Fandangles strives to merit its Trip Advisor rating

A funny thing happened on the way to Fandangles Restaurant & Bar.

We asked for directions in the lobby of the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel downtown, and the security guard proudly told us, “You’re going to love your meal. It’s the third best restaurant in Atlanta!”

Third best? Bacchanalia, Restaurant Eugene, Fandangles? Is that how it goes?

I think I knew what the guard was obliquely referring to. On the popular travel site Trip Advisor, Fandangles currently ranks as one of the top dining destinations in Atlanta, based on the cumulative star ratings of its users. It may have at some point been third on the list; now it ranks a solid fifth, just after Bones.

Because of this ranking the restaurant has been courting a little more love from the local press. Chef Marc Suennemann has made an effort to represent the Southern farm-to-table ideal on his menu, while developing a good selection of vegetarian and gluten-free options. As a representative of the restaurant wrote to me, “We have accomplished these things with one unique caveat. We are a ‘hotel’ restaurant.”

I promised to take a look. But I did worry about the “hotel restaurant” bit. For diners in a city and readers of newspaper restaurant reviews, hotel dining can be a deal breaker.

Still, I put Fandangles into my tickler file and looked for an opportunity to write about it, but my editors never seemed thrilled with the choice. Besides, one asked, what is a fandangle anyway?

Web definition: “1. nonsense; rubbish; trivia; baloney. 2. an elaborate and trivial piece of dangling ornament.” Hmm. That didn’t help make the case.

I kept looking for that Fandangles entry point, that occasion that said, “Look, Atlanta, I’ve got an option for you when you need X. Fandangles!”

And then it happened.

My wife and I found ourselves one Saturday with a shy two hours between setting our kid up at a sleepover and driving to the airport to send me off on a business trip. We wanted to get a quick, nice, adult dinner someplace where we wouldn’t be worrying about traffic or parking. Someplace right off the highway, where we could get in and out, have a glass of wine and a piece of fish, not have to shout.

An hour later we found ourselves in “the third best restaurant in Altanta.” Despite that designation, despite the warm service and despite a meal that had its appealing moments, I decided on first pass this isn’t a great option for Atlantans on their way to the airport.

But it could be, and I have a few ideas how this might work out for everyone:

1. The parking situation will not fly for many valet-pampered Atlantans. When you pull up under the pitched tent of the Sheraton Atlanta entrance, you learn that the restaurant only validates self-parking, while the valet costs $18. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but to self park you drive through a grimy underground tunnel and into a lot that is a marvel of steeply pitched concrete and tight spaces. Then you walk back, through the tunnel.

2. The trapped-in-the-’80s decor is pretty wonderful with its candy-striped booths, cobalt-blue drop lighting fixtures and burgundy-striped carpet. I even kind of love the view into the terrarium-like courtyard with its tropical foliage and guests flopping in the pool. It’s kind of a nice change from the faux rusticity that had taken over Atlanta dining rooms. Play this up.

3. You need to up the ante on the drankin’ part of this show to get some looky-loo Atlantans. Yesteryear’s decor works great. Yesteryear’s drinks do not. Please swap out the chocolate and peach martinis on your drinks list for something that at least pays lip service to the cocktail revolution. While you’re at it, the wine list could use a nudge toward the 21st century.

4. The menu seems engineered to play to Sheraton guests visiting Atlanta. It’s a little Southern farm-to-table and a little steak house. That’s fine, but it won’t draw locals. The far-and-away best dish we tried wasn’t an entree but a starter of grilled Scottish salmon. It came over a toasted crouton with a gorgeous shaved carrot salad and a pitch-perfect dab of aïoli. I suspect Chef Suennemann has some small-plates mojo he could bring to this menu. More please.

5. This last one is slightly stupid but, I think, valid. We Atlantans travel all the time for work. That’s why we live in a city with the world’s busiest airport, and that’s why we need a fun restaurant on the way to said airport. Do you get Starwood Preferred Guest points for dining at Fandangles? Would that be a slight motivating push for some travelers? Maybe.

There we have it. That’s what I think it would take to put Fandangles on the local radar.

What of that high Trip Advisor rating? It says this restaurant does a good job of retaining guests and providing them with a memorable dining experience. For the record, the No. 6 spot goes to King of Pops, while Bacchanalia ranks a lowly No. 52. Even without the Starwood points, I’d place it a lot higher.