If you go to a show at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, you’re a stone’s throw from all kinds of destination dining: handcrafted pastas at Taverna Fiorentina, grilled chicken skewers at Yakitori Jinbei and Korean smoked pork sandwiches at Heirloom Market BBQ.
Near the Gwinnett Arena, the choices are fewer but equally quirky. From yogurt-splashed scallion dumplings at Shami Kabab Afghan Restaurant to pork green chile tamales at Taqueria Los Hermanos, you’ve got lots of offbeat places to explore.
So what’s for dinner before a show at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta?
You are basically on the outskirts of North Point Mall, itself surrounded by satellite shopping centers filled with sturdy, well-performing, multi-unit restaurants. Places like California Pizza Kitchen, where you can get your barbecued chicken pie, and places like Bahama Breeze, where you can give into the sugary temptation of a piña colada. T.G.I. Friday’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruby Tuesday’s and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro all beckon.
No, not all are chains. Ray’s at Killer Creek offers steaks and oysters in a lodge-like space with stacked-stone walls. Atlantic Seafood serves up everything from sushi to steamed crab legs in one of those swoopy environments that make you want (just a little) a pastel-hued martini. Even the non-chains here are bodacious boxes of 10,000 square feet, with acres of carpeting, spacious tables, squadrons of servers. These are big restaurants.
But big restaurants tend toward inconsistency. When they’re busy, you wait too long in the foyer for your reservation. Or you sit at the table for an hour waiting for your appetizer, only to get your entree 5 minutes later. Or you get the wrong order.
Which brings me to my strange but sound advice: Don’t go looking for the best possible meal before a show at Verizon. Go for a guilty pleasure and try not to get mad if there’s a hassle factor.
Guilty Pleasure: Chips and tequila
Rio Nuevo Mexican Cantina seems the best place in the vicinity to get your enchilada on. Huge and bedecked in festive Mexican artifacts, it offers an expansive menu with three moles, all manner of salads, full entrees of the salmon-steak-chicken variety and fusion items like poblano grits. I suspect just about everyone comes here instead for nachos, combination plates and margaritas, which do the trick.
We split two plates. Cheese enchiladas ($9.95) with red chile, rice and (very good) beans, and an “ensalada especial para el corazon” ($8.95) — a big heap of greens with grilled zucchini, cactus, mushrooms, peppers and a mango-black bean relish that helped balance the lava flow of cheese on the other plate.
I suppose I could act like a restaurant critic and remark that the chips could be thinner and the salsa could benefit from a bit more snap of cilantro and chile. I might say the service was sweet but confused, and that the mole I wanted wasn’t available. But when you’re not with the guilty-pleasure Mexican food you love, you love the guilty pleasure Mexican food you’re with.
Rio Nuevo Mexican Cantina: 6400 North Point Parkway, Alpharetta; 678-240-0909.
Guilty Pleasure: Fried things, beer
Spice Brick Oven Kitchen, part of a local restaurant group that includes two branches of Sage Woodfire Tavern, serves a menu of salads, flatbreads, sliders and assorted small plates the restaurant identifies as tapas. There’s nothing remotely Spanish about most of this food (jerk wings, beer-battered fish and chips, hummus), and the few dishes I tried weren’t great.
But the beers were awesome (more than two dozen on tap) and the updated fern bar environment (with low light, brick, tile, lots of glossy wood and high bar tables) kind of felt right.
And the service was top-notch. My waiter gave me tastes of several India Pale Ales to help me find the one with the level of bitterness and finish I best liked. When I showed incredulity at the existence of a cheesecake martini on the list, he made me a taste and I had to admit, this vanilla/cranberry business does taste like cheesecake with a vodka chaser.
I enjoyed washing down rounds of fried goat cheese with orange blossom honey glaze ($6.95). I should have stuck with the tasty fried food here. A grim flatbread ($9.95) sported curls of processed-tasting shrimp and swampy wilted arugula on a cheese-laden, cracker-like base. Two chunks of braised short rib ($9.25) on tiles of fried polenta needed something better than the kind of salty, glossy gravy that I recognized from my last serving of Salisbury steak 30 years ago.
Yet for a couple of beers and a couple of plates before a show, this may be one of your best bets in the vicinity.
Spice Brick Oven Kitchen: 10800 Haynes Bridge Road, Alpharetta; 770-777-0778.
Guilty Pleasure: Saucy Italian food
Buca di Beppo roughly means “Joe’s basement” in Italian, and that’s the conceit here. You’re in one of those semi-underground restaurants that Italian immigrants of an earlier generation opened in their homes in cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit.
So this typically enormous box of a restaurant is a warren of rooms crammed to bursting with vintage photographs, soccer jerseys, plaques, high school yearbook photos and every manner of tack, glorious tack. There’s a table with a spinning pope’s head in a clear plastic box, another table where every square inch of wall space comes crusted in Frank Sinatra memorabilia, and a room where the vaulted ceiling has been plastered in movie posters.
The food? Italian large format. Cheese and tomato sauce all over the place. A lot better than Sbarro, perhaps not quite as good as Maggiano’s. Our small (i.e., feeds two) eggplant parmesan ($17.99) was good enough to open a rusty nostalgia valve in my brain. The small quattro al forno ($18.99) — with various kinds of baked cannelloni, shells and ravioli — appealed more to my kids.
We all got a hoot over our wedge of “celebration cake” ($8.95) that was as large as a Green Bay Packers cheesehead hat. This poofy coconut cake came in three layers the colors of the Italian flag and tasted of a 1970s grocery store bakery.
This Minneapolis-based chain has no pretensions. You’re here for a lark and to eat a bit too much food that, at its best, is perfectly fine. Even if it’s busy and you have to wait for your table, you can’t get mad at this restaurant.
So trust me when I say the best table near the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre is the one in the kitchen at Buca Di Beppo. Know when your show is playing? Reserve it now.
Buca di Beppo: 2335 Mansell Road, Alpharetta; 770-643-9463.
This is the third in an occasional series: