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Good Eats 

Our critics' guide to Atlanta restaurants

Inside Perimeter

Antica Posta, 519 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-262-7112. At the former Riviera, French cuisine has been replaced by Tuscan specialties such as superb risottos and superior but simply prepared seafood and seasonal vegetables. Prices are down, and so is the glitz factor. Service and comforts are still first rate, making this a special-occasion destination as well as a place to enjoy the kind of Italian food served in Italy, not New York. D $$$$

Aria, 490 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-233-7673. A Buckhead-casual hangout for young, hot entrepreneurs and similarly questing fast-trackers. Gerry Klaskala's accomplished American cuisine -- slow-cooked chicken and beef, soups, grilled meats -- and Kathryn King's dreamy desserts more than make up for the half-baked, weirdly erotic decor by Bill Johnson Studio. D $$$$

Atlanta Fish Market, 265 Pharr Road, 404-262-3165. Size does matter at Buckhead's popular seafood spot, from the giant copper fish out front to the massive but hospitable dining room, designed after a Savannah train station. Seek out the lump crab cake or pecan-crusted swordfish, but if you can't make up your mind, fall back on the kind of fried platter you might find at Red Lobster, only here prepared to perfection. L, D $$$$

Bone's, 3130 Piedmont Road, 404-237-2663. The essential Buckhead spot where Atlanta's bullish businessmen carve out deals and carve up steaks with equal gusto. Carnivores will delight at any of the melt-in-your mouth cuts of beef or the massive, lip-smacking lamb chops, and hoop-sized onion rings and salt-crusted baked potatoes stand at the ready. With crisp linens, red leather chairs and unctuous service, the atmosphere is pure, unapologetic men's club. L, D $$$$

Brasserie Le Coze, 3393 Peachtree Road, 404-266-1440. The desserts, seafood and wine list have kept the polished Parisian bistro as one of Atlanta's favorite places for a romantic (if occasionally noisy) rendezvous. Sitting on the patio with the skate with brown butter on the table and a gypsy accordionist wandering by, even the Lenox Square parking lot takes on a gentle feel. L, D $$$

Bridgetown Grill, 3316 Piedmont Road, 404-266-1500. The last Bridgetown venue standing serves island grub to a cheerful reggae beat. Try the rack of tangy guava ribs and the zesty jerk chicken with raspberry coulis dipping sauce. $$

Brio Tuscan Grille, 2964 Peachtree Road, 404-601-5555. First local unit of an Ohio-based chain, the Italian-accented dinner house feels computerized, focus group-tested and managed by HAL 2000. Conceptually, it's a Cheesecake Factory with higher ceilings and more salt. Cuisine-wise, the fried onion strings with parmesan are as comforting and appealing as it gets. L, D $$$

Buckhead Bread Company/ Corner Cafe, 3070 Piedmont Road, 404-240-1978. Breads, muffins, pastries and service are better than ever. Sandwiches (egg salad, chicken club, portobello mushroom) are among the city's overstuffed best. Opens early for breakfast. B, L $

Buckhead Diner, 3073 Piedmont Road, 404-262-3336. A little luster has rubbed off Buckhead's chic art deco eatery, but if it's no longer Atlanta's prime location to spot celebrities, it's still a decent place for a luxurious meal. Its signature appetizer of homemade potato chips and Maytag blue cheese is a crunchy highlight, as are the fancied-up takes on traditional roadhouse grub like the chili dog or grilled cheese sandwich. L, D $$

Burrito Brothers, 2469 Piedmont Road, 404-237-8689. Former Zesto restaurant is still part of the chain, but now it serves burritos, tacos and quesadillas for a bargain. But you can still get a big ol' cone of soft-serve vanilla ice cream. L, D $

Ca Dao Vietnamese Restaurant, 4166 Buford Hwy., 404-982-0700. The cold weather requires soup. My favorite ethnic soup is the Vietnamese pho. Usually made with beef stock, to which rice noodles, herbs, chilies, lime and a variety of meats are added. Buford Highway is lined with pho restaurants, including Ca Dao, which probably serves the best pho in the city. L, D $

Cafe Sunflower (Atlanta), 2140 Peachtree Road, 404-352-8859. The vegetarian spot for "normal" vegetarians and meat eaters who just may not be in the mood for flesh or are humoring their veggie partners. No live food gimmicks or macrobiotic manifestos here, just warm, woodsy ambience and good, meatless offerings. We like the steamed dumplings and spring rolls to start and always have good luck with the specials. L, D $$

Capital Grille, 255 E. Paces Ferry Road, at Bolling Way, 404-262-1162. Business-class steakhouse chain from Longhorn features smashing penthouse views, manly boardroom ambience, professional if somewhat talky service and corn-fed Midwestern beef that is dry-aged on site. The prime, bone-in Delmonico steak is tops. So are mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. Wine prices target the expense-account crowd. Valet parking, reservations. Dressy. L, D $$$$

Chopstix, 4279 Roswell Road, 404-255-4868. You'll find no clichés of chop suey house cuisine or decor at Buckhead's impeccably appointed Chinese restaurant, which draws culinary inspiration from around the globe. Chopstix's kitchen can turn you into a lifelong fan of such sides as crispy spinach or glazed pine nuts, and an addict for seafood dishes like bird nest prawn, jumbo sea scallop or wok-fried black pepper oysters. $$$

Ciao Bella, 309 Pharr Road, 404-261-6013. Simplicity is the approach here. Order big, white bowls of perfect pastas -- with wild mushrooms or mussels and anchovies. Prices are low, the crowd is convivial and the staff is thoroughly Italian. D $$$

Dining Room, Ritz Carlton, 3434 Peachtree Road, 404-240-7035. Ignore the country club adornments and prepare to be seduced by some of the city's most stellar food and service. Chef Bruno Menard's haute French aesthetic is augmented by sublime Asian touches that enliven his creations rather than confuse them. Wine pairings are subtle and sumptuous. With advance notice, vegetarians are treated exceptionally well. D $$$$

Eclipse di Luna, 764 Miami Circle, 404-846-0449. Lunch features delicious sandwiches, soups and quiches; evenings offer a tapas menu that is the best in town. Little Spanish-style marinated ribs, grilled octopus, skewered prawns and luscious Manilla clams are among the offerings. $$$

Grand Buffet II, 2625 Piedmont Road, 404-760-9967. Grand Buffet II offers Buckhead location at Southside prices. The bountiful Chinese-American spread has notable "wow-golly" appeal. Much of the food tastes fresh. Grill cooks prepare many items in small batches just behind the serving line. Platters and trays are replenished often. $$

La Fonda Latina, 2813 Peachtree Road, 404-816-8311. You can't be in a bad mood at any of La Fonda's locations, where the tropical color schemes and upbeat salsa music never fail to raise spirits. The pork chops, Cuban Reuben sandwich and big, generous quesadillas are all exquisite. If you've never been, try the paella, a mouth-watering melange of seafood, sausage, rice and more served in an iron skillet. L, D $

La Grotta Ristorante Italiano, 2637 Peachtree Road, 404-231-1368. An Atlanta institution for Northern Italian/continental cuisine, La Grotta's original Buckhead location has gotten a partial update but remains the ideal place to squire older relatives with reasons to celebrate. Classic dishes such as the homemade ravioli, the black and white linguini and the veal loin scallopine can leave you kissing your fingers, or the chef's. D $$$$

Monty's Stone Crab Seafood Restaurant, 3400 Woodale Drive, 404-495-9115. Local unit of Coconut Grove, Fla., original specializes in coastal cuisine, especially fresh stone crab claws flown in from Mexico. Sweet and lobster-like in flavor and price, the tender claw meat is an easily acquired taste for anyone with Bill Gates' bank account. Conch, snapper, tuna steaks, chowder and serious salads round out the worthwhile offerings. Valet parking, reservations and full bar. D $$$$

Nava, 3060 Peachtree Road, 404-240-1984. Kevin Rathburn's Nava carries Southwestern chic to the nth degree, with the Hispanic, Western and Native American flourishes of the Buckhead restaurant's decor proving so fanciful as to nearly suggest a Georgia O'Keeffe fever dream. Dishes such as the green chile lobster soft tacos, the iron skillet mussels in chipotle broth and the ancho chili cured lamb are intoxicating but user-friendly examples of the Southwestern fusion style. L, D $$$$

Oh Maria!, 3167 Peachtree Road, 404-261-2032. A caliente showcase of the best of Nueva Latina cuisine that makes no concessions to the chips 'n' salsa crowd, Oh... Maria serves dishes you've never quite experienced before (the fittingly named "Ecstasy de Maria" is a ribeye steak served on a banana leaf), in the midst of lovingly elaborate surroundings that suggest a visit to the oldest and fanciest restaurant in Mexico City. L, D $$

Sundown Cafe, 2165 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-321-1118. The menu has narrowed a bit in recent years, but Sundown still proves a fair haven for tasty and accessible Southwestern cuisine, particularly such juicy pork dishes as the carnitas. Lunchtime features delectable soft tacos, the fresh salsa proves a tingly delight and such sides as the turnip greens and ancho mashed potatoes are surprisingly forceful. L, D $$

Taco Stand, 3279 Roswell Road, 404-995-0307. A Mexican taco joint cast in a Fellini's-meets-Mellow-Mushroom mold, the Taco Stand is the place to go for families. (Hint: kids love cheese.) It's also a good place for wild and free youth to load up on carbs before bar-hopping their way through Buckhead. L, D $

Thai Lanna, 2142 Johnson Ferry Road, 770-454-8889. Great testing ground for fiery food. The standards are all here with a chance to spice them up as much as you want. Pass on the pad thai and go for the curries. L, D $$

Cheshire Bridge
Deux Plex, 1789 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-733-5900. Deux Plex has a split personality, with a spacious dance club located downstairs from the unpretentious French bistro above. If you fear the snobby reputation of French eateries, rest assured that Deux Plex features affable servers, affordable prices and a generally pleasing approach to such dishes as mussels, pork shank and the pate and charcuterie appetizer. $$

Fat Matt's Rib Shack, 1811 Piedmont Ave., 404-607-1622. One of the most satisfying BBQ joints inside the perimeter, Fat Matt's has a collection of blues posters nearly worth the visit itself. The menu is short but full of mouth-watering choices, particularly the sandwich of chopped pork shoulder. Neophytes should know that the Barbecue Rib Sandwich is literally a small rack served on white bread for sopping up the juice. L, D $$

Little Bangkok, 2225 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-315-1530. Now it can be told: Some of the best Thai food in town is at this absurdly inexpensive hole in the wall. Pay close attention to evening specials like chicken with eggplant or spicy squid. Seasonings are fiery, portions are very large and ingredients always include a few surprises. The menu also features Chinese cuisine. $$

Roxx, 1824 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-892-4541. On one of Intown's hottest blocks is a sassy cross between Einstein's volcanic be-seen scene and some laid-back cruise bar with a dinerteria menu. The mostly male crowd (all ages and types) has learned that it's best to stick with the simplest grill items: tasty gourmet burgers with fries; black-bean chili served in a cup or over a dog; sauteed spinach; and iceberg lettuce salad with crumbled blue cheese. Service varies. Beers and wines are properly chilled. L, D $$

Woodfire Grill, 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055. Emphasizing locally grown, fresh seasonal ingredients, Chef Michael Tuohy's menu is a dream for a grazer. Select from inexpensive tapas-style dishes, moderately priced small plates, woodfire pizzas, entrees and platters for sharing. Service couldn't be better. D $$$

BaddaBing!, 906 W. College Ave., 404-373-4500. Super-spiffy take-out joint offers upscale sandwiches, sides and tasty entrees like the the pork loin with peach salsa and goat cheese for lunch, impromptu picnics, or quick dinner fixes, L, D $

Cafe Alsace, 121 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-373-5622. Three young French owners cook such traditional Alsatian dishes as a superb onion tart and an equally superb berry tart. In between are a trio of tender spaetzle dishes, beef Burgundy and a slew of salmon entrees, all served in a small, charming, colorful dining room. L, D $$

Hodge's BBQ, 2141 Candler Road, 404-289-1804. Offering home-style, working-class Southern cooking for a quarter century, this family style cafeteria is light on charm, big on value, convenient for takeout and friendly as a church supper. No smoking or credit cards. $

Los Loros, 1248 Clairmont Road, 404-633-3103. A popular college kid hangout near Emory the order by number Tex-Mex combos are present as well as out of the ordinary items like flaming fajitas and a hearty chicken soup.

Moti Mahal, 763-C DeKalb Industrial Way, 404-294-8989. In a grungy, out-of-the-way place, but inside is good service and great Indian with an Indo-Pak influence. The lunch buffet is a bargain. $

Noodle, 205 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-378-8622. Stylish, moderately priced noodle bar features appetizers, noodle bowls, soups, rice plates and entree salads, four or five of each, all more or less Chinese, Korean, Thai or Vietnamese in derivation and presentation. Oversize crockery, decent wine-and-beer list and touchy-feely industrial decor emphasize the distance Asian-American-style restaurants have traveled -- from mainland to mainstream. $$

Udipi Cafe, 1850 Lawrenceville Highway, 404-325-1933. Savory rice pilafs, spicy vegetable curries and spectacular stuffed crepes and pancakes are but four reasons to seek out the city's newest South Indian vegetarian outlet. Sophisticated carrot desserts, traditional beverages and crisp breads double the pleasure. Table service is a plus. L, D $$

Universal Joint, 906 Oakview Road, 404-373-6260. Funky former filling station serves up creative pub grub in a relaxed setting. Love their burgers, beer selection, patio and low-key attitude. L, D $$

Watershed, 406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-378-4900. The combination restaurant, wine bar, package store, gift shop and takeout counter holds wonders aplenty. Offerings change daily. A slice of fish, a mound of creamed potatoes, a bowl of some unusual pasta may be heaven on toast points today, history tomorrow. Luckily the salads and sandwiches (beets, shrimp, roast pork) and desserts (pecan tart, apple cake, chocolate cake, macaroons) are fairly constant in both their excellence and availability. L, D $$$

East Atlanta
Burrito Art - East Atlanta, 1259 Glenwood Ave., 404-627-4433. Relatively inexpensive, artistic and imaginative burrito creations full of beans, rice, meat or tofu, and veggies. Sides of shredded red cabbage, multi-colored tortilla chips and a fortune cookie complete the pretty picture. L, D $

Cameli's, 1263 Glenwood Avenue, 404-622-9926. The vegan replacement of East Atlanta's Pastificio Cameli's is all "live" food and tofu. The "beef" tacos, vegan burgers and salad bar rock, but the pastas ain't what they used to be. L, D $

Good News Cafe, 1271 Glenwood Ave., 404-635-1611. The news theme is a little forced and makes the lunch menu get a little hard to handle. The small diner is best for simple breakfasts of French toast or eggs. B, L $

Little 5 Points/Candler Park/ Inman Park
Casbah, 465 N. Highland Ave., 404-524-5777. A fun place to take yourself, and not just for a special occasion, this comfy, affordable North Highland harem features belly dancing, notable sweet-spicy salads, first-rate couscous and more-or-less traditional versions of Moroccan poultry pie and lamb with apricots and honey. $$$

El Myr, 1091 Euclid Ave., 404-588-0250. The name of this scruffy Little Five Points bar and burrito joint comes from a famous art forger, but the overstuffed, two-handed wraps are the real thing. The vegetarian green burrito, BBQ chicken burrito and surprisingly hefty fish taco prove particularly flavorful, and the wall paintings and juke box add character. L, D $$

Flying Biscuit Cafe, 1655 McLendon Ave., 404-687-8888. No Southern breakfast is complete without biscuits, but the Flying Biscuit has made the biscuit -- cakey, oversized and with a touch of buttermilk -- the cornerstone of all its meals, even its lunch-menu items and dinner entrees. Next door to the restaurant, there's a small to-go shop that's always crowded where you can get your biscuits, sold by the dozen, to go with your morning coffee. Don't forget the apple butter -- somewhere between apple jam and applesauce. The Flying Biscuit gets the other necessary breakfast elements -- cheese grits, bacon and eggs -- right too. B, L, D $$

Fritti, 311 N. Highland Ave., 404-880-9559. Riccardo Ullio's younger, hipper sibling to next-door Sotto Sotto offers hits and few big misses in such departments as authentic Italian croquettes, bracing salads, fried seafood and thin-crusted, rustic pizzas with exotic toppings. Atmosphere, service and wine list are notable as well. $$$$

La Fonda Latina - Little Five Points, 1159B Euclid Ave., 404-577-8317. You can't be in a bad mood at any of La Fonda's locations, where the tropical color schemes and upbeat salsa music never fail to raise spirits. The pork chops, Cuban Reuben sandwich and big, generous quesadillas are all exquisite. If you've never been, try the paella, a mouth-watering melange of seafood, sausage, rice and more served in an iron skillet. $

Planet Bombay, 451 Moreland Ave., 404-688-0005. L5P eatery with thick, hearty soups (Mulligatawny, fresh mushroom), notable rice pilafs and Indian breads, good curried vegetable combinations and low prices. $$

Radial, 1530 DeKalb Ave., 404-659-6594. The breakfast crowds line up on the weekends like nearby Flying Biscuit, but great lunches can be had as well with specialty sandwiches and soups. The hip clientele and even hipper waiters offer up plenty of eye candy as well. B, L $

Savage Pizza, 484 Moreland Ave., 404-523-0500. Among the best local sources of real, hand-thrown, honest-to-Palermo pizza, this slightly bent independent in L5P is notable for fresh ingredients, homemade sauces and clever, knowing service. Wide selection of pizza toppings and calzone fillings. Good for takeout. Smokers' porch. L, D $

Son's Place, 100 Hurt St., 404-581-0530. Lenn Story supposedly still uses the same cast-iron pans that the legendary Deacon Burton used. This meat-and-three serves up true Southern and the clientele of cops, white and black can't seem to get enough. $

Sotto Sotto, 313 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-6678. As a place to dine extremely well, see friends and plug into what people are talking about, Riccardo Ullio's Italian outpost in Inman Park hardly can be beat. Pastas, risotti and desserts are winners, as is the high-energy factor. $$$$

Apache Cafe, 64 Third St., 404-876-5436. Increasingly know in town for their nightly music, spoken word and art events, the food is a quick stop for many Midtown business folk. Quesadillas, tacos, burritos and tamales are easy to swallow if not as creative as the artists. L, D $

Apres Diem, 931 Monroe Drive, 404-872-3333. Fancying itself a bonafide European coffee house, Apres Diem's strip mall location makes for something of an anomaly. Nevertheless, with a full-service bar and desserts fresh from Alon's Bakery, it provides an excellent excuse to extend a movie date. Apres Diem also serves Sunday brunch for late risers, and its full menu includes lunch and dinner, with nightly specials. L, D $$

Baraonda, 710 Peachtree St., 404-879-9962. The Italian word for "hubbub" gives its name to this Midtown sister to Buckhead's Ciao Bella. It's a killer spot, if too dimly lit. Excellent designer pizzas, like shrimp with arugula, are available along with pasta dishes and secondi like veal marsala. L, D $$$

Blue Trout, 554A Piedmont Ave., 404-685-9575. The latest venture from Fariba and Tommy Todd (best-known as founding partners of Metrotainment Cafes, which operates Einstein's and Cowtippers) offers good starters, lunch bargains, and consistent entrees. As the name would hint, the menu includes lots of fish dishes -- salmon, tuna, trout (of course), ceviche -- as well as burgers, chicken and the like. All to be enjoyed on the blue patio or indoors. $$

Cha Gio, 132 10th St., 404-885-9387. Solicitous service with reasonably priced, family fare at a little-trafficked eatery in the heart of Midtown. The ideal place for an exit interview, or to feed the cold that hits the week after. Slurp and sup on nourishing chicken broth (the base for Cha Gio's won ton and vegetable soups), steamed summer rolls, and lean sirloin stir-fries. L, D $$

Charlie G's 11th Street Pub, 1041 West Peachtree St., 404-724-9060. From the same folks who brought you the Bucket Shop and the Highland Pub, the same bar friendly menu shows up here. Wings, burgers, chicken sandwiches and a large selection of domestic and import beers. It's Midtown without the pretension. L, D

Cherry, 1051 W. Peachtree St., 404-872-2020. Retro and sensual, this trippy space marries visions of maraschino cherries to pieces of a Jefferson Airplane light show. The food is cross-cultural fusion with a heavy accent on Asian, including an extensive sushi menu. The weird adobo chicken eggroll is tasty, as is a bowl of Thai-style noodles. D $$$

Eno, 800 Peachtree St., 404-685-3191. Conceived as an extremely comfortable laboratory where food and drink pairings may be explored, Doug Strickland's and Jamie Adams' Mediterranean bistro could raise the standards of corporate Atlanta's drinking classes. Food is fashionably Cal-Italian -- lots of olives, olive oil, fruit, fresh fish and seasonal ingredients. The cooking is first rate, the crowd Midtown hot. Sidewalk tables, wine room, tastings featured. L, D $$$

F.R.O.G.S. Cantina, 931 Monroe Drive, 404-607-9967. Another outpost of tacos, burritos and other things wrapped in tortillas. The tasty fish tacos are a blend of spice and sweet fruit flavors. Other choices are of good quality for the price. A full bar begins to hop on the weekends and late nights. L, D $$

Joe's on Juniper, 1049 Juniper St., 404-875-6634. Joe's deck provides such a cozy spot for quaffing a cold one and enjoying the view of Midtown's skyscrapers that you needn't bother checking out the ersatz roadhouse decor of the interior. The menu offers a standard line-up of bar food, with the black angus burgers proving nicely hot and juicy, in unusual varieties such as pimento cheese. L, D $$

Las Palmeras, 368 5th St., 404-872-0846. The best Cuban restaurant for homestyle cooking absolutely remains Las Palmeras. The masitas are perfect here and the restaurant serves a killer boliche. This cafe, which has a pleasant patio, is one of the intown area's under-appreciated jewels. L, D $

MF Sushi Bar, 265 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-815-8844. Join the glamorous crowd at Atlanta's next evolution in sushi dining, a sexy, serious room that serves mostly the raw stuff - no tempura, no miso soup and no teriyaki. Ask the staff to explain some of the more unusual offerings, such as chutoro, a buttery cut of tuna. Exquisite cold sake is the perfect accompaniment. L, D $$$

Midtown Deli, 216 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-541-0809. Wings, fries and fried rice. Whether you take the stuff home to watch the game or stick around and watch the hustlers on Ponce, server Hyosun Flinn makes it fun as she tells you neighborhood gossip and dotes on you. L, D $

Nickiemoto's Midtown, 990 Piedmont Ave., 404-253-2010. A clone of George Rohrig's Buckhead sushi bar, this fast-track watering hole is more remarkable for burnished metal decor and intown haircuts than for its Asian-American food. To dine well, keep two words in mind: fried (squid, soft-shell crab hotpot, catfish) and desserts (ginger creme brulee, Vietnamese coffee float). $$$

One Midtown Kitchen, 559 Dutch Valley Road, 404-892-4111. With a door framed by a large purple-lit panel, you wonder if it's not actually a strip club or dirty bookstore. Inside, the dramatic interior plays host to delicious, slighty kinky American fare. D $$

Orange & Scarlett's, 814 Juniper St., 404-877-0040. A must for anybody loving sweets, Lucero Martinez-Obregon cranks out original, house made ice creams with Atlanta-themed names like Piedmont Perk and Shirley Franklin Turnover. Try the Georgia Pine: roasted pine nuts, feta cheese and honey. No really, it's good. Great La Selva coffee, crepes and breakfast bagels. B, L, D $

Park 75, 75 14th St., 404-881-9898. New chef Kevin Hickey brings a delicacy and subtlety to hotel cooking not seen here since the glory days of Guenter Seeger at the Buckhead Ritz. Truffles, foie gras, milk-fed veal, blue cheese, steak and lobster are treated with equal amounts of care and imagination. Ingredients are seasonal, mostly American and tip-top quality, with service and ambience almost as good. Prices hit the roof. But at this dressy, upscale venue, you actually get what you pay for. B, L, D $$$$

Vortex Bar & Grill - Midtown, 878 Peachtree St., 404-875-1667. Funky atmosphere, loud music, enormous selection of bottled beers and some of the best and biggest burgers in town. Black bean soup and homestyle pimento cheese are excellent, too. $$

American Roadhouse, 842 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-2822. With a dozen years in business, and the owners working shifts, this moderately priced intown independent gets most things right. Nightly specials, kids-eat-free promotions and a six-page diner menu draw families, neighborhood artists and business-lunch types who spread out their catalogs and sales charts. They happily chow down on oversized sandwiches (cheeseburgers, catfish), blue plates (roast turkey, meatloaf, veggies) and kicky brunch combos (turkey-club omelet, red-white-and-blue waffles topped with whipped cream, strawberries and blueberries). $$

Dish, 870 N. Highland Ave, 404-897-3463. A Virginia-Highland gas station has been refurbished as an art deco environment with such "distressed" touches as a door-sized hole in the wall. The menu, offering appetizers, larger "tastes" and full entrees, encourages sampling such post-modern choices as potato fluff and rosemary pine-nut popcorn, dish's signature snack food. Among the most successful items are the prosciutto-wrapped pork filet and the dizzyingly rich Chocolate Dish. $$$

Floataway Cafe, 1123 Zonolite Road, 404-892-1414. Fast-forward American fusion from the creators of the peerless Bacchanalia, with exquisite, inventive dishes made from fresh, often organic ingredients. The stylishly retro décor perfectly suits the brilliantly executed, but never fussy, cuisine. At its best, this is headquarters for an instantly memorable meal in a thousand. Reservations accepted up to one month in advance. Extensive wine list, full bar. Smoking on open patio only. $$$$

Hand in Hand, 752 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-1001. With a handsomely polished interior and spacious patio, Hand in Hand's first priority is obviously to its drinking crowd. But the British-meets-East Indian menu offers plenty of successful accompaniments to the pint. $

Highland Wraps & Pizza Kitchen, 1250 Virginia Ave., 404-872-2560. A mostly takeout operation in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood, this storefront charmer produces decidedly Americanized, albeit notably tasty meat and vegetarian burritos and tacos. $$

La Tavola Trattoria, 992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430. When this restaurant was opened by the owners of the Food Studio and South City Kitchen, its sleek decor made quite a splash, but its cuisine fell flat. Instead of the authentic Italian cuisine Atlantans crave, La Tavola oddly offered an unpleasant Italian-American blend. So we're pleased with the restaurant's willingness to re-examine itself. Last summer, it hired Joey Masi to rework the menu and retrain the kitchen staff. The results are impressive. Authenticity rules. The zuppa di pesce is a standout, as are the seared cod with polenta and the grilled pork chop. Pastas can be too oily but you can remedy that by asking for a lighter touch with the butter. D $$$

Mambo Restaurante Cubano, 1402 N. Highland Ave., 404-876-2626. Certainly the city's most serious Cuban menu, ranging from peasant classics (perfect ropa vieja and masitas de puerco) to nightly Chino-Latino and seafood specials. Lunch service is notable for Cuban Sloppy Joe sandwiches (grilled Cuban loaves stuffed with picadillo and ropa vieja). The regular menu offers traditional entrees, salads and other island delights. Outdoor tables available. Mambo gets extra points for being the most attractive Cuban restaurant in town. Featuring a Carmen Miranda-esque mural and bright colors, it's perhaps more South Beach than Havana, but we love it. $$$

Murphy's, 997 Virginia Ave., 404-872-0904. Now 20 years old, Tom Murphy's neighborhood deli changes with time and demographics. Just now, it's worth visiting for moderately priced fish and meat entrees, traditional baked goods, a splendid wine list and slick, knowing service. Call-ahead seating, valet parking at night and take-out offered. L, D $$$

Paolo's, 1025 Virginia Ave., 404-607-0055. Paolo della Zorza's riot of colors and flavors offers some of the best gelato in the city. If you don't like it in scoops he also constructs "gelato art" to look at like spaghetti, hamburgers or pizza. L

Tiburon Grille, 1190 N. Highland Ave., 404-892-2393. Completely reliable purveyor of straightforward American cuisine. Entrees feature a heavy Southern accent. There's not a touch of weirdness on the menu (unless you count the ostrich) and we've never had a bad meal here. Service is always top-rate and the restaurant is convivial without raucousness. $$

Bacchanalia, 1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-365-0410. At once modernist and classicist, the California-influenced cuisine of owner-chefs Clifford Harrison and Anne Quatrano is based on solid technique, simple presentation and fresh, first-quality ingredients. The spare industrial setting fits the food like beurre blanc on fish, while the service, wines and physical comforts leave little to be desired. Star Provisions, the team's upscale boutique, serves as a combination waiting room, culinary classroom and take-home larder. Don't miss it. L, D $$$$

Food Studio, The, 887 W. Marietta St., Studio K-102, 404-815-6677. A gourmet outpost amid the warehouses and rail yards of West Atlanta, The Food Studio has factory-chic decor and severely hip servers. The kitchen shows a fancy but fine grasp of American regional cuisine, from New York strip steaks to pan-seared striped bass, with the attention to detail extending to the two kinds of cream cheese accompanying the breadbasket. With Actor's Express playhouse as a neighbor, it's also a nice spot for drinks before or after the theater. D $$$

Mondo Bakery, 750 Huff Road, 404-603-9995. With Billie Holiday crooning softly in this subdued, yet swank atmosphere, Mondo Bakery is an ideal place to meet someone for coffee and an intimate chat. Although it has a news stand, postcards, sandwiches, fresh juices, freshly baked pastries and a coffee bar with a full line of coffee and espresso drinks, Mondo's specialty is gourmet sandwiches and pastries. The dates, pesto, brie and basil sandwich on sourdough is to die for. B, L $

Nuevo Laredo Cantina, 1495 Chattahoochee Ave., 404-352-9009. From its obscure location on Chattahoochee, Nuevo Laredo offers home-cooked Mexican food that is as sabroso (delicious) as it is sana(healthy). The food on your plate looks fresh, not as if it's sat under a heat lamp for even a second. Although somewhat crowded on weekend nights, service is quick and the food is well worth the wait. So have a beer and soak up the atmosphere of Catholic kitsch.

Pangaea, 1082 Huff Road, 404-350-8787. The coolest sandwich shop we've encountered in years. It's not far from Bacchanalia and Taqueria del Sol and definitely worth the drive wherever you are in the city. The menu boasts sandwiches from Mexico, Cuba, Vietnam, the Middle East, Italy and America. The panino grosso -- a flat-grilled Italian classic with salami, cappicola, sopressata and ham with provolone and pickled red onions -- is delicious but pales beside the Vietnamese banh mi. $

Taqueria del Sol, 1200 Howell Mill Road, 404-352-5812. Spin-off of popular Sundown Cafe is long on informality and comfortingly Americanized Mexican and Southwestern fare. It's decidedly short on glitz, and guests order at the bar and carry their own drinks. Seafood specials can be really special. Old favorites -- spicy turnip greens, jalapeno slaw and carnita tacos -- are still worth saying "Ole" to as well. $$

Outside Perimeter


Costa del Sol, 6265 Jimmy Carter Blvd., 770-840-6040. Central American cuisine includes Salvadoran, Honduran and Ecuadoran as well as more familiar Mexican-oriented items. No matter, the must-eat are the pupusas -- a pancake-like item filled with gooey cheese and meat. $$$

Costa Verde, 6200 Buford Highway, 770-449-3221. Not only are the prices incredibly low, considering the quality of the ingredients and the size of the portions, but the fare is eclectic: a mix of Peruvian and Colombian. You need to try some of each -- the hearty, earthy beef and chicken dishes of the highlands and the seafood specialties of the coastline -- to fully appreciate what Costa Verde's kitchen is doing. Everything is worth trying once but the seafood is especially nice.

Hi-Life Kitchen and Cocktails, 3380 Holcomb Bridge Road, 770-409-0101. An usual success in a crummy strip mall in Norcross, the restaurant could hold its own with any trendy Midtown crowd. Offering new American in a trendy setting, Hi-Life is living the high life. $$$$

Song Thai, 6470 Spalding Drive, Suite B, 770-449-5515. It may be an average Thai restaurant, but that only reflects how high the average is for Atlanta-area Thai places. For a small spot in a generic strip mall, Song Thai boasts a handsome interior and artfully-presented entrees. Some of the dishes sampled tend toward sweetness, like the Jungle Curry with mussels and pineapple, but the Green Curry Catfish is fried and mixed with real finesse. $$


Byblos, 10684 Alpharetta Highway, 678-352-0321. The cozy, spotless Lebanese restaurant tucked away in a strip mall in Roswell offers a menu of authentic mezza and mashawis (skewered meat kebabs). Standards like tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghanoush are present as well as more out-of-the-ordinary habra nayyeh (raw beef with garlic) and basterma (thin slices of spicy fillet). At night, try your hand at the argylee water pipe -- an exotic hookah-like gadget filled with aromatic tobacco. L, D $$

Cheeburger Cheeburger, 2300 Holcomb Bridge Road, 770-645-4702. The name evokes an old "Saturday Night Live" sketch, but this cheerful 1950s-retro burger joint chain is closer to "Happy Days." Living up to its name, the cheeseburgers are hot, hearty and juicy, well accompanied by crunchy onion rings and rich shakes. $$

Dick and Harry's, 1570 Holcomb Bridge Road, Suite 810, 770-641-8757. Tucked away in a nondescript Roswell strip mall, dick and harry's proves an unexpectedly chic bistro worthy of any of Atlanta's best restaurants, with a menu featuring such delicious but unfussy choices as garlic-ginger calamari, homemade ice cream and steak-cut tuna on cilantro grits. Not everything is a homerun, but the flavorful fried sea bass sandwich proves particularly fine. $$$

Dreamland BBQ, 10730 Alpharetta Highway, 678-352-7999. Hit the road to Tuscaloosa, Georgians. The imported cultural icon features Alabama-style pork barbecue with its characteristic charred edges, subdued seasoning and slathered sauce. It's accompanied by tangy slaw, crisp fries, rich pecan pie and logo T-shirts. Salads, sandwiches and such round out the menu. Good for takeout. $$

Fishmonger Grill, 4969 Roswell Road, 404-459-9003. There isn't a single thing I've tried here that I haven't liked. The Fishmonger Stew is being billed as the bistro's signature dish. Served in a monumental soup plate, the stew is more of a soup, with mussels, clams, shrimp, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, celery, onion and the odd piece of fish in a light broth. Sop up the last bit of the broth with the excellent French bread. $$

Greenwood's on Green Street, 1087 Green St., 770-992-5383. This cozy, home-style Roswell restaurant has elements of a hippie commune; you can enjoy the kitschy '60s decor and sprawling garden while waiting for your table. The authentic Southern cooking is worth the occasional delay, particularly the sweet, honey-fried chicken, the buttery, boneless pork chops and the soul-food sides. The pies are some of the best in the Atlanta area. $$

Sprout Cafe, 1475 Holcomb Bridge Road, Suite 200, 770-992-9218. Sprout Cafe is a raw food -- or "living foods" -- restaurant, the next evolution in vegetarian cuisine where nothing is heated above 118 degrees, in order to preserve the food's enzymes, vitamins and minerals. There is no meat, eggs, dairy, white flour or white sugar in any of the recipes. Yet for dedicated veg-heads and open-minded diners seeking a culinary adventure, Sprout offers surprisingly accessible nourishment. Soups have astonishing depth of flavor and the guacamole burrito is light and savory. Juices, sandwiches and much more is available. B, L, D $

The Swallow at the Hollow, 1072 Green St., 678-352-1975. The joint venture of Bill Greenwood and Paul and Doreen Doster is long on hefty portions and intelligent updates of country classics. From pit-cooked portobello mushrooms to traditionally flavored baby back ribs and mac-and-cheese, the cuisine has wide, if definitely Southern-style, appeal. $$

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