Watershed on Peachtree
For years, Atlanta's most-buzzed-about fried chicken could be found at a tiny spot called Watershed, and only on Tuesday nights. When Watershed closed its doors in late 2011, fans freaked. But the restaurant that made fried chicken cheffy and cool is back, with a swanky new location and a slightly tweaked name.
The legendary recipe wasn't touched—a 24-hour saltwater soak, a 24-hour buttermilk soak, then lightly floured/salted/peppered and pan-fried in a mixture of butter, lard... and ham. Fried Chicken Night is now on Wednesdays, but only until they run out. There may be fewer than 130 four-piece servings available, and it's likely to be long gone by 8 p.m. Simply magical.
Watershed on Peachtree: 1820 Peachtree Road NW, Atlanta, GA 30309; 404-809-3561; watershedrestaurant.com
Mary Mac's Tea Room
This stretch of intown Atlanta in the skyline's shadows used to be home to over a dozen classic Southern tea rooms, but this is the only one left.
Fill out your own order on a notepad as you enjoy complimentary potlikker (the liquid left behind after boiling collard greens, seasoned with pork and served with cornbread for sopping). The nostalgia of downhome sides like sweet potato soufflé, okra, and fried green tomatoes sometimes overshadows the basic fried chicken, but Mary Mac's is a quintessential tradition with one-of-a-kind Southern hospitality. How many other restaurants have a Goodwill Ambassador visiting each table to give guests a back rub as they dine?
Mary Mac's Tea Room: 224 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30308; 404-876-1800; marymacs.com
Curly's Fried Chicken
You smell Curly's before you see it, a tiny walk-up shack on the city's west side with just four parking spots and five small tables out front. Create your own combo out of ripping hot breasts, legs, wings, and thighs. Or mix in fish and jumbo shrimp if you're feeling crazy. Sides include mac and cheese, Cajun rice, and French fries (the curly variety, of course).
Like it spicy? Try Buddy's Secret Sauce... but the regular fry job has plenty of kick on its own. Either way, wash it down with a 20-ounce Styrofoam cup of actual Kool-Aid (lemonade, "red," or "purple") and a fried pie, which may be the closest thing to Mickey D's old-school version that still exists.
Curly's Fried Chicken: 1021 Howell Mill Road NW, Atlanta, GA 30318; 404-872-7888; curlysfriedchicken
Gladys Knight & Ron Winans' Chicken & Waffles
Yes, THAT Gladys Knight. After the Pips but well before Dancing with the Stars, the R&B diva teamed up with gospel music legend Ron Winans to open a restaurant featuring the old-school soul food combo of fried chicken and waffles.
The Midnight Train is a quartet of golden-fried wings and a jumbo waffle on the same plate... and if you happen to let a little of that syrup drizzle over onto the wings, you won't be sorry. Not a wing nut? Produce your own smash hit by ordering pieces and waffles a la carte. Or try the smothered chicken, a fried boneless breast served over white rice and doused in rich gravy. Just remember to order the Specialty Waffle of the Day on the side.
Gladys Knight & Ron Winans' Chicken & Waffles: 529 Peachtree Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30308; 404-874-9393; gladysandron.net
The fried chicken at Matthew's Cafeteria is available for lunch on just Tuesdays and Fridays, inspiring a line that's sometimes 30 deep and doubles up on itself like a ride at Six Flags.
It's true cafeteria-style, so grab a plastic tray and slide it down, choosing dessert first and pointing at grandma-sized sides through the sneeze guard. Build your own platter with breasts, thighs, and legs in whatever quantity you want to pay for. It's all got a thick, crisp coating on it that encases juicy meat underneath. And it's piping hot, which only encourages you to eat quickly, and therefore surrender your coveted seat in one of three fluorescent-lit dining rooms to someone who's just gotten through the line.
Matthew's Cafeteria: 2299 Main Street, Tucker, GA 30084; 770-939-2357; matthewscafeteria.com
South City Kitchen
For 19+ years, executive chef Chip Ulbrich's restaurant has been specializing in the "Southern Cuisine" that's become a national obsession. When it comes to fried chicken, he prefers an airline breast: a boneless breast with the first bone of the drumette still attached. (In the 1960s, many airlines' in-flight meals included this smallish cut, which left part of the wing to make it appear larger, according to lore.) What I know for sure is it makes for a pretty presentation, especially when served atop mashed bliss potatoes and garlic collard greens, with a honey-thyme jus around the plate. It has crisp skin with a peppery kick, and is among the best high-end interpretations of this comfort classic in the city.
South City Kitchen: 1144 Crescent Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30309; 404-873-7358; southcitykitchen.com
Greenwood's on Green Street
This one has been a rustic fave in the northern 'burb of Roswell since 1986. A former residence, one room was constructed from yellow poplar timbers that date back to the 1800s. Yeah, it's old-school. The famous fried chicken doesn't hit the fryer until you order it, so plan on waiting at least 30 minutes. It's well worth it, though, dipped in honey-pepper sauce for a unique tangy twist on the Southern staple. The crunchy shell of crisp, craggly crust breaks off in thick pieces and covers every square centimeter of the chicken, with no bare spots to be seen. Be sure to save room for Greenwood's legendary pies; each "slice" is a quarter of the pie.
Greenwood's on Green Street: 1087 Green Street, Roswell, GA 30075; 770-992-5383; greenwoodsongreenstreet.com
Busy Bee Café
You know it's good because it's always packed with cops. But the small tables crowded together have also seen their share of local politicians, reporters, singers, rappers, and professional athletes, all of whom grace the walls in autographed-photo form. Order the two-piece fried chicken and specify white or dark meat, or one of each.
The skin has a great crunch with juicy meat inside, thanks to a 12-hour marinade and pure peanut oil bath. You can also get your bird smothered in pan gravy. The tiny parking lot is hard to navigate, but worth it, and if you need help directing traffic, a police officer shouldn't be more than a few minutes away from leaving.
Busy Bee Café: 810 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Atlanta, GA 30313; 404-525-9212; thebusybeecafe.com
Carver's Country Kitchen
For a place that's only open 20 hours a week, Carver's makes the most of it. Even leg and thigh fans come for the Dolly Parton Chicken Breast, easily over a pound of meat. The super-crunchy skin shatters on impact and flakes off in crumbs that you end up scrabbling around for with your fingertips to rescue.
A rotation of sides changes daily, with choices often numbering over a dozen but their most famous is the baked ham and hash brown casserole. Founder Robert Carver passed away in March, but the chicken remains the same; his family (who still runs the cash-only place) jokes that he couldn't cook worth a lick and was there mainly to greet customers and peel potatoes anyway.
Carver's Country Kitchen: 1118 West Marietta Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30318; 404-794-4410; carverscountrykitchen.com
The Big Chicken KFC Landmark
Of all the destinations for chicken in Atlanta, only one is an actual navigational beacon for commercial pilots on approach to ATL (the airport). The seven-story sheet metal sculpture, with its motorized googly eyes and opening-and-closing beak, dates back to 1963. The storm- and age-worn Big Chicken edifice was slated for demolition in '93 until an outraged public learned of the plan. The refurbished landmark still stands tall today, with its own merch shop inside.
As for the fried chicken, sadly, it's just Colonel Sanders-grade KFC. But to list fried chicken joints in this town without a wink and a nod to this kitschy one-of-a-kind landmark? That'd be cluckin' crazy.
The Big Chicken KFC: 12 Cobb Parkway N, Marietta, GA 30062; 770-422-4716