2006 Silver Spoon Awards

For the fifth year, Georgia Trend's dining critic names the state's top 10 restaurants.

Is that thunder in the distance, or are the dining gods angry? After so many years with the same major players at the top of the heap, this year marked a mini-revolution. Perhaps it was the rocking, rolling economy; maybe it was diners’ tastes – more likely, a little of each, with luck and timing thrown in for good measure.

So much happened at presstime that I’m looking forward to checking it all out in more detail in reviews to come: Guenter Seeger, preparing what looked to be a last supper for his signature, world-class restaurant, found an angel in the form of a customer who also happens to be Fidelity Bank chairman James Miller.

Seeger’s one-time acolyte, Shaun Doty, departed the Woodruff Arts Center’s exciting new destination, Table 1280, after just seven months for his own Inman Park eatery, Shaun’s. Scheduled to take over 1280: Prodigal son Todd Immel, ground-breaking chef of the loved and lost Oscar’s, in College Park.

Gottlieb’s, the promising restaurant accompanying the return of its old family bakery to downtown Savannah, suddenly shuttered. Soto, Seeger’s volatile Asian soulmate, hung up his sushi knives and returned to his native Japan.

On the coast, Sea Island’s historic The Cloister has returned, incorporating original architect Addison Meisner’s vision – and Spanish Lounge stained-glass windows. And as always, small surprises hit us like lightning bolts, with new, encouraging restaurants like Christie’s, in the rapidly developing foodie destination/sleepy port village of Brunswick.

Georgia’s Top 10 Dining Destinations

Seeger’s, Atlanta. Chilly to some, cerebral and thrilling to others, Seeger’s is a kind of culinary Rorschach test. For me, it remains the most challenging, and best, fine dining establishment in town. This year, we were reminded of two things: One: Seeger’s uncompromising genius at the helm of Atlanta’s only true world-class restaurant. And two: His, um, quirky business sense and unpopularity among many diners who prefer more accessible fare and warm service for the very high price. Let’s hope that the Fidelity Bank rescue comes with a business plan – and a wider awareness among local diners, who very nearly lost one of Atlanta’s great assets. 111 W. Paces Ferry Road at E. Andrews Drive, 404-846-9779.

Bacchanalia, Atlanta. Imagine an elegant, sophisticated Southern aunt – you know, the one who was always traveling abroad – with a degree from the Culinary Institute and an organic garden just outside her door. That’s the vibe at Bacchanalia, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison’s comfortable but cutting-edge restaurant, where the carefully chosen wines and cheeses are as mind-expanding as the menu, but the environment is as warm as a museum-quality heirloom quilt. Quinones, however, the pair’s more upscale, single-seating venture, seems so far to have fallen short of the restaurant that manages to capture Atlanta’s mind, stomach – and heart. 1198 Howell Mill Road (between 14th St. & Huff Road). 404-365-0410.

The Dining Room, Ritz-Carlton (Buckhead), Atlanta. Nothing says “I love you” – to a romantic or business interest – like a dinner at the Buckhead Ritz. The watered silks, the gold-edged china, the eye-popping after-dessert dessert cart – the traditions continue under new chef Arnaud Berthelier, a French native whose menu is molded by the Mediterranean. 3434 Peachtree Road NE Buckhead. 404-240-7035.

Rathbun’s, Atlanta. Chef Kevin Rathbun’s regional influences range from the Fingerlakes to the Delta, and the Southeast to the Southwest, with solid, head-on flavors from the trio of soups to the dessert samplers. The dining room is beautiful, but sometimes frenetic: I prefer the quiet patio. (Another plus: Even when the dining room is jammed, there’s usually seating on the patio if you go early.) Rathbun’s newer venture, the adjacent Krog Bar, is proving a popular destination for drinks and nibbles from Mediterranean small plates. 112 Krog St. (in the Stove Works), 404-524-8280.

Christie’s, Brunswick. This brand-new upstart from a CIA grad and his wife/bartender/manager Christie, is yet another reason to make the drive from St. Simons to Brunswick for dinner. The burgeoning restaurant scene includes a new sushi bar, Pearl’s, as well as standby Cargo. The crowd seems to love this entirely fresh take on such crusty stalwarts as macaroni and cheese – here presented as elegant orecchiette pasta with a whole lobster tail – and novel pairings like popcorn and chocolate. 1618 Newcastle St., 912-262-0699.

Glen-Ella Springs Inn, Clarkesville. Glen-Ella’s gracious reign over the North Georgia mountain dining scene continues, despite the onslaught of new contenders. Lacking only a liquor license (but you may bring your own beer or wine to this dry part of the county), it is an otherwise perfect mountain oasis. Swim, walk, read, contemplate the landscape, and then repair to the dining room for herb-encrusted rack of lamb. 1789 Bear Gap Road, 706-754-7295.

Five and Ten, Athens. Chef/Owner Hugh Acheson, a Food & Wine best new chef for 2002, never seems to rest on his reputation, always including a kind of entry-level menu (recently, just $24 for either of two three-course dinners, featuring the likes of sauteed chanterelles on toast, and pot likker soup with ham hocks). 1653 South Lumpkin St., 706-546-7300.

Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta. Chef Linton Hopkins is a second-generation heir to Edna Lewis’ elegantly simple interpretation of Southern food. On Sunday nights, the focus shifts from foie gras to fried chicken. 2277 Peachtree Road (in the Aramont), 404-355-0321.

The Globe, Atlanta. Technology Square’s destination restaurant achieves what rival Atlantic Station’s higher-profile eateries just miss: truly fresh flavors, sleekly contemporary style, and, yes, a global awareness in food and culture. 75 Fifth St. NW, 404-541-1487

Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island. If Greyfield Inn existed somewhere else, these dishes might taste completely different. But you can’t remove this food (diver scallops on spinach and handmade pasta; lamb chops with pesto and a tangle of fried onions) from its awe-inspiring environment, just as you can’t extract the mystic charm from Cumberland Island. The inn’s fee includes three soul-restoring meals a day, plus evening hors d’oeuvres; call for information on day trips and dinner packages, including appetizers, three courses and ferry transportation for $95 per person. 904-261-6408.

The Best All Around

Table 1280, Atlanta. The High Museum’s expansion included this exciting new venture at the Woodruff Arts Center, a kind of terrarium for the city’s artsy urban crowd. We eagerly await new chef Todd Immel’s take on this quirkily progressive menu, with such dishes as chestnut foam topping a sweet kabocha squash soup, drizzled with pumpkin seed oil. 1280 Peachtree St., NE (at the Woodruff Arts Center), 404-897-1280.

Elizabeth’s on 37th, Savannah. Yes, founding chef Elizabeth Terry has retired (though she’s still listed on the menu as “consulting chef.”) But her former staff carries on as managing partners, and her dishes seem as fresh as the seasons that inspire them. 105 E. 37th St. (at Drayton St.). 912-236-5547.

Brasstown Valley Resort, Young Harris. The high-beamed lounge with enormous stone fireplace and overstuffed couches is a great place to anticipate dinner, featuring such inventive touches as French onion soup with turnip green pot likker subbing for beef broth. 6321 US Highway 76, 706-379-9900 or 800-201-3205.

Bone’s, Atlanta. So good for so long, it can be easily overlooked, but Atlanta’s best steakhouse is an old-school business-crowd favorite. Not to be missed, if only for the grits fritters to accompany your aged New York strip. 3130 Piedmont Road (near Peachtree), 404-237-2663.

Marco Ristorante Italiano, Macon. At the 1842 Inn’s sister restaurant, the menu is as authentically Italian as its owner and chef. Straightforwardly simple … and very good. 4581 Forsyth Road, 478-405-5660.

Crystal Beer Parlor, Savannah. The Parlor closed briefly a few years back, but the new owner has restored the saloon vibe, which draws cops and punks, kids and grandpas in equal numbers. Not everything on the menu is great – and I was shocked to learn of a new, ambitious dinner menu – but it’s always worth the trip for the killer onion rings, as well as the loaf corn bread and thick crab stew, made for 30 years by “Ms. Shirley” Carter. 301 W. Jones St., 912-232-1153.

Watershed, Decatur. The front-porch environment, and down-home food may fool you at first, but this is a serious, and seriously good, restaurant from Edna Lewis’ protege, chef Scott Peacock. Tuesday night’s legendary fried chicken specials pack them in. But everynight dishes like beautiful, fresh vegetable plates, pimento-cheese-stuffed celery and pita chips with lima bean hummus have the faithful endurance of a good marriage partner. 406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-378-4900.

D. Morgan’s, Cartersville. With a contractor father, chef Derek Morgan gutted a downtown furniture store and installed this beautifully simple – but contrarian – restaurant. While everyone else is layering flavors, or fluffing them into foam, Morgan limits each dish to a few ingredients. The combinations (lobster bisque with porcini essence; seared ahi tuna with scallion hummus) are unusual, entertaining – and delicious. 28 West Main St., 770-383-3535.

Cargo Portside Grill, Brunswick. As daughter Kate takes over management of mom Alix Kenagy’s destination restaurant, it seems certain this sturdy standby will survive. The question is, will she able to maintain the dining room’s once-electric energy and disciplined kitchen – not to mention, find new interpretations of these durable classics? 1423 Newcastle St., 912-267-7330.

Grits Cafe, Forsyth. Unlike its humble namesake, the Grits Cafe is upscale – who could have predicted lobster, yellowfin tuna and asiago cheese in an attractively renovated downtown Forsyth storefront? Despite occasional lily-gilding with wildly complicated dishes, the Grits Cafe mostly delivers to a joyously grateful corps of local diners. 17 West Johnston St., 478-994-8325.

Jot ’em Down, Athens.It sounds like Restoration Hardware-style faux nostalgia, but this restored grocery with Formica dinettes serves real – and really good – wood-smoked barbecue from the little building out back. 150 E. Whitehall Road, 706-549-2110.

Appalachia Grill, Marble Hill.Another sign that retiring to the mountains might not mean a sentence to the culinary boondocks: Like Rising Fawn’s Canyon Grill, the Appalachia Grill brings city flavors to the country, where the small plates include rosemary shrimp and roasted cauliflower. 3909 Steve Tate Highway, 770-893-3389.

Sterling’s Southern Cafe, St. Marys. Despite the tiny size, whitewashed antiques and lunching ladies, Sterling’s ladles out plenty of flavor in its crab bisque and crab cake Caesar salad. (And the chef/owner’s new self-published cookbook spills some of her secrets.) 219 Osborne St., 912-882-3430.

MF Sushibar, Atlanta. With the beloved Soto saying “sayonara,” brothers Alex and Chris Kinjo’s self-designed spot (like their equally imaginative and culinarily solid Vietnamese restaurant, Nam) now tops the heap for its genre. 265 Ponce De Leon Ave., 404-815-8844.

Joel, Atlanta.Sleek, beautiful and piloted by an ingeniously creative chef, Joel Antunes’ brainchild is the place to fill your eye, mind and stomach – but the service can slip occasionally, especially if you’re not a regular. 3290 Northside Parkway NE, 404-233-3500.

Barbara Jean’s, St. Simons. Jamming in the locals at brunch, Barbara Jean’s fills the bill just about any time of day, with Southern-tinged specialties like greens and cornbread, served with the house specialty: simple, fresh lump crabcakes – so popular you can order them for delivery across the country. 214 Mallory St., 912-634-6500.

Taqueria los Hermanos, Tucker. This Tucker location, my favorite for soft tacos and inventive Mexican-style desserts, has now expanded. But a recent visit shows this family venture (five brothers and their mother) is keeping a handle on its larger staff. Also: On Saturdays only, be sure to order the best tamales in town, handmade by Mama Ballesteros. 4418 Hugh Howell Road, 678-937-0660.

Kyma, Atlanta. Pano Karatossos’ tribute to his homeland, Greece, is a shining pantheon built around fresh fish, flown in from around the world and cooked on a wood-fired grill. But I also love the vegetables, including bitter wild greens, and gigandes plaki (velvety white beans the size of espresso saucers, stewed with onions and tomatoes). 3085 Piedmont Road, 404-262-0702.

Taurus, Atlanta.Atlanta’s most fun steakhouse is named for Chef Gary Mennie’s astrological sign, and designed as a dramatic, scarlet bullring. Just as Mennie drew crowds to his former restaurant, Canoe, with inventive interpretations of seafood classics, he waves a red cape at carnivores with such flourishes as Delmonico steaks, a “10-chop” vegetable salad and pecan tarts. 1745 Peachtree St. NE, 404-214-0641.

Woodfire Grill, Atlanta. Chef Michael Tuohy has been forging his own way with seasonal ingredients and a California aesthetic since the days he made Chefs’ Cafe a destination. The Woodfire offers that elusive formula discriminating diners so often seek, but rarely find: a clear, definitive vision in a big, bustling restaurant, a bar full of bonhomie, and such singularly superlative ingredients that the chef willingly steps back to allow them to shine, from wine to cheese plates, and pizzas to pommes frites. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055.

Five Not To Miss

Nacoochee Grill, Helen. Finding a great meal around touristy Helen can be a challenge, but the Nacoochee Grill steps up to the plate with Georgia trout, house-smoked salmon, and such specialties as the seasonal “Capresadilla” – a quesadilla with mozzarella, basil and homegrown tomatoes – available only when good tomatoes are, too. 7277 South Main St., 706-878-8020.

Crane Creek Vineyard, Young Harris. This tiny vineyard on a country road a few miles from Young Harris is a charming addition to North Georgia’s burgeoning wine industry. About once a month from late spring through early fall, the proprietors offer “farmer’s pasta dinners,” served on picnic tables overlooking teal and lavender foothills, teeming with grapevines. The food is surprisingly good, from the groaning hors d’oeuvres table to main courses like lasagna and risotto. Of course, you also get to sample Crane Creek’s quite respectable wines, such as the flinty Seyval blanc. At $75 per person, it’s not a cheap dinner, but the beauty and rustic elegance of the experience is worth the all-inclusive tab. This December, check in for “Souper Saturdays” – a free bowl of soup and crusty bread, offered every Saturday by the fireplace in the winery’s main shop. 916 Crane Creek Road, 706-379-1236.

Bollywood Masala, Decatur. So you’re a jaded international diner and think you’ve tried it all. Give Bollywood a shot – this joyful tribute to the Indian film scene, decorated with Indian movie posters, often screens Bollywood classics, and features terrific authentic Indian specialties. Try the gin cooler – served in a coconut, with a straw. 2201 Lawrenceville Highway, 404-636-6614.

Nacoochee Valley Guest House/ Bernie’s Restaurant, Sautee.Open for dinner only on Thursdays-Saturdays, the dining room at this charming small inn fulfills its promise to restore “the lost art of personal service” – as well as some really good old-fashioned French standards. Bring your own wine. Plus, Bernie herself is such a hoot that she’s an experience all her own. 2200 Highway 17, 706-878-3830.

Tamarind, Atlanta. After years at its not-exactly-convenient location near the connector in Midtown, this month Tamarind moves to a much more high-profile spot – Colony Square, into the space once occupied by the Corner Bakery. Here’s hoping that nothing is lost in the move, including the smart service and fabulous food at my favorite Thai restaurant in the state. According to owner Charlie Niyomkul, the restaurant will also begin offering Thai spices and ingredients for sale in an adjacent market. For the state’s most luxurious Thai dining experience, visit sister restaurant Nan, a slightly more upscale space with a slightly more upscale menu, just a few blocks away. 1197 Peachtree St., 404-873-4888.

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