2004 Silver Spoon Awards

Art of the Meal

With a little help from readers, Georgia Trend’s dining critic selects the state’s top 10 restaurants, salutes some long-time favorites and makes a few new discoveries

Like stately ocean liners, the state’s best restaurants weathered tough economic waters this year, but their diners barely felt a ripple. Some introduced clever pricing – like Atlanta’s Mid-City Cuisine’s $18, three-course “martini” lunch, which proved so wildly popular it’s now $30. Most, however, simply forged ahead with the same focus on consistent high quality and smart service that has kept many of these restaurants sailing smoothly on our Top 10 list for three years in a row.

The real surprises arrived in a flotilla of restaurants in small towns and remote areas, where we found new, hip joints on old town squares, family restaurants still fresh in their third generations, and signs of whole towns’ dining awakenings (such as Athens, with Mia Madonna, East-West Bistro and Five and Ten; McDonough, with Truman’s and Bistro 41; or St. Simons/Brunswick, with Cargo, the Crab Trap, the Georgia Pig and Halyards).

We salute a few of these discoveries and rediscoveries by awarding them Silver Teaspoons. Thanks also to the readers whose civic pride directed us to some charming finds. And please – if you have tips worth checking out, send an e-mail to gtcritic@mindspring.com. Our lighthouse search beam is always on for new arrivals.

Silver Spoons: Top 10 Dining Destinations

Bacchanalia, Atlanta.

A longtime Zagat list-topper, but a first No. 1 Silver Spoon this year, Bacchanalia wins over discriminating palates and lunchbox Joes with an unforgettable combination of populist flavors and revolutionary twists. “There’s no ego in our cooking,” says chef and co-owner Clifford Harrison of his and partner Anne Quatrano’s comfortable, yet cutting-edge menu. Exactly. Yet by putting the food and dining experience first (including the most outstanding cheese course in town), they’ve made themselves all the more notable. 1198 Howell Mill Road (between 14th St. and Huff Road), (404) 365-0410.

Seeger’s, Atlanta.

This year, a difficult economy plagued Guenter Seeger, whose visionary tasting menus thrill the most dedicated and daring diners (white asparagus gazpacho with wild salmon tartare atop Riesling gelee, anyone?). The matching wines are just as mind-bending. Cerebral, and some say chilly, dining peaks for explorers who don’t need a sherpa. Expect to pay about $100 an hour for two (assuming, of course, that you stay at least two hours, or as long as four). 111 West Paces Ferry Road at East Andrews Drive, (404) 846-9779.

The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton (Buckhead), Atlanta.

Need reassurance? Coddling? No one does it better than the Ritz, fine dining’s version of an episode of “Friends.” Nothing bad would dare happen here – this polished ensemble of a staff wouldn’t permit it. Chef Bruno Menard’s French-with-Asian influences menus are as artful as they are clearly articulated. 3434 Peachtree Road N.E., Buckhead, (404) 240-7035.

Oscar’s, College Park.

Chef Tod Immel’s astonishing creative consistency is as remarkable as the setting (one MARTA stop from the airport, in tiny, but slowly reawakening College Park). Dramatic, hip, elegant – the food (such as foie gras with cherry preserves and brioche toast) is as spot-on as the d?cor. 3725 Main St. (between Harvard and Princeton Avenues), (404) 766-9688.

Mid-City Cuisine, Atlanta.

Shaun Doty vamoosed from the dark, departed downtown Mumbo Jumbo, and let light pour through the windows facing Peachtree street at this witty young restaurant that’s so convivial it seems to be a bar at heart. 1545 Peachtree St., (404) 888-8700.

Elizabeth’s on 37th, Savannah.

Elegant. Founding chef Elizabeth Terry still consults, but former staffers now run the place (managing partners Greg and Gary Butch still wait tables). Chef Kelly Yambor has breathed new life into Terry’s gracefully revised Southern classics – her own creations now rival some of Terry’s best. 105 E. 37th St. (at Drayton Street), (912) 236-5547.

Cargo Portside Grill, Brunswick

. Headed to the coast? Just a few miles from St. Simons, Alix Kenagy re-creates the serious-but-informal vibe of her popular Atlanta restaurants Indigo and Partners with an ingeniously simple recipe for success – expert grilling, immaculate seafood, charming staff. The restaurant has nearly singlehandedly rejuvenated this sleepy village. 1423 Newcastle St., (912) 267-7330.

Glen-Ella Springs Inn, Clarkesville.

Owners Bobby and Barrie Aycock have so smoothly refined their operation that regulars think of beautiful Glen-Ella, on a gravel road in the North Georgia mountains, as their summer “home.” Nothing much to do here, except drink in the lush beauty, swim, read, walk, and feast on such civilized dishes as herb-encrusted rack of lamb. You may bring your own wine to this dry part of the county. 1789 Bear Gap Road, (706) 754-7295.

Acheson, Athens.

Chef Hugh Acheson’s eccentric but accessible restaurant jump-started Athens’ now-vibrant dining scene, inspiring such risk-taking newcomers as Mia Madonna, East-West Bistro and Bischero. However, Acheson’s vision is unmistakably his own; a dinner there as unique as your own thumbprint. 1653 Lumpkin St., in Five Points, (706) 546-7300.

Park 75, Four Seasons Hotel, Atlanta.

Kevin Hickey’s clear, adventurous cuisine (salmon tartare with vichysoisse foam, for example) won over a solid core of admirers in this comfortable but somewhat sterile dining room. We’ll be watching the direction of new chef Robert Gerstenecker. 75 14th St., (404) 253-3840.

The Best All Over

Swint’s Pecans and Candy, Milner.
After three generations, the homemade sweets still cool under the huge pecan tree out back, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything better than the french-fried pecans or maple pralines. 134 Main St. (Old Highway 41), (770) 358-2608.

Henry’s Restaurant, Clayton.

Great, old-school lunch buffet of Southern-fried classics, and on Sundays, homemade peach and cherry ice cream. Highway 441 just south of Clayton, (706) 782-3533.

Nam, Atlanta.
Every detail – from the hand-drawn murals to the quirky light fixtures and traditional, yet contemporized Vietnamese dishes – is the vision of brothers Chris and Alex Kinjo. The best place to take a jaded diner who wants to try something new, Nam excites the eye and heart as much as the palate. 931 Monroe Drive, (404) 541-9997.

Ted’s Montana Grill, Atlanta, Buford, Kennesaw, Norcross and Peachtree City.

Ted Turner’s excellent adventure is a smart-food chain, with low-fat bison meat, blue plate specials and comfort foods like “beer can” chicken. Think of it as a Shoney’s for the new millennium. Downtown Atlanta (where Ted often eats): 133 Luckie St., (404) 521-9796.

Georges, Tybee Island.
Tybee is no longer just a slacker dining haven – along with enlightened yet casual Tybee restaurants like A.J.’s and Tango, the owners (two Georges) of the North Beach Grill now regularly pack this ambitious, but easygoing restaurant that offers duck liver and Grant Burge, an Australian tawny port. 1105 Highway 80 East, (912) 786-9730.

Woodfire Grill, Atlanta.

Chef Michael Tuohy has forged a new dining classic out of the old, tired Marra’s location. Intimate and warm, centered around the open kitchen, Woodfire offers regular cheese and wine tastings to educate a new generation of diners. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, (404) 347-9055.

The Lodge at Little St. Simons.

Unforgettable, but only partly because of the food, much of which is caught or cultivated on this private, undeveloped island – one of few left on the East Coast. Meals are largely reserved for guests, who pay $600 per day to roam unspoiled beaches and observe wildlife (such as the native European fallow deer), but occasional daytrips at $75 per person include gourmet boxed lunches, such as shrimp, black bean soup, spicy slaw. (912) 638-7472 or (888) 733-5774.

Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, Savannah.

Savannah breathed a collective sigh of relief when Mrs. Wilkes’ family decided to continue the operation of this boardinghouse-style restaurant, after the famed Mrs. Wilkes died. (In her 90s, she still came to work every day.) Here, the best Southern food traditions live on – her recipes turned Depression-era ingredients into the gold standard of family-style cooking. Skip the long lines at the entertaining Paula Deen’s The Lady and Sons, and find the real deal here. 107 W. Jones St. (at Whitaker), (912) 232-5997.

Joel, Atlanta.

Chef Joel Antunes’ best dishes create indelible memories, and the room has the dynamic lines of a fine Italian motorbike. However, the staff does occasionally have the unfortunate habit of overlooking less-than-high-profile diners. Lively bar scene. 3290 Northside Parkway, (404) 233-3500.

Bennie’s Red Barn, St. Simons.

Like the Crab Trap, Bennie’s has been an island staple for years among locals. However, while the Crab Trap’s fried-seafood specialties seem as fresh as ever, Bennie’s is worth visiting for three reasons: An excellent, chargrilled steak, flawless service and the chance to observe a time capsule of St. Simons as it was 20 or even 30 years ago. 5514 Frederica Road, (912) 638-2844.

Lee St. Cafe, Kingsland.

This cute corner cafe, once an old-fashioned downtown drugstore, serves handmade breakfasts and lunches, including a respectable lobster bisque, bulging chicken salad sandwiches, and addictive peanut butter pie, available in half-slices. 105 N. Lee St., (912) 882-1119.

Kyma, Atlanta.

Pano Karatossos’ tribute to his homeland is a sparkling amphitheater devoted to Greek food, with a pantheon of fresh fish flown in from around the world. 3085 Piedmont Road N.E., (404) 262-0702.

Bone’s, Atlanta:

Classic as the Brooks Brothers suit and Burberry overcoat you’ll wear to dine with the city’s power brokers. Museum-quality steaks, genteel service and virile, clubby atmosphere. 3130 Piedmont Road N.E., (404) 237-2663.

Tamarind, Atlanta.

Even after the opening of its more upscale sister restaurant, Nan, just a few blocks away, I still prefer the straightforward appeal of Tamarind. The service can be businesslike, expert at getting you back to your office on time, but these deftly rendered Thai dishes never skimp on complexity: Take, for example, the yum-ped-yang: a warm salad of boneless duck with Thai chilis, pineapple, green apple sticks, onions, cashews and lemon juice over Romaine leaves. 80 14th St. N.W., Midtown, (404) 873-4888.

Rathbun’s, Atlanta.

Chef Kevin Rathbun, who made his name at high-profile restaurants like Nava and Bluepointe, dives into the scene with a major splash: Open only a few months, his place has already earned a “best new restaurant in the country” nod from Esquire critic John Mariani. With a clever, populist pricing scheme, Rathbun’s refined Southern sensibility speaks with a charming drawl in such dishes as sea scallops with country-ham grits, asparagus and hollandaise. In the Stove Works, Inman Park, 112 Krog St., (404) 524-8280.

Speed’s Kitchen, Shellman Bluff.

Ironically, if you’re in a hurry, you shouldn’t come to Speed’s, a pineywoods fried-seafood palace housed in hooked-together trailers. The food can take time, and if you’re not a local, or a regular, or both, it can take a very, very long time. But despite the wait, the folks here know what they’re doing with some flour, hot grease and fresh seafood. Cash only. (912) 832-4763 (call for directions, or follow the signs from I-95, exit 58, Eulonia/Highway 17).

Silver Teaspoons: Shining Surprises Around The State

Langston House Restaurant, Henderson Village, Perry.

A surprisingly audacious menu that really works, in this displaced faux “village” resort that sometimes feels a little like a very upscale retirement community. The wild mushroom soup has buttery dots and snips of tarragon from the garden. 125 South Langston Circle, (478) 988-8696, or (888) 615-9722.

Sterling’s Southern Cafe, St. Marys.

Small space, limited hours, but that just gives the owner total creative control, from the delicious bisque to her handmade cakes, cooling on an antique sideboard. 219 Osborne St., (912) 882-3430

Fresh Air Barbecue, Jackson.

Since 1929, Fresh Air has served some of the best of what a friend calls “Baptist barbecue” – clean, pulled wood-smoked pork, on white bread, with a mildly spicy tomato-based sauce, and Brunswick stew. The Jackson store is the keeper of the flame, although there are other locations in Athens and Macon. Georgia Route 42, 4 miles south of Jackson, (770) 775-3182.

Pelican Point, Crescent.
This tiny fishing village boasts the best and most enormous seafood buffet for miles around: $24 buys a mind-boggling array of choices, including stuffed lobster, crab-laden stew, gumbo, oysters, snapper, Georgia shrimp – much of it just unloaded from the boats right outside the dining room windows. Cheery, proud staff. (912) 832-4295. (About seven miles east of I-95, exit 58; follow signs or call for directions).

Mom’s Kitchen, Plains.
Going to church with the Carters? After attending Maranatha Baptist Church’s services, follow the crowd to Mom’s, where you’ll find killer fried chicken, heavenly hoecakes, sweet squash and, in season, quail. 203 Church St., (229) 824-5458.

Halyards, St. Simons.
One sign that St. Simons’ dining scene is on the upswing: Halyards. The progressive menu, and smart wine list, appeals to a more cosmopolitan island crowd, in a town that’s used to shrugging off mediocre meals. But there’s nothing elitist about this downright delicious food. The Shops of Sea Island, (912) 638-9100.

Bistro 41, McDonough.

All over town, gorgeous old homes are undergoing restoration. And downtown, a brick storefront takes on modern lines, bringing in a local crowd hungry for such specialties as seared grouper over lobster mashed potatoes, with tarragon-lime beurre blanc. 41 Griffin St., (770) 320-8855.

Tic Toc Room, Macon.

This homegrown hit once housed a nightclub that gave Little Richard his start. Now fashion-forward Maconites come downtown to see and be seen, and to sample osso bucco with vegetable polenta cake. 408 Martin Luther King Blvd., (478) 744-0123.

The Georgia Pig, Brunswick.

Just off the interstate, this rustic old shack emits an aroma so enticing, even the little wooden cutout pigs out front dance for joy. Inside, spread out your feast on a picnic table: A meltingly tender pulled pork sandwich pressed and toasted into a large hamburger bun is so good one famed critic called it “excruciatingly delicious.” I-95 (exit 29, Jekyll Island) and U.S. 17 Interchange, (912) 264-6664.

Lakemont Provisions, Lakemont.

Food in this vacation village near Lake Rabun has often seemed an afterthought. The Lake Rabun Hotel’s patio dining room is one sign of improvement; tiny Lakemont Provisions’ gourmet sandwiches (pancetta with fig and arugula), wines and sodas provide an oasis in a shady arbor. 8495 Old Highway 441, (706) 782-3090.

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

Categories: Art of the Meal