Over the last quarter century or so the Poncey Highlands neighborhood sure has changed. Twenty-three years ago Ponce City Market was a dilapidated brick building that housed City Hall East. The Beltline was a kudzu-covered abandoned rail line. Murder Kroger in Poncey Highlands was, well, it was still (and despite their best rebranding efforts will probably always be) the Murder Kroger. But 23-years ago, a restaurant opened on Ponce De Leon Avenue that hasn’t changed a bit despite the seismic gentrification occurring all around it. Nearly a quarter century ago the hidden gem, Eats, opened.
Bob Hatcher, a humble free spirit with a heart of gold opened Eats on May 17th, 1993 with first-time entrepreneurs’ trepidation. “I remember lying awake most of the night before our opening wondering if anyone would be coming through the doors in the morning,” Hatcher muses. “We were classically underfunded with the money we scraped together and opened with goose eggs in the checkbook.”
But the concept, something his former partner conceptualized as a “little food court,” would simply serve chicken, fresh vegetables and pasta made to order. Along with the amazing food quality and gargantuan portions came eye-poppingly minuscule prices. The result: a super-affordable “meat and three” for the in town crowd. A chord was struck and lines have been forming every day at lunch and dinner ever since.
Today, with Ponce City Market hulking across the street, you enter Eats’ small entryway where every square inch has been wall papered with live music promotional posters. The interior, shall we say, is a bit understated (Bob’s former partner called it “non-decor décor”). The booths are constructed from painted plywood. Exposed ductwork runs throughout where there isn’t the ancient drop ceiling. The tables and chairs are probably Nixon-era. A mish- mash of old photos of Ponce landmarks, characters formerly from the hood, old license plates and miscellaneous art deck the walls. The soundtrack: whatever suits the employees’ moods, from punk to classic rock to EDM. But you don’t go to Eats for the ambience, you go for the food.
To many, the star of Eats’ show is their chicken, plus-sized half-birds roasted to perfection and served Jamaican jerk style, barbecue or lemon-pepper style. Team that up with 3 of their famous vegetable sides: black eyed peas, collard greens, corn on the cob, baked sweet potatoes and more and you have a glorious plate of fresh food—all for under $10. Also available from the chicken line: turkey meatloaf (except Fridays), turkey chili and only on Fridays, tilapia.
If you are carb-loading, the pasta line is for you. First choose your pasta—spaghetti, ziti, egg fettuccine, cheese-filled tortellini or a brick of chicken lasagna. Then, you laden on your sauce: creamy marinara (Alfredo sauce mixed with marinara sauce), pesto, turkey meat sauce or olive oil and garlic. Again, rejoice at the plate of food before you and again, marvel at how it cost less than $10. If you are feeling like a big spender add meatballs, fresh broccoli or a chicken breast for a couple more bucks but still don’t be surprised if you cannot break the $10 threshold.
Over the years Eats has been bestowed with countless awards all for the same thing: the best cheap food in the city. Bob explains their secret: “we offer a generous amount of food for a reasonable price. We’ve stayed in business for 23 years now in large part to a loyal base of regulars that makes it feel like a big family!”
And what about all the changes and gentrification in the neighborhood? “The gentrification of the neighborhood has been good to us,” says Bob. “Ponce City Market has been great. I know they have a wonderful food court there but luckily for us we’re not in the same price range.”
Indeed. Eats defines a throwback hidden gem in many ways. It’s a throwback to the lost art of “meat and three.” It’s a throwback to a time when you used to get monster portions of fresh food. And for certain it’s a throwback to when you could gorge yourself for under $10. With that formula it’s hard to imagine that this hidden gem won’t be still around another near quarter century.
For more Atlanta Eats Hidden Gems, check out a full list here. And be sure to watch Atlanta Eats every Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on Peachtree TV for more of your favorite Atlanta restaurants!