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The best Atlanta spots for visitors?

Downtown Atlanta
Jason Durden, WSB

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Atlanta was featured in a recent New York Times piece about places to go in 2014. Fancy!

The Times recommended people check out the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the College Football Hall of Fame and the new Atlanta Streetcar, none of which are up and running. But whatever.

It got me to thinking: What are the best places to take visitors? The places we might take for granted without a houseful of guests on the way? The Georgia Aquarium,  Zoo Atlanta, The World of Coke? Of course. Ditto Turner Field (for now), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Stone Mountain, the Atlanta History Center/Swan House, The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum  and Margaret Mitchell House. Not to mention Oakland Cemetery, the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Piedmont Park.

Sure. But how about the unique local gems that might not immediately leap to mind? I decided to become a tourist in my own town for a day and rediscover what I may have been overlooking.

First, let's eat. You already know to take visitors to trendy spots like The Optimist, Miller Union or King + Duke.  Pals with a sense of irony (or a tight budget) might want to check out low-brow local fare from the Waffle House, Chick-fil-A or The Varsity.

Well, I say take em to O.K. Cafe. Located at West Paces Ferry and Northside right off I-75, this kitchy palace of Southern comfort food is easy to get to, close to visitor-friendly places like the Governor's Mansion or Atlanta History Center, and parking is abundant and free.

And, oh, hey, Harper Lee. Hey. The place is named for a restaurant in "To Kill A Mockingbird" and a framed greeting from one of the South's most famous authors hangs in the entryway. (How's that for lit cred, Brooklyn?)

But none of that is what's really driving my recommendation. The fried cheese grits appetizer is.

Fried. Cheese. Grits. That's Southern on top of Southern on top of Southern right there, friends. If this dish was a person it would be have to be named Santa Claus Tooth Fairy Easter Bunny, to wholly encompass its near-mystical magnificence. I don't advise you to eat this often, or all by yourself. I love Jesus, but I'm not trying to meet Him tonight, if you get my meaning.

Speaking of Jesus, you can find His mama'nem at Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium, a quirky house of secular worship on Edgewood Avenue at Boulevard.

Humble though its exterior may seem, Church attracts a famous flock. '90s singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb showed up for a set one night. Owen Wilson, in town filming a movie once, lost his trucker hat to Church's high priest, Grant Henry, after a furious game of ping pong.

Ben Stiller took a shine to the place while he was here on movie-making business, too. Lady Gaga came in while in Atlanta on a concert tour and tried buying the Virgin Mary statue. No dice. The blessed mother is still behind the bar.

"I told her the reason I could't sell her was that Jesus would be motherless if I sold her the Virgin Mary," Henry said. "As long as Church is open, Jesus and his mom will be greeting the parishioners as they imbibe in Sister Louisa's sangria."

Right.

Well, moving on, three great spots to point out to visitors can be viewed from a passing car, which is fitting as that's most Atlantans' natural habitat. The Krog Tunnel: so artsy! The 1996 Olympic Games rings: so sporty! The historic, chopped-in-half red brick building on Spring Street near 14th Street: so ... huh?

The building, one of Atlanta's oddest, is a Georgia Power substation, begun in 1925 and completed in 1926. It was the first entirely automated substation in Atlanta – indeed, the entire South – and was originally built to service the streetcars that traveled Atlanta streets back then. Today it serves 3,000 customers.

Because that area of town was an elegant residential neighborhood back in the day, architect Isaac Moscovitz designed the building to fit in. The grounds were nicely landscaped to resemble an upscale front lawn, and the building itself is far more lovely than it really needed to be to house a bunch of equipment.

The substation building was scheduled for demolition in 1987, a wrecking ball-happy era in Atlanta (only a little over a decade before had the Fox Theatre been spared). But the building made its way onto something called the Urban Design Commission’s Inventory of Historic Properties, so the demolition plans were reined in. In a nifty bit of engineering Georgia Power had the building only partially taken down, then bricked up in back. The building sits on just 1.72 acres so it took some deft maneuvering to get all the equipment necessary for the partial demolition in and out of there. (Thanks to Georgia Power spokeswoman Konswello Monroe for the history lesson).

Amusingly, it is now just about the only structure in that area that still looks like a residence. But I still love riding past it. It feels homey and sort of bizarre, like a batty old aunt. It'll give your visitors something to talk about one their way home.

Before they leave, though, run them by the Sweet Auburn Curb Market for a Grindhouse burger, a YumDiggity hot dog, a cookie from Sweet Auburn Bakery, or fresh juices from Rawesome. And right by the door, stop for some pralines, popcorn or peanut brittle from Miss D's New Orleans Style Candy. Proprietress Dionne Gant was a visitor to Atlanta herself not so long ago. She relocated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

"Atlanta has become my new home," she said. "I love the hospitality, I love the blend of people and I love Georgia pecans."

I bought a bag of popcorn and a Coke for the road. Miss D was not finished with me, though, and started shoving pralines into a bag. Reporters are not supposed to take free stuff and I certainly didn't want to cut into her profit margin. She dispensed with my protests like she was swatting a gnat.

"Can I do this," she said. A statement, not a question.

"Let me pay you, Miss D," I protested.

"Come here and give me a hug," she directed, and my new friend of 30 seconds pulled me in for an embrace as sweet as her candy. "There. You've paid me."

My day as a tourist in my own town complete, I felt newly at home.

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