Chef Ford Fry is building a restaurant empire in Atlanta. Since opening JCT. Kitchen & Bar in 2007, the restaurateur has expanded his food kingdom to include no. 246, The Optimist and Oyster Bar at The Optimist, King + Duke and St. Cecilia. And he isn’t done. He’s currently planning the opening of “Mex-Tex” concept Superica and a sister restaurant to The Optimist in Atlanta’s Inman Park, as well as a new eatery in Alpharetta, Ga.’s Avalon development.
All of Fry’s restaurants are chef owned and operated and serve food made with local ingredients, but each restaurant also has its own identity. Fry says that when he is looking to develop a new food destination he starts with the location and considers whether the restaurant would meet a need within the community. Then he considers the culinary genre and his inspiration comes from a variety of influences.
Spending his childhood in Texas, Fry studied at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and worked as a fine dining chef in Florida, Colorado and California, as well as a corporate chef in Atlanta, where he fell in love with the Peach City.
He has since taken the food scene by storm and was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards for Outstanding Restaurateur in 2013. His restaurants have also garnered numerous accolades, including The Optimist named the Best New Restaurant of the Year by Esquire magazine in 2012 and the seventh Best New Restaurant in the country by the Bon Appétit in 2013.
But where does this seasoned chef go for a good bite, cocktail and shop in his spare time? We asked him and, not surprisingly, his picks include some of his raved-about restaurants as well as eateries close by.
A good cup of coffee: Situated right next to The Optimist on Atlanta’s West side, Octane is Fry’s go-to spot for a hot cup of Joe. Known for its high-quality java and hip vibe, this warehouse-style coffee house is always buzzing. Walls showcase the work of local artists and in the afternoon the crowd of entrepreneurs hidden behind laptops switch gears from French press to craft brews. “I am also a fan of Steady Hand so if you are near Decatur, hit that up!” Fry says.
Hamburger and fries: “My first thought is the “˜butter burger’ at The Optimist,” Fry says. Served with American cheese, grilled onions, “come-back” sauce and fries, the burger’s grinded meat is specifically selected by Executive Chef Adam Evans. As part of the grinding process, he adds in butter, which forms a “fantastic crust as it cooks on a plancha,” Fry says. “It’s fantastic! But, since The Optimist is mine and you may not believe me, hit up The General Muir. Todd Ginsberg has got it down!”
Late night bite: Sticking to a common late-night craving, Chef Ford Fry’s pick is Chinese food at Canton Cooks in Sandy Springs. From salt and pepper squid to pan-fried sea bass, the no-frills establishment’s packed dining room speaks to its local favourite status. “There’s nothing better than true late-night Chinese food,” Fry says.
Craft cocktails: When in need of a drink, Fry heads to Decatur’s Paper Plane where the cocktails are concocted by a very adept barman. “Paul Calvert is the man behind the bar. Super cool dude and makes amazing cocktails,” Fry says. Whether going for something sweet and fruity or dark and herbal, this is the place. Not to mention the wine list features several rare vintages and many are available by the glass.
Charcuterie: “Chef Colin Miles from Leon’s in Decatur shows the most passion for charcuterie,” Fry says. Leon’s Full Service offers small plates of aged ham, bresaola, bratwurst, cheddarwurst pickles and mustard that keeps Fry coming back. The best part, it’s around the corner from no. 246. “So, when you plan to hit up no. 246, stop in Leon’s next door and grab a cocktail and sample Colin’s stuff.”
Farmer’s market: Peachtree Road Farmers Market, next to St. Philips Cathedral, is Fry’s stomping ground on Saturday mornings. “It’s so well-rounded: you can find anything from local cheese, to the best local produce, to artisan bread from Holeman & Finch Bakery.” The outdoor market takes place every Saturday from April to mid-December and includes chef demos, music and more.
Watch a sports game: For the big game, find Fry at Central City Tavern on the Westside, where he cheers for his favourite teams in a classic sports atmosphere while enjoying some tasty bites. “Mule is behind the bar””ask for some of his barbecue,” Fry says. “If you’re lucky, he will have a stash.
Sunday brunch: With a menu of breakfast pizza, ricotta fritters with local honey and biscuits and sausage gravy, Fry’s no. 246 earns his vote. “I promise!” Fry says. Another of his favourite spots on the West side of town is West Egg, where the “pretty tasty” Sunday brunch specials include banana bread French toast with caramel-banana sauce and chicken chilaquiles (chicken and tortillas, sunny eggs, salsa roja, avocado, sour cream, queso fresco, with mixed greens).
Dinner with friends and family: Fry suggests taking the kids and in-laws to The Optimist, not just for its fresh seafood and oyster bar, but also for the fun laid-back ambiance. “For so many reasons, I feel The Optimist is the best bet. There’s putt-putt for the kids, and quality yet casual dining for the parents.”
To find culinary inspiration: “When I think “˜inspired,’ Angus Brown comes to mind. Check out Lusca or Octopus Bar“”they’re funky, cool, and awesome!” Lusca’s daily changing menu highlights oysters, nigiri and a number of vegetarian and meat dishes. Opening at 10:30 p.m., East Atlanta’s Octopus Bar is the quintessential late night foodie stop with items like braised and fried rabbit legs and sea urchin on the menu.
A city secret: “Floataway Cafe has been my go-to since it opened,” Fry says. Launched back in May 1998 by Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison of Star Provisions and Bacchanalia, the romantic eatery is housed in a renovated warehouse in Druid Hills. “Floataway is very “˜California’ in food philosophy, yet in Georgia. I have had truly some of my favourite meals there over the years and you definitely need to map it,” he says.
If you’re looking for the best of the best in Atlanta’s culinary scene, Chef Ford Fry’s picks are quite the curated food map. And while you’re feasting on delectable cuisine at one of the aforementioned spots, don’t forget to hold up your cocktail and cheers the celebrated chef, who might just be sitting at a table in the corner.
Header image: Ford Fry’s restaurant empire continues to grow and thrive © Emily Schultz
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Have you visited any of Chef Ford Fry’s favourite food stops? Where are your top places to eat in Atlanta? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
Written by Giannina Smith Bedford