Here are the Atlanta 50 — the restaurants that we feel define the best of dining in the greater metropolitan area today. All of these capsule reviews are based on recent visits by members of the AJC dining team. Initials indicate they were written by John Kessler (JK), Jenny Turknett (JT) or Jon Watson (JW).
Jenny Turknett’s outlier: A personal favorite | Video: Jenny talks about why she chose Alma Cocina
When I took friends to Alma Cocina recently, one remarked, “I thought you didn’t like this kind of food.” My response: “Are you kidding? It’s my favorite.” I confess a personal preference for small plates, Latin tapas in particular. Alma Cocina, a Fifth Group restaurant, hits all the right notes for me: a warm interior, wait staff with personality, great margaritas made with fresh juices and, yes, those tapas.
Chef Chad Clevenger brings his experience with Mexican and Southwestern cuisine to the restaurant. Order a half-dozen dishes for the table to share. Start with the creamy guacamole topped with sweet chunks of butternut squash juxtaposed with the smoky chipotle sauce. Don’t miss the red snapper ceviche with a brunoise of sweet potato and corn kernels cured in lime juice. I adore the playfulness of the Little Gem salad, with smoked grapes, perfectly pickled tomatoes and charred avocado. Who needs a main course when you’ve got the fried avocado taquitos with crisped cotija cheese? For me, Alma Cocina gets it just right. (JT)
Set in a classically Southern 1890s home in Flowery Branch, Antebellum is a farm-to-table restaurant serving Southern-inspired fare. Nicholas St. Clair’s take on our regional dishes reveals his expert hand at seasoning and in the layering of textures and flavors.While the menu has the obligatory fried green tomato and pimento cheese offerings, they unfold in unexpected ways. A vertical stack of cornmeal-battered tomatoes, layered with a sweet bacony jam and toasty rounds of buttered brioche, comes with a shot of shaved mimosa-flavored ice.
Surprise “wow” items abound, like the slurpable smoked tomato vinaigrette on the grilled salmon or the crawfish butter on the dry-aged ribeye. St. Clair’s skill and desire to grow has catapulted him to the top of his game. There’s no question that Antebellum will only improve with age. (JT)
Antico Pizza Napoletana
No matter how many have tried, no one has yet to topple Antico from the throne of top pizza in Atlanta. It began as a take out-only pizza joint, but owner Giovanni Di Palma’s Neapolitan pies exploded in popularity, quickly giving birth to full-on BYOB pizza tailgates in the small parking lot near Georgia Tech. Now, regardless of how many tables they cram in on a busy night, it never seems to be enough. The crispy, bubbled crust, slightly sour with just the right char and topped with fresh bufala mozzarella and San Marzano sauce, makes this a pizza every Atlantan should taste. While the San Gennaro, topped with sausage and red peppers, remains the most popular, the powerfully spicy Diavola holds a near cult-like following among fans. (JW)
Chef-owner Gerry Klaskala opened Aria in 2000 and has since created a comfortable menu framework that shifts to accommodate seasonal availability.
Aria boasts three not-so-secret weapons that assure guests will have a dining experience with few surprises.
The first is Klaskala’s consistently high level of execution and penchant for slow-cooked meats like Painted Hills Ranch short ribs and a braised Niman Ranch Berkshire pork shoulder.
The second is Andres Lozaia’s wine list, which will help you expand your horizons beyond California Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to wines by the glass, choices include an array of New and Old World half-bottle options, a great way to sample unfamiliar varietals.
The last zinger in Aria’s arsenal is pastry chef Kathryn King. You won’t find flashy concoctions or ingredient overload, but rather concentrated flavors and pure decadence. Try the artfully stacked tasting of sorbets or the surprisingly complex Valrhona chocolate cream pie. (JT)
It might surprise some diners to hear that Bacchanalia first established itself in the 1990s as a more laid-back alternative to the fine-dining options at the top of the food chain — a restaurant that asserted simple preparation and attentive shopping were as important as technique. It has assumed many roles over the years: westside pioneer, grande dame of the farm-to-table movement and, eventually, keeper of the fine-dining flame in a city that had decidedly turned more casual. Perhaps due to its status, a mannered attitude crept into the cooking. The presentations looked tweezer perfect and the menu called out trendy garnish ingredients like sea urchin and duck confit, but didn’t deliver the flavor. The restaurant now feels back on its game, and what a game it plays.
The five-course menu (up from four) gives the kitchen more room to both wow you and make you respect the ingredients. Wow: Kumamoto oysters with most flavorful sea urchin over a warm chowder custard that will make you roll your eyes back in your head. Respect: seasonal halibut or flounder with sweet little turnips in an herbed broth. The menu holds surprises, such as a lamb entree that arrives as a tour of meat preparations — seared, braised and ground into juicy sausage. Burrata offered for the cheese course may be spun into a shivery ice. Service is as precise, friendly and intuitive as the kitchen’s handiwork. This restaurant ranks as one of the country’s best. (JK)
Barcelona Wine Bar
Barcelona Wine Bar sits on the main drag in Inman Park, forever bursting with customers overflowing the generous interior to a wrap-around patio flanked by a tall brick fireplace at one end. Chef Shane Devereux helms the kitchen at the Atlanta location of this Connecticut-based restaurant group. Despite its corporate roots, Barcelona retains a warm, lively feel, which paired with solid eats makes it the ultimate neighborhood destination.
Stop in for a few tapas like the cuminy spinach and chickpea casserole or the octopus (Pulpo Gallefo), with its nice char and hearty paprika-spiced fingerling potatoes. Linger to try several of the many wines by the glass. Sundays bring the three-course $29 slow-roasted suckling pig dinner and half-priced bottles of wine. That’s the night to be sure you have a reservation. (JT)
The hair is gray. The accent, Southern. The suit, expensive but definitely not Italian. At lunch he has one cocktail, maybe two. At dinner he orders an excellent cabernet sauvignon, maybe two. This is the Bone’s guy, the patron who keeps this Buckhead steakhouse such a vital presence after more than 30 years. With so many top-end steakhouses run by chains today, Bone’s feels resolutely local, from the grits fritters to the longstanding wait staff in steward’s jackets and the quirky exuberance of a wine list that delights medium-spenders as well as high rollers.
While the steaks and side dishes are as great as ever, the rest of the menu has begun to seem more dated than classic. Over-seasoned lobster bisque and sweet ginger sauce for crab cakes don’t appeal. Some good, hand-cut fries might go a long way toward showing this venerable restaurant is keeping up with the times. While some steakhouses are better restaurants, this remains our favorite steakhouse. (JK)
Despite Bocado’s changing of the guard last fall — where the departure of executive chef Todd Ginsberg saw chef Adam Waller stepping up from sous chef at sister restaurant STG Trattoria to take the helm — this west Midtown bistro continues to give diners refined dishes in a laid-back atmosphere. While retaining many of the favorites, like the rightfully popular burger stack, Waller’s influence brings a lighter touch to the small plate-dominated menu.
A fava bean salad with pickled Vidalia onion refreshes and may ease the guilty pleasure of your order of deviled eggs topped with boiled peanuts or crispy fried artichoke hearts dunked in creamy taleggio fondue. Bocado has weathered the storm of change that often dooms many restaurants, and evolved in the process — making this worth a trip for the uninitiated and a revisit if you haven’t yet tasted Waller’s influence. (JW)
Busy Bee Cafe
Classic restaurants are those that have been in business for long periods and have established themselves in the hearts and tummies of loyal customers. Often, so enamored are we with these beloved spots that we either cease to care or fail to notice if food quality declines over time. That’s not the case with Busy Bee Cafe, which has been in business since 1947. This is Southern cookin’, y’all. And it’s good. Think chitlins, ox tails, ham hocks and, of course, crusty fried chicken.
If you have a hankering for a mess of greens, candied yams or fried pork chops, Busy Bee is the place. Order those chops divided, one fried and the other smothered with thick gravy and onions. Sit a spell with a fat wedge of sweet potato pie. Calories don’t count when feeding your soul. (JT)
Cafe Restaurant Dominicano (outlier)
John Kessler’s outlier: A personal favorite | Video: John talks about why he chose Cafe Retaurant Dominicano
At lunch, this small, dimly lit restaurant set in a multi-ethnic mall serves from the steamtable, with tastes of this and that until your plate heaps. There is usually roast chicken as well as a half dozen stews, ranging from chicken gizzards in brown sauce to beef in red chile to saltfish. There is all manner of Dominican starch, from rice and beans to boiled green bananas to steamed yucca. And there’s a big, happy salad festooned with tomatoes, cukes and corn.
At dinner, the servers offer an education, happy to serve as tour guides and share their enthusiasm. You order off a menu that includes whole fried fish, wonderfully crunchy Dominican-style fried chicken and mofongo (mashed and fried green plantain) served with shrimp. I crush hard on this place because everyone who works here takes such evident pride in the product.
Look for a wide variety of Dominican expats in the dining room, from stylishly dressed families, to manual laborers in dusty overalls. They are black, white and mixed race, and it’s always a loud Spanish-speaking party inside. (JK)
4650 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross [map]. 770-723-3784.
Cakes & Ale
The term “neighborhood restaurant” gets thrown around so much it loses meaning. But Billy Allin’s Decatur bistro and bakery is the very definition of what a hyperlocal restaurant can and should aspire to. Expect a warmly lit and decorated set of rooms, a seasoned service staff that knows the wine list and can debone fish tableside, and, in Allin, a chef who is more interested in overseeing the kitchen than in schmoozing guests.
The menu focuses on produce from local gardens (including Allin’s own), fish from nearby waters, and an interesting cut of meat or two. Look for a terrific rendition of shrimp remoulade on the current menu as well as a crisp-skinned trout for two, hot from the wood-burning oven. Allin’s crack team includes bakery-lunch chef David Sweeney and pastry chef Eric Wolitzky. (JK)
Rarely are restaurants given the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance at reinvention. But thanks to some heavy rain and about six feet of the Chattahoochee in the dining room in 2009, Canoe re-emerged a better version of itself. Between the dramatic riverside patio, darker and more elegant renovated dining room, chef Carvel Grant Gould’s refined modern American cuisine, and service so attentive it almost feels outdated, Canoe remains one of Atlanta’s true special occasion restaurants.
Thin slices of duck pastrami with bites of lightly acidic pickled radish sparingly dotted with blood orange mayonnaise showcase Gould’s more delicate touch, but she does hearty just as well, with a fork-tender beef short rib with celery root whipped potatoes. And don’t resist the urge to indulge in a glass or two from the award-winning wine list, easily one of the deepest in the city. (JW)
Asha Gomez and her chef de cuisine, Omar Powell, can prepare the kind of clever yelp-candy guaranteed to light up social media networks. Case in point — her Indian-seasoned boneless fried chicken with yeasty waffles and spiced syrup to pour over the top. So many blurry cellphone pictures of this dish float around it’s practically a meme.
But far better are the dishes that hew closer to food she grew up with in the southern Indian state of Kerela. A juicy, colorful fruit salad topped with wickedly spicy prawns presents a master course in heat and cooling, and if she has “railroad beef” as a special, it’s a must. Inspired by the food sold in train stations, this banana-leaf package offers a hot, gingery beef curry over cold, creamy yogurt rice. It’s one of the reasons this upmarket Indian restaurant counts among Atlanta’s most exciting dining destinations. (JK)
Empire State South
During the first days of spring, the hyper-seasonal menu at Hugh Acheson’s Midtown restaurant featured flowering kale. But we’re not in Chez Panisse territory here; count on a certain twangy Southern weirdness in every dish. Those sprays of yellow flower came tossed with chunks of house-made hot dog in a small bowl, the side of which had been smeared with benne miso — a paste made from sesame seeds inoculated with the spores that turn soybeans into miso. If you’ve never tried this flavor, it has the power to haunt and thrill.
Acheson and chef de cuisine Ryan Smith are inventing a cuisine at this wholly original restaurant. If some flavors are too sharp, move on to the next dish. It might be nice if not so many items relied on smoky pork fat for backbone, and the heavy-handed lunch offerings leave us always returning to the tried-and-true Super-Food salad with grilled hanger steak. But this gutsy cooking and Steven Grubbs’ brilliant wine list conspire for greatness. (JK)
4th & Swift
Whether you are passing plates across a table of six or seated alone at the bar, 4th & Swift provides you with a holistic dining experience that is both refined, elegant and yet comfortable in a way achieved by few others in Atlanta. Chef-owner Jay Swift offers a dual-menu approach — a daily market menu with constantly changing specials as well as a more robust seasonal menu.
While many have heard of the near-legendary crispy Brussels sprouts and apple salad or the pork-lovers trio, Three Little Piggies, newer additions like crusted sweetbreads and poached lobster over squid ink pasta add to the swelling list of must-try dishes here. Simply put, 4th & Swift is easily one of the best restaurants operating in Atlanta today, and one that likely will help define the direction of the dining scene for years to come. (JW)
Fox Brothers BBQ
What began as an annual barbecue for friends thrown by brothers Jonathan and Justin Fox evolved into one of Atlanta’s most well-rounded barbecue destinations.
Though the Fox brothers’ Texas heritage certainly influences their menu, these boys can do more than just a good plate of brisket. The same emphasis on the meat that defines much of Texas barbecue spills over to the pulled pork and deeply satisfying smoked wings. And everyone should try an order of the chicken fried ribs with white sauce — as heavy a dish as it sounds — even if just for the novelty. The rich, smoky and supremely filling ribs may have you ordering seconds. (JW)
The General Muir
(not yet rated)
Jennifer and Ben Johnson made a smart move when they hired Todd Ginsberg for this new deli in the Emory Point complex. The former Bocado chef took the DIY challenge to task, and before long he began producing corned beef, pastrami, lox, matzo balls, colorful pickles and chopped liver — all those wonderful Old World dishes that come up lacking in Atlanta. Pastry chef Lauren Raymond follows suit with credible boiled bagels, rugelach and black and white cookies.
The real brilliance of this place comes at night when, the lights go down and Ginsburg can strut some of his fine-dining training in dishes like prune-stuffed gnocchi with oxtail and brisket ravioli.
The name, by the way, refers to the boat that brought Jennifer Johnson’s Holocaust-survivor family to safety. (JK)
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»Join the AJC Dining Team: What do you think of our picks? Which restaurants would be on your list? For discussion about the restaurants, plus food news, photos and updates, visit blogs.ajc.com/food-and-more.