DAHLONEGA, Ga. — Nestled in the heart of the North Georgia mountains, Dahlonega, home to the first gold rush in American history, is a gem of a city on many levels, one of which is its restaurant scene.
One of the best ways to get a taste of the town is by taking a food tour. Savoring the Square is a leisurely experience — you'll be gone about three hours and walk less than a mile. Along the way, you'll stop at restaurants surrounding the small town square and visit some of Dahlonega's historic attractions and favorite shops.
Penny Sharp and her son, Jeremy, started Dahlonega's tour business three years ago. They began with a ghost tour of the city's supposedly haunted places and later added a pub crawl and history tour of the Lumpkin County seat. The food tour, added two years ago, has quickly become a favorite way for foodies to come and spend a few hours doing what they do best.
"The food tour is one of my favorites," Penny Sharp says. "We get a lot of people coming from other areas who want to spend a day getting a little background of the town — the gold rush and the college (University of North Georgia), eat good food and get to know each other. It's what a food tour should be — a little sample of everything. The tour gives you a feel for what our town square is all about and the camaraderie we have here — all the things that make this town tick.
"I take people around and make them fall in love with Dahlonega. That's my passion. That's my job."
› What: Savoring the Square
› Where: 19 E. Main St., Dahlonega, Ga.
› Tickets: $42 adults, $32 children under 12. Dinner tours are $52. Walk-up purchases are based on availability.
› Information: 706-482-8795, www.savoringthesquare.com or on Facebook.
Sharp says the food scene has changed a lot since she came to Dahlonega 13 years ago.
"When I moved here, there was one fine-dining restaurant and a couple of smaller restaurants, but that was about it," she says. "Now we have a good pizza place, an Irish restaurant and a German one, too, among all the other ones. Plus the restaurants at our wineries."
The tour begins at 19 E. Main St. on the upstairs porch outside Sharp's office. This is where you'll meet and get an introduction to Dahlonega's past — its gold rush days and the early years of the University of North Georgia adjacent to the square. Then you'll head downstairs to begin the taste experience at five restaurants.
The first stop is Spirits, and true to its name, the place is said to be haunted. Once a pool hall/gambling room as well as a place for other unlawful activities, ghosts do roam here — or so some believe.
"The food tour doesn't focus on ghosts — unless someone brings it up," Sharp quips.
What Spirits is best known for now is its burgers — primarily its popular Gooey Burger, and this is what the tourgoers sample on the food tour. Like the name implies, this is a multi-napkin production made from top-quality beef topped with mac and cheese and Carolina mustard sauce. As a side, the top choice is fried green beans.
"Burgers are our main focus," says owner David Walker.
"They make the best burgers I've ever had," Sharp quickly adds. "You could put Spirits' burger up against any other in a burger contest, and they'd win — hands down."
Around the corner, Crimson Moon is a popular music-and-food venue where pickers pick, the spirits flow and good food — ranging from diner-style fare (country-style steak, meatloaf and barbecue pork plates) to fancier fare (pan-seared crab cakes and shrimp and grits) — is piled high on the plates. On tour, you'll sample fried green tomatoes topped with peach salsa and goat cheese.
An interesting footnote to this place: It's the inspiration for Ashley McBryde's country hit "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega." Built in 1858, the building is one of the oldest still standing in town and is aging gracefully with handsome, well-worn wood floors and clapboard siding.
With participants' hunger somewhat satiated, the tour takes a break with visits to town potter Brad Walker and his store filled with beautiful hand-thrown pots and other pieces. Next door, Paul Thomas Chocolates, named by the Food Network as the No. 1 chocolatier in Georgia, will tease your senses with amazing, gleaming chocolates all made by hand and displayed in glass cases. Behind them, artisans create more chocolatey masterpieces, a favorite of which is the Key lime chocolate truffle.
The tour continues to Shenanigans, the place in town for Irish fare, and your Savoring the Square ticket includes samples of bangers and mash.
The restaurant has an interesting history. When you call, they answer the phone, 'The hottest pub in town." That's partly due to the popularity of this pub-style eatery. But it's also hot for another reason. The circa 1881 building, on the National Register of Historic Places, went up in flames in 2014.
Remember that town camaraderie Sharp was talking about? The fire displaced the servers and other employees for several months, so other restaurants gave them temporary jobs until Shenanigans could be rebuilt.
There's more to the menu than Irish fare. If you choose to have a full meal, consider the ahi tuna with citrus saffron rice or wild salmon with sauteed spinach.
Next up, Cajun country comes to Dahlonega at The Bourbon Street Grille, where you'll sample a New Orleans favorite — muffaletta. This sturdy sandwich will surely entice you to come back for dinner and order the very fresh blackened redfish served over house-whipped potatoes and topped with grilled asparagus.
The building looks like it was moved right off Bourbon Street in New Orleans and brought to Main Street in Dahlonega. You can enjoy dinner on one of two floors. The upper floor offers a more intimate dining experience, with its long front porch overlooking the historic town square and ceiling fans that quietly cool the warm evening air. Downstairs, a lively bar and pet-friendly dining on the deck outside offers a totally different vibe. Rest assured, both offer excellent fare and service.
The taste tour wraps up at Picnic Cafe, a charming little place where locals love to gather for their morning java or egg salad bagel. Lunch is served there as well. And so are delicious pastries, cakes and other confections, and that's what you'll taste on tour — a piece of cake to top off all the savory dishes you've consumed over the past few hours. The restaurant is small, so if table space is limited and the weather is cooperating, grab a table outside.
You're in the heart of the town square, and that makes a great seat for people-watching and enjoying the sights and sounds of Dahlonega's historic downtown.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.