The Porch Press

Serving the Historic Atlanta Neighborhoods of Grant Park, Ormewood Park, East Atlanta, Benteen Park, Glenwood Park, and environs

That Food Desert…

By Tom McGowan

When I moved to Grant Park in 1977, it was in today’s parlance, a food desert. The only restaurant nearby was the Kozy Grill. It was located on Park Avenue 200 feet south of Memorial Drive where the residential building with Doc Chey’s now stands. It was 500 square feet, if that, having about six stools at the counter and three or four booths. It was literally a mom-and-pop operation, an older, solidly built couple that could cook and sling hash. They lived across the street in a small house with a pyramid shaped roof now occupied by the nail salon.

Hard-working folks ate there in the morning, with the Atlanta Gas Light crews rolling in first to fortify themselves and plan for the day. They were soon followed by the “pensioners” as I called them. These were older bachelors living on social security in cut up houses with 2, 4 or even eight units, perhaps getting by without kitchen. I knew more than a few by name.

The hand-written menu was up on the wall. My standard order was two eggs fried over medium with grits, bacon and coffee, listed at $2.73. I know there’s been some inflation since them, but all the same it was a good deal. I remember one of the pensioners at lunch day had peas, a hamburger steak and hash browns on his plate. Johnny had already slathered it with ketchup, perhaps foretelling the government later declaring ketchup to pass as being a vegetable. The “mom” asked Harry if he needed some more ketchup. Her irony was lost on him and he did not take the bait. Perhaps this was a daily routine.

I hired local people as helpers when I was tearing my house apart and putting it back together. I found if I took them down there for a solid breakfast they could put in a solid four hours of work. At least one of them subsided on alcohol and unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and a real breakfast gave him some fuel and horsepower to get things rolling.

There was Tom and Jerry’s bar on Boulevard where Mixed Up is. I guess they served food but don’t have firsthand knowledge. The only time I went in that dingy place was to try to roust a brick mason who  got halfway through an underpinning job and decided beer was more important than mixing mortar.

Ria’s Bluebird Café came later, replacing a small liquor store with a heavy plexiglass window between customers and the goods. Ria, may she rest in peace, was a creative breath of fresh air – and served mighty good food. That Blue Plate Special in the morning was my go-to meal, and if enough people were with me, I would get the pancakes with caramelized bananas to share. It says on the menu that the New York Times says they have “the worlds most wonderful pancakes” and I agree. Try them out sometime. Few know the Bluebird logo came from a long-gone diesel fuel truck stop on Memorial Drive south of the Gold Dome of the state capital. It had a large neon sign with the a bluebird swooping through it. I bought some diesel there once and found myself slipping on years’ worth of diesel drips on the slick blacktop.

The nearest big food stores were Piggly Wiggly at Little Five Points and Kroger on Ponce de Leon Avenue, hard to get to if you did not have a car. There was a small grocery store where Tin Lizzie’s is now named simply the White Fron. It had dry goods and perhaps a few vegetables, a humble and dimly lit affair.  Over the cash register by the door was had a stuffed fish with a small doll’s head in its jaws with the rest of the doll still attached. Perhaps this was biblical? Joanah and the whale? I asked the woman running it one day and she just laughed and didn’t comment. An inside joke I guess.  There was an older man sold vegetables out of a pickup truck parking it on Cherokee from time to time. Around 1985, Kudzu Co-Op opened in the Masonic Lodge on Cherokee where Dakota Blue is now, filling in the gap with fresh and organic vegetables.

San Jose Mexican restaurant was where Daddy D’z is now. I’m not sure when it came along, but we “discovered” it at some point. It was a well-run family operation. When we wanted tamales one night and they were out of them, the head man went home and brought some back. How is that for customer service! Later Mi Barrio opened on Memorial near Boulevard with Elisa running the show. With a range of food on the menu, I sometimes order Huevos con Chorizo for a change of pace. Their Margaritas are the best as far as I’m concerned. Another old but good pace is Nicks Food to Go on MLK at Hill Street with great Philly cheesesteaks, Greek fries, Green lamb plates and more. Alas, the area is to be developed and their days may be numbered.

Grant Central has been cranking out good New York-style pizza for years along with Calzone’s and specials. Working back in time, it had been Momma’s Italian restaurant, which was originally located in a converted gas station at Cherokee and Augusta Avenues before moving across from Dakota Blue.

Around 2010, the Grant Park Coffee House arrived at Cherokee and Augusta Avenue. For nine of the 11 years they were there, I started my day sitting out with front with a cup of coffee, reading the Lifestyle (the good news) section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, petting my dog, making friends and greeting people every morning – no matter what the weather. On one very cold day, I was there dressed in my Carhartt overalls when the young daughter of one of the coffee house regulars loudly declared to her dad: I told you he would be here, repeating it for emphasis twice. The owner, Rahel, has moved downtown and is still serving up those wonderful scones.

Looking back now, if someone told me in 1977, we would have this many restaurants within walking distance I would not have believed them, and there are certainly more than my waistline will allow me to sample on a regular basis. Indeed, the number seems on track to approach infinity, but not to worry, I’m told by good authority that you can never have too many  restaurants.