Mountain Dining

Art of the Meal

Ah, September. A little cooler in the air, a little color in the trees. With summer over, it's time to contemplate your annual Leaf-Peeping Tour of the North Georgia mountains. But let's face it: the food is as important as the foliage.





Sure, there's always the Dillard House, but there are also a few notable gustatory developments near Lake Rabun, along Old Highway 441. This serpentine, two-lane tunnel through the woods runs parallel to the busier Highway 441, from Talullah Falls nearly to Dillard. Traveling south on Old 441 from Clayton, begin in tiny Tiger, with a visit to award-winning Tiger Mountain Wineries. You can also buy their wines a bit farther south on Old 441, in Lakemont. There, the old post office has been renovated into a small gourmet grocery. Lakemont Provisions has stationery and souvenirs, as well as salads and sandwiches to enjoy in the narrow, shady arbor. (I liked the panini, with Italian bacon on grilled bread with goat cheese, arugula and fig preserves.)





At the three-way fork south of Lakemont, bear right and continue on Lake Rabun Road, glimpsing water down below and the private homes and cottages that have clung to these steep hillsides for decades. At the art-deco sign for the Lake Rabun Hotel, wheel in -- after standing closed for some time, the old hotel has been bought and renovated by the Harrison family, who now run the place. Mom Sarah Harrison and daughter-in-law, Rebecca, do the country-style cooking.





While the overnight accommodations are decidedly primitive (including hook-and-eye locks on the doors), the hotel is a great place to stop in for a snack and drink or leisurely dinner. Some of the handmade mountain laurel furniture dates to the 1920s, when the hotel first opened. Countless old stone fireplaces dot the place, from the big hearth in the great room, a few in guest rooms, to the small outdoor chimneys. The Harrisons have built a big deck, so surrounded by cypress and shagbark maples you feel you're in a treehouse.





The menu is simple: burgers and fried shrimp baskets at lunch, and a bigger selection of fried, pan-seared or blackened seafood (tilapia, grouper), grilled salmon, catfish on Friday nights. There are also steaks, fried chicken, and on Saturday nights, house-made prime rib. The wine list is a list of popular, inexpensive favorites; the speakers play low-decibel big-band, reggae and classical music.





The Harrison women know what they're doing in the kitchen, starting with shrimp cocktail, perfectly clean and dewily moist, on lettuce with horseradish-laced sauce. The salads mix baby lettuces and iceberg -- sort of the way the cooking mixes old techniques with better ingredients. The grouper is a small filet, nicely seasoned, served with homemade, pickle-flecked potato salad and green beans. The prime rib is fatty, but it's a tender, slow-roasted cut, cooked medium rare as ordered. It comes with a fluffy sweet potato and squash casserole. Desserts, such as bourbon pecan pie with ice cream, are a good excuse to linger on the deck until the citronella torches and tiny white lights become the night's brightest stars.





I have only a few quibbles with the hotel, and most of them have to do with a slightly cavalier attitude toward full disclosure. First, I wish the restaurant wouldn't advertise its "bar" or "saloon" without also prominently stating that they only serve beer and wine. And it would have been good to know that the "vodka tonics" are made with something called "wine-based vodka."





Those problems are easily solved with a more forthright labeling of the very pleasant deck/dining room. Wherever you decide to stay, the Lake Rabun Hotel is worth stopping in for a meal.





Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.





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