Sipping a beer, leaning back from the sharp, clean table at Fortify Pi, the pizza place along Clayton’s main drag, a thought occurs: Who needs Atlanta?
Hall County first belonged to North Georgia and to the hills before it felt the gravity of The Sprawl and became Atlanta’s Pluto — floating around out on the outer rim, nobody sure whether the county or at least its southern parts should be part of the metro area.
Not to be too unkind to The ATL, which has radiated the healing light of economic prosperity into North Georgia. The towns, wineries, restaurants and institutions of the mountains can thank Atlanta and its deep pockets for sparing them from the doldrums along the rest of the rural Appalachians.
But we’re not here to talk economics; we’re here to talk about the glories of Clayton, a town of 2,200 tucked between North Carolina and Tennessee about an hour’s drive north of Gainesville following Cornelia Highway.
As the leaves turn and the heat abates, Clayton is not to be missed for the Gainesville family looking to get into the mountains. But budget a weekend for this trip — you can’t eat, shop and walk your way through this town in a day without putting your life in danger.
And now that you know how to get there and how much time you’ll need, let’s dig in.
Clayton’s downtown blooms from the intersection of Main and Savannah streets, forming an old-town strip dotted with restaurants, antique shops, boutiques and the goliath retail operation that is the series of Reeves stores, which act as the community’s traditional general store selling everything from scented candles to farm seed — putting up a mighty fight against the big-box stores that have sprung up on the way into town.
Main Street is where the action is on restaurants, bookended by Clayton Pharmacy in the south and Rumor Hazit, a seafood place with a funny name, in the north.
Between them are Fortify Kitchen and Bar and Fortify Pi — the two restaurants that kicked off the culinary revival in downtown Clayton and which led the charge on Rabun County’s designation in 2015 as the farm-to-table capital of Georgia — Clark’s on Main, The Farm House (a doughnut and furniture shop, a combination that is as beautiful as it is nonsensical), the Clayton Cafe, The Wicked Pig, Universal Joint and probably some others.
Walking among them up and down Main Street, one is struck by another thought: Clayton is cool.
It can be a rare feeling in the smallish towns of North Georgia and the pioneer chic they often wear. Towns often feel quaint, traditional, historic, fun, relaxing, educational — but cool? It’s a rare bird to find flitting among the trees in this forest.
Clayton is cool.
A Saturday spent in Clayton in early September started at The Farm House, the aforementioned dougnut-and-decor store, to kill some time before the restaurants along Main Street opened for lunch at 11 a.m.
From the street, it’s not quite clear what the business nestled next to Clark’s is all about, but then one spots that holy word: doughnuts.
The little fellas popping from the fryer behind the counter at the long, narrow shop will be a small surprise for Gainesville residents accustomed to wolfing down Danny’s — but don’t demur because of the size. The doughnuts come out hot and fried to a crispy shell that feels like biting into a doughnut-shaped creme brulee.
They’re worth it, in other words. Stop in and see manager James Cash, who said the store is settling into the new space downtown after opening about six months ago. While you’re in, check out the decor and the furniture, which is also for sale in a couple of other spots around town.
This Saturday in Clayton could have started with breakfast at the Clayton Cafe or the Rusty Bike, a big-bellied American diner on the roadside coming into town, rather than in downtown, or with coffee at White Birch Provisions — take the weekend, folks, it can’t be done in a day.
Doughnut business settled, the doors of Fortify Pi were now open.
This pizza shop is the second venture of Jack Nolan and Jamie Allred, who first opened Fortify Kitchen and Bar before launching the Fortify Pi next door. They met while working at the Lake Rabun Hotel.
Allred the chef and Nolan the manager have created a pair of restaurants whose roots have spread throughout downtown Clayton, carrying the nutrients of fine dining that have fortified Main Street.
Fortify Pi was a clean, cool space full of sharp design and good smells. Instead of those little lousy flower glasses, diners will find upcycled chemistry beakers holding the ’mums as decoration for their table tops.
For those who have spent any time overseas and have returned to find American pizza just good enough most of the time, sort of, Fortify Pi is the place for you.
Pizza recipes like main street margherita, the bianca and the pesto aren’t just greasy cultural appropriation, but are true to classic combinations found overseas. (Full disclosure: This reporter lived in Vicenza, Italy, for two years and traveled back-and-forth for another four.)
The crust was crunchy, charred in places, and perfect. The beer was cold and from nearby (and not too pricey, but not cheap, either), and the servers speedy. Fortify Pi, like all of Clayton, is a North Georgia pizza shop that is not to be missed.
Lunch could have been had at Clark’s on Main, which is a sports bar sporting a brand-new rooftop bar (it’s very, very new. Unfinished drywall still lines the stairwell to the top of the restaurant) offering a panoramic view of downtown. Rumor Hazit was serving up fish, and barbecue was still smoking at The Wicked Pig. Bread and cheese was up for grabs at Fromage and Other Fine Foods, and the Clayton Cafe was whipping up some mean poppy seed chicken that day, according to server Summer Colston, who was busy scribbling the specials on a chalkboard on the sidewalk.
Clayton deserves a weekend, in other words.
Lunch finished, pavement was pounded up and down Main and Savannah streets. While a coach bus packing tourists pulled up and parked on a side street of downtown, the sidewalks weren’t choked with out-of-towners.
There were even a few local characters to be found that Saturday, including one Mac Cavanaugh, who was toting his several-feet-long Burmese python around his neck and shoulders at the Main and Savannah streets intersection.
It’s just a thing he does, Cavanaugh said with some nonchalance, taking his large constrictors around town to get some sun.
There are other people worth knowing in Clayton: Barbara Hilson, wife of Noble Wine Cellars owner and winemaker Jabe Hilson. Barbara runs the family’s tasting room in downtown Clayton, talking guests through the wines and vines of the area.
Her family’s vineyards produce big-bodied reds (give the chambourcin a shot if you’re in the area), and partners with several North Georgia businesses to fill up the tasting room.
Then there’s Vickie Prater, who runs Prater Collectibles on Main Street. From the outside, the store looks like any other antique shop — shelves pushed up against windows and knick-knacks piled up near the front.
But inside, most of the retail floor is dedicated to vintage postcards — a passion of the Prater family, who have used the brick-and-mortar store and a hearty eBay presence to keep the pastime alive.
And Prater has it all, postcards from every state, many countries and from just about every town in Georgia. Gainesville postcards were found after just a couple of minutes’ worth of picking, and prices range from a buck to five-figures (if you can believe it) depending on the rarity of the card.
And it’s not just the people who are worth meeting. Clayton is nestled underneath Black Rock Mountain, a ridgeline heaving over the valley that’s part of a 1,700-acre state park to the north of Clayton.
This might excite some more than others: The drive up to the state park that looks out over Clayton is wonderful. Dips and turns spread over a steep climb can make for huge fun in a sporty car or a motorcycle — or a different kind of for the mean dad who gets a chuckle out of queasy kids.
And with the drive over, the lookout at the state park waits for you. Make sure you pack a five dollar bill to cover parking or you’ll get a dirty look from the gate guard.
The gruff treatment is worth it, however, as the views on a hot, hazy September day were difficult to overstate, but will be beyond belief as the leaves begin to turn this fall. Put Black Rock Mountain on your list.
From the top of Black Rock Mountain, the Saturday in Clayton came to an end. It could have included a poking around of the Georgia Mountain Market, a trip to Tiger Mountain Vineyards or Stonewall Creek Vineyards just south of Clayton, or a nightcap at Universal Joint.
In other words, it’s worth a weekend. Check out the hotels around Clayton or flip through the endless cottages, cabins and homes available on websites like AirBnb.
Maybe the next time you’re thinking about a trip to Atlanta, head for the hills instead.