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Lighting a lamp 

Strange new cafe in a transitional 'hood

"We're very urban here," Eric Newman said as he led us outside to the rear of Lamplighter Café (280 Connally St., 404-247-0240). There, on the sidewalk of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, we took seats at a wobbly table that gave us a view of a demolished factory, Grady Memorial Hospital and the state Capitol. It was almost 10 p.m.

"Isn't this kind of strange?" I whispered to Wayne.

"It's nice," he said. "I love the rubble."

Meanwhile, the occasional street person walked by, greeting us. "It's an outdoor cafe, wow!" one of them said. "Eating on the sidewalk. Oh yeah."

This may be the strangest restaurant I've visited in several years. Eric was most recently co-owner of Solstice Café in Grant Park. He earlier worked as a server at Eclipse di Luna. (Fair disclosure: He knows me.)

The oddity of the place starts with its location on a short street that connects Memorial Drive and MLK Jr. Boulevard. When we first visited I confess to saying, "This looks scary." The building was painted a depressing gray, and there was lettering on the building featuring backward e's. Eric later told me people had said it looked like a biker bar or a fetish club. He has since repainted it, but since he is colorblind, the "sand" color he picked turned out to be strongly pink. So it's gone from S&M gray to stripper pink.

The interior is equally odd. There's a small dining room with a coffee bar. A window that separates the kitchen is painted with swirling, fiery colors. It reminded me of the projection lamp I had during my LSD days.

The menu is likewise on the quirky but not uninteresting side. The restaurant, not far from Grant Park, is in a transitional neighborhood, so Eric's first plan to serve more unusual food was rapidly short-circuited.

"One day last week, we had people at 15 tables get up and leave because we didn't have any 'real food' – meaning chicken wings," he said. Chicken wings are now on the menu, as is country-fried steak.

We've eaten twice at the restaurant and enjoyed much of the food, although there are glitches here and there that probably relate to the tastes of the clientele. For example, a starter of fried white mushrooms tastes great. The 'shrooms are crispy and earthy-tasting. But they are served with a marinara dipping sauce that makes no sense to me. Wayne loved it. He's very transitional. Likewise, corn fritters slightly tinged with curry flavors are a bit oily but otherwise savory.

But they are served with a melba berry sauce that reminded me of IHOP.

There's a gigantic antipasti plate that is the best choice for two people or more to share. The danger is that it's so much food, you may not have room for an entree after eating it, especially with any other appetizer, as was our case. It includes toast spread with a chunky guacamole, a peppery hummus, three deli meats, three good cheeses (except the bizarre blueberry Stilton), olives and lots of fruit.

We returned a few nights later, after the building had been painted, to try entrees. Wayne had a bowl of noodles in a coconut-curry sauce with shrimp, almonds, tomatoes and baby spinach. The pasta was a bit overcooked for my taste, but I'm coming to the conclusion that I favor undercooked pasta, since I have this complaint so often.

My own entree was a juicy hanger steak served over polenta cakes and topped with what the menu calls a "New Orleans barbecue and mushroom sauce." I'm not sure how it's made, but it bore no resemblance to typical barbecue sauces, for which I was glad. It was sharp and peppery.

There are other oddities about the place. Food is served on large pieces of tile instead of plates; glassware is Mason jars. Eric is recycling-minded. He urges customers who stop by for coffee in the morning to bring their own cups. Give Lamplighter a try – lunch or dinner – and let me hear your comments.

Einstein drank here

"This is no fair!" the beautiful girl sitting at the next table wailed. "I'm only 21. I don't even understand the questions. I wasn't born yet!"

Poor thing. It was Wednesday night at the Albert (918 Austin Ave., 404-872-4990) in Inman Park, and a trivia contest was underway. The place was absolutely packed, as it had been when we visited over the weekend.

The pub, open for lunch and dinner, apparently takes its name from Dr. Einstein, but there are portraits on the walls of other Alberts, too. The look is pretty traditional, with brick, warm lighting and dark wood trim. The space is divided into two big rooms. One contains a long bar and some booths. The other contains the main dining room and an open kitchen. It is a cozy (if noisy) ambiance.

There is nothing ambitious about the menu. It is typical bar food – sandwiches, salads and a few appetizers. We've sampled three sandwiches: the turkey burger, the buffalo chicken wrap and the portobello sandwich. My favorite was the last – a huge grilled mushroom cap garnished with roasted red peppers, Boursin cheese, lettuce and tomato. The turkey burger was brushed with a ginger-tamarind glaze and topped with sliced cucumbers, cilantro and red onions. The only problem was the squishy bun that made eating both sandwiches a mess.

The buffalo chicken wrap satisfied Wayne's constant craving for chicken wings. I don't understand why these flavors – hot sauce, chicken and blue cheese – have become so wildly popular again, but menus all over town, including vegetarian ones, are featuring takes on the classic bar snack.

We've also sampled the arugula salad with candied pecans and blue cheese with a chili vinaigrette. You can add grilled chicken, portobellos or salmon to the salad. The restaurant's hummus, flavored with roasted red peppers, could use a shot of olive oil – you can barely scoop it with the pita bread – but it includes the nice touch of the occasional whole, crunchy garbanzo bean.

I will leave it to my beer-loving editor to review the sudsy stuff later.

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