Eating in Atlanta

I was really impressed with Atlanta.

The company at which I taught the four day class did not have any place to eat so I went out for lunch each day and was accompanied by some of the students on three of those days. One of them, John, had some strong ideas about places to go for lunch so I let him choose. I wasn’t disappointed.

Junior’s Grill

On the first day, four of us hiked 15 minutes across the Georgia Tech campus to Junior’s Grill. They had the expected student-fare of burgers and fries, but also a cafeteria-style selection of better but still home-style dishes. I had the meat loaf with sides of black-eyed peas, spinach and a piece of cornbread. Everything was very good, far better than the name “Junior’s Grill” had led me to expect. Whoever was back in the kitchen knew how to cook these dishes. And they obviously had a large iron pan in which to make the cornbread; southern cooks will tell you that’s an essential “ingredient” for a proper cornbread.

Chinese Buddha

Only John and I went out together on the second day. We walked east instead of south to an upscale Chinese place he knew, Chinese Buddha. I had the Kung Pao chicken. When delivered, I was delighted to find the ingredients fresh and not overly done. And the sauce was spicey but not so much as to overpower the flavors of the other ingredients. And it was nicely presented in a large semi-bowl shaped white dish.

The Varsity

Day #3 I was on my own as the others had a meeting to attend where the boss would be providing lunch — pizza. She didn’t ask so I didn’t have to say, “No thanks.” Left to my own, I relied on the advice of several who had mentioned, and warned me about, the local greasy-burger tradition — since 1928 — the Varsity. It was said to be historic in appearance, in cuisine, and in the age of its grease with the onion rings being particularly notable in all three categories. After checking my computer bag to be sure I had a roll of Tums, I committed.

I had to circle the parking lot to find a place to park. Getting out of the car, I noticed the line was out the front door waiting to get in.

“This looks interesting,” I thought.

Once through the door, I found the menu up on the wall in several places over a very long counter with several stations where an order could be placed. I chose the “Express Line.” The fellow ahead warned it was “Express” because you had better know what you want when you get to the front. I ordered a cheeseburer, ring and a big orange, no frills, nothing fancy, just straight off the menu. The tab was five-something and the food was in front of me in less than a minute. Taking my tray, I checked a couple of rooms before finding an empty seat.

The burger was small, utterly plain, but good. (Note to self: order it with something, *anything* on it next time.)

The rings were, as had been said, the real thing, prepared and cooked correctly. These were not from one of those machine that chopped and shaped “rings of onion” that the fast food chains use. Nope, these were real onion rings, probably rinsed in a milky solution before battering and frying. And the batter was solidly glued to the onion inside so there was no danger of the onion coming out of the batter tube. Nope, these were perfect rings.

I went back for another treat. I’d seen them on many trays, the chili dog. But, alas, I must say I was disappointed. The chili was bland and the dog unremarkable. Maybe onions? And cheese? And some tabasco. Definitely some tabasco.

Two hours later back in the classroom and halfway through the source code debugger lecture, a single burp forced its way out mid-sentence. When I excused myself I added, “The Varsity.” Universally there were excusing smiles in the classroom.

Spoon

On the last day, we took a third compass direction and walked to Spoon, a Thai place about ten minutes away. And as with the other places, the atmosphere was great. The place was busy with lots of people and with an amazing number of waiters (that’s a sex-generic term, by the way — “wait-persons” is so ugly, don’t you think?) bustling about.

I had the Panang with shrimp and scallops. Uncertain of the chef, I ordered medium-hot. I’ll go “hot” next time, maybe even Thai-hot. As with John’s other selections, the food was excellent.

The dinners didn’t score quite as well but, nonetheless, I found some places worth repeating.

Luckie’s

First, however, the “miss”. The hotel had a 10% off coupon for Luckie’s, on Luckie.

The first omen was the fellow standing outside the door. I noticed him while still half a block away and wondered if he was waiting for a ride or something. He had a nice suit, a tad on the bulky side for his physique, but didn’t look like a druggie waiting for someone to mug.

Intending to walk past and see if there were other restaurants around the corner, I cut across the parking lot in front of Luckies.

“Please stay on the sidewalk. This is private property,” he said to me.

“I’m going to go in and eat,” I answered. “I just wanted to see what else there might be.”

“Well, that’ll be just fine then, sir. Go ahead and have a look.”

I took a few steps and had my now obligated glance down the cross street. There was a burger place next door but that was it.

“I’ll go on in now and eat,” I said.

“Yes sir. And I hope you weren’t offended by what I said.”

“Not at all,” I answered but thought to myself that he looked awfully silly trying to shoo folks away, and was undoubtedly driving away the occasional customer who wouldn’t overlook the affront as I had.

Strike one.

As I entered through the front door, I saw again this was a mistake. The decor was as trendy as you could be with strange shaped light fixtures, a slithery bar, some raised seating as well as normal, and an open view into the kitchen with tall flames jetting up from the stoves.

Strike two.

But I had walked several blocks to get there after standing and walking around the classroom all day and, frankly, I just wasn’t up to the walk back without getting some energy first. So I read the unfortunately predictable menu, ordered the top sirloin medium with the caesar salad and have since forgotten the sides. I ordered a local beer, a 402, while I waited for the food. The food was nicely presented and nicely done and the wait-person smiled and was nicely patronizing to the single while the six-top waited, but the whole experience said this was a place to bring someone when you want to impress them with your snobbishness.

But when you’re by yourself as I was, why bother? Who’s to impress?

So I ate half the meal as I’d intended and took the rest back to the hotel to refrigerate and then nuke tomorrow for dinner.

With that, Luckies provided my dinner for the first two nights while forcing me to suffer their atmosphere and insults only once. That’s the only thing I can say for the place.

Osterial del Figo

Fortunately, that was the only downer on this trip. Dinner on the third evening was back up to another pleasant surprise, and was via another suggestion from John. I had asked for Northern Italian. He said, Osteria del Figo on Howell Mill Rd.

Reportedly this is a local chain, and unbeknownst to me, the location on Howell Mill Road I chose was the least fancy of the trio. But what I found suited my interests and fatigue perfectly. It was very casual, out of the way, and not the least bit ostentatious. The decor was nicely done but more like sitting on someone’s patio rather than in a fancy restaurant. Everything seem to say, “Come on in, relax, we’ll take good care of you.”

When I entered, I picked up a menu by the cash register to decide if I would stay or not. That only took a moment; there were several intriguing possibilities with pasta and sauce were ordered separately. I could customize my own order. I like that.

Orders are placed before being seated so I chose the capellini, the shrimp and zucchini in white wine sauce, and a glass of the house Pinot Grigio. My three item-order was tallied and my credit card processed. They handed me a green-painted pepper grinder as the marker of my order and said, “Please sit anywhere you like.”

I chose a table by the window with the chair positioned so I could also watch the other patrons. They appeared to be locals, many of them students or young professionals. There were couples, groups of 2-4 women, and two other singles like myself.

My tumbler (!) of wine came. I eyed it apprehensively before picking it up. Wine in a heavy glass tumbler is almost always a bad sign. But not this time. The Pinot Grigio was light and fruity as it should be with a faint lemon tang. Well after each sip, no bitterness came.

“A good start,” I nodded to myself.

A server brought bread but before I could stop her, she poured a plateful of olive oil.

Uh, oh!

You see, Italians refer to this manner of dunking and eating of bread as “American style.” Italians would say that anyone with even the feeblest of manners would know that the proper way is to first hold the bread over the plate and then to dribble olive oil directly onto the bread. The only purpose of the plate is to catch any oil that drips through.

Pouring out a lake of oil as the Americans do is just crass.

But with that plateful of oil before me, what could I do?

Looking about, I did not see any obvious Italians — check the shoes, you can always tell from the shoes — so I decided to be one of those Americans.

I ripped, I dunked, I dabbed, I leaned over and slurped in the bread and oil.

And to my very pleasant surprise, it was superb!

It was obviously a very good quality first squeeze, a virgin virgin. It had been infused with herbs and red peppers but then filtered to remove all sediment. It appeared to be plain oil but, oh that red pepper!

As I finished the bread, the capellini arrived and, without going into details, it was next to perfect as well.

Originally intending a light meal but with three “hits” already beneath my belt, I decided to take on extra innings.

“Espresso and tira misu, please.”

Again, both were excellent.

After driving back to the hotel, I slept well. Probably with a smile. Figo’s made this tired traveller glad he had stopped there for a meal.

Six Feet Under Grant Park

By the fourth night, I’d struck up a passing friendship with one of the hotel valet drivers. On my way out for dinner on this last night in Atlanta, I told him of my earlier disappointment with Luckies, how much I had liked Figo’s and that, for my last night, I’d just like to get a nice piece of fish without a lot of pretense and maybe a beer or two. He immediately suggested Six Feet Under Grant Park.

“It’s across from a graveyard,” He added.

I smiled and thought yes, that could be my kind of place.

Before setting out, I looked up the restaurant and reviewed their menu on the internet. Several dishes looked interesting so I noted the address and headed out. Plugging the address into my GPS, I was there in a few minutes.

I ordered a locally brewed ale, the home-made potato chips appetizer, the shrimp and scallops in parchment, with sides of spinach and greens. It sounded like too much food and, yes, it was. The potato chips with sour cream dill dip were an interesting diversion but not worth repeating. The shrimp and scallops, on the other hand, were quite good with the parchment keeping them good and hot as I ate. And the vegetables were also good but I soon found myself running out of steam. The pepper sauce was helpful, as always, with the slight bitterness in the greens but, frankly, I had reached the point where my excesses of the week had pushed me into the wall.

I could eat no more and a doggie bag was out of the question.

Four interesting lunches and two such dinners in four days; that’s a rare score. Both Atlanta and John are going into my book for good eating.

I’m on my way up to Newport Rhode Island on Saturday for a class there the following week. My food budget, while not abused except for that one unfortunate “Luckie” choice, was close to full and I suspected my stomach would also feel that way for a couple of days. Indeed, often after one of these trips I find myself nearly fasting for a few days.

“A cup o’ noodles for lunch? Why yes, that sounds just about right. And maybe some saltines for dinner.”