Let’s be honest: exploring the local area’s dining options is hardly the worst gig in the world. In fact, it’s been a pleasure more often than not.
We get asked questions. “What’s been your best/worst/weirdest meal?” “What wouldn’t you eat?” Those are easy.
The one that can’t be answered, however, is, “Which is your favorite restaurant?”
There’s no way.
We do have our crushes, and many of them are here. Enjoy reflecting on gastronomical delights past, then do yourself a favor and go try each one.
The year kicked off with a night out that quickly turned into a wonderful dinner at home after a visit to the crazy good Knuckle Sandwiches.
It’s been five years since Knuckle Sandwiches opened its doors on Broad Street. The bare-bones sandwich shop can be found at 1149 Broad, identifiable by the logo on the window — a bare-knuckle boxer with fists full of sandwiches.
Central to the most populated blocks downtown, Knuckle Sandwiches used to just capture the late-night crowds as they empty from the bars, but they’re now open Wednesday through Saturday from an 4 p.m. until… whenever. And it’s not surprising that they attracted the kind of attention that propelled them through their first five years in business; the aroma of damn fine food hits you from about a half-block away.
My husband and I went on a Friday evening, and downtown was packed. After a tiny three-block hike, following the beautiful smell of beef and pork was quite exciting. I’d never been to Knuckle Sandwiches before, though it had been on my list of musts for a while. Reading the online reviews, I saw rave after rave for the PBR-B-Q and found plenty of Knuckle Sandwiches fans.
First impressions? The restaurant is tiny. And this place is laid back. The whole place is low-key; completely absent of any bells and whistles. The drinks are on display in a couple of half-fridges, and the menu items are listed on separate wood signs on the wall. As are the directions on how to order. Customers can grab some paper towels and condiments from below the signs. Low-maintenance but totally effective business solutions.
The menu consists of eight choices. A cheese steak, a veggie burger, a bacon cheeseburger, chicken, the PBR-B-Q, wings, a grilled cheese and a hot dog. On occasion Knuckle Sandwiches throws a special dish on the menu, such as Tacos Rosados or Chili Cream Dogs, usually announced on Facebook.
Since it was early Friday evening and we had other plans, we got our food to go. We ordered, paid the $19 for our meal and then we waited/looked around/stared at each other for maybe five minutes until the food was ready. Simple and fast.
I opted for the Uppercut Cheese Steak — sliced ribeye, peppers, onions, mushrooms and all of it smothered with cheddar on toasted French bread with a side of chili ranch dip that I put on everything. My husband went with the PBR-B-Q — shaved beer-braised shoulder topped with cheese — and holy crap it smelled so good I was jealous.
No need! Turns out the most amazeballs food coming from Knuckle Sandwiches are the fries! My sandwich was really very tasty, and I can’t complain — it was everything I hoped it would be. But those fries. Yes, they are divine. Crispy and perfectly seasoned, they took only about three minutes for me to inhale. A few remained in my sandwich just to add another layer of awesome.
Knuckle Sandwiches is a convenient spot for some late-night munchies — delicious (not healthy) food to help soak up the brews. Don’t mistake it for anything else; just enjoy it for what it is.
1149 Broad Street
Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-until
In marked contrast, the next week delivered an exquisite dining experience at the newly refurbished Partridge Inn.
When word came that beloved local hotel and Augusta landmark, The Partridge Inn, was to join The Hilton’s Curio family of hotels, many agreed new management and an extensive $6 million renovation had made a difference. Despite its timeless appeal, the Inn certainly needed a facelift — but, it also needed something to draw folks to its restaurant, the P.I. Bar & Grill.
That “something” is a new team in the kitchen — a change to the Bar & Grill equally as refreshing as the new-look bar and revamped décor. Leading the way is Chef Robert Plouffe, a Quebec native and experienced executive chef, who promises to deliver an array of unique dining experiences that complement the Inn’s history and tradition, and appeal to the regional palate.
During a media dinner hosted by NorthPoint Hospitality Management, guests were treated to a generous sample of the chef’s new menu. The tasting included 17 small plates and appetizers, drinks and entrées, all selected to showcase the artistry and talent of Chef and his team. Indeed, from the choice of ingredients, to the plating, the entire event was visually delightful and immensely delicious. We enjoyed cheese plates (the goat cheese with tomato jam is intense comfort food dressed up like a canape), melt-in-your-mouth duck prosciutto with a black-eyed peas caviar, smothered catfish, and more.
The menu features a refreshing selection of dishes that appeal to local taste buds, but with a twist, such as the Georgia stout beer bacon-wrapped BBQ shrimp served on cheddar grits. Another Southern-inspired dish is the BLT on brioche. This beast features Benton’s bacon jam, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp salad remoulade on fresh brioche; a combination of textures and flavors that undeniably unite in harmony, yet with distinct notes that each reflect elements of Augusta’s Southern heritage.
The chef likes to play with his food. From edible flowers and popcorn-infused rum and coke, to rock candy topping a lemon curd tart, the chef’s playfulness is a pleasure to experience.
The Partridge Inn
2110 Walton Way, Augusta
Amy Christian revisited one of Augusta’s more established downtown destinations. The Sports Center is a hidden gem — though it’s not likely to be called a gem by anyone who hasn’t been. The rest of us know otherwise.
It’s been two hours since I left Broad Street’s The Sports Center. I still reek of grilled onions and haven’t gotten a thing done at work since, but damn was it worth it.
Haven’t been to The Sports Center? It’s understandable. It’s a little sketchy looking and located right next door to Luigi’s, so most people walk right on past.
That’s their first mistake.
Once in the door, the next mistake would be not ordering a beer, even if you go there on a weekday for lunch. The Sports Center doesn’t have much of a selection — their four taps carry everything from PBR to Killian’s — but a large beer served in a frozen fishbowl mug is $2.25. That, my friends, is only 75 cents more than a Coke. It doesn’t make fiscal sense not to have a beer!
After ordering drinks, take a good long look around, preferably from a seat at the bar. The ‘70s and ‘80s vibe is perfectly preserved here, from the beer advertisements on the wall, one of which features a girl with feathered blonde hair in an extremely high cut one-piece swimsuit, to the dark wood paneling and pool tables in the back.
The plumbing hearkens back to those eras too. There’s one bathroom in the joint and it barely has enough room for the toilet. Seriously: the mirror and sink are outside the bathroom, in the dining area of the restaurant.
I know, I know: I’m not doing a very good job of selling a visit to The Sports Center to anyone who hasn’t already been. Those who have tried the Sports Center, however, know a secret: inside the welcoming but somehow forbidding front door (seriously, check out the sign) lives the best old-school hamburger with a side of onion rings the city of Augusta has ever seen.
Why call it old-school? Because The Sports Center doesn’t give you a choice when it comes to buns or fancy ingredients. What they do give you is a beautifully cooked hamburger or cheese hamburger with everything on it unless you specify otherwise. Everything includes ketchup, mustard, mayo, grilled onions, lettuce and tomato.
Before we go any further, it bears mentioning that The Sports Center has a lot more on the menu than just hamburgers. Those menus, in little plastic holders on the bar and on each table, list everything from a Gut Buster Hot Dog Special and a shrimp dinner to cheddar poppers and grilled chicken salad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone order anything besides hot dogs and hamburgers, though.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason people are willing to wait a little while to get their food: It’s just a damn good burger.
It’s so good that you don’t mind waiting nearly a half-hour for it from a seat at the bar directly in front of a game station that, thanks to Penthouse, kept showing me pictures of almost naked women.
It’s so good you don’t mind smelling like the grill and the fryer, both of which sit in a small cooking area behind the bar at the front window, for the rest of the day.
It’s so good that you’d pay a lot more than the $9.75 (cash only) this place charges you for a burger, onion rings and a beer.
When the cook finally does place the baskets in front of you, it’s almost like a mirage, a gift too good to be true. That feeling only lasts a second, however; then it’s a race to grab some paper towels (because you’re going to need all you can get) and squeeze some ketchup onto the basket’s paper lining before digging in.
The only question is what to start on first. I chose the onion rings because they’re my favorite version of this classic in town. They’re not perfectly formed or perfectly round. They’re not gigantic and they’re not heavily breaded. On the other hand, they’re not greasy at all, they’re incredibly crunchy and they taste like onions (rather than the breading). I had almost inhaled half of them before I remembered my burger.
Like I said before, this burger isn’t fancy, but that is what makes it so great. It’s thick and juicy, well-seasoned and perfectly dressed. You’ll make a bit of a mess eating this burger, but you never feel like eating it is completely unmanageable.
So don’t judge a book by its cover when it comes to The Sports Center. If you do, you’ll only have yourself to blame for missing one of the best burgers in town.
The Sports Center
594 Broad Street
Referrals are always welcome, and Sawasdee was one of them. The Thai restaurant is exactly the kind of place that deserves “discovering,” and for many reasons.
The CSRA is home to only a handful of Thai restaurants; in fact, at this moment, my brain’s only recalling three, but I may be way off. Regardless, the number is definitely small when you consider we have at least one Chinese takeout for every 40 people in this town.
Sure that might say something about supply and demand, but here’s the thing — as a populous, we are familiar with only so many cultures on a mass scale. We’re down with some Italian, Chinese, Mexican and Japanese. We know what to do with chips and salsa, egg rolls and sushi, and many of us can use chop sticks just fine.
But deviate from these and you’ll find many people out of their depth and afraid to ask for guidance. And usually, if we don’t know what we’re dealing with, we are less likely to try it out.
So it helps when a small Thai restaurant, like Sawasdee (pronounced sa-wa-dee), brings their authenticity to the table, educates their customers and makes them feel comfortable. Not something I anticipated when my husband and I arrived early on a Saturday evening.
Sawasdee took up residence in what used to be home to Matsu Sige on Washington Road, in the strip mall to the front and left of Carolina Pottery. The corner unit offers the benefit of ample parking, but as with all restaurants on any main road in the CSRA, unless you really love asphalt and gaudy signage, you just know there’s no gawping out the window at decent view.
Thankfully, once you’re inside, the Augusta we all know just disappears. The space was designed and decorated to welcome the natural light and help customers relax — the walls are a sunny pale yellow and feature wooden inlays and traditional art pieces. The music is totally soothing.
There is plenty of seating throughout the various little dining areas, and we were seated immediately. Menus were in hand just a few moments later. We ordered drinks and started trying to figure out what we were going to eat — for me, the stakes were pretty high. I’ve had plenty of Thai food before, but what it was I could not tell you, I just knew it was delicious and I’d be happy putting it in my belly again. I also knew the food was likely to be salty, sweet, sour and spicy all at once, but I had no clue what to do with that knowledge.
Plain ass ignorant.
The first thing I chose was my drink, a Thai coffee — and that I got right. A Thai coffee is a dark, but not bitter, sweetened iced coffee brewed with cardamom and topped with a thick cream. It tastes better than anything piped out of those logo-cupped “coffee” shops and at about 2/3 of the price — and it’s served in a large glass with a straw.
My husband’s mango smoothie was ridiculous. Fresh, full of the crushed fruit and ice, creamy and sweet without any cloying aftertaste; I ended up drinking half of it after finishing my Thai coffee, and gave serious consideration to getting another to go. It was that good and I have zero regrets.
The food was where I fudged.
We ordered the Pad Thai, because duh, that has to happen. It was perfect. The pork complemented the spicy noodles, bean sprouts and nuts and the portions were generous.
Me, well, I’m an idiot. I went for a stir fry — the Pad Ka-Na — meat and broccoli fried in garlic and the “special sauce,” and chose beef as the meat. I didn’t ask about the special sauce, because all I was thinking was “veggies, beef and garlic!” Can’t go wrong with that!
Nope. Thailand is an emerging economy and though their staple food is rice, they are heavy on using seafood and fish sauces. As it happens, that includes one of the main ingredients in the special sauce — oyster sauce.
The plating is lovely at Sawasdee. Nothing extravagant, but pleasing to the eye. My Pad Ka-Na arrived with a separate rice bowl and platter, and a large plate of beef, carrots and broccoli. All the ingredients were cooked to perfection — the fresh vegetables were still crunchy, and the beef was excellent — but, the sauce made me wonder what I was eating. I kept looking for hidden seafood because I was convinced I could taste something fishy, until it dawned on me that the special sauce was the likely culprit.
We were being served by a senior member of the staff — either a manager or an owner — and she was fantastic. When she discovered I was having difficulty finishing my food, I was able to explain that, though there was absolutely nothing wrong with the preparation, my palate simply wasn’t happy with the combo of beef and oyster. Immediately, she firmly and kindly told me she would get me something else and I wasn’t allowed to leave hungry.
A few minutes later she set a plate of pastries in front of me, smiled and left me to it.
Accompanied by a vinegar-based dipping sauce featuring peppers, cucumber and onion, the pastries were filled with a piping hot curried chicken and potato mixture. As soon as I took a bite I wished I had ordered one of their curry dishes. It was divine — seasoned so well that I am hesitant to guess all that went into it, and that is truly rare. The pastry was excellent — flakey but firm — and the dipping sauce popped on the tongue, adding a bright note to the pungent curry without overpowering the flavor.
My Pad Ka-Na regret melted away and I was left feeling like Sawasdee gave a crap, and without hesitation I will return. They really want their customers to be happy — their struggle is to attend to a Western palate without betraying their authentic recipes or offending the locals. In my opinion, with food and service like theirs, and with a willing customer base, they can do it.
Sawasdee Authentic Thai & Noodle House
3836 Washington Road, #7
Amy popped into local café, Buona Caffe, for a coffee and a bite to eat. Inviting in every way, Buona Caffe has a loyal customer base thanks to its welcoming staff, caffeinated brews and tasty treats.
There’s a framed piece of art in one of the dining rooms at Buona Caffe, a watercolor and ink print by local artist Kenneth James Benson. Its subject is many of the main characters of “Twin Peaks,” with FBI Agent Dale Cooper near the center holding a cup and saying “This is a damn fine cup of coffee.”
As a huge fan of the early ‘90s crime drama from notoriously eccentric director David Lynch, I really want that print. Honestly, though, it’s probably better off where it is, since Buona Caffe has the finest coffee in Augusta.
Owned by John and Pat Curry, Buona Caffe started as a hobby, with John grinding beans for the couple then experimenting with roasting. They began selling the beans to other people in 2010 and quickly made a name for themselves. When they opened a coffee bar in 2013, the only thing people were surprised by was the location.
Even the dubious placement of their coffee bar, in a building that hasn’t been kind to previous tenants, hasn’t stopped the Currys, however. Business continues to boom and the buzz isn’t all from the caffeine. They provide beans to a number of local and regional restaurants, including Frog Hollow Tavern and The Bee’s Knees. Heck, they even provide coffee to the Georgia Governor’s Mansion.
And they continue to grow. The Currys have had to buy a bigger coffee roaster. They recently rolled out a new logo and slogan (Happily Caffeinated). Their coffee appreciation class, a 90-minute session that includes a bag of beans to take home, had a waiting list almost as soon as they opened registration.
Visit Buona Caffe and you’ll leave knowing why people love this place, and it’s basically for three reasons: good coffee, good food and a knowledgeable staff.
I admit that I’ve only been to Buona Caffe a couple of times and it’s been a while. So on a recent Friday afternoon, when I realized at about 2:30 p.m. that I hadn’t had lunch yet, I began looking around online and saw pictures of their pear, asiago cheese and rosemary scones.
That was all the prompting I needed.
I got there only to discover that there were no scones in sight, but that they had two quiche choices available in addition to a small selection of sandwiches. It’s not often that I’m not in the mood for a pimento cheese sandwich, but quiche sounded like a good pick-me-up to go with the latte with (homemade) mocha syrup I ordered. The problem was deciding which quiche to order, the spinach and red pepper or the bacon and mushroom. I went with the former.
Once I ordered I began looking at the bags of beans that line a shelf opposite the ordering counter. They helpfully have a list of their roasts pinned to the shelf that tells customers the name of the roast, what kind it is (medium, dark, etc.) and tasting notes. I enlisted the help of the woman making my latte and, after I told her what I liked (dark, strong coffee but more rich and smooth than bright and acidic), she pointed me to the Bali Blue Moon. After having two big cups of it the next day, I can tell you it was the right choice.
Oh, and if you don’t have a grinder at home, they’ll grind the beans for you.
Once I received my sizeable mug I began to look around, and one of the things I like about Buona Caffe is that you feel like you’re in someone’s home. Large windows dot the space and the walls are oranges and yellows. The furniture is a hodge podge, but everything somehow fits together well.
I sat by a window in a room to the left of the counter and amused myself by looking at the other artwork until my husband, with teenager in tow, arrived from school. The kid ordered a cinnamon roll, warmed up, and a soda, while Jim ordered an iced chai.
My quiche had arrived by that time and I dug in while Jim made quick work of his chai. As for my latte, it was almost too pretty to drink, but I was pleased to find that, unlike some other coffee places, a coffee drink with syrup at Buona Caffe doesn’t mean you’ll get two pounds of sugar in your drink. Yes, I could taste the syrup, but it was barely sweet. Just good.
The quiche was excellent, although I could have used a lot more spinach. Anybody who’s cooked with spinach knows that it’s a tough thing to judge; you could think you put a ton of it in the recipe but, once cooked, it’s like it’s hardly there. Aside from that, it was lovely, with lots of cheese and a buttery, flaky crust.
I was happy to see that the cinnamon roll, like the latte, was flavorful without being a sugar bomb. The kid would have liked more icing but, then again, I think she eats cinnamon rolls just for the icing. I thought it was great.
I’m anxious to go back to Buona Caffe and taste their regular coffee made using the manual pour over method. They say it takes about four minutes (except for a couple of hours every weekday morning when they make some in advance) to prepare the coffee using a glass carafe topped with a glass cone and a filter. Basically, they put the ground beans in the cone and pour hot water over it and let the coffee filter through.
It’s just one of the many fascinating sounding items on Buona Caffe’s menu that will keep me coming back. The only thing missing from that menu is pie. Add slices of cherry pie and I, like Agent Cooper, would be happy indeed
1858 Central Avenue, Augusta
While it’s truly not possible to pick a favorite, the love locals feel for Hildebrandt’s Deli is justified, and its array of simple, but insanely delicious sandwiches, among other bonus factors, makes it a firm contender.
The name is an indicator of its heritage, but it’s the slogan that exposes the heart and soul of one of downtown’s oldest family-owned businesses, Hildebrandt’s: Part German. Part Southern. All Welcome.
Located on 6th Street, Hildebrandt’s is still operated by the family that bears its name, and it still resides in the same Gothic brick building it has occupied, next to the train tracks, for 137 years.
The German-inspired delicatessen first opened its massive doors in 1879 in the form of a local grocery store, owned and operated by Nicholas Hildebrandt. By popular demand, the general store began selling sandwiches in the 1960s, and gradually emerged as primarily a delicatessen in the 1990s. Customers can still find some general items in-store; some paper products, potatoes and some fresh veg, bread and a few canned goods, and a few other things. But, says Rick Marschalk, the focus is on providing Hildebrandt’s customers with a unique dining experience. And they really do.
“Our value proposition is a little different from other sandwich shops and delis. We offer the flavor of high quality meats and cheeses and popular sandwiches, such as the Reuben. So there’s that, and the unique and memorable experience.”
Hildebrandt’s has tapped into the German culture to bring downtown various quality sliced sandwich meats, both well-known such as pastrami, salami, buffalo chicken, and corned beef, and those not-so-well-known, such as braunschweiger, and yachtwurst. The deli menu caters to all tastes, and includes an equally wide variety of deserving cheeses. And there’s the bread; an arguably crucial part of the sandwich eating experience. They do good bread.
At Hildebrandt’s, these ingredients draw people in through its terrifically old doors, but they aren’t the only reason they stay. Nor are they necessarily the only reason these customers return.
Rick Marschalk says it’s just something that has evolved and developed throughout the decades. “You can’t get this elsewhere,” he explained, “You can’t make this.”
Marschalk, a cousin of the fourth-generation Hildebrandt and current owner, Luanne, went on to explain that the deli’s purpose is to give people joy. Welcoming them to the deli is an eclectic mix of old furniture, family portraits, antiques and collectables, and large food counters and display cabinets in the center of the spacious dining area. A line of bookshelves along the left hold an array of Hildebrandt’s own merchandise, chips, drinks, and a selection of sauces from other local food places, such as DiChicko’s. There’s plenty of laughter, groups of people talking and dining — the effect is a warm humming hub of conversation accompanied by the smell of good food.
Diners order at the counter — probably from Joyce Marschalk — and take a number with them to a dining table of their choice. Sit at the front and the light pours through large windows, illuminating the numerous wood tables and chairs. Sit at the back near the kitchen and you can choose from one of the square marble or wood-slab tables that make Hildebrandt’s feel more like a vast family dining room rather than a restaurant. It’s comfortable and comforting.
The menu includes classic sandwiches that customers rave about — the Reuben (featuring pastrami or corned beef) is utterly off the chain. Not one of the generously-portioned ingredients overwhelms the other, and the lightly toasted, thin rye bread, packs enough flavor to hold its own against the sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and dressing. It’s a sandwich that makes you happy and it can easily become a habit. As can other favorites, such as the King Louis — a beast packed with four meats and two cheeses of the customer’s choosing. Unless they need help, in which case the staff will offer suggestions or even do the choosing for you.
Lunch is served fairly quickly, though a rush can slow things down a little. Customers are encouraged to call their orders in ahead of time, to include outside catering and bulk orders. The kitchen is usually working at a steady rate from 11 a.m. until closing at 3 p.m. The hours are manageable for the family, all of whom are pulling together to help keep the restaurant running smoothly. The collective effort is understandable and the additional hands are crucial, especially since Luanne is in her 60s.
Together, the Hildebrandts and Marschalks have re-branded the store to encourage people to see beyond the name, which Rick Marschalk says can confuse folks. People who need or want to know more should definitely find the deli on Facebook and Instagram, or check out their website dasdeli.us which features their fabulous menu and a downloadable sandwich ordering form.
Hildebrandt’s has emerged as a multi-century tradition in Augusta, becoming a regular lunch spot for people from all over the CSRA, something the Hildebrandt’s team is keen to foster and grow throughout the community.
“We want everyone to feel welcomed at the store,” Marschalk explained, “and we want everyone to have a memorable experience and feel awesome eating one of our sandwiches. Everyone. Literally; we really do mean all welcome.”