This piece is part of The Manual Awards 2018, an annual series of awards given to the best restaurants, bars, local brands, shops, outdoor experiences, barbershops, and coffee shops across the United States. From Milwaukee to Minneapolis, from Houston to Boston, The Manual Awards are an opportunity to shine a spotlight on all of America’s up-and-coming establishments, wherever (and whatever) they may be.
For decades, Athens, Georgia was an alternative music mecca, home of The B-52’s, R.E.M, and the iconic 40 Watt music venue. There were vintage stores (lots of weird baby doll head art), record shops, and coffee houses galore. But if you were above the age of 25, there wasn’t much to entice a visit, unless you were a Dawgs fan (since it’s also home to the University of Georgia). But a funny thing happened in 2000 when the then-unknown chef, Hugh Acheson, opened his flagship restaurant, the Five & Then, melding Southern food with French and Italian influences. Ever since, Athens has been growing up a little bit, while still keeping its subversive and freethinking edge.
Here are our favorite spots in ‘Classic City.’ Special shout out to Davis Knox of Fire & Flavor for making sure we got it right.
Best Restaurant – The National
Neighborhood spots rein supreme in Athens (nothing too showy here!) and The National fits the bill with the Mediterranean inspired food and wine, all while still using the bounty local farmers provide. Opened by chef Peter Dale (of another award contender, Seabear Oyster Bar) as well as the man himself, Hugh Acheson. Try the stuffed dates to begin and follow-up with the Vegetable Plate, which will satiate even the most intense carnivore in your crew.
Best Bar – Normal Bar
Cozy, low key, and dog-friendly. What more can you ask for? Normal Bar has been a neighborhood watering hole since 2010 when it was opened by three friends. While they are known for craft beer and quality cocktails, the boiled peanuts are the real star. Added bonus, Automatic Pizza will delivers right to the bar.
Best Shop – Lotta Maes Supply Co
While most of us can’t live without swiping our phones and ordering-in food, we still dream of a life on the wild frontier. Lotta Mae’s Homestead supply store aims to quell our thirst for beekeeping, canning, and heirloom organic seeds. Hell, they even sell chicken feed. Owner, Kate Van Cantfort also has a good eye for quality products like Magner Co. bags, Piedmont Provisions preserves, and Wildcat Craft handmade muddlers.
Best Coffee Shop – Jittery Joe’s
When you open a coffee shop next to Athen’s coolest music venue, The 40 Watt, you are bound to succeed. Since 1994 Jittery Joe’s has been the go-to coffee spot for everyone from teachers to artists, construction workers, and superstar musicians (yes, Michael Stipe). They roast in small batches and are well known for their crafty blend names from ‘Whoop-Ass’ to ‘Wake-N-Bake.’ They even have a coffee collab with Widespread Panic, Duuuuude.
Best Barbershop – Pageman
This award is no surprise to locals. Pageman and its women’s salon, Pageboy, both have a great teams working for them who keep the clients coming back. Pageman (located in the back of Pageboy) provides gents with libations in their handsome lounge and offer everything from traditional fades and cuts to full-on beard conditioning. It’s also nice to know they offer ‘color blending’ for those of us who need a bit more pepper than salt on our pate.
Best Local Brand – Bloodroot Blades
Hand forged knives are a luxury, but so is a great friendship. Shortly after a newly engaged David Van Wyk met Luke Snyder, David requested hunting knives for groomsmen’s gifts and asked Luke if he could show him how to make them. Since Luke had been making knives from a young age, he agreed and the company was born. Using recycled steel (not cheaper, simply more unique), these gents make custom knives for the kitchen, for the hunt, and everything in between. They will even make custom knives with materials you supply. Granddad’s old metal flask could be your next best turkey carver.
Best Local Brewery – Creature Comforts Brewing Co.
Housed in a 1940s Chevy dealership, Creature Comforts has been producing nationally recognized beer since 2014. From top-notch IPAs like Tropicália and Duende to the year-round Berliner Weisse Athena to special releases like Athena Paradiso, there’s something delicious for everyone. For those looking for even more complexity, they’ve also got the Subtle Alchemy series, an evolving selection of beers from the brewery’s wood cellar.
Best Outdoor Experience – Oconee Forest Park
Athens is located in scenic Northeast Georgia where the forests are thick and the hiking is abundant, especially as you edge closer to the Appalachian Mountains. To narrow down our options for the best outdoor experience we spoke to Marshalll Mosher, founder of Vestigo, a company that plans outdoor adventures for corporate outings. While he is a big fan of secret spots such as Red Neck Beach and the Polaski Heights rope swing, we have to give the award to the Oconee Forest Park, about 10 minutes away from downtown. This 60-acre park offers a wide variety of activities from hiking to bike trails. Dogs are welcome on-leash so head out into the thick of things and explore the 100-year-old majestic oak-hickory forest for the afternoon before heading back to town for a nice cold one.