ATLANTA — In 2000, the last time this city hosted the Super Bowl, the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans, and Watershed had been frying its famous fried chicken in peanut oil flavored with country ham for only a year.
The new Southern food movement that the restaurant in nearby Decatur helped define had not yet moved North. Brooklynites weren’t worshiping biscuits, and American barbecue had not met kimchi. Only a few cooks or writers outside the South were giving serious thought to the connection between Southern food and that of West Africa.
Even here, in the booming cultural and commercial center of the American South, diners had only begun to embrace a style of cooking that emphasized seasonality and history over carbohydrates and caricature. Atlanta’s most popular restaurants were local chains dipped in the glitzy, corporate sheen of the Buckhead neighborhood, and high-end steakhouses like Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s were abundant.
Now, as the city prepares to show off its new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, when the New England Patriots meet the Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta is a more evolved food town than it was then.
Neighborhood beer bars and slick suburban dining rooms alike serve food that shows off Southern agriculture. Food from the region’s vast immigrant population is as celebrated as its local classics.
Although diners remain loyal to local entrepreneurs like Fifth Group Restaurants, which started opening reliable spots like South City Kitchen in the 1990s, the city is less impressed by carpetbagging chains. And the ranks of talented young cooks tired of trying to compete in bigger cities continue to grow.
Still, Atlanta has yet to find its footing among the nation’s great restaurant cities. Wyatt Williams, who recently quit reviewing restaurants for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote in a parting column this month in Atlanta magazine that the dining scene was in a rut, riding an economic boom that has spawned cynical, money-grabbing restaurants “where the rooms are finely appointed, the menus are deeply predictable, and the cooking is barely passable.”
Stephen Satterfield, a former sommelier in San Francisco who founded the food magazine Whetstone, grew up in Atlanta. During a recent trip home, he described Atlanta as an insecure food town, obsessed with how it measures up against cities with outsize culinary reputations.
“It pains me to say it, but here everyone is well-intentioned and there is plenty of capital and resources, so I don’t understand why there aren’t more places that feel of the moment,” he said.
The chef Kevin Gillespie owns three restaurants in Atlanta, including one inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where this year’s Super Bowl will take place.CreditAndrew Lee for The New York Times
Plenty of Atlanta chefs and diners would disagree, albeit politely. The trick, they advise visitors, is drilling down into the right parts of town.
“You’ve got to get out of downtown,” said the chef Kevin Gillespie, a former Top Chef contestant who has three restaurants here. “Get in your Uber and go to a neighborhood. That’s where you’ll find the great stuff. You’re going to leave the city with a completely different idea of what Atlanta really is.”
Of all the local chefs scrambling to be part of the Super Bowl, Mr. Gillespie is the M.V.P. He runs Gamechanger, a concession inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where his “closed on Sunday” chicken sandwich — a homage to the faith-based policy that keeps Chick-fil-A restaurants shuttered on Sundays, even Super Bowl Sundays — has helped make it the highest-grossing food vendor in the arena.
He is also one of three chefs whom Arthur Blank, a founder of Home Depot who bought the Atlanta Falcons in 2002, approved to cook on Thursday for the N.F.L. owners’ dinner, a traditional meal usually held at a fancy restaurant or a well-appointed home. Mr. Blank is staging the dinner at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, not far from the stadium.
“It talks to the history of the city and the great connection the N.F.L. has made with the players around issues surrounding social justice,” Mr. Blank said. “We’ve moved from protest to progress.”
(Some critics have complained that all three chefs are white men, though Aaron Jefferson, a general manager from the restaurant Iberian Pig who is African-American, was later added to oversee cocktails and wine.)
Mr. Gillespie cautions visitors to not expect a city as explicitly Southern as, say, Charleston, S.C. “It’s not ‘Gone With the Wind’ down here,” he said. “Atlanta is a city that has always been about business. It’s not as ‘Hee Haw’-y as people think it might be.”
Rather, Atlanta is a metropolis filled with a lot of people from other places. The city’s population is less than 500,000, but the region, which includes the sprawling suburbs, is home to about 5.9 million. People from small Southern towns have moved here for better jobs, and others from big American cities have come seeking less stress and a lower cost of living. The region’s mix includes immigrants from Mexico, India, South Korea and Vietnam.
That influx feeds a mix of cuisines, many of them represented in hundreds of restaurants and markets on Buford Highway, the biggest concentration of which starts at the city’s northeastern edge and continues for about 10 miles. Taking measure of the highway’s offerings is a heroic task, but good resources to consult are We Love BuHi, a website and Instagram feed dedicated to the strip, and the local food writer Christiane Lauterbach’s dispatches on Twitter and in Atlanta magazine.
Two favorites are the homey Korean grandma food at Yet Tuh and the terrific sambal-sauced okra and noodle and rice dishes at Food Terminal, a modern Malaysian restaurant that shares a parking lot with an expansive multicultural supermarket, a Chinese barbecue spot, a Viet-Cajun seafood restaurant and a tofu house.
Atlanta has rarely met a restaurant trend it didn’t like, and right now that translates to food halls. Some of the best restaurants in town have been carved out of restored industrial spaces. Among them is Watchman’s, in the Krog Street Market, a cheery, Cuban-influenced restaurant that turns sustainably harvested Southern seafood into dishes like grilled fish collars bathed in Alabama white barbecue sauce and dappled with salsa verde. Its perfect daiquiris have developed a loyal following.
Next door is the Ticonderoga Club, a cozy restaurant whose menu ranges from 48 ounces of grilled, sous-vide chuck roast to a coconut-braised eggplant dish that the chef David Bies picked up in Bali. Students of the Southern cocktail scene make regular pilgrimages to its tiny bar.
The grandest food hall of them all is inside the sprawling brick Ponce City Market, a former Sears distribution center developed into a mixed-use complex by the team that created Chelsea Market in New York.
Many of Atlanta’s biggest names in food have a presence here. Hugh Acheson pumps out coffee and fat squares of toast slathered with fresh local cow’s milk cheese and jam at Spiller Park, and Hector Santiago sells a fine medianoche sandwich at El Super Pan. Linton Hopkins (one in the trio of chefs cooking for the N.F.L. owners) offers a stacked cheeseburger at H&F Burger, and fried chicken and biscuits next door at a little stand called Hop’s Chicken.
Ms. Quatrano, chairwoman of the James Beard Foundation’s awards committee, remains a levelheaded fan of the city’s food. Like Mr. Gillespie, she says some of the best food is found in modest, neighborhood restaurants.
“There’s a lot of young talent here,” she said. “Some of it’s raw, but it’s still good. That makes for really good dining at lot of the smaller places.”
One is Banshee, a boisterous restaurant inside a former lesbian bar in the charmingly scruffy East Atlanta neighborhood. Tables are packed with diners who swipe fry bread through smears of pepperoni butter, and debate whether the Sichuan-spiced pork osso buco is better than the braised onion caramelle with braised beef cheeks.
At Tiny Lou’s, inside the newly refurbished Hotel Clermont, not far from Ponce City Market, Jeb Aldrich delivers a smart take on French classics, and the pastry chef Claudia Martinez makes a crêpes suzette cake that customers can’t seem to stop talking about.
Atlanta also is a big breakfast town, which is why in a few weeks Ms. Quatrano will open Pancake Social, a 120-seat, all-day breakfast place in Ponce City Market. Until then, Java Jive, Highland Bakery and Home Grown, whose pancakes and chili cheese grits are worth enduring the inevitable line, all make for a fine breakfast field trip.
And don’t forget Waffle House. The original restaurant in nearby Avondale Estates has been turned into the company’s museum, but there are plenty of others in full operation. (Pro tip: Order your hash browns scattered, smothered and covered, with country ham and a pecan waffle cooked dark on the side.)
A hungry visitor also would do well to stroll the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile loop of railroad bed that is slowly being transformed into an urban promenade not unlike the High Line in New York, except with a lot more craft breweries.
Along the well-developed section that winds through the Old Fourth Ward, you’ll find Nina & Rafi, a new restaurant that serves a chicken parm that has passed the test of more than one New Yorker, old-fashioned square pizzas topped with sizzling pepperoni cups, and crunchy-crusted Detroit-style pies.
Expense-account diners can still get a taste of that Buckhead swank at Atlas, in the St. Regis Atlanta hotel. The chef, Christopher Grossman, has a French Laundry pedigree and the quiet, luxe dining room is hung with masterworks, many of them from the art collection of Joe Lewis, the billionaire behind the Tavistock Group, a private investment company that owns the hotel. Next door is Umi, whose modern take on Japanese food would be at home in New York or Los Angeles.
Many visitors will be on the hunt for the kind of Southern food best eaten with your hands. Barbecue is not hard to find here, but Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue is the only pit master turning out whole-hog barbecue from heirloom-breed hogs.
The Busy Bee Café, a half-mile from the stadium, has been around since the 1940s, and remains a reliable practitioner of the Southern staple known as the meat and three. Go for the oxtails or the fried chicken, and take whichever vegetable sides dishes the server recommends.
The new Southern food movement has been nurtured for 10 years at Miller Union, which serves hyper-seasonal dishes alongside the most interesting wine list in town. Or head to Decatur, a small city that abuts Atlanta proper, and try Mr. Gillespie’s Revival, which serves the kind of food your Southern grandmother might make if she shopped only at the farmers’ market.
One last piece of advice: Don’t sleep on the wings.
Ms. VanTrece, who will set up a grits bar and make deviled eggs for 3,000 as part of an N.F.L.-sponsored game-day tailgate party, is a former American Airlines flight attendant who used to eat chicken wings that were delivered to the cockpit when flights took the crew to Buffalo.
“We thought that was everything, but now wings in Atlanta have taken on a life of their own,” she said. Her daughter, who is 26, has long debates with her friends over which of the dozens of places to get wings is the best.
Wings are now so important to the city that the classic Atlanta beer-and-wing spot, J. R. Crickets, was invited to sell them in the State Farm Arena, the home of the Atlanta Hawks, which recently had a $200 million renovation. (Mr. Furman sells his barbecue there, too.)
Insiders order lemon pepper wet, a style of wings that got a star turn on the FX series “Atlanta.”
“Atlanta is an easy city to underestimate,” Ms. VanTrece said. “Sometimes I think it’s because the South in general gets a bad rap, but compared to 20 years ago, it’s night and day. You just have to make a little effort.”