Food Issue - A guide to late-night eating in Atlanta

We all know the feeling: that hunger, rearing its head deep in the night. When a belly full of booze after a long night out demands nutrition of the non-liquid variety. Or perhaps, after your shift, cooking or serving others all night long, you want a meal in a decent setting that you don't have to make yourself.

Traditionally, Atlanta has not been a city of late-night dining, at least not beyond the (admittedly awesome) Earl dog variety. But in recent years, some Atlanta restaurateurs have slowly learned that there's a market for good food past 10 p.m. That, paired with the long-standing tradition of all-night ethnic eats on Buford Highway and beyond, makes for a variety of dining, even in the wee hours. To tackle tracking down the best of these meals, we split the task up: I took the traditional American and Euro-centric intown restaurants, and Jennifer Zyman, our resident cheap eats expert, took the ethnic spots. We stayed up late and ate our way through the city. Here is what we found:


Let's start with the granddaddy of all-night eating, the bizarre, the curious Au Pied de Cochon (3315 Peachtree Road, 404-946-9070, www.aupieddecochonatlanta.com). This upscale French restaurant in the InterContinental Hotel is open 24 hours and becomes stranger the later it gets. Warning: Try not to visit this restaurant if you're awake for ... uh ... unnatural reasons. At 3 a.m., crazy Venetian chandeliers and colorful paintings (kind of baroque Frenchie murals with pink pigs hiding in the loops and flourishes) are trippy enough to freak you out even if you're stone-cold sober. The place offers private booths with heavy red velvet curtains if you'd like some privacy. And you can hear music coming from the piano bar in the lobby. (Recently, the musicians managed to lodge Toto's "Africa" in my head.) The food's not half bad, especially if you stick with safer choices. In other words: French onion soup? Oui! Pork liver pate? Non. Classic steak tartar was delicious, though, and oysters from the raw bar went well with my hankering for 2 a.m. Champagne. (Hint: By the glass is way cheaper – who knows why?)

If you're out for the evening and you're looking for a vibrant scene as well as a great meal, there are now two options: Top Flr (674 Myrtle St., 404-685-3110, www.topflr.com; Mon.-Thurs., 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., 4:30 p.m.-midnight), and Holeman & Finch (2277 Peachtree Road, 404-948-1175, www.holeman-finch.com; Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m.). After 10 p.m., both have as many folks there to drink as to eat, but that doesn't compromise either kitchen's ability to turn out stellar food late into the night. Top Flr excels at attitude, beautiful customers, and hearty food punctuated with bursts of freshness. A recent dish of gnocchi with duck was the perfect padding for a stomach ready to slurp down wine from the restaurant's eclectic list.

Holeman & Finch serves what's undoubtedly the best late-night food in the city, if only because it's one of the best restaurants in town and also happens to be open late. Charcuterie, offal, and rustic Southern sides are all as delicious at 1 a.m. as at dinnertime, but there are a few distinct advantages to visiting on the later side: 1) The burger. Served only after 10 p.m., this fast-food-meets-high-quality version is a wonder to behold. 2) The scene. H&F's location and pedigree draw the strangest mix of Buckhead debutante types, off-duty chefs and foodie hipsters. Throw a bunch of cocktails at them all and watch what happens. Which brings us to ... 3) The cocktails. Late night gives you more of an excuse to drink up, and drink up you should. Mixologist/owners Greg Best and Andy Minchow deliver some of the most creative and delicious drinks in town, powered by uncommon combinations such as vodka, Lillet Blonde, orange bitters and Miller High Life (otherwise known as the Swedish pinch).

On the other side of town, a slightly more low-key scene goes down on Edgewood Avenue. Noni's (357 Edgewood Ave., 404-343-1808, www.nonisdeli.com; Mon.-Fri., 11:30-2:30 a.m.; Sat., 5:30 p.m.-2:30 a.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.-midnight) serves its Italian menu all night, including the most buttery, decadent mushroom bruschetta ever. Unfortunately, the restaurant now allows smoking in the bar, which detracts from the deliciousness of the house-made pasta, but lord knows night owls love their smokes. Just up the street and under the bridge is Harlem Bar (262 Edgewood Ave., 404-588-0014, www.harlembaratlanta.com; Mon.-Sat., 6 p.m.-2:30 a.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.-midnight), which offers a full soul food menu until closing, sugary cocktails, friendly service and a chill hip-hop glitterati scene. The food here can be more greasy than flavorful, but it'll sure pad your belly if you're starved for fried pork chops or the like.

Other late-night spots worth mentioning: Zuma Sushi on Highland Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward, which serves until 1 a.m. many nights; Cafe Agora, the Paces Ferry Road Mediterranean café that closes at 10 p.m. during the week but is open until 4 a.m. on the weekends (and apparently attracts a strange clientele of Buckhead bar-hoppers); and the Iberian Pig, the newly opened Spanish/tapas spot in Decatur. They hadn't started serving late night last week when I stopped by (beginning this week they'll be open until midnight during the week and 1 a.m. on weekends), but the friendly bartender was nice enough to placate me with nourishment of another sort: bourbon. Mmm, bourbon.

While many people are more than content with Waffle House on the late side of the evening, you'll likely find me at some random hole-in-the-wall shoving dumplings and greasy noodles into my mouth. Atlanta's ethnic dining scene has always been my personal paradise, a never-ending stretch of culinary promised land where you can eat around the world and around the clock.

Atlanta's ethnic restaurants tend to cater to a late-night clientele, while most mainstream spots shutter for the night. The reasons could be cultural or geographic, but whatever the case, Atlanta offers an abundance of quality late-night options with some wonderfully weird theater-of-the-living on the side. While choices are scattered all over the metro area, Buford Highway and Duluth are the epicenters of late-night dining activity, ready with a guaranteed fix for your particular brand of poison.

Mexican food seems tailor-made for late-night eating. Nourishing, fatty and usually portable, it's hard to think of a cuisine more suited to pre- and post-alcohol consumption, or able to soothe your soul in the dark of night. But you have to know where to get the good stuff or you'll be stuck with gristly meat or the ultimate smack in the face: a machine-made tortilla. Taqueria El Rey del Taco (5288 Buford Highway, 770-986-0095; open daily, 23 hours a day) has a beautiful handmade version. But the thing that sets El Rey apart (aside from those tortillas, when they're available) is its semi-surreal "Pee-wee's Playhouse" setting – multicolored walls, traditional Mexican décor and televisions blaring Latin variety shows. The late-night clientele here is anything but ordinary: Rowdy gents spilling over from the beer-soaked club next door, "entertainers," and other random folks stop in for a few chivo (goat) tacos on mini tortillas or a massive goblet of cóctel de camarón (a tomato-based seafood cocktail). Don't be surprised if a group of roaming mariachis walks in singing "Bésame Mucho." Just don't look them in the eyes – that's how they get you.

Chinese food's a tough midnight craving unless you're partial to the slutty Americanized version. If you prefer something a bit more authentic, hit Bo Bo Garden (5181 Buford Highway, 678-547-1881). Unlike other restaurants of its ilk, Bo Bo keeps late hours and is open every day (Mon.-Thurs., 11-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11-2 a.m.). The fried, stir-fried and stewed Cantonese classics such as crunchy salt and pepper pork chops, curry-dusted Singapore noodles, sticky rice casseroles and mysteriously habit-forming duck soup with noodles are damn-near perfect.

Until recently, Buford Highway lacked any decent Japanese restaurants, let alone ones that were open till the wee hours. Sushi House Hayakawa (5979 Buford Highway, 770-986-0010, www.atlantasushibar.com; Tues.-Thurs., 6-11:30 p.m.; Fri., 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sat., 6 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 4-9 p.m.) has changed that. Perfect sushi, a carefully selected sake menu, small homestyle plates and chef/owner Art Hayakawa's infectious grin make this a world-class establishment that just so happens to be in strip mall on BuHi's top side. When the sake's left you giddy and awake, channel that energy next door at Karaoke Melody (770-986-8881, www.karaokemelody.com; open daily, 6 p.m.-2 a.m.). There, you can drink some dangerous shochu and snack from a tiny menu of Korean and Japanese small plates while playing pretend pop star in your private room.

If any ethnic cuisine dominates the late scene, it's Korean. It's the ideal food to satiate the voracious hunger that eating late brings about. Many proclaim their steadfast devotion to Hae Woon Dae (5805 Buford Highway, 770-451-7957; Sun.-Tues., 11-6 a.m.; Wed., 11a.m.-midnight), but I think there are better options, such as 88 Tofu House (5490 Buford Highway, 770-457-8811; open daily, 24 hours), Hanil Kwan (5458 Buford Highway, 770-457-3217; Mon.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2 a.m.), and one of my favorite recent discoveries, Myung Ga Won (1960 Day Drive, Suite 100, Duluth, 770-622-1300, www.mk1usa.com; open daily, 24 hours). Myung Ga Won's menu has every kind of hearty dish you'd want. Tofu soup in a bubbling pot of fiery red liquid. Sexy slabs of marbled Angus beef saturated in a sweet and tangy marinade and caramelized on a tiny electric grill (this place is the only exception to my "charcoal only" rule). What's more, the servers will dote over you like family, and the minimalist retro-modern décor is relatively swanky. Who says you have to slum it just because you're eating at 4 in the morning?

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