I remember my first visit to Athens, Georgia, vividly. One bright fall day two decades ago, I found myself bouncing along in the cab of journalist Doug Monroe’s pickup truck on the way to visit his class at the University of Georgia. From Atlanta, Highway 78 took us through small towns and past sprawling farms. Eventually we reached downtown Athens, walked past its historic storefronts, and crossed the campus quad. This particular point may be up for debate, but I swear students were lounging under trees with their textbooks, looking like the cover of a college catalog.
After class, Doug took me to lunch at the Grit, the artsy coffee house and gallery that evolved into a groundbreaking vegetarian restaurant known for its tangential connection to celebrated Athens vegetarian and R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe. (Property records confirm Stipe once owned the redbrick building that houses the restaurant before selling it in 2004.) Opened in 1986, the Grit is often credited for helping jumpstart the city’s now eclectic food scene.
Upon stepping through the door, I was immediately smitten with the restaurant’s scruffy charm and mishmash of textures: brick, plaster, and wood walls, a tin ceiling, and tiny tiles on the floor. At Doug’s recommendation, I ordered the Golden Bowl—brown rice and veggies topped with crispy, savory cubes of tofu—and fell even further in love.
Over the years, I made that drive from Atlanta to Athens hundreds of times while I was teaching part-time at UGA, few trips complete without a visit to the Grit. For me, it was emblematic of Athens, a town with a constantly simmering tension between the cutting edge and North Georgia conservatism. It was a hippie destination surrounded by cattle farms; a hipster hangout near a campus better known for football and frat parties.
I bought copies of The Grit Cookbook: World-Wise, Down-Home Recipes as souvenirs and wore my Grit T-shirt until it fell apart. Thanks to fate and the HOPE Scholarship, my daughter ended up going to UGA, and my husband joined me on drives to Athens. We delivered a box of the Grit’s signature vegan cakes to her rental house when all the roommates were in exam stress mode. My parents made the trip to Athens to run in a 5K my daughter helped organize, and we followed the race with a multigenerational carbohydrate binge, crowding into one of the Grit’s vinyl booths to eat monstrous, fluffy biscuits and omelets oozing with cheese. At home in Atlanta, we went through jar after jar of nutritional yeast and block after block of tofu but never quite achieved the perfection of the Grit’s Golden Bowl.
A few years later, another twist of fate brought me to Athens as a part-time resident, working odd hours as the adviser to the student newspaper, the Red & Black, and renting a tiny apartment over a garage. Takeout zesty noodle bowls from the Grit sustained me in that period, during which the kids at the paper dubbed me “most likely to keep living like a student.”
Eventually, my husband and I decided to make the move permanent, trading a view of train tracks from a Cabbagetown loft in Atlanta for the sight of deer crossing the front yard of our ranch house in Athens’s Five Points. We’ve seen many local restaurants come and go, but the Grit seemed eternal.
So it came as a shock last week when the Grit’s owners posted a note on Facebook announcing that the restaurant will permanently close on October 7 following the lingering impact of the COVID crisis. I was dismayed and then seized by the guilty realization that during this turbulent period, I had not been to the Grit once, assuming it would always be there whenever things got back to “normal.”
We can take old friends or favorite cousins for granted, not bothering to check in on them often because we know we can comfortably pick up right where we left off, however sporadically we meet. In the same way, I’d assumed I could pick up with the Grit when the pandemic’s upheaval subsided. What a shameful way to treat the restaurant, which like a beacon, kept me coming back to Athens for years and played a small part in the life-changing decision to move here.
The day after the news hit, my husband and I headed down Prince Avenue for one last Golden Bowl. “Look, there are empty tables. I can’t believe it,” I said, as we passed by once, then twice, hunting for a parking spot on a busy Friday. At the front of the restaurant we saw a cluster of people waiting for seats: women with white hair and floral blouses standing beside black-clad students with neon bangs. The kitchen was overwhelmed and not accepting new orders until they caught up. We looked around the half-full restaurant with its cozy booths, mismatched tables, and chalkboard menu before walking back to our car, heavyhearted. Once it had been easy to zip down a side street to find parking; now we had to pay for a spot using an app. Looking around the parking lot, I couldn’t help but think of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and the refrain: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone.”
The Grit will be gone in less than two weeks. Since the news broke, the restaurant has been swamped with orders and visitors. Fans have put together a GoFundMe to help its staff, who will be staging one final art show in the restaurant before its doors close. Thousands have posted on its Facebook and Instagram pages, but no number of broken heart emojis can save an institution you presumed would be there forever.