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Off-Beat and Budget-Friendly: An Atlanta Outing

When our getaway to the lake had to be cancelled, we were left with some free time, a modest budget, and a serious need to get out of the house for a while, despite a damp and rainy day. A little thought and computer searching turned up a trifecta that fit the bill: not just Southern-fried—truly specific to Atlanta.

Three destinations, making up a budget-friendly and slightly funky Atlanta outing you won't have to line up for. Well, that's not quite true for our last destination especially, as you'll see--but the queueing definitely won't be comparable to the wait you'd be likely to experience at one of Atlanta's theme parks!

The "Gold Dome."  Photo courtesy connor.carey and Wikimedia Commons.

The "Gold Dome." Photo courtesy connor.carey and Wikimedia Commons.

Georgia State Capitol

First up: the state Capitol museum. Located on the 4th floor of Georgia’s “gold dome,” this collection of artifacts, specimens and memorabilia has a lot to say about the state and its history. The first surprise for me was layout: I’d imagined an enclosed space somewhere, cloistered away from the everyday business of legislation. But that’s not how it is: the museum consists of display cases arrayed around the floor in more-or-less thematic arrangement. Your visit could have you rubbing shoulders with the Speaker of the Georgia House, perhaps the Governor himself, or—as in the case of our visit—a couple of interns welcoming a new colleague.

Under the real dome you can find this cutaway model.  Photo by author.

Under the real dome you can find this cutaway model. Photo by author.

The collection is diverse, to say the least, and ranges from the serious to the frivolous. On the serious side, generations of state geologists have contributed samples—and there’s even “Selenological” samples: you can see a few specks of Moon rock gifted by Richard Nixon. (Each state received some.) Equally otherworldly is the 219-pound iron meteorite uncovered in Social Circle, Georgia, in 1926. Its cut and polished surface—product of scientific study in 1950—is a surprise, too, looking rather like the finish on a modish refrigerator.

The living world gets its due, of course. The large ecological divisions of the state—from coastal wetlands to the North Georgia mountains—are illustrated with tableaux featuring characteristic animal and vegetable specimens.

"Ecozone" Display cases.  Photo by author.

"Ecozone" Display cases. Photo by author.

Paleohistory is not ignored. Georgia has produced her share of human and pre-human specimens which illuminate what once was.

Fossils in Georgia.  Photo by author.

Fossils in Georgia. Photo by author.

Artifacts of the original Americans.  Photo by author.

Artifacts of the original Americans. Photo by author.

The first tragedy of European contact in the Southeastern US was the genocidal expedition of Hernando De Soto (1539-42), which decimated the Mississipian cultures.  This figure attempts to reconstruct the appearance of a Mississipean chief.

The first tragedy of European contact in the Southeastern US was the genocidal expedition of Hernando De Soto (1539-42), which decimated the Mississipian cultures. This figure attempts to reconstruct the appearance of a Mississipean chief.

Less educative, perhaps, are the ‘freaks of nature’ contributed over the years. Most memorable is the two-headed calf; everybody seems to remember that. Its conjoined faces stare mournfully out at you from a display case placed—a little apologetically, perhaps?—in a corner, sharing space with a two-headed snake, a lever-action Winchester carbine—“the gun that won the West!—and other miscellanies.

"Hay-seed" or not, everybody remembers the two-headed calf.  Photo by author.

"Hay-seed" or not, everybody remembers the two-headed calf. Photo by author.

The political gets a nod, of course. Staying with the frivolous for a moment, the Jimmy Carter lunch box was a favorite election time goody for me. But there are also artifacts with more historical weight: the pen used in 1916 by Governor Nathan Harris to accept the first female lawyer in Georgia, for instance.

The "Emancipation Day" pen.  Photo by author.

The "Emancipation Day" pen. Photo by author.

To the credit of museum staff, painful parts of Georgia’s history are documented: a 1906 Parisian magazine cover , for example, shows us how international the shame of the Atlanta race riot truly was.

(For those unfamiliar with this dismal bit of history, Democratic gubernatorial rivals Hoke Smith’s and Clark Howell’s 1906 primary campaigns degenerated into a race-baiting contest. When allegations of sexual assaults on white women by black men were published on September 24, a spiral of violence began, and by the 26th, numerous black-owned homes and businesses had been destroyed by a white mob estimated at around 10,000. Unknown numbers of African Americans had been assaulted; an estimated 25-40 died. Two white men were also killed in the violence.)

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In fact, there’s even a display case dedicated to documenting political protest at the Capitol, from efforts to achieve racial equality in voting rights—African-Americans could vote in general elections in Georgia, but for many years the primary elections were whites-only, and with Republicans then-unelectable in the state, blacks could effectively only rubber-stamp the primary results—to efforts to get the first modern black legislators actually seated in the Legislature—to the 1941 “aw shucks” protest by University of Georgia students when the Governor fired three members of the university Board of Regents: “Grab your girl, get in your car, and let’s let the Governor know how we feel!”

Speaking of the University of Georgia and good ole-fashioned school spirit, the Museum could hardly ignore football. It will be surprising, perhaps, to many that the Georgia Legislature actually voted to ban the game.

In 1897, UGA fullback Richard "Von" Gammon was fatally injured while playing against Virginia. Georgia Tech and Mercer University disbanded their teams, while the Atlanta Journal proclaimed the "Death Knell Of Football" in the state. But Gammon's mother, Rosalind Gammon, wrote Governor Atkinson to implore him not to make her son's death the nemesis of the game that he had so loved. The governor vetoed the Legislature's ban, perhaps affecting the whole future sporting history of America.

It wouldn't be the South if football weren't acknowledged.  But it might not have been that way.  Photo by author.

It wouldn't be the South if football weren't acknowledged. But it might not have been that way. Photo by author.

All in all, the museum is a great, if slightly off-beat, rainy-day diversion (educational variety.) Access is free--but don’t bring firearms; while state legislators have worked diligently to advance the right to bear arms throughout Georgia, their own workplace remains an inexplicably gun-free zone, enforced by metal detectors and security guards. Erring, perhaps, on the side of caution, I was even careful to leave my pocketknife in the car.

The Capitol Museum is open during business hours: 8 AM to 5 PM weekdays, state holidays excepted. Guided tours are available, but must be booked in advance.

The Flying Biscuit by day, McClendon Ave and Clifton.  Photo by author.

The Flying Biscuit by day, McClendon Ave and Clifton. Photo by author.

The Original Flying Biscuit Cafe (Candler Park)

The Flying Biscuit by night.  Photo by author.

The Flying Biscuit by night. Photo by author.

Leaving a downtown well-equipped with dining opportunities, we chose to dine in Candler Park, at the Flying Biscuit. I had not eaten a full meal there, and had long wanted to sample its slightly “counter-cultural” vibe (reminiscent, in my mind at least, of the late, lamented Bluebird Café in Athens, Georgia.)

Detail, Flying Biscuit main room.  Photo by author.

Detail, Flying Biscuit main room. Photo by author.

Definitely in-town today, Candler Park was originally suburban. Its craftsman-style bungalows are much less grand than in neighboring Inman Park, and its small ‘business core’ on McClendon Avenue retains a certain 60s-ish funkiness.

"The Biscuit" and neighbors.  Photo by author.

"The Biscuit" and neighbors. Photo by author.

Photo by author.

Photo by author.

Inside the Flying Biscuit, that atmosphere is only reinforced--especially in the ‘sunflower room,’ which features panoramic murals, painted acoustic tile ceilings, trompe-l’oeille sunflower sconces, and a 1994 credit to the decorative artists responsible.

As if that weren't enough, classic rock welcomes baby boomers back to the days of their youth—OK, I knew every single song played during the hour and a half we were there!

The wait staff greets you with friendly informality--and an efficiency that runs, perhaps, a bit contrary to some stereotypes aroused by words like "funky" and "60ish."

Sunflower mural detail.  Photo by author.

Sunflower mural detail. Photo by author.

I don’t consider myself a food critic, but to my mind the food was delicious. We shared a plate of fried green tomatoes, and though their breading was not as crispy as I’d have preferred, the cashew-jalapeno relish—sweeter and less hot than I’d have expected—and goat cheese made an exquisite flavor combination. That was followed by fish tacos and a Flying Biscuit specialty, “Love Cakes.” Both succeeded admirably—though like the tomatoes the cakes were much moister than I’d expected. (An uncharitable palate might even call them “soggy.”) But the blend of flavors—the cakes are topped with tomatillo salsa, sour cream, feta cheese and red onion—was a treat, and the tacos were simply delicious. We finished our meal by sharing a slice of key lime pie. Key lime purists might object to the prominent flavor of the raspberry topping drizzled over it, but evidently we are not key lime purists; every crumb disappeared as if by magic.

The house’s signature biscuits, you ask? Well, yes, one came with the tacos, and it was as good as advertised—surprisingly substantial without seeming heavy, and quite tasty.

Sunflower room ceiling detail.  Photo by author.

Sunflower room ceiling detail. Photo by author.

I’d recommend the Biscuit. It’s got its own characteristic vibe, the food is good, and it is relatively inexpensive—our tab for the full meal was a tad over $60, including a bottle of Australian viognier. Skip the appetizer or dessert, content yourself with non-alcoholic beverages, and you could easily come in under $30 for two diners.

I’d have to concede, though, that there is a certain feeling of ‘tiredness’ about the place. Maybe it’s just that the Biscuit has become a franchise now; the website lists 13 locations, including three in North Carolina and one in Florida. Corporate energy has presumably been directed outward. But the original is still well worth a visit, and we thoroughly enjoyed ours.

  • The Flying Biscuit Cafe
    The Flying Biscuit Cafe, Atlanta's best restaurant for breakfast, lunch, dinner and catering.

Horizon Theatre

The centerpiece of our Atlanta outing was the show at Horizon Theatre, about a mile back toward the city, on the western fringe of the fabled Little Five Points neighborhood, where it blends into upscale Inman Park.

Candler Park may be a tad funky in its way, but it is in this respect thoroughly outshone by ‘Little Five,’ which is unquestionably the poster child for alternative Atlanta. "L5P" boasts (in addition to the Horizon) the Variety Playhouse concert hall, Seven Stages theatre and Dad’s Garage--not to mention a rotating cast of clubs, of which the Star Bar is currently the long-term survivor. The neighborhood has even been called “the Bohemian Center of the Southern United States.”

Little Five Points by night.  Cell phone pics always look grittier... photo by author.

Little Five Points by night. Cell phone pics always look grittier... photo by author.

The street scene was represented, the night of our outing, by a couple of jewelry crafters plying their trade right outside the police mini-precinct office, and a street magician introducing himself as “David.” He had an engagingly comic levitating cigarette routine, followed up with some very passable card tricks, all wrapped in a positive but not pushy performing persona. Just the act to enliven our stroll through the neighborhood and fill out some of the wait until showtime!

Horizon Theatre's main sign, on the corner of Austin Ave and Euclid.  (View of sign here is from across Austin Ave; Euclid is out of frame to the right.)  Photo by author.

Horizon Theatre's main sign, on the corner of Austin Ave and Euclid. (View of sign here is from across Austin Ave; Euclid is out of frame to the right.) Photo by author.

The Horizon has been around for nearly 30 years, and emphasizes local work—more on that later.

Despite their efforts—there’s a sign (pictured above) above) fronting Euclid Avenue which is quite hard to miss, and their website has a decent map showing the parking lot and its Euclid entrance—accessing the theatre is confusing. It’s located inside the Little Five Points Community Center, the former Moreland Elementary School now hosting a whole variety of arts and community organizations.

Austin Ave Community Center frontage, showing old Moreland Elementary sign.  The canopy visible at left is the eastern entry to the Horizon.  Photo by author.

Austin Ave Community Center frontage, showing old Moreland Elementary sign. The canopy visible at left is the eastern entry to the Horizon. Photo by author.

It’s not so bad from Austin Avenue; on that side there is a canopied entry that suggests a theatre marquee. But from the parking lot, it’s another story. Closest to the street is a small ‘front parking’ area, with signage for other organizations; there is a smallish sign to the right, directing you to a larger lot to the side of the building.

Horizon Theatre main parking, west side of Community Center.  Photo by author.

Horizon Theatre main parking, west side of Community Center. Photo by author.

Once there, you are still in doubt; though the Horizon has (literally) highlighted the entrance with strings of lights, there is nothing actually saying “Horizon Theatre” until you are inside the door.

Western entrance to Horizon Theatre.  Note small arrow sign to left of door and light strings marking entrance.  Photo by author.

Western entrance to Horizon Theatre. Note small arrow sign to left of door and light strings marking entrance. Photo by author.

Once you have found your way to the back of the building, you find very tiny lobby indeed, even taking into consideration the fact that Horizon seats only about 150 patrons or so. There’s a box office—basically a table—then, through a set of double fire doors clearly betraying the building’s scholastic past, a lobby—foyer might be a better word—offering coffee, bottled water and cookies for sale. Since reserved seated at the Horizon comes at a premium—general seating is $25 while a “VIP” reserved seat costs $40—the ‘groundlings’ tend to stick close to the doors in order to have an early choice of the available general seating. That waiting area tends to be crowded, and if, as on the night we attended, there is an event in the space preceding the show, admittance can be delayed. There’s not much to be done about it, except to be prepared for the wait.

"The Waffle Palace," Horizon's current show as of writing, seems to be a comic hit for the theatre.  Image courtesy of Horizon Theatre.

"The Waffle Palace," Horizon's current show as of writing, seems to be a comic hit for the theatre. Image courtesy of Horizon Theatre.

I’m glad to report it was worth it. The show was a new revival of the Horizon’s original production of “The Waffle Palace,” an unabashedly broad comedy based upon off-beat events which have really happened at Waffle House restaurants. (Playwrights Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee were tipped to write the show when Horizon Artistic Director Lisa Adler discovered that both she and Larson had been building similar clipping files of these happenings.)

The cast—Allan Edwards, Marguerite Hannah, Enoch King, playwright Larson, Eric Mendenhall, Mary Lynn Owen, and Maria Rodriguez-Sager—were sharp, the dialogue was funny, and the story-telling was characteristically Southern: zestfully over the top, blending slightly sentimental warmth with acerbic observation. The audience loved it, and I don’t fault their judgment a bit.

Audience members meet the cast of "Waffle Palace" following a performance.  This is SOP at Horizon, and one of the pleasures of small theatre.  Photo by author.

Audience members meet the cast of "Waffle Palace" following a performance. This is SOP at Horizon, and one of the pleasures of small theatre. Photo by author.

“The Waffle Palace” is gone now, but the Horizon is still there, creating distinctively local theatre. For example, Adler announced in her curtain speech—metaphorical at the Horizon, there’s no physical curtain in the house—that the 2014 season was to kick off with an original play exploring the experience of a suburban Atlanta community, Clarkston, in learning to accept a sizable influx of African refugees. Shows like these make the Horizon very definitely worth your support, if you care about local theatre. (And if you are on a budget, it’s a pretty good deal—the theatre has been known to offer promo discounts. Ours lowered admission to $15, not much more than local cineplexes are now charging.)

Little Five plaza, looking west.  Photo by author.

Little Five plaza, looking west. Photo by author.

So that’s our Atlanta outing—‘un-touristy’, good for a rainy day, chock-full of local flavor and not too expensive.

Some folks claim that Atlanta isn’t really part of Georgia, pointing to the proportion of residents born elsewhere--and often ‘up North.’ But I can’t agree. The South does urban, too—but it does it its own way. Sometimes the juxtapositions tell you a lot about what 'artsies' like to call the "human condition."