Art Of The Meal: Feeling Simpatico
25 N. Park Sq., NE (at Mill St.), Marietta
770-792-9086 or www.willieraes.net
Hours: Dinner only, Tuesday-Saturday.
Parking: Free on the square.
Dress Code: Anything goes, but diners seem to prefer business casual.
Walking through Marietta’s town square, you understand why so many new malls and housing developments mimic the design. Compare the ease of parking within sight of your destination to the uneasy valet drop-off or a dismal parking garage. It’s ideal for a comfortable promenade, to say hello to other dressed-up folks happy to be out and about.
As we walked toward the bustling restaurants on the north side of the square, we took in the evening lights and watched as a crowd clustered under The Strand’s old marquee, announcing the latest Atlanta Lyric Opera performance. We nodded and smiled at our “neighbors.” Like Marietta itself, the town square exists somewhere in the Turner Classic Movies zone between agrarian and urban America – a little like Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. We needed only some music from the park’s empty bandstand to whisk us into The Magnificent Ambersons.
Incredibly, Simpatico and Willie Rae’s, the square’s sibling, next-door neighbor restaurants, seem as untouched by recent events as the nostalgic scene outside. No sign of an economic downturn at either of them – Willie Rae’s eclectic lunch-and-dinner Cajun-Southwestern spot, drenched in bright yellow, rolling with Rockin’ Dopsie, and packed to the gills with folks yakking, drinking and eating gumbo and poboys; or Simpatico, the earth-toned grown-up dinner nook with a serious wine list and smooth jazz vibe.
Around Atlanta, higher-profile restaurants are struggling, but these two have found their patrons’ sweet spot. Marietta’s square isn’t exactly famous for cutting-edge food, and the diners crowding into these spots could seem to care less. (Would you expect foie gras at the Bedford Falls Diner?) No, these restaurants have been staked out by savvy regulars who know not to sit next to the very happy Happy Hour hangers-on at the bar, that they can find a nicely cooked piece of fish or grass-fed beef at a reasonable price – and make it to Theatre in the Square by curtain time. Or home, before the babysitter falls asleep.
Our dinner was tasty and filling and facilitated a pleasant evening on the square. The seafood is fresh and well cooked, the salads spotless, the vegetables al dente. Some dishes, such as smoked chicken ravioli in a chipotle cream sauce or the beet salad, were underseasoned to near-blandness. (If you prefer milder flavors, this is the place for you.) But the Oysters Lomi Lomi (fried oysters on rice crackers in lemongrass cream sauce, served with sliced smoked salmon) came to the table hot and crisp, with an intriguing mix of flavors, temperatures and textures in a single bite. (The service is very good, and you’ll do well to listen to the wait staff’s suggestions.) Subtle flavors also worked well in the evening’s catch – scallops and crisp-tender slivered bok choy steamed in parchment and served with a creamy coconut-milk risotto. Ditto the comforting, warm berry cobbler.
If you’re headed there for a play or just to say hello to your “neighbors,” you’ll have a hard time finding a better place for a relaxing dinner.