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Spring Dining Guide: The Atlanta 50

Beyond The Atlanta 50: Our print book and e-book versions are loaded with extras, including expanded reviews and excellent options in every category. How to preorder your copies.

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OTP or ITP, there’s a whole lot of dining out there to explore

By John Kessler

The last time I summoned the sheer chutzpah to propose a list of metro Atlanta’s top 50

John Kessler is the AJC's chief dining critic

John Kessler is the AJC's chief dining critic

restaurants, the year was 2004. Back then many of the best restaurants were also the most ambitious ones. Scouting out the talented chefs who used top-tier ingredients meant going to a lot of places with tablecloths and ice-filled wine buckets.

That hierarchy has collapsed, and I have to say it makes this quest a lot more rewarding. Today you can eat great food in scores of casual joints, in bars where you shout over head-banger music, in revitalized neighborhoods throughout the metro area, in farmers markets and at food truck rallies.

All across Atlanta, I have witnessed the doctrine of manifest yumminess. (Find an “Atlanta 50″ restaurant near you with our interactive map.)

So how do you choose 50 from this bounty?

You eat and eat, and eat some more. But first you must decide what doesn’t belong.

I chose to stay away from restaurants outside the metro area (sorry, Athens) and restaurants that only serve late at night (like Octopus Bar) or on weekends (Quinones at Bacchanalia).

I avoided some very good places that suffer from inconsistency and others that are too similar to better spots nearby. I tried as best as I could to provide a variety of styles and cuisines.

I’m still looking for a French, Thai or Middle Eastern spot to merit a place on this list. I’m sorry to the worthy Italian and Japanese restaurants that were edged out.

I did not limit it to only those places that we’ve rated three stars and above but instead made room for two-star restaurants — such as Roswell’s Table & Main and Lilburn’s Three Blind Mice — that add so much to their communities and connect so well with their fans. It’s not an ITP or an OTP thing, it’s a looking-like-Atlanta thing.

Some restaurants that I had not previously rated, but have visited at least twice, now get a rating.

Two previously rated places got a bump. Atlanta’s Heirloom Market BBQ deserves three stars as a citywide destination for its inimitable fusion barbecue. Miller Union has grown into a defining restaurant for today’s Atlanta and it deserves a fourth star. (A guide to our star ratings and a list of the restaurants we’ve rated.)

No restaurant on this list lost a star. Yay!

I hope you enjoy this list and can use it as a guide when you travel throughout metro Atlanta. As you can see, there’s lots to explore.

The 2012 Atlanta 50:

(Restaurant capsule reviews listed in alphabetical order.)

REVIEWS FOR RESTAURANTS A-B:

> 4th & Swift, Atlanta; Abattoir, Atlanta; Antico Pizza Napoletana, Midtown; Aria, Buckhead; Bacchanalia, Midtown; Barcelona Wine Bar, Atlanta; Bistro VG, Roswell; Bocado, Midtown; Bone’s, Buckhead; Busy Bee Cafe, Atlanta.

REVIEWS FOR RESTAURANTS C-G:

> Cafe Restaurant Dominicano, Norcross; Cakes & Ale (restaurant and bakery), Decatur; Canoe, Atlanta; Cardamom Hill, Atlanta; Community Q BBQ, Decatur; Empire State South, Midtown; Desta, Atlanta; Ecco, Atlanta; Golden House, Duluth.

REVIEWS FOR RESTAURANTS H-P:

> Heirloom Market BBQ, Atlanta; Honey Pig, Duluth; Holeman and Finch, Atlanta; Kevin Rathbun Steak, Atlanta; Kyma, Buckhead; McKendrick Steak House, Dunwoody; Miller Union, Midtown; Nam Phuong, Norcross; One Eared Stag, Atlanta; Pura Vida Tapas, Atlanta.

REVIEWS FOR RESTAURANTS R-Ta:

> Rathbun’s, Atlanta; Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta; Rumi’s Kitchen, Sandy Springs; Seed Kitchen & Bar, Marietta; Sotto Sotto, Atlanta; Sound Table, Atlanta; Sushi House Hayakawa, Doraville; Table & Main, Roswell; Taqueria del Sol, three metro locations; Taqueria Oaxaquena, Jonesboro; Tasty China, Marietta.

REVIEWS FOR RESTAURANTS Th-W:

> Three Blind Mice, Lilburn; Tofu Village, Marietta; Tomo Japanese Restaurant, Buckhead; Umaido, Suwanee; Varasano’s, Atlanta; Viande Rouge Steakhouse , Johns Creek; Vingenzo’s, Woodstock; Woodfire Grill, Atlanta; Woo Nam Jeong Stone Bowl House, Doraville; World Peace Cafe, Sandy Springs.

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> BEHIND THE ATLANTA 50: AJC chief dining critic John Kessler has spent the past three months researching this dining guide by revisiting potential “top 50” restaurants at a breakneck pace that would put members of any competitive eating league to shame.

Many of the places he revisited made the “Atlanta 50” cut, and many others did not. He downed Sichuan dan dan noodles in his car, ate Ethiopian food for breakfast and brought his editor leftover steak in exchange for a busted deadline or two.

See what else John brings to the table.

Previously:

> Where We’ve Eaten: All Our Restaurant Reviews Since 2010

> First Look: Recently Opened Restaurants

> Fall 2011 Dining Guide: Distinctive Culinary Voices

> Spring 2011 Dining Guide: Splurges and Destinations

> A Night On The Town: Our Complete Food, Restaurant and Nightclub Guide

106 comments Add your comment

bbqbudha

March 22nd, 2012
9:34 am

why no review on the Varsity…Gotta love a Frosted O and O Ring with a Nekkid Dawg a walkin!

FoodFan

March 22nd, 2012
10:45 am

I am going to have to disagree with Miller Union as a 4-star place. I have eaten their twice and their food is way too straightforward & I have also found it greatly lacking in seasoning both times I’ve eaten there. Dissapoint me once, I can chalk it up to an off night. Dissapoint me twice, I can’t reccomend the place. Far superior, more-inventive New Southern food food can be had at Empire State South and 4th & Swift (which do merit the 4-stars they both received)

John Kessler

March 22nd, 2012
10:47 am

FoodFan – I was a longtime holdout on Miller Union for the exact same reason, but a recent visit convinced me that the chef is cooking more layered, interesting food than when he started.

Edward

March 22nd, 2012
10:56 am

For a nice Middle Eastern/Persian experience, try Sufi’s in SoBuck. I’m about to try the new IstanBlue on Pharr Rd in Buckhead. I hope it measures up to its claims of authenticity. Some other places in Atlanta that claim to be Turkish are simply posers and aren’t worthy of a second look.

jack trent

March 22nd, 2012
11:11 am

JK- where is gu’s bistro??

Andre

March 22nd, 2012
11:17 am

Taqueria del Sol? You cant find a middle eastern or Thai restaurant in atlanta that is better than Taqueria del Sol? You cant be looking very hard.

rebelliousrose

March 22nd, 2012
11:34 am

Completely agree with Heirloom BBQ- never had a bad meal there.

John Kessler

March 22nd, 2012
11:37 am

Jack Trent – Have tried Gu’s twice and have not been blown away. Really wanted to feel this place. Can you give me an order list for next visit?

John Kessler

March 22nd, 2012
11:38 am

Andre: Apples and oranges, obviously, but no. Taqueria has the ability to connect emotionally in a way that few restaurants can, IMO…

RK

March 22nd, 2012
12:02 pm

Glad to see Heirloom get the 3 — it’s the definition of a 3-star in your rating system.

[...] AJC Spring 2012 Dining Guide | Food and More with John Kessler Tags: atlanta, barcelona, best things, best videos, chief, dining, guide, king, midtown, restaurants, union [...]

Native Atlantan

March 22nd, 2012
1:24 pm

Tend to agree on Miller Union. Finally had a chance to dine there and wasn’t as smitten as most others. The food was just ok…which is unexpected at those prices. My go to places for a nice dinner out include Cakes & Ale, 4th and Swift and Soto Soto. Tip of the hat to many others but several are off the list completely for me — Rathbun’s of any flavor, Miller Union and Community Q BBQ.

kevin

March 22nd, 2012
1:32 pm

Overall, a great list. I’d imagine it is difficult to come up with such a list, and that inevitably, you have to omit some worthy candidates. That said, 3 omissions seem particularly glaring to me:

Zyka
Bell St. Burritos
Miso Izakaya

While I understand that some may view burritos as somewhat pedestrian, culinarily speaking, Bell St. Burritos is a burrito revelation. It’s absolutely perfect.

kevin

March 22nd, 2012
1:33 pm

John,

You are right on with Taqueria Del Sol. One of ATL’s finest for sure!

Andre

March 22nd, 2012
1:33 pm

Miller Union is a meat and three with a liquor license. The only difference is that the source great ingredients.

If you order “pork chop-kale-apples” at Miller Union, you get a plate with a nice pork chop, some sauteed kale and some apples, all seasoned with salt and pepper.

Boooring, lazy cooking.

Ryan

March 22nd, 2012
2:41 pm

I made a checklist for people to download and use if they want to:

http://www.2shared.com/document/BTlJqf_t/TheAtlanta50Checklist.html

Bob from Accounttemps

March 22nd, 2012
2:43 pm

I hope to see No. 246 on the list in the not too distant future. Menu is maybe a bit limited, but the food, space and vibe are outstanding. One test was the Margherita Pizza that I shared as an app – without doubt one of the best tasting and prepared I’ve had outside Italy (and yes, I’ve eaten at them all in Atlanta).

dr. zorders

March 22nd, 2012
2:50 pm

I can’t believe Ocean Prime is not on the list. JK, I know you hate the non-local restaurants, but this place is way tops on my list.

Al

March 22nd, 2012
2:56 pm

I applaud the 4 stars for Miller Union; fantastic food, amazing service, and an imaginative and thoughtful wine list. I have been so blown away by the excellence of Empire State South, to me this is a restaurant that deserves a 5 star rating. The smoked duck breast in particular is the finest thing I have had in my 6 years in Atlanta.

The only place I was sad to see not included was market in Buckhead. Not a huge menu, but everything is done fantastically. Thanks for the list Jon, well done!

PapaDoc

March 22nd, 2012
2:58 pm

Heirloom is my “find” of the year, and it’s all because of you, John. Thanks

Sean

March 22nd, 2012
3:16 pm

John,
I’m really disappointed to see that Local Three didn’t get some love on this list. Chris Hall is really cooking delicious food that can hang with any other place on this list without the pretentious atmospheres that some of these places have.

Rupert

March 22nd, 2012
4:25 pm

The Fishmarket is the purfect place for a date. I also enjoy the sushi at Harry and Sons. The ahi is just purfect there. My friends think it’s a bit cheesy, so sometimes I have to stray OTP and get me paws into some claws at Joe’s Crab Shack.

RK

March 22nd, 2012
4:28 pm

I thought you had reviewed BLT? That’s one of my favorites.

BTW, dead on with Seed — one of the best dishes that I’ve had in a while was the Thai-inspired flounder.

You’ve got 38 3-stars, and 7 4-stars — wouldn’t all 3-stars make the list, then? For example, La Fourchette would fulfill your French quota.

David Lee

March 22nd, 2012
4:37 pm

I love this list, but despite your explanation, Taqueria del Sol remains a head-scratcher. It does a few things, but connect emotionally ain’t one of them for me. Now, Rincon Latina, Mi Barrio, places like that definitely connect emotionally for me.

David

March 22nd, 2012
5:57 pm

Quick Question-Will you publish your rankings in order? Full disclosure, I work FOH @ Viande Rouge. Thanks for covering Atlanta’s dining scene, we appreciate it.

Soupy Sales

March 22nd, 2012
6:29 pm

A truly valiant attempt, John. The squabble over those left off is some measure of how substantially the deliciousness barometer has jumped in Atlanta over the last eight years. (How many of the spots on this list were even open in 2004?) That said, to my mind, the largest and most unfair omission on the list is Miso Izakaya. Guy Wong is a truly creative and one-of-a-kind chef. We’re lucky to have him, and his restaurant is a consistent delight. My two cents: Add Miso and your choice of one of the following BuHi stalwarts (Chateau de Saigon or El Rey del Taco) and lose TDS and Varasano’s. But solid, solid work.

Atlantan

March 22nd, 2012
7:53 pm

Where the heck are the restaurants in McDonough?

Good list – must be difficult to do. Will be interesting how it evolves into the fall.

Brian

March 22nd, 2012
8:19 pm

Taqueria del sol owners are real jerks. That is all the connection I need – but then I’m sure they are nice to critics. I’d agree that Local Three should be in there. Not a fan of varasanos but can see how foodies get roped in by Jeff. Where is La Pietra??

Mark

March 22nd, 2012
8:25 pm

Gu’s Bistro is a must for you to revisit. Try these:
Cumin Lamb — so tender and succulent
Chong Qing Chicken – meatier and better than competition
Spicy fish with peanuts — so good and so much value
Jumbo Shrimp w Walnuts — unbelievable dish
Stuffed Tofu — wifes favorite

Not a bad beer/wine list either

Baltisraul

March 22nd, 2012
9:33 pm

I think it is a great list!!!!!

foodfight

March 22nd, 2012
11:44 pm

Sean, I absolutely agree. We have just come in from a small wine tasting and great dinner at Local Three. We have been there a number of times since they opened and never been disappointed, The event tonight was a wine tastnig we purchased at an auction. Then we had one of the best dinners we have had anywhere in a long time (with a tough to please crowd),These guys do not get enough credit.

Cappella

March 22nd, 2012
11:48 pm

I can’t believe this list didn’t include The Family Dog.

Rich Schick

March 23rd, 2012
6:52 am

I was sure Chicken and the Egg would be on the list !!

Steve

March 23rd, 2012
7:45 am

Local Three needs to be on this list.

They’re making out-of-this-world food and have a drink selection that is a destination for the southeast. We still haven’t seen a valid explanation for them being left off this list.

Westsider

March 23rd, 2012
7:46 am

Time for Taqueria del Sol to fall off the list. The menu never changes, the servers are jerks. I can’t understand why the yuppies wait in line for 30 minutes for average food and terrible service.

SC

March 23rd, 2012
8:40 am

No Fox Brothers? How could you possibly rate Community Q above Fox Brothers? Everyone we have ever taken to Fox Brothers is immediately addicted. We tried Community Q but were not impressed.

Robert

March 23rd, 2012
8:56 am

I grew up here in Georgia and comfort food to me is TDS. Southern turnip greens have never been as good as Eddie’s mexisouthern take on them. I hate lines so I just get there real early, grab a table outside, and read my book. Probably been there 300 times since they’ve opened and have never not ordered the fish taco and greens. I actually find the people who work there very friendly. Dang, just talking about those greens is making me hungry.

JimW

March 23rd, 2012
9:04 am

For French, have you considered Le Petit Mason http://www.lapetitemaisonbistro.com/

MU Fan

March 23rd, 2012
9:15 am

Miller Union bashers- Please stay out in Gwinnett and enjoy your local Applebees.
Miler Union is Outstanding- one of the best in the city.

dAwn duffie

March 23rd, 2012
9:32 am

three blind mice in lilburn is amazing, and so above 2 stars….take another look!

Gwinnettiaan

March 23rd, 2012
10:20 am

Wow MU Fan. You’re an ass.

B. Thenet

March 23rd, 2012
10:26 am

Sotto Sotto over La Pietra Cucina? I don’t get that at all.

Glenn

March 23rd, 2012
10:26 am

Overall, a great list. Yes, one could quibble over an addition or omission here and there, but having dined at nearly one-half the selected establishments, and enjoying most all of them, I’d say a job well done!!

John Kessler

March 23rd, 2012
11:11 am

Hey, thanks for all these suggestions…I’m going to give it the weekend and respond to all your thoughts about omissions in a blog post. Thanks for reading, and I hope you get to see the print edition, with all of Becky Stein’s amazing photography (and one of my iPhone pix for an emergency).

(and, quickly, B. Thenet – the chef just left La Pietra. It was on the list but I think I need to go back when they get a new chef.)

John

March 23rd, 2012
11:20 am

Pyng Ho on Clairmont Rd. has been there for years. It is still family owned and run and Steve knows his way around fish. At least 5 or 6 fish specials each day. I think it is at least a two star.

Edward

March 23rd, 2012
11:31 am

I’ve been to Taqueria Del Sol in Decatur three times. I gave it three times to show me why it is so adored by some. Three times it failed. I’m sorry, but the service is atrocious and the food is not bad but not worth the wait or putting up with the people (both the staff and typical customers who seem to take pride at being rude and obnoxious). If that was the last taco on Earth, maybe. But there are better choices, now.

Robert

March 23rd, 2012
11:42 am

Count me in on the list of Miller Union fans. I absolutely love what this restaurant brings to ATL. From the food to the service to the atmospherics to the incredibly smart and reasonably-priced wine list, it belongs on this list and it merits its 4th star.

Major kudos as well to Cakes & Ale (needs work on the wine list) and I’m pulling for No. 246 to crash the party soon. And someday Pricci will get the credit it deserves for surviving 20 years in this town.

Sander

March 23rd, 2012
11:51 am

I agree with many of the selections and need to try many I haven’t been to yet. Now if I could just stop going to Local Three and Muss & Turners I could make it to all these other places. Not going to happen though.

arbarch

March 23rd, 2012
12:44 pm

Well…..In my opinion, Babette’s Cafe sure diserves being on the list of 50 best in Atlanta. I whole-hardheartedly agree that Taqueria del Sol should not be on the list as my experience has been that the attitudes of the owners and staff is way below standard. I also wonder if you have visited Wisteria lately. I was so surprised at how good they have become when I returned after many years and after I learned they had abandoned their Smoking Allowed policy.

B. Thenet

March 23rd, 2012
1:25 pm

Dang, just when I have a place to impress Italian food snobs with…