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An inside look at Atlanta's funky side

ATLANTA — There are apes on the walls of East Atlanta Tattoo.

It's tough to spot them all above the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of pierced and painted artists, or the girls in monkey masks and banana suits, or the scenesters chomping gourmet corn dogs around the fire pit in back. But the apes are there, installations in "Damn Dirty Apes," a Planet of the Apes-themed art exhibit featuring works by some of the city's most provocative young artists.

Meanwhile, a few blocks east, hundreds of fans are coalescing for a sold-out concert by Unknown Hinson, a vampire-styled rockabilly singer who also happens to provide the voice for a trucker-hat-wearing squid on a popular late-night cartoon series.

In most neighborhoods, a night this wild might be considered a change of pace. In East Atlanta Village, it's just another Saturday.

Atlanta has a bevy of renowned tourist attractions to offer the world, from tours of CNN to the Georgia Aquarium, from Underground Atlanta to the Varsity.

Yet there is much to love about the corners of the city that don't always make the hotel brochure racks. The South's most diverse and creative metropolis — this is, after all, the city that gave us Outkast, Adult Swim and Ryan Seacrest — has a side that glows with graffiti and crackles with life well past midnight. These hot spots are surrounded by homes, not hotels, and are as treasured by the natives as they are by visitors.

Here's a quick tour of Atlanta's off-the-grid fun-spots. Most of the business districts of the neighborhoods are just a few blocks long.

Little Five Points

Where is it? East of downtown Atlanta, along Moreland and Euclid avenues. It's less than a mile east of Freedom Park, home to the Carter Center and Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.

Every trip through alternative Atlanta must begin in Little Five Points. Since the '70s, the neighborhood's charming homes and eminently browsable storefronts have made the neighborhood a longtime gathering spot for hippies, college kids and curious out-of-towners on the prowl for quirky bargains.

The real draws are the retro-style used-goods store, from the Clothing Warehouse, with its wall of used cowboy boots, to Stefan's, which has a case of vintage eyeglass frames. For used books and music, visit A Capella Books, which has a nice selection of works on street art, and Criminal Records, which doubles as a comic store.

But there is quality high-end couture there, too: American Apparel, that multihued outpost of hipster minimalism, has a boutique here. So does Bill Hallman, one of Atlanta's top fashion designers. And the new-goods stores, from the quirky footwear mecca Abbadabba's to the "feminist bookstore" Charis Books, are citywide destinations.

For food, don't skip the Vortex. If you can get past the schlocky minigolf-style skull that doubles as a doorway, you'll find what are almost universally hailed as the best burgers in Atlanta — and a bottled beer selection that rivals that of a liquor store, from Delirium Nocturnum to local fave Sweetwater 420. At times there's a line out the door.

Wherever you eat, stick around for a show. Star Bar, a small club housed in a former bank (the vault is stocked with Elvis memorabilia), is a more than solid venue. But the biggest live-music player in Little Five Points is the Variety Playhouse, which draws top national rock, folk and world music artists. Sold-out shows are the norm.

East Atlanta Village

Where is it? The intersection of Flat Shoals and Glenwood avenues, east of downtown, just south of Interstate 20. Take the Moreland Avenue SE exit.

East Atlanta Village is a colorful haven for the well-traveled and the well-tattooed. This funky little elbow of a district tempers its predilection for monkeys and vampires with a pleasant line of bars, cafes and retro-inspired boutiques.

At the center of it all is the Earl, one of Atlanta's favorite live rock clubs. Acts there range from the dark and quirky (Unknown Hinson, say, or Jonathan Richman) to the poppy and melodic (Cat Power, Death Cab for Cutie). Playing there is a must for rising Atlanta bands.

But the Earl isn't the only hip bar in the area. With its dark nooks, leather couches and wood paneling, the Graveyard Tavern looks like a hunting lodge, but it's got a welcoming, independent feel, and occasionally hosts local art shows. Mary's, a happening gay bar, and the Gravity Pub, the Graveyard's punky neighbor, are also worth a visit.

The shopping is good, too. A short walk from the Earl sits Rockstar Gold, a music memorabilia store with a stack of Xeroxed zines by the door and boxes of vintage Rolling Stone and High Times magazines. And beyond that are funky and stylish shops like Natural Beauty, a half-salon, half-boutique, and the quirky Traders Neighborhood Store, offering a range of colorful gifts and decor.

Of the district's handful of restaurants, Kasan Red, a lovely little bistro at the corner of Glenwood and Flat Shoals avenues, is the best. It serves brunch until 4 p.m., so you can sleep in and still indulge your craving for grits, eggs Benedict and tender apple cinnamon muffins.

Virginia Highland

Where is it? North of Little Five Points and Inman Park, east of Midtown and southwest of Emory University.

It may not have the same indie cachet as Atlanta's other boroughs, but if you're looking for a one-stop date night, Virginia Highland is the place to go.

Stretching roughly 1 1/2 miles north from Ponce de Leon Avenue on Highland Avenue, this neighborhood is a near-seamless row of shops, restaurants and walkable neighborhoods. It would be easy to spend an evening at any spot along the district.

Take, for example, the corner of Highland and Ponce de Leon. In a single block, there's the Plaza Theatre, an independent that shows current films and cult midnight movies; the Cupcake Factory, a bakery specializing in totable minicakes; shops ranging from Urban Outfitters to the spacious Highland Row Antiques; and Pura Vida, an acclaimed tapas bar with a rich, inventive menu (try the delectable Huazontle al Idiazabal: beer-battered Mexican broccoli, Idiazabal cheese and rosemary aioli).

Or visit the north end of Virginia Highland, near the crossing of Highland and Morningside Drive. There, you can: dine on elegant comfort cuisine at Food 101; snag dessert at Yotopia, an upscale frozen yogurt shop; and shop at Outsider Inside Art or the quirky boutique Providence.

As you explore Virginia Highland, be sure to venture about a mile west on Ponce de Leon. You'll pass local landmarks the Clermont Lounge (see Page 7) and Paris on Ponce, a kicky boho antiques warehouse notable for (A) its sprawling assortment of eclectic furniture and decor, and (B) Le Moulin Rouge, a faux turn-of-the-century French cabaret in the back that offers tango lessons on the second Sunday of each month. Your run-of-the-mill antiques store, it's not.

Castleberry Hill

Where is it? Less than a mile south of the Georgia Dome, along Walker and Peters streets.

Southwest of Downtown Atlanta sits Castleberry Hill, an eclectic mix of industrial businesses, chic shops and galleries, old-school barbershops and new and renovated lofts.

As throughout much of the city, several of the condo complexes that are being developed to spur growth are either not full or not finished.

But Castleberry Hill has the makings of a breakout community. From Urban Fusion, a street-chic boutique with sneaker-inspired art on the walls, to No Mas, a cantina and gallery of Spanish-style home furnishings, the district offers a more contemporary vibe than its counterparts east of Interstate 75.

The nightlife scene is still growing — there are only a few restaurants, and still too many dormant storefronts. But venues like the ultrasleek Tilt Coffee Shop are worth a visit. The look inside is minimalist and modern, with ancient brick walls flanking an airy interior full of streamlined furniture and even a few small, flat-panel TVs. If you go, try a shot of espresso served with a flavor enhancer, such as bittersweet chocolate, dried cherries, walnuts or lemon zest.

A few more spots like this, and Castleberry Hill will be a can't-miss destination in its own right.

Inman Park

Where is it? East of Interstate 75, in a pocket of streets between Irwin Street/Lake Avenue and Decatur Street/DeKalb Avenue. It's just east of the Sweet Auburn District, home to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

Inman Park is no secret. People who make a lot of money live here. Cavernous old-South homes teeter on the edges of its green parks, and one of Atlanta's finest restaurants, Shaun's, sits within a block of the Inman Park rapid transit station.

But sprinkled throughout Inman Park are newer condo complexes stocked with young professionals, as well as home bases for a handful of creative businesses. At the edge of Inman Park, in the Old Fourth Ward district, are a couple of funky warehouses-turned-office parks, including Stove Works, which houses Atlanta's much-loved Rathbun's restaurant, home to chef Kevin Rathbun, a James Beard award winner. Rathbun's has won accolades from Esquire and Travel & Leisure.

A fun spot for breakfast is Lotta Frutta. Part smoothie shop, part fruit bodega, Lotta Frutta offers elaborate cups of fresh fruit, like the Limonatta, a mixture of fresh coconut chunks, cucumber, mango, melon, papaya, pineapple and watermelon with chili powder and lime juice. Or the Dolce Vitta, which blends apple, banana, kiwi, mango, orange, pineapple and watermelon, topped with vanilla yogurt, granola and honey.

There are snazzy home decor and fashion shops, too, like Laced Up, a destination for anyone wishing to become immersed in the world of hard-core sneaker hoarding. But the real draw of Inman Park is the look and color of the district itself.

Atlanta's antiquated brick walls serve as irresistible canvases to nationally known street artists like Totem, whose smirking ghost, Mr. Fangs, pops up on walls across the city.

The Krog Street underpass, just south of DeKalb Avenue in Inman Park, is the city's most famous virtual graffiti gallery. In every direction are cartoons and caricatures, slogans of peace, prayer and chest-thumping braggadocio, scribbled on the walls in puffy, airbrushed swoops and swirls. For those fascinated by street art, the minitunnel is as inspiring as the city's top museums, an underground shrine to those artists willing to sidestep the law for their craft.

The underpass isn't on any map. But like so much of Atlanta, it's an absolute work of art, concealed from the world in plain sight, visible only to those who seek it out.

Jay Cridlin can be reached at (727) 893-8336 or
cridlin@sptimes.com.

.IF YOU GO

Where to stay

The problem with venturing off the beaten path is that there's often no decent place
to stay.

You can't go wrong staying in Atlanta's Midtown area. Sure, it's full of swanky spots like the Four Seasons and the W Hotel. But there are also lots of fun restaurants like Agnes & Muriel's, a colorful '50s-inspired bistro with Bloody Marys that belie its June Cleaver vibe. Plus it's near the High Museum of Art, the sprawling Piedmont Park and the outstanding (if a bit creepy) Center for Puppetry Arts. I stayed at the Residence Inn by Marriott: Midtown (1041 W Peachtree St. NW, (404) 872-8885), a smaller, cheaper place with newer amenities but a historic feel.

Some Atlanta neighborhoods, like Virginia Highland and East Atlanta Village, are not easily accessible via the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit subway line. The good news is, Atlanta is dotted with stations for Zipcars, rent-by-the-hour autos that can take you wherever you need to go. Sign up to become a member at Zipcar.com, and you're good to go.

If you want to stay close to the action, here are four options:

• The Highland Inn: Near the happening intersection of Highland and Ponce de Leon avenues, the Highland is a popular spot for young travelers who want to stay on Atlanta's trendy east side. There's also an occasional cheeky burlesque show in the hotel's basement ballroom and lounge. 644 N Highland Ave.; (404) 874-5756, www.
thehighlandinn.com.

• The Gaslight Inn: This quaint B&B inside a 95-year-old home is lauded as one of Atlanta's finest under-the-radar places to stay. A few blocks from the Highland Inn, it's in a residential neighborhood near a fun row of shops and restaurants in Virginia Highland. 1001 St. Charles Ave. NE; (404) 875-1001, www.gaslightinn.com.

•The King-Keith House: This historic Inman Park B&B, a converted Victorian manse, is about a 10-minute walk from Little Five Points. But it's close to a transit station, not to mention the acclaimed restaurant Shaun's. 889 Edgewood Ave. NE; toll-free 1-800-728-3879, www.kingkeith.com.

• Heartfield Manor: Like the King-Keith House, the Heartfield Manor sits in a very nice Inman Park neighborhood, about 10 minutes from Little Five Points. 182 Elizabeth St. NE; (404) 523-8633, www.inmanpark.org/heart.html.

An inside look at Atlanta's funky side 05/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2008 4:08pm]

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