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Intown Atlanta's Musical Facelift: 3 Must-See Venues

  • City Winery

    Adam Smith Photography

It's a circle of life that music fans will recognize - scrappy nightclub sets up shop in a gritty corner of town, helping to spark the area’s resurgence…until it no longer fits within the neighborhood's reborn economy.

This pattern is playing out today in Atlanta’s historic Old Fourth Ward district, where the Atlanta BeltLine has helped draw significant pedestrian traffic, work/play building development with an explosion of shops and restaurants, and has given rise to a significant new music venue and prompted big changes for a couple of longtime institutions.

City Winery

Adam Smith Photography
Adam Smith Photography

The new kid on the block is City Winery, adjacent to the innovative and ambitious Ponce City Market complex. Although the name may be familiar from its New York City flagship, City Winery’s 26,000-square-foot restaurant and nightclub is deceptively straightforward from street view. Once guests venture inside and down a spiral staircase, however, the restaurant goes on forever - with tons of private rooms and a namesake in-house winery. The 400-bottle-strong wine list includes nearly 20 varieties made on premise, where private parties and classes like Wine 1010 Boot Camp are also offered.

But City Winery made its name as a music venue, and Atlanta’s edition certainly doesn’t skimp on that front. The club area is a true "listening room," featuring a remarkable sound system. Full food/drink service is available at all tables, with assigned seats priced across three tiers. With every one of the 300 seats within 45 feet of the stage, there's hardly a bad option. "That's very close for the type of artists we host," according to manager Jim Ethridge. It's an unusually civilized setting for both musicians and fans of what is generally a rock-oriented lineup. Ethridge likes the idea of multi-night artist residencies, like the one the club booked with Atlanta favorite Kevn Kinney not long after City Winery's mid-June opening.        

Amid the musical attention, Ethridge hopes patrons don't overlook the fact City Winery's bar/restaurant is open to the public at 5 p.m. daily, including an outdoor patio with a view of the vibrant streetscape. Of the group's four locations (Boston is next up, with more cities on the horizon) Atlanta's is among the largest on the pure food/drink side.

Variety Playhouse

Kishi Bashi Nov. 2, 2016, at Variety Playhouse. Photo from Variety Playhouse, Facebook
Kishi Bashi Nov. 2, 2016, at Variety Playhouse. Photo from Variety Playhouse, Facebook

Just down the road in Little 5 Points, the Variety Playhouse reopened in late September after a much-needed facelift, and the result gives urban renewal a good name. "We brought in a bulldozer, and pretty much re-did everything but the stage," explains General Manager Brad Syna. The venue opened in the 1940s ("only the Fox and Buckhead Theater are older," he says) and served mostly as a movie house before becoming one of Atlanta's premier live music destinations in the 1990s.  

The Variety's roughly 1,000 capacity has been expanded slightly - mainly in the balcony, thanks to the removal of some back offices. On the main floor, the most striking changes are the open floor plan accommodating an expanded bar and the exposed original brick side walls, painted a stately slate gray. The upgrade is reminiscent of the one at Athens' Georgia Theatre a few years back (that one necessitated by a significant fire), which isn’t surprising given that the two clubs now share ownership.

Less noticeable but perhaps more important, the Variey’s pit area directly in front of the stage has been excavated by about a foot “so those in the seats won’t need to stand anymore if they don’t want to,” Syna explains.

The Masquerade

Heaven at The Masquerade at its new home: Underground Atlanta
Heaven at The Masquerade at its new home: Underground Atlanta

The most visible fallout of the North Avenue Corridor’s gentrification is the relocation of the Masquerade. This iconic venue housed in a onetime excelsior mill (look it up - I had to) enjoys direct Atlanta BeltLine access, and construction projects have already begun on the outdoor music park portion that hosted summer concerts as varied as Radiohead and this year’s cheekily named Wrecking Ball.

The club has vowed to soldier on, retaining its unique Heaven/Hell/Purgatory three-stage format. It has relocated to another city landmark, Underground Atlanta. Initial plans for a new permanent home in West Midtown were scuttled over concerns of the site’s proximity to ongoing residential development. Apparently Atlanta’s booming growth is making it tougher for the trailblazers to outpace the construction cranes.

Glen Sarvady

Glen Sarvady is Georgia’s official Music Explorer. He has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and has written about music both locally and nationally for at least as long. More recently, he has written regularly for the music/arts publication Stomp & Stammer as well as GeorgiaMusic.org.

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