The awful economy has had dreadful effects on the restaurant business. Everyone knows that fine-dining venues are especially affected, causing the city to lose some of its best chefs. But midrange restaurants are affected, too, and most are employing aggressive marketing, including discounted specials, to attract customers. It may get worse with food costs increasing significantly.
I don't know the statistics, but for many years Atlantans dined out multiple times each week. The only way that can continue for many people is by exploring cheaper alternatives. Although I'd call this an excellent reason to visit ethnic restaurants along Buford Highway and Scott Boulevard, there are growing alternatives in town.
One of the most creative places to open recently is Victory Sandwich Bar (280 Elizabeth St., 770-676-7287) in Inman Park. Technically, yes, this isn't a full-service restaurant. It's a pub serving some clever food. The menu is something like a hybrid of sliders and tapas.
Victory — open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily — serves small sandwiches and a couple of appetizers. The sandwiches cost $4 each. Now, I'm not talking your grandmother's egg-salad finger sandwiches made on white bread with the crust sliced off. I'm talking more like junior panini made with a broad range of crusty breads from Bakeshop. Fillings are generous and delicious.
Most customers order two and that means your lunch or dinner, without a beverage, is $8. The menu changes somewhat from day to day. I've eaten most everything the pub serves, including a starter of freshly made hummus with big pieces of lavosh ($5). There's also a meat and cheese plate for $8.
It would be hard to pick my favorite here. I think it's a tie. The first sandwich I ate there was the Lamborghini with salami, cappicola, Speck, fontina cheese and a green sauce that's parsley-based. It ties with the Hambo: prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula and a bit of reduced, sweet balsamic. Adding unexpected texture and a note of sour sweetness is slices of Granny Smith apples.
The Beast on Yeast is pot roast, slightly warm, with horseradish crème. There's a classic Reuben made with better-than-average pastrami. The Castro is pretty classically Cuban with slow-roastsed pork, ham, fontina cheese and bit of yellow mustard. Another special one is the Smokin' Trout. The trout is mixed with Greek yogurt, capers and radish salad. (Its price had been raised to $5 during my third visit.)
The menu says the restaurant will also prepare a salad on request. There's also a vegetarian sandwich.
Oh. There's a Ping-Pong table in the back of the pub and — most inviting — a punching bag opposite the bar. Drink, eat, punch the hell out of your ex-boss.
Jake Rothschild's nearby Irwin Street Market (660 Irwin Street, 678-705-7945) has a relatively new tenant — Picnic, which shares counter space with Candi's for Breakfast. The organization here is a bit confusing. The same staff works both operations. Candi's (678-614-7775) menu is available 7 a.m.-2 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Picnic (678-705-7945) serves Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Plans are in the works for Picnic to open for dinner, too.
Candi Hawkins offers an amazingly comprehensive menu for such a small operation. There are all the usual breakfast dishes like omelets and waffles, but the most interesting part of the menu is the huge stuffed biscuits. The menu says they have been referred to as "breakfast calzones."
They take 20 minutes to bake and they really are like calzones made with biscuit dough. Just as you would in a pizzeria, you can order a restaurant-designed one or choose your own ingredients. You'll spend less than $8.
I ordered mine filled with goat cheese, bacon and sun-dried tomatoes. Honestly, my favorite part was the pastry. The filling included way too many sun-dried tomatoes and way too little chopped bacon. Next time, I'll get one made with cheese period. You can, by the way, order these covered in hollandaise or gravy. I can't imagine, but you go ahead.
Hawkins also makes huge fluffy buttermilk biscuits, $1.25 each, and completely irresistible "biscuit beignets," little globes of fried biscuit dough covered with powder sugar and served with a caramel sauce.
Picnic, owned by a small group of investors, offers fairly inexpensive "comfort food — Southern style." There are sandwiches, barbecue, salads and soups. Of the dishes I sampled, the best was a sandwich made with cornmeal-battered slices of fried green tomatoes, bacon, lettuce, pimento cheese and a pepper-pear relish served on whole-wheat bread. I gave half that I took with me to a friend later. He went wild over it.
I've also tried a pulled-pork sandwich with barbecue sauce. The meat was juicy and well-seasoned, the sauce had a good kick ... but the bun's bottom slice arrived so soggy the sandwich could not be picked up. I blame an excess of sauce.
As sides with the barbecue, I ordered Brunswick stew and collards cooked with kale. To my palate the flavor of both was overwhelmed with salt. In truth, I don't come close to most people's love of salt, so the average Southerner may find the use here just right. It's your call.
Most sandwiches at Picnic hover around $8, with salads and soups ranging from $4.95 to $6.95.
Finally, I also ordered a decent triple espresso macchiato from the coffee bar in the market, the Funky Monkey. There's free Wi-Fi here, by the way, so you can eat cheap, sip coffee and read the job listings online.
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