Perched at a counter, I've watched chefs cook and bartenders counsel. I've struck up a conversation with other singles. I've read a newspaper. I've people-watched. Sometimes, I've had a backache afterward. There's a communal sensibility to dining at the bar -- and membership is open to all.
Far from a comprehensive list, these are a few of my favorites places to belly up to the counter.
Poetry over a hot grill. Ever-so-slightly sarcastic owner Jimmy shapes hamburger patties, answers the phone, greets regulars and flips burgers fluidly, all without breaking a sweat. The triangular-shaped eatery with a long slanted counter is a great place in the 'burbs for a home-cooked burger. Make sure to have it with "Jimmy's buns," two slices of Texas toast. There's also grilled ham or bacon and cheese and breakfast sandwiches.
1210 Canton St., Roswell. 770-992-8638.
The Buckhead Diner
The gleaming surfaces of chrome, polished wood, marble and blue glass are the perfect match for the posh clientele and ZIP code. Modeled on the Fog City Diner in San Francisco, the Buckhead Diner is one of the city's culinary landmarks, still packing 'em in (albeit not as tightly) after all these years. From the counter you've got a peek into the kitchen while you nosh on the homemade potato chips served with tangy warm Maytag blue cheese. You feel a bit less naughty indulging with a neighborhood matron at your elbow, tucking into the white chocolate banana cream pie.
3073 Piedmont Road. 404-262-3336. www.buckheadrestaurants.com/ buckheaddiner.Johnny Rockets
I can envision the Fonz eating here at the counter; of course, Richie, Ralph and Potsie would be at a table. Red vinyl stools, lots of chrome, servers in white with paper hats and black bow ties, the bouncy soundtrack of the 1950s: It's all so deliciously retro without any trace of irony. The menu includes hamburgers, sandwiches (where else can you get an egg salad sandwich?), floats, shakes and malts, and Nathan's famous hot dogs. Bliss is the Original burger topped with bacon and cheddar, a strawberry shake topped with a dollop of whipped cream, and gooey chili cheese fries.
5 W. Paces Ferry Road, 404-231-5555, and other locations.
The Majestic is a beloved landmark, perhaps more for the gritty ambiance (the staff may be surly, the other patrons may be ... aromatic), but it's one of the city's true egalitarian dining experiences. You can have breakfast at the long, narrow counter any time of day, or get a strong cup of joe if you've partied too hard in Virginia-Highland. Open 24/7, it features the standard short-order staples: pork chops, burgers, meat-and-threes, pecan waffles, fruit pies. There's something transfixing about the large plate glass window and the expansive glass window that fronts the funky happenings on Ponce de Leon. Consider it the diametrical opposite of the Buckhead Diner.
1031 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-875-0276.Houston's
Houston's is beloved by Atlantans because it does things right. The food is reliably good, the service is professional and the atmosphere is comfortably clubby. Eating at the wide mahogany bar, where the bartender spreads out linen and silver, is a nice way to treat yourself in the middle of the workweek. My longtime favorite is the fried chicken tenders and shoestring potatoes, no longer on the menu, but happily made for you if you ask. Bonus: There's often a copy of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times lying around.
2166 Peachtree Road, 404-351-2442, and other locations.
There's plenty of elbow room on the marble-topped bar (there's also a living room-like lounge area where you can nosh) at one of downtown's finest restaurants. You can dine quickly at lunch, but the bar can become uncomfortably noisy at dinner on Fridays. The seasonally changing menu might feature a perfect arugula and radish salad kissed with lemon vinaigrette, gorgeously seared scallops in rosemary butter, a hanger steak with spaghetti squash, and chevere cheesecake with orange-scented figs.
89 Park Place. 404-389-0800. www.luxerestaurant.com.
Gato Bizco Cafe
I'd just as soon folks keep lining up across the street at the Flying Biscuit. But in the spirit of journalistic disclosure, I am sharing my favorite counter in the city. This tiny eatery has precisely seven stools, where you can watch the short-order cook do his thing over a hot griddle. Open for breakfast and lunch Wednesday to Sunday, it is the sort of place you imagine in a working-class neighborhood in New York, Boston or Chicago. The sweet potato pancakes (ask for them with chocolate chips) or any of the Mexican specialties are splendid. If you come alone, there's a pile of magazines to keep you company. The dog bowl and biscuits outside? They're for neighborhood pooches.
1660 McLendon Ave. 404-371-0889.
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