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Friday, May 04, 2012

Dining in a small town

Friday, May 04, 2012 By

Recently, Gawker gave us this awesome piece about small-town food journalism. The companion pieces are hysterical! It reminded me of growing up in a small town outside of Atlanta, Ga., and I thought I'd share my rambling memories.

I remember when the second McDonald's opened in Conyers, Ga. Up until that moment, kids' birthdays were backyard affairs - but a lucky few got to choose between a Burger King birthday party (with gold paper crowns) or a McDonald's birthday party (with a vastly superior playground).

Then they opened the second McDonald's, right down the street from Burger King on Hwy 138. This road was the main drag, the strip all the late-70s/early-80s teenagers cruised in their Firebirds and Mustangs and hand-me-down Lincolns. And even though most people in town had to drive right past the Burger King to get to the new McDonald's, every kid I know had their birthday party at that Mickey D's that year.

To the residents of Conyers, rating a second McDonald's was A Sign. It signified growth, change... perhaps even status. The town colloquially divided the two locations into "The Old McDonald's" and "The New McDonald's," and West Avenue's business appeal faded like the sun-bleached railroad ties that constructed the playground of The Old McDonald's.

Soon after, the Wendy's in the A&P Shopping Center moved to the same stretch of highway as its two competitors. Gone were the faux Tiffany lamps and newspaper-printed Formica tables. Blond wood and burgundy vinyl surrounded the all-you-can-eat salad bar. It was a dominating expanse of exotic vegetables like shredded carrots, pickled beets and chopped broccoli, over which spilled a splatter-pattern of salad dressing, reminiscent of the Spin Art toys that were so popular at the time. SAHMs of Rockdale County hated that toy. But they loved that salad bar.

Slowly, other restaurant signs winked on in the darkness: the "fancy" locally owned Italian place, with its overcooked rolls and pasta slick with cheap olive oil; the Greek pizza place, with the temperamental owner who hated teenagers and kicked us out more times than I can count; the Arby's that opened right beside the four-screen movie-theater-cum-arcade. I think I ate curly fries every day of 8th grade.

But for a "real" dining out experience, Rockdalians still had to travel to the culinary cluster surrounding the two closest malls, South Lake Mall in Jonesboro and North Lake Mall in Tucker. Y'all. We put the full weight of our proud Southern literary tradition to bear on those mall names.

At either mall-adjacent development, we could enjoy any culinary offering that mid-market suburbanites could imagine - from the exotic fried-with-sauce offerings of Main Chow Mein in the mall food court to the full 38-page menu and hanging-fern treatment at Bennigan's.

But it wasn't until I was in high school that it happened. You heard the whispers. You couldn't believe it. But then site prep started and suddenly it was real. It was The Great Coming of The Applebee's. A real Applebee's in our town! Y'all. It was a bar and a grill. The importance of this combination could not be understated. It was like the virgin run of the Reese's cup. Who put their peanut butter in my chocolate?! Doesn't matter. We're getting The Applebee's. Lo, how its light shine in the darkness. And it was good.

I'll admit that The Applebee's Bar and Grill had its naysayers. "It'll never last," they said. But it did. In fact, it thrived. And there were The Mozzarella Sticks. And though The Mozzarella Sticks were but few, a miracle occurred, and The Mozzarella Sticks did multiply and feed the masses. And the people rejoiced.

Tragically, I never ate there. I was very busy being a Sort-of Socially Conscious Person who hung out in Little Five Points, signed a lot of petitions I never read, and refused to eat meat. Dropping in on philosophy classes at New Acropolis didn't leave much time to spend money with the Proletariat. As a result, I missed a Rockdale High School Rite of Passage: That Applebee's Date Where You Tricked the Waitress Into Selling You Alcohol.

And the one time I intended to eat there - at the cast party after our high school Spring Musical - I totaled my parents' Oldsmobile on Salem Road with four other people in the car. Yea, though I walked through the scene changes of the musical with the wholesome religious message hidden amidst debauchery and gambling, I will fear no dark blue or maybe black pick-up truck that turns left in front of me when I have the light. A-hole.

I went off to college and the Conyers haute cuisine scene kept growing. Other restaurants joined The Applebee's. There was the short-lived Boston Market and some other small chains, and then the one-off local eateries that people referred to colloquially by location: That Thai Place in the Kroger Shopping Center; The Sushi Place Over By the Publix, and The Sushi Place Over On the Access Road. Finally, there was The Great Hooters Controversy. And rebels did protest the addition of The Restaurant of Sodom. But the zoning commission found no legal reason to refuse it. And the complimentary hot wings did grace the zoning commission's meetings for eons.

About 10 years ago, they opened Stonecrest Mall two exits away from the main highway. There is yet a third McDonald's across from the mall - in addition to various Darden and Brinker corporate restaurant offerings that are packed out every night. In about 20 years, Conyers/Rockdale County will probably serve as another cautionary tale of unregulated growth, a la Jonesboro/Clayton County. Though, technically, the mall is in Lithonia, but no one seems to realize that.

"The Old McDonald's" was torn down decades ago, and a Longhorne Steakhouse was built in its place. That Longhorne Steakhouse was then replaced by another Longhorne Steakhouse. In the future, aliens will visit the site and some extraterrestrial archaeology grad student will excavate the layers of construction and then write a thesis about how we built monuments to honor cows (Here's a secret: Egyptians just thought cats were just really tasty).

In time, the small town I grew up in was replaced by a traffic-choked suburban strip mall collective that is almost indistinguishable from any other of the small municipalities that surround Atlanta and transition commuters from urban center (Fulton County) to suburbia (Rockdale County) to Piedmont forestland (Newton County).

But there is a movement to preserve the "historic" Old Town Conyers, the four-block radius of two-story storefronts that adjoin the old railroad depot. There's a Thai Palace in an old historic house on Railroad Street. There's a homemade ice cream store called Creamberry's just a couple of blocks over. The old Evan's Pharmacy still offers lunch counter service and fresh lemonade.

Things are moving along in Conyers. You can get almost any cuisine you'd like. And they even have a tourist trap. The Whistle Post Tavern gives out free drinks whenever the train rumbles through Old Town. Y'all... it's a bar and a grill.


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