What’s your favorite restaurant?
That’s the question I get asked the most. It’s also the one that makes me squirm the most.
I don’t want to play favorites. So I deflect, dodge, dive, and deliver the spiel about how there are many places to eat in metro Atlanta. That the answer depends on your reason for eating out or your party size, also your preferred cuisine, ambiance and travel comfort zone — usually adding superfluous commentary about traffic being awful, but that gastronomic adventure sometimes requires driving more than a few miles from home.
As I tick off a few restaurant names and try to recall recent noteworthy eating experiences, in the back of my mind, what I really want to say is: Cakes & Ale.
It’s a most unassuming place, one where I don’t worry about my wrinkled clothes or uncombed hair. And Cakes & Ale is the antidote to a frazzled mind that needs to unwind.
The bar has long been my preferred spot when eating out and off the clock. I’d call Cakes & Ale’s bar one of the restaurant’s finest assets. (Try for the corner spot where the two sides of the L-shaped bar come together.) Maybe it’s because it offers a view of foot traffic on Decatur Square. More so, it’s because there’s generally a built-in crowd. When chats with my husband lull, we might converse with a bartender or fellow quaffers who come alone, or in twos and threes. A few weeks ago, we made small talk with an older couple who dine there weekly, sometimes twice, then get to stroll four blocks back home.
The menu board will tell you which wines are featured. Try something new to you. They are always changing things up to match the weather or what’s cooking in the kitchen. Plus, I recall how, after sipping a slew of inconsistent cocktails around Atlanta last year, it was a bartender at Cakes & Ale who renewed my hope in this city’s spirits scene. It’s not enough to have good cocktail bars. Restaurants need to be consistent, too. Here, they always are. The Wry Guy, Manhattan-ish but on the lighter side, is a case in point.
Even as I write this, I feel myself relax. So I’ll let my tongue loosen and sing the praises of chef-owner Billy Allin. For a fellow who’s received multiple James Beard Award nominations (he isn’t sure if it is seven or eight) since opening Cakes & Ale nine years ago, I find him to be modest. He lets the food speak for itself.
Dishes are served without fanfare or wordy explanation. But a snack of arancini, on the menu since day one, needs no showy introduction when it is perfect. Not over-fried into a horrid hard ball of risotto, just small, golden brown rounds, the inside moist, flavorful with pecorino, the combination of lemon, lime and orange zest present but not assertive. Leek and onion dip with potato chips is a spiffy, but still uncomplicated bar snack. Pretty much like dipping Lay’s chips into sour cream and onion dip, but better.
Better because there’s demonstrable care and respect for food. The high-integrity sourcing. The cooking that’s incisive and consistent, whether on a mainstay like wood-roasted whole trout (the only other constant on the menu), or recent items like halibut with baked artichokes and herbed fingerlings or quail over a bed of creamed corn surrounded by charred okra seasoned with za’atar, cumin and coriander.
When a plate arrives, gets placed on the stone surface of this minimalist bar, it gives me pause. There is no red ring of pureed beets encircling an entree as if it were the bull’s-eye on a dartboard. There are no kitschy artiste squiggles of butternut squash forced out of a squeeze bottle.
At the moment, food that insists on being noticed (I’m big! I’m bright! I’m beautiful! Look at me!) holds little appeal for me. Here, plating is calm, restrained.
So I stop. Savor. Appreciate.
Ask me what my favorite restaurant is in six months, and the answer might be different. But right now, I’m crushing on Cakes & Ale.
Cakes & Ale, 155 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-377-7994, cakesandalerestaurant.com.
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