-- The Arena Tavern is the sports bar right across the street from the arena and, well, that's all you need to know. You'll see it as soon as you pull off I-85 and pull open the door to loads of dark paneling, dozens of flat-panel TVs hanging from the ceiling like stars in the sky, huge choices of beer on tap and many pretty waitresses in short black dresses. The comprehensive bar menu offers plenty of sandwiches, burgers, salads and entrees along the lines of chicken alfredo pasta ($14), pot roast ($15) and pan-seared trout ($15). The atmosphere seems to demand chicken wings, and the kitchen delivers: They come large, plump and fried to a crisp with the usual range of dipping sauces ($9 for 10 pieces, $17 for 20 pieces, and so on). 2000 Satellite Blvd., Duluth; 770-623-4585, www.thearenatavern.com
Then again, chicken wings? Really? You've shelled out a lot of money for those tickets and budgeted the time for a three-course meal with a glass of wine. I get it, and I have good news. Just across Sugarloaf Parkway you'll find The Nice Restaurant That's Right There:
-- Luciano's Ristorante Italiano -- with its decent wine list, white linens and uniformed staff -- feels a lot swankier than any nearby restaurant. It's a big box of space in a retail strip, but the corner bar with its pizza oven warms things up. Underlit Ionic columns flank the support beams throughout the room, so you've got a little of that Caesar's Palace thing going on.
Once you get past the tired marinara and cheese fondue served with bread, you'll find the food hits the spot. I saw a lot of tables start with the prosciutto flatbread ($13) -- an appetizing strip of blistered, cheesy crust topped with swirls of San Daniele cured ham, arugula and cherry tomatoes. I really loved the non-traditional clams oreganata ($9), which were steamed open in a white wine/garlic sauce (bound with loads of silky butter), set in a bowl, and finally glazed under the broiler with a scattering of breadcrumbs. It was the best of both clam worlds and invited serious bread-dunking. Also very fine: the chopped salad ($5) with many kinds of crisp lettuces (romaine, radicchio) tossed with chickpeas, feta crumbles, tomato and cucumber in a sharp red wine vinaigrette. I didn't love my Lasagna Coco Pazzo ($15), a free-form affair that just tasted like a miasma of stringy cheese, but the other pastas and fish specials I espied elsewhere looked good. 6555 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth; 770-255-1727, www.lucianositaly.com
Maybe Italian sounds good but too heavy. Do you really want a belly full of pizza and linguine carbonara if you're planning to spend the next three hours dancing in place and waving your cellphone in the air? Is there any spot for a quick Asian meal? Yes, and it's a good one. Alas, it's The Restaurant You Might Drive Right By Because You Assumed It Was A Nail Salon:
-- Miss Saigon looks from the outside like that place your wife goes for her weekly pedicure, with a discreet sign that doesn't necessarily shout "yummy food here." Enter to find a spacious, bright dining room. If you're a fan of the Saigon Cafe chain, you'll recognize the look, which combines the clean modernity of tile floors and high-gloss varnished surfaces with the fun tropical kitsch of plastic palm and mango trees. There's a small patio you might consider on balmy evenings.
The menu mostly treads familiar turf: pho (beef noodle soup), com dia (rice plates with a variety of protein garnishes), and bun (rice vermicelli noodles with meat garnishes and fresh raw vegetables to toss in tangy nuoc cham sauce. I enjoyed an order of cha gio ($3.25) -- two Vietnamese-style egg rolls that came so hot from the fryer that I had to wait to bite into the the juicy, steamy ground pork filling. A medium portion of pho ($6.95) garnished with rare eye round, flank and fat-streaked brisket had an appealing, spice-charged broth, though the meats were more springy and chewy than than that in other versions around town. (The eye round came cooked through, rather than pink.)
When I return with a group, I look forward to trying one of the family-style meals, where diners select from a variety of dishes for the table to share (prices vary, but average about $12 a head). Among the choices: claypot catfish, goat hot pot and shaking beef. 6590 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth; 770-418-1818 (website under construction)
While I'm trying to keep these choices a stone's throw from the arena, your options increase greatly if you're willing to drive a couple of miles on surface streets. After swinging by most of the options within this radius, my best recommendation is The Mexican Restaurant You Should Drive For:
-- Taqueria Los Hermanos now counts four metro locations, including a Lawrenceville outpost that's a straight shot to the arena and easily bests the closer Mexican options. The shaggy, cavernous dining room gives off an easy-to-like vibe, and servers get a menu and a Corona beer into your hands before you can say "por favor." The menu offers a clever mashup of everything we love about neighborhood Mexican food today. The tacos, in a choice of corn or flour tortillas, strike a happy crossover chord. You can have fried tilapia fingers with tartar sauce and spicy pepper escabeche ($3.75), Philly cheese steak with mushrooms ($2.95) or carnitas with green tomatillo salsa ($2.95). The rest of the menu -- with its burritos, enchiladas and combo plates -- smacks more of old-school Mexican cantina fare. I really enjoyed a tamale plate ($11.95) with two fat specimens, one of red chile chicken and the other of green chile pork, with rice and black beans on the side. Flan and bread pudding stand by to satisfy the sweet tooth. 4955 Sugarloaf Parkway, Lawrenceville; 770-817-0363, www.taquerialoshermanos.com
While this specific part of Gwinnett isn't what I'd term a "dining destination," it does hold one distinction: it's home to The Only Afghan Restaurant I Know Of In The Metro Area:
-- Shami Kabab Afghan Restaurant, located in the same retail strip as Miss Saigon, may headline skewered chunks of beef, lamb and chicken, but I think the real breakout stars on this menu are the two kinds of Afghan dumplings.
Aushak dumplings ($5.99 for an appetizer portion, $14.99 for a large entree portion with a side vegetable) hold green onion and spinach in sheer wraps, and arrive in swirls of tomatoey meat sauce dotted with yellow split peas and yogurt. Just great. Mantoo (same prices) look like little hats and have the beef on the inside of the dumplings, but otherwise have a similar flavor profile and presentation. The kebabs can vary: tender here, chewy there. You might split one order of lamb for the table. You might also want to grab a bottle of wine from home if you fancy a pre-concert libation. 6590 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth; 678-805-8497, www.shamikababatl.weebly.com
-- Now, if you are willing to venture farther -- say, four or five miles to the south -- then you've got the great Asian wonderland of Pleasant Hill Road and its surrounding side streets. There's too much to choose from, but I might signal Honey Pig (3473 Old Norcross Road, Duluth; 404-476-9292, www.honeypigatl.com), the Korean spot where you cook your food on heated iron domes at your table. That's where you'll find me an hour before the Reba show, singing "I'm a Survivor" between mouthfuls of grilled pork belly.
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