FARM BURGER (100 Prince Ave., 706-850-3184): This franchise gets some credit for originating in Athens, even though this new location is its 13th and the first in its hometown. Jason Mann, Farm Burger’s co-founder, was also a partner in the departed and dearly missed Athens restaurant Farm 255, which focused on farm-to-table cuisine in a serious way, not as a buzzword. He then moved on to Farm Burger—opening its first location in Atlanta and expanding from there, attempting to bring a similar spirit of locally driven cuisine to a burger chain. It’s been wildly popular in many towns: Atlanta, Nashville, Asheville, NC, etc.
The Athens location feels more Atlanta than Athens, occupying a snazzy new space on the corner of the 100 Prince development. There’s currently a luxurious amount of free parking behind the building, and the wide spaces made of beautiful concrete have the vibe of a big city, not a college town that sometimes prides itself on rattiness. Inside, things run smoothly. If you order your food online (which you can do easily), it’ll be ready when you expect. There’s a separate, well-marked line for pick up. In keeping with an eye toward sustainability, you have to ask for packets of condiments or utensils rather than the restaurant throwing them in willy-nilly.
The burgers come in beef (grass-fed, no antibiotics), chicken (no antibiotics or hormones), pork (pasture-raised) and two vegan options: Beyond (plant-based but resembling meat) and house (quinoa, black-eyed peas, kale, roasted mushrooms, sweet potatoes and spices; a mushier thing but one that tastes more like vegetables). Most folks opt for the beef, but I found it unsatisfying, undersalted to the point of disappointment, and at the same time drippy with toppings. You could say that I opted for too many things on top of the patty, and that might be true. But it also needed that help, unable to stand on its own. You might want a fork, though, or a lobster bib. Better, perhaps because of lower expectations, was the chicken burger, which comes with smoked gouda, kale slaw, crispy onions and sherry-date barbecue sauce. I also preferred the house vegan burger with arugula, tomato chow chow and vegan mayo, which is nicely balanced if, again, a bit goopy. Basically, if you opt for things on the healthier side of the spectrum, you may be happier than if you go in seeking decadence. The Superfood Salad (lacinato kale, crispy chickpeas, butternut squash, sunflower seeds, nutritional yeast, grainy mustard vinaigrette) beats the pants off the fries. The Farm Salad (greens, beets, garlic broccoli, sliced radishes, local feta, farm goddess dressing) is better by far than the onion rings, which are crisp but flavorless.
Is it local? Kind of. Farm Burger has a good amount of outdoor seating and lots of gluten-free options as well as a kids menu. It’s open every day for lunch and dinner.
CAVA (145 Alps Rd., 706-715-5481): By contrast, Cava isn’t local at all. It’s a fast-casual chain out of Rockville, MD, that goes along with the current idea that anything you serve in a bowl is healthy. It is, essentially, a less virtuous version of Maepole, with a lot less local flavor. I’ve heard that ordering ahead and picking up in the drive-through presents some issues, but going inside and getting food from the cafeteria-style line is speedy. Pick rice, black lentils, Rightrice (made from lentils and chickpeas) and/or greens, then add various proteins, tiny ice cream scoops of stuff like hummus or baba ghanouj, veggie toppings and a sauce. If you prefer, you can wrap it all in a pita that will leak all over your lap as you eat it. It could be a slurry, but the flavors are pretty good, and the flexibility is nice. Want two or more things as a base? That’s cool. Want lamb meatballs (one of the best offerings) AND falafel? Sure. It won’t even cost you extra. Only a few things, like avocado, luxuriously scooped out right in front of you, lead to a surcharge. The result is a fairly relaxing atmosphere that’s also packed with choice—an unusual combination. Don’t want to make a bunch of decisions? Once you pick a suggested bowl or pita, the staff will just ask you if you want everything and then assemble it without asking you any more questions.
As far as Mediterranean goes, there’s no question that you can do better at Mediterranean Grill for pretty much anything, but Cava really isn’t a bad option. The portions are sizable. The pita chips are pleasantly oily. The dips and sauces pack in a lot of flavor. There are lots of vegan choices. The drinks are pretty decent. It’s an upgrade from Zoës on the whole. Cava is open from 10:45 am–10 pm daily and has a sunny patio for outside eating.
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