It all started with a letter from an Emory University music professor, who asked where — if anywhere — she could eat out before attending an arts event at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
Pshaw, I thought. You couldn’t throw a pair of opera glasses five feet in any direction without it landing in a bowl of hot cheese dip. The area is crawling with restaurants. There’s every chain restaurant known to man and a few known only to denizens of the Alpha Centauri system. The village of downtown Vinings with all its cute bistros can’t be too far away. Plus, there are some bang-up ethnic joints and barbecue places within a mile or two or, well, three. But close enough if you can figure out the convoluted system of surface streets by this massive highway interchange.
OK, well, this does get a little complicated. I’d feel strange recommending a big, obvious chain. Besides, nobody really wants to flash those $100 front-row tickets with bloomin’ onion breath.
And what about downtown Vinings? There are many pre-show options from SoHo to Noche to Social Vinings. But then I tried driving two-lane Paces Mill Road back toward the Cobb Energy Centre and got worried that the 10-minute drive could stretch to 20. Bad traffic or a slow waiter could give you serious indigestion before the show starts.
Finally, I looked at some of the quirky outliers — the little, cheap places I love to recommend. I’m fond of the Japanese joint Yakitori Jinbei just up Cobb Parkway, but suspect it’s too small and short-staffed to put on the pre-show hustle. Ditto Heirloom Market BBQ, the cool new barbecue spot a mile or more down that complexly twisting entity known as Akers Mill Road. It could be a madhouse on the wrong night.
(A quick aside: My excursion through these surface roads made me very concerned for the people who drove out of the Cobb Energy Centre in the final episode of the first season of “The Walking Dead.” If they had to rely on a navigation system to maneuver out of this place, they couldn’t have escaped the zombie hordes.)
So I began to think about the real scenarios of pre-show dining. What we all really look for, in one form or another, is this dining equation:
Quality of food + convenience of location + relative value = more than expected
With that in mind, here are three good choices:
The fourth and most upscale outpost of a small Northside chain may surprise you. From the outside it looks like that Mexican restaurant. The one with the cheap art and stale chips that occupies the corner space of every strip shopping complex in creation. But open the door to Cinco to find a modern industrial space warmed with wood paneling and support beams and a sparkling exhibition kitchen in the center of the room. Your eyes immediately alight on a bowl of ripe avocados, and that guacamole trigger in your brain goes off. The basket of chips comes hot, tasting of fresh oil, and sided by a suave roasted tomato salsa.
The kitchen prepares a memorable lobster posole ($4 for a cup), russet and thick like a bisque but not nearly so rich. A mystery ball floating in the center turns out to be fried and doused crab fritter that you can quickly tease into shreds of sweet meat. Nice. Tacos al carbon ($10.50 for three) have upscaled in all the right ways. Small and soft (albeit in flour tortillas), they hold only juicy nubbins of skirt steak, onion and cilantro. Two fine salsas (hot guajillo/habanero and mild tomatillo), rice and good beans round out the plate.
When I realized I had ordered the tacos al carbon instead of the pork tacos al pastor I was hankering for, my waitress said, without blinking, “Let me bring you an al pastor to try.” It was good, but the carbon was better.
You can walk from the parking area by Cinco to the Cobb Energy Centre, or you drive through it for a closer spot.
2851 Akers Mill Road, Atlanta. 770-952-5550.
If convenience is paramount and you’re a fan of Asian food, there’s probably no better place than this Thai-Malaysian spot directly across the street from the Cobb Energy Centre. Like many Thai places, there is an upscale glitziness at work — lots of multicolored tile, shelves displaying backlit doodads and cloth napkins rolled to stand high in their table settings. (This is one of three locations of a small local chain.) The service staff wears formal black and white, the bar can be counted on for a good beer or a lousy chardonnay and the food aims awfully hard to please.
This is the kind of restaurant that can satisfy a multigenerational family. Those who demand their Asian stir-fries sweet should look no further than Buah mango chicken ($13.25) — loads of white meat and thick shreds of mango in a tangy, syrupy sauce. I kind of hated it at first but will admit to power-chowing the leftovers late at night and reveling in the flavor.
A good rendition of the Thai salad nam sod ($7.25) was more my speed — warm, gingery minced pork with onion, chiles, lime juice and wedges of raw cabbage to scoop it all up with. Also worth a try: kari ayam kering ($11.95), a Malaysian-style curry of chicken and potato in a thick sauce with a little zing and the floral flavor of fresh bay leaf .
2997 Cobb Parkway, Atlanta. 770-988-9007.
If you’re in the mood for a meal that will feel as special as the show itself, and don’t mind having to re-park your car, you should check out the nearby Riverview Village Shopping Center, which holds five restaurants ranging from Thai to Middle Eastern. There are also some of the area’s best, including Tomo Japanese Restaurant and C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar. I did, in fact, once meet some friends for dinner at C&S before attending the opera last year, enjoyed a good lobster meal and had plenty of time to park.
But if I’m heading back to a show with my wife, I think we’ll opt for Taverna Fiorentina, the kind of cozy little Italian spot with good food that we never tire of. Wooden tables, a wine cabinet and soft, yellowy light provide the atmosphere, and owner Paolo Tondo follows through with the attention that makes you feel cared for. In fact, he might just tempt you with the evening specials before you’ve had a chance to crack the menu.
“My friend in California sent me these great porcini,” he tells me as I’m sitting down, selling me instantly on the risotto special ($25). It’s a pitch-perfect risotto (the gussied-up version in the picture doesn’t do it justice), damp and creamy and firm in all the right ways, with a wealth of suave mushroom pieces. Unlike some mushroom risotti, this one is not unrelentingly rich. Bits of zucchini and cherry tomato add pops of bright flavor to the mix.
Another special features grilled calamari ($10) with a heap of greens and a little pepper jelly alongside — odd but not unwelcome. This is a quirky place that’s easy to like.
3324 Cobb Parkway, Atlanta. 770-272-9825.
Are there any other good places I missed?