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Top Flr: Eat cheap, well and late 

An evening with friends in Midtown

It's early on a Friday evening, and a few people are seated at the tiny bar on the bottom level of Top Flr. One woman eats gnocchi and reads a magazine. An older man sips lemonade infused with fresh strawberries. Adam, the bar manager, talks animatedly with a customer about the varied and smart white wines on the list.

A young business guy in clubwear walks in, takes a seat at the bar and announces that he's on his way to the Cheetah, and that his wife is out of town.

"Really? I thought you were gay." Adam says. He gets away with the comment – this is his turf. The guy laughs it off. The two women sitting at the bar avert their eyes and their smirks.

Adam has a wiry frame and scruffy hair, red T-shirt, skinny jeans. You can tell he's been doing this for a long time; the bar seems like an extension of his person. But there's something proprietary in his movements and tone of voice. Top Flr is what happens when the kids who used to wait tables and bartend in other people's restaurants grow up and become their own bosses. Spelling goes out the window and hipster conviviality comes in. (Why no "oo" in the word "floor"? We have no idea.) These guys have made a restaurant for their friends, and the rest of us are lucky we get to eat there, too.

As the evening progresses, the life of the restaurant changes pace. The room up the long flight of stairs fills slowly. "People come here to dine, not just eat," a waitress explains to her table, her voice full of pride. The dining room is intimate and modern, with white walls up front, black walls in back, and almost psychedelic black-and-white wallpaper connecting the two. The short menu offers all kinds of dining: nibbles, a full three-course meal, a chocolate tasting or just drinks with friends. Prices are low; this is one of the most user-friendly restaurants in town.

The responsible parties include owner Darren Carr, a former manager of Carroll Street Café who originally is from London; Jeff Myers, a DJ and party promoter; and chef Mike Schorn, who has recently held chef positions at Cavu, the Feed Store and the Inman Park Patio.

The menu is short and pretty sweet. Schorn is not afraid of bold flavors, nor is he afraid of simplicity, and seems to dole each of those approaches out exactly where it is most appropriate. Gnocchi is airy yet substantial, accompanied by spinach and cherry tomatoes. Mussels, served with a coconut-soy-lime broth, have fistfuls of ginger thrown at them, which is quite delightful in a surprising kind of way. Each bite makes you go, "Damn, that's a lot of ginger!" What's not to love about ginger?

Likewise, the free-form ravioli served with shrimp, tomato, corn and other veggies tasting of the garden is rife with thyme, enough that you can't help but take notice. What a relief to find food that demands attention for all the right reasons. I give Schorn a lot of credit – timidity is one of the real downfalls of too many chefs these days. He manages to pull off the opposite without relying on gimmicks or muddy fusions.

But there are also pleasant surprises of a more subtle nature to be found on the menu. Couscous under the lamb skewers is made from cauliflower, and the trick lends a sweeter, more interesting flavor to the dish. One of the most memorable plates of food I've had in quite a while came in the form of a salad of micro greens tossed with goat cheese and honey lavender dressing and flanked by figs. I'm not sure if it was the goat cheese or the dressing, but there was an intoxicating whisper of vanilla, not the sweet, cloying dessert vanilla, but a subtle, mellow hint. Salad rarely demands this much affection.

Entrees are seriously cheap, in the $9-$14 range, but you should take into account they are à la carte and meant to be ordered with sides, which run around $5. Do you need the sides? It depends on the entree. I got stuffed eating a roasted baby chicken cloaked in tarragon, but if you order the salmon you will need a side or two to fill you up. If your experience matches mine, though, the salmon will be perfectly cooked, crispy on the outside and melting in the middle.

Also on board is pastry chef Taria Camerino, who became a bit of a phenomenon among dessert aficionados with her short-lived Little Five Points shop Sweet Revolution – if you developed a taste for her truffles back then, you'll be glad to know you can get them here for $3 a pop. Her desserts are intense, and some work better than others. Flourless cake is dense and rich and served with tobacco ice cream that delivers a crazy nicotine tingle on the back of the throat. A slightly grainy balsamic sorbet comes alongside a raspberry mud cake.

The long stairs that separate the dining room from the bar and kitchen can lead to waiters who disappear for a while, and you should take the opportunity to relax and get comfortable. This isn't a place to come if you're hoping for crisp service, although it's hardly sloppy. Top Flr is a place to hang out and eat and drink, even if the waitresses call it dining. Maybe it's just me, but I often get sick of the formality of dining. Hanging out is sometimes preferable.

Here's another bonus, and this is a big one: Top Flr is open late, serving the full menu until 1 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on the weekend. Hooray! Finally, a restaurant serving fantastic food where other restaurant workers can go after their shift is over. It's about time.

By 1 a.m., the sidewalk out front of Top Flr has filled up with friends greeting one another and swilling wine. These are not Midtown's usual spangled revelers; they're more artsy, less moneyed. It's a neighborhood feel, not an exclusive scene. It's the friends of the guys who run Top Flr, and the rest of us are just lucky to join in.

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