What makes a dining neighborhood more than just a collection of restaurants?
Walkability: Good dining neighborhoods are first and foremost places you want to explore on foot. The bridge that connects the westside’s White Provision with the shops, bars and restaurants just across the tracks encourages diners to keep the evening going after the meal with cocktails at JCT’s upstairs bar. The mega-malls of Duluth, while not picturesque, can nonetheless be fun to explore. After a bowl of ramen at Raku in the Parkvillage Shopping Center, you might find a table at Do Re Mi, one of the better noraebangs (karaoke parlors) in Duluth. Whiskey? A platter of Korean fried chicken? An English songbook? Why not?
Variety: If there’s a taqueria, a coffee shop, a reliably OK sushi/Thai restaurant, a wine bar and an upscale bistro that people come from across the city to try — all on one block — then you’re in a decent neighborhood. People walk around, try to get into one place, fail, and discover that the sushi bar makes a decent bowl of ramen. Or that the scuzzy pub actually serves pretty good food. Or the place famous for its burgers has a killer veg plate. It can be really fun walking around Decatur on Saturday nights, when full restaurants send would-be diners to places around the block they never would have tried otherwise. There may be no tables for three hours at the Iberian Pig or No. 246, but a decent Persian meal with craft beers on tap awaits at Colbeh.
Variability: A slight but important distinction from the above criterion. Between the superstar destination restaurants and the scuzzy sandwich shops, there should be an array of good/better/best options. You might even have to settle for the restaurant that gets snarked on by Yelpers and local restaurant critics, but then find it isn’t the crushing disappointment you read about. You’re exactly the kind of guest that helps decent places get better.
Charm: Downtown Roswell, with its historic stone cottages and homes turned into wine bars and restaurants, has charm to burn. Once you find a parking spot (not an easy feat on Saturday night) and hit the brick-paved sidewalks, the lively small town ambience pulls you in. But you’ll find charm in hidden places, such as the narrow courtyard outside Decatur’s Paper Plane or the warmly busy Korean farmhouse decor inside the plain-from-the-outside Jang Su Jang in Duluth.
Surprise: What makes you decide to come back to a neighborhood and not a specific restaurant? That wonderful feeling of having stumbled onto something. The westside’s Ormsby’s hides in plain sight — a basement door to a huge, two-level bar filled with games, pool tables and good beers on tap. It might be just the ticket after a long, deliberately paced meal at Bacchanalia. If you hit Roswell on a warm evening, you’ll thrill to the unexpected patios that Vin 25 and Table & Main have carved out from their lawns. If you wander into Duluth’s Tree Story in search of a slice of cake or a crumbly Korean cookie, you’ll find baristas brewing pour-over Counter Culture coffee with all the care a coffee nerd could want.