By Elise LeQuire
Amoveable feast? Nah. A garden of earthly delights? Not quite. All things to all people? Well, quite possibly. Athens, located in Northeast Georgia, is a fortunate blend of the erudite and the hip, the high-flung and the joyously low-brow. A small city of approximately 100,000, anchored by the University of Georgia, Athens is rather fiercely its own unique creature. Although located only 70 miles from Atlanta, Athens proudly swaps Atlanta’s bluster and bravado for an undeniably quirky aesthetic, and that is most vividly evinced by the Classic City’s delightfully eclectic downtown. Like any college town, downtown Athens has strived to create an urban environment that caters to both university students and its permanent residents.
Critics of downtown Athens assert that it has been taken over by bars and the concomitant crowds of marauding UGA students, and that it is not a family- or business- friendly zone. Pfft! In daylight and after hours, busy families, professionals, and rollicking UGA students can find plenty of age- and preference-appropriate things to while away the hours. Although Athens’ thriving bar scene fills an important niche in downtown’s ecosystem, downtown is also home to financial services and public relations firms, lawyers, and a full complement of other professionals. Two centrally located parking garages accommodate customers with monthly and hourly parking (monthly parkers are guaranteed space even on Athens’ boisterous UGA gamedays); and deals are brokered and bargains struck during sidewalk meetings.
Downtown Athens includes the Athens Downtown Development Authority, whose focus is creating and maintaining a vibrant downtown community, and whose mandate is to ensure and to further the economic viability of downtown Athens. The district also has a merchants’ association – the Downtown Athens Business Association.
The streets of downtown, cleaned and maintained by a weekend pavement-scrubbing machine fondly known hereabouts as the sidewalk Zamboni, are lined with an eclectic mélange of local boutiques, cafes, and boîtes. The World Famous offers clever, dressed-up versions of food-cart specialties perfect for everyone. Hugh Acheson and Peter Dale’s upscale The National serves fantastic locavore food for vegans and omnivores alike. Do not misconstrue this as snooty – the atmosphere, service, and food are pleasingly sophisticated but entirely user-friendly.
Ted’s Most Best perhaps best represents downtown Athens’ ability to appeal to all ages. Ted’s serves a delightful range of house-made desserts, salads, pasta, panini, and pizza. After ordering at the counter, diners can either sit at tables in the dining room (a converted car-repair garage) or outdoors on the patio, where a well-maintained sandbox by day becomes a nighttime bocce court for adults of all walks of Athens life: skinny-jeaned hipsters, friendly and grotty Townies, overly educated academics, and relaxing soccer moms. Adult beverages range from the ubiquitous PBR to locally brewed Terrapin and Creature Comforts, as well as wine.
Shops as diverse as Heery’s (upscale women’s clothing), Agora and Dynamite (hip consignment clothes for everyone), Onward Reserve (for your preppy fix), and Frontier and Native America Gallery (eclectic gifts, cards, and home décor) draw their clientele from every echelon of Athens’ diverse citizenry.
Athens’ vibrant music scene also comprises part of the patchwork of downtown. Georgia Theatre, the 40 Watt, and The Foundry continue to host a myriad of artists and bands. Smaller venues like The Caledonia and Live Wire Athens (formerly New Earth Music Hall) serve as refreshing complements. To better serve the larger Athens community, the Classic Center was renovated and expanded in 2013, and provides a happy venue for family-friendly events including the Classic City Rollergirls’ roller derby bouts, the Athens Symphony, larger musical acts, and ice skating.