(Our interactive map makes it easy to find an “Atlanta 50″ restaurant near you.)
> 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.
Cristino Hiraldo and Zoilo Rodriguez opened this modest, dimly lit spot as a gathering place for the Dominican community. Guests come at lunch for $6 plate lunches from a steam table. Look for a half-dozen proteins ranging from stewed pork riblets in red chile to roasted chicken and oxtails in gravy, and pair one with a rice and salad.
At night the full menu features a number of options, including a whole snapper fried to a golden crisp, mondongo (tripe soup) and great goat stew. Very late at night it morphs again into a nightclub, with live music from a small stage in the corner of the dining room. The music is always loud here, but the full bar can help get you into the mood, and the food won’t disappoint.CAKES & ALE and THE BAKERY AT CAKES & ALE 155 Sycamore St., Decatur Restaurant, 404-377-7994; Bakery, 404-377-7960
With the move to a larger space on Decatur Square this year, Cakes & Ale has taken a tremendous step forward and now counts among the handful of top Atlanta dining destinations. The restaurant no longer seems a work in progress. It’s here. More than just about any spot in the metro area, it celebrates local produce. Though far from vegetarian, the menu lets
vegetables in season call the shots and determine the flavors in nearly every dish. It’s a Southern restaurant inasmuch as the menu feels deeply tied to place, but Chef Billy Allin’s seasonings and cooking ideas range broadly.
Allin opened the Bakery at Cakes & Ale next door, and it’s a different beast, with a different menu and guiding spirit. Breads and pastries from a wood-burning oven feel like a work in progress, but the Bakery’s major asset is chef David Sweeney — hired to prepare quick, healthy lunches for folks who want more than a slice of pound cake. His cooking — precise, layered, visually engaging and mostly vegetarian — will give you an inner peace you’ll never get from Xanax.CANOE 4199 Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta, 770-432-2663
For a big city, Atlanta doesn’t have much in the way of grand special-occasion restaurants. So thank heavens for Canoe, that occasionally flooded but always indomitable spot on the banks of the Chattahoochee.
A walk through the entrance hall tells you a little of the building’s storied history (it was a dancing club where Little Richard, Otis Redding and Big Mama Thornton played) and its resurrection as a prime dining venue, opened in time for the 1996 Olympics.
Chef Carvel Gould makes good modern American fare, such as house-smoked salmon over a crisp potato cake, a definitive salad of diced red and golden beets pressed into a disc with whipped goat cheese, and a slow-roasted beef short rib with celery root whip. The Wine Spectator award-winning wine list has depth, breadth and monthly specials to consider.
And that setting…CARDAMOM HILL
There is no other Indian restaurant in Atlanta quite like the elegant and prettily appointed Cardamom Hill, where first-time restaurateur Asha Gomez cooks the fare of her native Kerala. This region of southern India offers one of the subcontinent’s most varied cuisines — famous for its fish curries and lavish use of coconut, but also incorporating all manners of protein eschewed in regions that are predominantly Hindu or Muslim. (Gomez, like many of her people, is Catholic.)
Her approach isn’t fusion per se, but she nevertheless manages to fit her recipes into an elegant bistro format, lavishing layers of spice and flavor on beef short ribs, cured duck roast and a boneless fried chicken that may soon be the talk of the town.
The menu changes often, but if there is a kingfish roasted in banana leaves with plantains, jump at it.COMMUNITY Q BBQ 1361 Clairmont Road, Decatur, 404-633-2080, communityqbbq.com
If the town cafe in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and Alice Waters’ Berkeley legend Chez Panisse crossed their DNA and emerged as a hybrid, it would look a lot like Community Q. This spot has all the trappings of a local’s hang in a small Southern town — the cutesy pig paraphernalia, the wipe-clean patterned tablecloths, the neighborhood bulletin board. But look again, and you’ll notice the bags of beans, squash and shiitakes from local organic farms for sale, and the commitment to carefully sourced meats you don’t often find at a barbecue joint.
Very good, sometimes excellent smoked meats anchor the menu, but the side and specials are where you look for canny American cooking. Soups, such as a recent black bean and chorizo, have complex and layered seasoning. The “kitchen sink salad” arrives as a massive pile up of local leaf lettuce, marinated shiitakes, terrific pickled beets and the seeming inventory of an entire farmers market slivered into crunchy sweetness. The ginormous smoked beef rib is a thing of beauty — all leathery surface crunch and pink, juice-oozy meat — but the mac and cheese made with cream and Parmesan will have you at “Omigod.”DESTA 3086 Briarcliff Road, Atlanta, 404-929-0011
Of the several Ethiopian restaurants clustered around the corner of Briarcliff and Clairmont roads in northeast Atlanta, Desta is the only one blasting Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” into the parking lot. If that’s not enough to draw you in, consider the food.
The mix-and-match menu takes the mystery out of Ethiopian cuisine.
You start with a protein of your choice (steak, lamb, chicken, tilapia) and apply it to a classic Ethiopian preparation. In tibs dishes, it will come diced with onions, peppers, tomato and a mild spice blend in a buttery saute. Firfir dishes combine the meat with shreds of injera (the spongy crepe made from teff flour) and a warmly spicy red pepper sauce for a dish that tastes (and satisfies) like the East African version of smothered enchiladas.
I love, love, love the Ethiopian breakfast: eggs scrambled with peppers and onions side a cracked wheat pilaf and chechebsa — bits of cracked wheat bread braised in a heat-packing red pepper butter. It’s one of those dishes that burns and soothes at the same time, and is therefore impossible to stop eating.
Whatever meat you choose, make sure to get a vegetarian combination plate for the table. Incredible collard greens stewed with ginger and garlic pile up alongside chickpeas, lentils and tomato salad on stylish modern dishware. Every detail of this restaurant conspires to make you happy.ECCO 40 Seventh St., Atlanta, 404-347-9555
There’s no better place in Atlanta to eat alone than the bar at Ecco, with its special energy and view into the golden-hued dining room. Dig into a bowl of the always-great pappardelle with chili-braised pork; those supple noodles and tender slips of meat don’t stick to your ribs as much as slither over them. Then let the bartender offer tastes of wine in fine balloon stems until you find the one for you.
But when dining in a group, pack into one of those great booths in the dining room and explore the user-friendly Mediterranean menu. New chef Craig Richards has been tweaking the menu, which now features lamb neck croquetas with cauliflower, and buckwheat dumplings with cranberries and thyme. But all the Ecco classics — fried goat cheese balls with honey and cracked black pepper, piquillo peppers stuffed with braised beef — remain.
The world-savvy wine list comes divided into “New World” and “Old World” styles rather than geography (a fruit-forward, high-alcohol red from Spain might be classified “New World”), and the staff knows to sell the wine based on how it tastes.
All these little details conspire to make Ecco an easy place to love.EMPIRE STATE SOUTH 999 Peachtree St., Midtown,404-541-1105
The first Atlanta project from Athens chef and nascent food television personality Hugh Acheson, Empire State South dishes up the smartest and least contrived riff on Southern cooking to date. Working with his talented chef de cuisine, Ryan Smith, Acheson serves joyful, lusty food you can get lost in — pickles and pates, puffy dinner rolls with melting sorghum butter, platters heaped with okra and butterbeans, pork chops as thick as a Bible, cold-water oysters from British Columbia and sturgeon caviar cultivated in Georgia. Smith’s cured meats and sausages are among the best in town. So many thoughtful details and teamwork enhance the experience — from the captivating list from wine director Steve Grubbs, to the fine coffee drinks prepared by in-house barista Jonathan Pascual, to the table laden with pastries to go from ace pastry chef Cynthia Wong. There’s even a bocce court. Like much of this restaurant, it isn’t exactly Southern but manages to fit right in.
GOLDEN HOUSE1600 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth, 770-921-2228 (no website)
This palatial new Cantonese restaurant may have lost its opening chef, but it still feels like an event. Go for one of the city’s most robust dim sum services, where staffers wheel around carts filled with dumplings, steamed buns, custard tarts, soft tofu with ginger syrup and turnip cakes hot off the griddle.
Then again, don’t miss the whole Peking duck, glossy and burnished, that a waiter wheels to the table on a cart for oohs and aahs. You’ll also want to put dibs on one of the sea creatures swimming in the tanks in the back of the restaurant. Look for live shrimp. Simply steamed, these crisp-textured beauties made for the definitive peel-and-eat experience, swiped though a soy dip. And lobster comes prepared as a heap of salt-and-pepper-fried chunks, each juicy morsel an easy wiggle away from its shell.
Count on attentive service in a room that makes you feel like you’ve crashed a wedding.