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Vinings dining 

Vinings Inn embodies New South's best flavors and a most regrettable location

During high-traffic hours, the Vinings area, especially along Paces Mill Road, seems not at all di-vine. Drive through and you're all too conscious of the steep hills, narrow roads and sharp turns. New shops and housing are clustered too close together, and more are constantly under construction.

Depending on where you sit, you can still notice this while eating at the Vinings Inn, whose historic building stands rather close to the road. Sitting at the proper angle in the Vinings Inn's Sun Room, you can look upon people grimacing in motionless cars, or see the valets squeezing one more car into a lot already crammed with SUVs.

But on nights and weekends, it's easier to notice traces of Vinings' small-town touches: the restaurant, like such neighbors as the Vinings Jubilee strip mall, is painted white with green trim, giving the area a Norman Rockwell-esque uniformity. In a way, your heart goes out to the Vinings Inn: With its homey atmosphere and reliable kitchen, the Vinings Inn seems more suited for a location a little out of the way of the madding crowd.

A former private residence more than a century old (a plaque marks it as the site of "The Forty-Forty Apartments"), the historic building has several snug dining rooms upstairs and down. Two rooms even have their own fireplaces: At Christmas in the restaurant's front room, stockings of the staff were hung by the chimney with care. Upstairs is the cozy Attic Lounge, which features nightly entertainment, a corner deck for al fresco dining and several other dining rooms with warm colors and rather low ceilings.

Native Atlantan Chef Keith Lewis serves a clever but not unfamiliar menu of New Southern dishes with French and Asian influences. I've had trouble finding the chicken advertised in the fried chicken and pork Asian-style spring rolls ($5), but they're otherwise a dandy appetizer: crispy fried rolls cut on the diagonal with a colorful and eye-opening chili dipping sauce.

The roasted butternut squash soup ($5) contains morsels of crab meat but has a welcome lack of sweetness, proving rich and creamy, blending the complex flavors of ginger, sweet potato and curry oil. At a recent lunch the bread basket featured sliced baguettes and pieces of foccacia, which were flavorful and baked with plenty of onion, but also rather cool, as if they'd been recently removed from a refrigerator.

Seeking an atypical lunch sandwich I tried the wild boar sausage and peppers hoagie ($9.95) which turned out to be a highly satisfying combination. Thankfully, the sandwich included no condiment or spread to make the bread soggy. The sandwich got its moisture mostly from the melted cheese and thick, generous pieces of smoky sausage. The caramelized onions added a hint of sweetness, but no individual flavor was overwhelming.

The Vinings Inn has a winning signature with its sauteed shrimp with spicy cheddar grits. At lunch the fresh, fleshy plentiful shrimp are topped with lots of chopped tomatoes, onions and mushrooms with savory lemon butter ($9.95). The grits aren't too sharp to the tongue and provide a counterpoint to the pepper toppings.

Good though it is, I prefer the dinner dish, which has simpler flavors and hues: the shrimp are glazed with a clear and tangy peach barbecue sauce that's delicious (not at all heavy), accompanied by some unobtrusive tomatoes and onions ($19). Another satisfying dinner entree is the lemon herb grilled free range chicken ($17). The tender white meat is lightly accented with sage and served on a blue cheese polenta with surprisingly unassertive flavors.

For dessert, the chocolate pecan cake ($5) resembles eating alternate layers of brownie and candy bar, proving so sweet and rich that I almost had an out-of-body experience after the first bite. It's a bit overwhelming, but would go well with a dessert wine from the Vinings Inn's extensive wine list. It's a definite improvement on the mealy, uninspiring blueberry cobbler, the only letdown on my visits.

The clientele seems to be a mix of celebrating families, business diners and Cobb County ladies-who-lunch, but don't feel like driving to Buckhead. The servers can get harried at times, but prove generally personable. At one dinner, a waiter waxed eloquent about fine dining as one of life's true pleasures. The Vinings Inn can offer the best and worst of the New South, requiring you to brave the encroaching sprawl to enjoy its delicious variations on home cooking. u

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