar at The Spence.

The name for the restaurant Spence is derived from the Scottish word for “pantry.” So, of course, shelves filled with bottles, boxes and spices decorate the attractive brick wall interiors of the restaurant. And, there’s no doubt that Chef Richard Blais, of Top Chef fame uses any and every ingredient he can find in his or anyone else's pantry to create innovative dishes. His menu is filled with starters and entrées that will cause you to do a double-take -- maybe even a triple-take. Combinations like Pork Terrine with Golden Beet Jam or Bone Marrow, Tuna Tartare & Fried Quail Eggs might sound a little odd, but after a single bite you’ll know it’s genius.

Heavenly! Bone Marrow, Tuna Tartare & Fried Quail Eggs

Kerrin Deretchin with Pastry Chef Andrea Litvin

The Spence menu changes daily, but other dishes could include Pork Belly with Cabbage, Peach & Chicharon; Lamb Sirloin with Peas & Pickled Turnips. Vegetables get star treatment at The Spence. Be sure to sample several -- possibilities are Smoked Beets with Ricotta & Pineapple; Roasted Bok Choy & Apples; Baby Kale “Caesar.”

Desserts are equally adventurous: Mint Panna Cotta with Cucumber Sorbet & Sunflower Cake; Violet Ice Cream with Chocolate Mousse & Marshmallow; Minneola Champagne Orange Cake.

The wine is divided into two main categories: “Tried & True” represents wines that are classic in origin, varietal and style. “Leap of Faith” offers choices from obscure varietal, places or styles that Blais and his sommelier Justin Anick find inspiring -- chances are you will too!

Richard Blais shares his cooking philosophy and a few recipes in this issue of TCO.

1198 Howell Mill Road, Westside

Cozy corner at Bacchanalia

Chef Anna Quatrano

Anna Quatrano is another one of Atlanta’s star chefs. She and husband Clifford Harrison opened Bacchanalia in 1993. Much of the menu they served up was produce they grew on their own 60-acre farm. Many local chefs credit Quatrano for starting Atlanta’s farm-to-table movement.

Items on the prix-fixe menu change daily, but could include Georgia White Shrimp with Littleneck Clam Vinaigrette & Mangalitsa Lardo; North Georgia Rainbow Trout, Tomatoes, Sweet Corn, Pole Bean, Salad Burnet; Local Berkshire Pork with Pumpernickel Fregulini, Crispy Okra, Beets & Georgia Peanuts; Wood Grilled NY Strip, Carrots, Vidalia Onions, Confit Potato.

Desserts range from Blueberry Soufflé, Peach Fried Pie, to Olive Oil Cake and Valrhona Chocolate Cake with Mint Ice Cream. A monthly cheese plate is also available.

Southern Art & Bourbon Bar
3315 Peachtree Road, Buckhead (Intercontinental Hotel)

Southern Art's 12-Layer Red Velvet Cake -- truly a work of art!

Chef Art Smith

If you order nothing else at Southern Art, be sure to get a slice of the 12-Layer Red Velvet Cake -- it alone may be worth a trip to Atlanta!

Owner Art Smith rose to prominence as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef. He also won a James Beard Award for his cookbook Back to the Table and was named “Humanitarian of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation. Smith has restaurants in Chicago and Washington D.C. (where he regularly prepares pastries for the White House) as well as Atlanta.

Original art adorns the Southern Art dining rooms.

Southern Art presents Smith’s down-home, traditional Southern dishes along with collectible art (much of which is suspended from the ceiling), the Ham Bar offers some of the best cured meats in the country, while the Bourbon Bar provides Craft American Whiskies and hand-crafted cocktails.

Selections from the dinner menu include GA Shrimp & Grits with house made Andouille Sausage; Grilled Amberjack with Spring Pea Puree, Jalapenño-Corn Pudding; Pork Cheeks with Cheddar Johnny Cakes, Mustard Creamed Leeks & Parsnips.

A few tempting desserts from Southern Art.

Smith, who competed twice on Top Chef Master, is know for his desserts. So, again, if you order nothing else, ask for dessert. In addition to the famous 12-Layer Red Velvet Cake (with 12 layers of creme cheese frosting) there is a Bourbon Pecan Pie and Chocolate Soufflé Cake.

Southern Art serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily and is located in the Intercontinental Hotel -- read more about this property in HOTEL FINDS.

Watershed on Peachtree
1820 Peachtree Rd. NW, Buckhead

Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls and part-owner of Watershed on Peachtree.

Come on in! Watershed on Peachtree entrance.

Owned by Emily Saliers (of the Grammy-winning Indigo Girls), Ross Jones and Chef Joe Truex, Watershed cooks up flavors from the Georgia Coast to the Louisiana Bayou. In the process, the restaurant has earned a James Beard Award and been named by Condé Nast Traveler as “One of the Best New Restaurants in the World.”

Chef Joe Truex

Watershed's famous Fried Chicken -- marinated for two days then fried in lard & ham fat.

The menu is full of updated Southern Comfort food: Sapelo Island Clams, Pimento Cheese Toast with Smoked Ham Hock and Catfish a la Plancha. Be sure to sample Joe’s Jambalaya (named in honor of Louisiana-born Chef Truex) with fried oysters, butter-poached shrimp, and fried-rice fritters over aromatic crayfish étouffée.

But the dish that made Watershed famous is its Fried Chicken -- marinated for two days, then fried in lard and ham fat. This much beloved meal is served only on Wednesdays. Show up extra-early so you don’t miss out.

Horseradish Grill
4320 Powers Ferry Road, NW Buckhead

The Horseradish Grill, once a country store, retains the old-time charm and traditional Southern dishes.

The kitchen garden at Horseradish Grill.

Tucked back in the woods, across from Chastain Memorial Park, this charming restaurant was once a country store. Now it has attractive over-sized arched windows, an enormous fireplace and a wide-open terrace for outdoor dining.

The menu is traditional Southern, with a few upscale extras: Fried Green Tomatoes with Goat Cheese, Spicy Pecans & Remoulade Sauce; Wood Grilled Pork Chops with Cornbread Puree; Venison Meatloaf with Roasted Parsnip Puree & Shitake Mushrooms.

Horseradish Grill is open for lunch and dinner daily, except for Sunday, when a brunch menu is served until 2:30. Dinner resumes at 5:00.

Holy Taco
1314 Glenwood Ave. East Atlanta

Chef Robert Phalen

Taco selections include everything from Beef Tongue to Goat or Sword Fish and much more.

Holy Taco’s Chef Robert Phalen describes his menu as “Pan Latin.” His dishes are wide-ranging and appealing, starting with the house-made tortilla chips. But don’t fill up on them and miss out on Piquillo Peppers filled with Ricotta; Pig Tail Celery Heart Salad; Roasted Tomato Gazpacho; Whole Grilled Sardines; Saffron Rice. The taco selections are a menu unto themselves: Roasted Beef Tongue; Brisket; Goat; Puffed Pork Skin with Fresh Tomatillo Salsa; Fried Sword Fish; Chicken Hearts.

Tortas of fried squid or beef belly round out the menu. Desserts are Pan de Chocolate or Churros. The atmosphere is lively and the restaurant’s large patio is generally packed.

The ever-popular terrace at Holy Taco.

Spice Market
188 14th St. Midtown (W Hotel)

Jean-Georges Vongerichten owns restaurants world-wide, including three Spice Markets in Qatar, NYC and Atlanta.

High ceilings and exotic interiors at Spice Market.

The bar at Spice Market serves Asian-inspired cocktails: Lychee and Raspberry Bellini and Lemongrass Drop, with Fris Vodka, Cointreau, Lemongrass.

Internationally-acclaimed Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has dozens of restaurants around the world, but only three Spice Markets -- in Qatar, New York and the other in Atlanta. The menu reflects Vongerichten’s time in Asia, where he was chef at the legendary Oriental Hotel Bangkok, the Meridien in Singapore and the Mandarin in Hong Kong. His signature cuisine abandons the traditional use of meat stocks and creams and instead features the intense flavors and textures from vegetable juices, fruit essences, light broths, and herbal vinaigrettes.

Menu standouts include: Steamed Mussels with Saffron Crème Fraiche; Black Pepper Shrimp with Sun-Dried Pineapple; Tomato Egg Drop Soup; Steamed Lobster with Garlic & Chili; Red Curried Duck with Pineapple Sambal; Vegetables in Green Curry.

Read more about Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in a previous issue of TCO.

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