Art of the Meal
The drive from Atlanta to the north Georgia mountains is just long enough to tire you a little. In the surprisingly short distance it takes for roads to narrow from expressways to four-lanes to slender blacktops threading through tree-shaded tunnels, you start to yearn to stretch your legs a little in this thin, refrigerated air. Maybe you do, or maybe, still in big-city overdrive, you press on to your destination, impatient to relax.
The final, gravel road leading to Glen-Ella Springs Inn shakes you by the shoulders, forcing you to slow to a speed that allows even the driver to see individual petals on roadside wildflowers. The inn, a big, boxy structure from the 1880s, with porches on both sides, looms ahead. Though the restaurant is open to the public, dinner is best enjoyed knowing that you won't have to go anywhere afterwards.
In the interests of full disclosure, I've never been the type to seek out small inns. I don't like breakfast with too-cheerful strangers. I'm particular about musty smells and tired collections of mediocre detective novels. Maybe that's why I like Glen-Ella so much: The white-washed rusticity is authentic, but so is the comfort of overstuffed furniture and plenty of hot water - not to mention good reading material. You can also roam through the inn's gardens, where you'll find the restaurant's source of fresh herbs. You can visit with other guests gathered in the new garden house, with a TV and fireplace, as well as a storehouse of snacks and soft drinks. All that's missing is a convivial little bar, but in this dry county, you must remember to bring your own supplies.
The restaurant is a part of owners Barrie and Bobby Aycock's dedication to a sumptuous retreat for their guests. The dark, welcoming dining room can get a little hectic, with its mix of experienced and new servers, but everything sorts itself out nicely, especially if you've already made the switch to mountain time.
The menu has changed little over the years, but classics don't need updating when they're well-executed. The Caesar salad is garlicky and rich with olive oil, topped with house-made dressing and a blizzard of grated Parmesan. Skip the store-bought, marinated goat cheese (I'd love to see some fresh Georgia chevre) and head straight for the entrees. On the night I visited, the jumbo shrimp in Low Country gravy wasn't made with fried Parmesan grits, but instead offered on snowy drifts of stone-ground grits enriched with cream and cheese. I'm sure I would have preferred them this way, especially with rivulets of tangy lobster-sauce gravy with peppers, Vidalia onions and big shrimp. The rack of lamb is nearly worth the drive on its own, with five little medium-rare New Zealand chops encrusted with bread crumbs and fresh basil, served with a bright basil-mint sauce. The maple-syrup-laced mashed sweet potatoes are terrific with a bit of lamb jus, and thick spears of crisp asparagus.
If you can still move, you'll want to think of desserts like creme brulee or molten chocolate cake, or this classic, tart Key Lime pie on graham cracker crust, adorned only with a little sliver of lime and puff of whipped cream. But you may want to take one more moonlight stroll through the gardens before heading back to your room, where a hot bath and comfortable bed await. In the morning, the breakfast that comes with your room is a big spread of cereal, fresh fruit, muffins, fall-apart biscuits and local jams, as well as a hot egg casserole of plum tomatoes and cheddar cheese, hash browns and sausage.
You won't need that gravel road to slow your leave-taking.
Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact her at email@example.com.