"We've returned to Houston's," Michele told me. "It's good."
"Yeah, they got rid of that stupid pizza or foccacia or whatever it was and brought back the cheese toast," Jay said later. "You should try it."
"I should? I could." I said.
Weirdly, I had received two e-mails making the same suggestion. "We've gone back to Houston's. No weirdness. Try the beef. It's really good and reasonably priced," one e-mail said. So, after last week's vaguely exotic $120 dinner at Spice, Wayne and I headed on a rainy Friday night to the vaunted capital of Middle American Cuisine. We hit the Houston's at 2166 Peachtree Street (404-351-2442) in South Buckhead.
I'd been once before, so I knew there would be a wait, a long one. "Just an hour," the hostess said. We were corralled into the bar where we read books while standing up, fighting for the light from a little lamp in the ceiling. Houston's, all brick and wood, is mysteriously dark, lit by flickering gas lamps and pin-spots. And the staff is all dressed in black, so their faces seem to float ghost-like through the maze of tables. I wondered to myself why everyone disses restaurants like Sotto Sotto as "pretentious" for having black-clad staff and patrons and yet here, in the very heart of Middle America, it goes without remark.
Our hour wait wore on. Reading was hard with the poor light and the noise. The biggest noisemaker was the piano player, whose play list made Peach Radio's seem like alternative music. Visions of Karen Carpenter danced in my head as I tried to read, and Wayne complained bitterly about his weak whiskey sour.
The clientele is super friendly. A slightly inebriated woman with really big, um, hair presented herself at three inches distance and even asked me what I was reading. When I showed her my text of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Painting and Modern Oblivion, her hair sort of imploded and she moved on to compliment another man on his sweater. I might mention that, despite the accent on Middle America, this is the most racially mixed restaurant I've ever visited in Atlanta. I like that and I think Houston's deserves a lot of credit for its hospitality.
Finally, we were summoned to our booth. At the outset, I want to say Houston's service is really good. The staff works in teams, clearly, and you get your food promptly. Your drinks are replenished. People ask constantly about your welfare. But here most of my compliments end.
The food, I don't get. As I had a few years earlier, I ordered the hailed spinach dip with tortilla chips. The $9 price is shocking for something so irredeemably obnoxious. What am I missing? Green cheesy goop is served with chips and a side of sour cream and really bad, bottled-tasting red salsa. Wait, I know what I'm missing. Dude, if, like, I had a big doobie in my hand, know what I'm saying, I could eat this stuff and really get a mouth buzz going!
I tried Jay's favorite "cheddar parmesan toast" ($4). Hello! Wayne and I had quite the animated discussion about what in hell topped the bread. He was convinced it was micro quantities of browned flavorless mystery meat. I'm sure it wasn't. It's just browned cheese with a bit of cayenne pepper. Yep, this too reminded me of those days when the munchies made me do things like make a cobbler out of canned fruit cocktail and Cremora.
Things did get better. Many entrees are served with a big salad. We chose the Caesar. It wasn't too bad, but too heavily dressed. Anchovies, of course, have to be requested. I could not face the "Hawaiian barbecued" steak, so I opted for the prime rib ($25 for the huge portion). It was good enough, but no better than you get at the usual decent hotel buffet. The "au jus" on the side was bottled tasting and the horseradish sauce was too mild.
Wayne ordered a grilled ruby red trout, a special ($19). It was by far the best thing we sampled, very well cooked and served with an excellent coleslaw, oniony and touched with some sugar.
I assume that visiting Houston's is an event for the people who go there. It's not cheap by any means. We spent over $60 without dessert or drinks. I would love to love it, but spinach dip and cheese toast will never rock my world.
Here and there
I am sorry to report that Gumbo a Go Go has radically declined in quality. I have twice visited the Ponce location recently for bowls of my once favorite gumbo. Besides finding an increase in price, I was presented bowls mainly of rice, sort of sauced with the gumbo. A disaster. Far better now is the gumbo at Creole Cafe on Piedmont, just south of Cheshire Bridge.
Here and there
I confess to a semi-annual craving for a Burger King Whopper. I visited the location on North Avenue in Midtown last week and found myself in a surreal kingdom of slowed-down time ruled by a woman in a paper crown. She was nice enough but the Master of the Microwave could not seem to get anyone's order right. It was like watching an Abbott and Costello routine. Finally, I received my burger and was astounded. A gray, limp, tepid patty, cooked hours earlier, dreadful.
Note to Star Steaks and BBQ: I have visited once and you need a lot of work!
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