Feeding Atlanta's Appetite for College Football is No Easy Task
ATLANTA -- On Sept. 2, the college football world will be fixated on Atlanta. The biggest show of the sport's opening weekend -- No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State -- will serve as Mercedes-Benz Stadium's first, true opening act.
It's fitting that Atlanta officially kicks off the college football season with a clash of titans. The city is rich in history and college football fandom. Not only is it a melting pot for Southerners, but people from the Rust Belt and California tech world have migrated to the ATL. There might not be another city that houses so many different college football fan bases.
And when you're the hub of the South, you have a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of allegiances to cater to.
What makes Atlanta such a unique city for college football fanatics is the fact that the food scene simultaneously mirrors both big-city and small-town. There's a healthy mix between metropolitan and hometown coziness.
"It's people catering to the demands of people missing home," said James Zarzour, the Georgia regional sales manager for Athens-based Terrapin Beer.
In other words: Atlanta perfectly mixes fandom and food to take fans home on college football Saturdays.
Take Smith's Olde Bar, for instance. Lifelong Crimson Tide fan Dan Nolen opened it as a neighborhood music venue in the early 1990s after moving his family from Alabama in the late '80s. What started with a family friend standing on the roof continuously positioning the satellite to produce a clear picture of Crimson Tide games has morphed into a Saturday jamboree in midtown Atlanta.
"I have people coming in from all over town," said Beau Nolen, Dan's son and co-owner. "It gets pretty ... electric."
Even when Alabama football was painful to watch in the early 2000s (before Nick Saban arrived), Smith's Olde Bar would be filled to the brim with folks squeezing in from the neighboring Buckhead area, metro Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs.
"Those were the dark days of Alabama football," Beau Nolen said. "The team wasn't very good, and yet everyone wanted to watch them, and when you have 400 people jammed into your bar ready to watch Alabama football and it says 'channel not available' or you see it for a split second and it goes blank, and it's blacked out, and it's not refundable -- there were a couple of years where it was like, 'Screw it, this is not worth it.'"
Now, the Nolens are reserving tables for longtime Bama fans and customers on Saturdays. Sometimes, they'll even call regulars to make sure they are coming and to see if they need to reserve a table ... or two.
To help bring the Tuscaloosa Strip to Atlanta, Beau Nolen outfits his bar in full Alabama regalia, complete with crimson-and-white shakers. Tide memorabilia cover the walls, and a tailgate table complete with houndstooth tablecloth hosts his grandmother's cream cheese and sour cream dip, boiled peanuts and chips. Feeling parched? Just ask for the bar's signature Yellow Hammer cocktail, which Beau Nolen says is Southern Comfort and "a few other things."
"If you don't want to pay $500 [for a ticket to Saturday's game], you come to Smith's Olde Bar," Beau Nolen said.
But if your colors are more garnet and gold, don't worry: Tin Lizzy's Cantina in Buckhead has you covered. Started by four Florida State grads in 2005, Tin Lizzy's Buckhead location is all FSU, all the time. From tailgating in the parking lot -- yes, you can take your grill and cookout there while tacos are served around you -- to a giant, wooden, hand-painted spear, you're transported to Tallahassee.
"It's got such a personal touch to it that it does feel like a bunch of friends hanging out in their college town," Buckhead general manager Lauren Lenoir said. "You definitely would not know when you walk in on a football Saturday that you're in Atlanta."
Lenoir, a Tennessee graduate, has seen firsthand how personal the crowd can get. A couple of her regular customers made a half-Tennessee, half-FSU flag for her so she could wave both of her colors outside her house. One of her dearest customers, Don, will pregame at Tin Lizzy's before actually going to the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday. Unfortunately for his son, Nolen (naturally), the stadium trip won't be a family affair, but Tin Lizzy's has a spot waiting for him.
The heavy influx of FSU fans coming to Atlanta for the game will weigh on the staff at Tin Lizzy's. That means extra pounds of complimentary chips and queso for anyone wearing Noles apparel and even more post-Noles touchdown shots.
"We are bracing and preparing for one of our busiest days of the year," Lenoir said. "I won't put it at a Cinco de Mayo level, but we are going to be incredibly busy."
The scene at Diesel Filling Station in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood is unique. Started by former Auburn student Justin Haynie in June 2008, Diesel is a neighborhood grunge bar fitted for bikers, hockey fans and enthusiasts of the TV show "The Walking Dead." On college football Saturdays, locals cram in like sardines to share libations and sling blue-and-orange shakers into the air, as a younger, more college-aged Auburn crowd spills out on the patio.
"It gets a little wild and crazy out there," said Haynie, who recommends the Castor Troy wings -- the hottest of the hot -- and a bucket of tall boys if you're visiting for a game. "Lots of buckets of beers being thrown back, lots of chants getting started.
"If you're cheering for the other team, prepare for the noise to be blown out of the water, and if Auburn starts winning, sorry."
Now, if you're looking for a jack-of-all-trades venue, the IVY in Buckhead has you covered. Owned by Georgia graduates -- but accommodating to all fan bases -- The IVY features a 300-inch projector screen. Don't forget to order The Royale burger and its "saucer of cheese" that serves as an appetizer between the meat and buns.
"Saturdays are an enormous ball of energy," said Daniel Simmons, owner of The IVY. "In the fall, it almost becomes like a family reunion where you're just going to go and see your friends that you haven't seen in a while."
There are new additions to the college football-viewing scene. An extension of the new SunTrust Park for the Atlanta Braves is The Battery, which features a variety of shopping and dining options in the heart of Cobb County. While The Battery might be more than 10 miles outside the heart of Atlanta, Ben Brengle, the director of operations, believes it will become the hub for Saturday viewing for those in northern Atlanta and its suburbs.
"The only people we compete with are ourselves," Brengle said. "We add an entirely new market."
Reaching out to the OTP (outside the perimeter) crowd could eventually dip into the Buckhead and northern midtown business. The Battery houses multiple venues, the crown jewel being Sports & Social, a 15,000-square-foot, multistory sports venue with games ranging from Skee-Ball and shuffleboard to Hungry, Hungry Hippos.
Sports & Social holds 40-plus TVs, but also has a 30-foot TV which features a game voted upon by patrons. To go along with the main game, the audio system has been outfitted with 50-plus college fight songs. There are myriad college color schemes from the lights, and the screen doubles as a JumboTron, as cameras around the venue will help mimic stadium antics, like the Kiss Cam. The idea is to bring a 4-D feel to its inaugural college football season in Atlanta.
"We're gonna be coming out swinging," Brengle said. "Whatever game you're looking for, we'll have it."
This weekend, the city will be filled with Crimson Tide and Seminoles fans, but the beauty of Atlanta is that fans of many teams can find a home on a college football Saturday.