Here are the Atlanta 50 — the restaurants that we feel define the best of dining in the greater metropolitan area today. All of these capsule reviews are based on recent visits by members of the AJC dining team. Initials indicate they were written by John Kessler (JK), Jenny Turknett (JT) or Jon Watson (JW).
As the old adage goes, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” At Rathbun’s, a noticeably cheerful chef and kitchen translate to a happy dining room, which weaves its way into every facet of your experience.
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The small kitchen cranks out a hefty menu and list of daily specials. It’s easy to hover in the small-plate region of the menu with items like thin slices of lamb scallopini topped with cubes of salty pancetta and soft goat gouda. But you’ll also want to head over to big-plate country to indulge in dishes like the perfectly crispy duck with Thai risotto and a sweet-and-spicy green curry essence.
Pastry chef Kirk Parks, who you’ll often see laughing with staff and customers alike, prepares the freshly baked breads tucked into baskets and an impressive list of sweet temptations. Want them all? Go ahead. Get a tasting of your favorite four. Just be sure it includes the restaurant’s signature banana peanut butter cream pie. (JT)
Linton and Gina Hopkins have many irons in the fire, including one of the city’s top bakeries (H&F Bread Co.), a high-end liquor store (H&F Bottle Co.), an influential pub (Holeman & Finch Public House) and its new spinoff, a burger stand at Turner Field. But the heartbeat of the operation is this nine-year-old fine dining establishment. Restaurant Eugene has earned national recognition not so much as a standard bearer for Southern food, but more as an oracle. Chef Linton Hopkins is as influenced by his academic research as by his connection to food producers and farmers.
On a recent visit, the meal was as delicious as it was interesting. Ash-roasted carrots came upright on the plate like some kind of pagan altar, but tasted of mellowed sweetness, smoke and long, controlled cooking. A trifecta of braised greens tasted of ham-soaked goodness and love. Roasted guinea hen arrived as a picture of fine technique — juicy flesh and crisp skin — though it didn’t have quite the same sense of place as the best dishes do here.
Our two desserts — a grainy lemon custard in an overpowering fennel soup and a chocolate caramel tart — weren’t quite as lovable as dessert should be, but tasted, well, interesting. I’d love to see some a few more geeky wines on the otherwise commendable list. (JK)
Rico’s World Kitchen
Rico Cunnington, a Buford native and child of a restaurant family, opened Rico’s World Kitchen as a modest four-table restaurant on Mall of Georgia Boulevard. Three years ago, Rico’s relocated to its current space in downtown Buford, more than tripling its seating.
The international comfort cuisine served at Rico’s showcases bold flavors. Start with Mama Nett’s lumpia, small Filipino-style egg rolls filled with beef, chicken or pork. Then find out what’s smoking out on the patio. It may be the drippingly juicy and smoky pork, which is marinated in a lime-based mojo sauce. Or it could be the chicken for the Cuban, which rivals the smoked bird found in many popular Atlanta barbecue joints.
Bounce around the reasonably priced menu. You’re sure to find something you love. Cunnington has a knack for combining ingredients and extracting maximum flavor. (JT)
(not yet rated)
Owner Ali Mesghali is the kind of natural restaurateur who understands how the synergy of hospitality, showmanship and cuisine best plays out. Late last year he moved his seminal Persian restaurant to this larger space — a marvel of modern design and Persian glamour. As appealing to Persian ex-pats as to food tourists, this restaurant draws a boisterous nightly crowd for kebabs, stews and salads under its soaring ceiling.
All tables start with a basket of naan flatbreads fresh from the beehive ovens in the open kitchen and an assortment of sabzi — fresh herbs, feta cheese, butter, walnuts and radishes to nibble on with the hot loaves. Traditional Persian dishes — from ground beef koubideh kebabs to roasted eggplant spread with whey and fried onions — are great. But some of this kitchen’s modern tweaks, such as saffron-basted chicken wings, point to a welcome fusion sensibility. (JK)
Seed Kitchen & Bar
It was a real boon to the area when Doug Turbush opened Seed in an east Cobb strip mall back in 2011. A Marietta resident, Turbush identified a need for independent dining options outside the Perimeter.
Turbush dutifully satisfies your Southern cravings for pimento cheese, shrimp and grits, and deviled eggs. He also pushes you to venture out of our small corner of the planet with items like the flounder with roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts flavored with a bright and spicy Thai herb vinaigrette.
Like the flounder, many of the original menu items remain popular mainstays. There’s the roasted beet and arugula salad bejeweled with tart little grapefruit sections, pistachios and a foamy liquid parmesan. Be sure someone at your table orders the sweet potato ravioli swimming in a rich sage brown butter with toasty pumpkin seeds, another Seed signature. (JT)
The Shed at Glenwood
When Chef Todd Richards took over the kitchen here last fall, few dishes from Lance Gummere’s old menu stayed behind. And the Shed is all the better for it.
Richards’ influence is clearly felt in small plates of tuna crudo with cypress soy sauce or the eye-popping spring asparagus and lemon pesto cream sauce beneath squid ink totelloni and fried squid.
While the popular slider night remained intact after Richards came on board in August — he added his own takes, like a chicken liver pate or roasted chicken thigh slider with tamarind sauce — it’s coming to an end. By the end of April, Wednesdays will feature a weekly fried chicken dinner instead. (JW)
If you dine at this Inman Park trattoria before the end of spring, you might sample a seasonal dish or two. The tagliatelle alle tre “P” comes in a rich sauce of proscuitto (cooked ham), piselli (peas) and panna (cream). A risotto with asparagus makes an appearance, as does a ravioli stuffed with artichoke and cheese. But do we come here for the seasonal dishes?
Maybe the real draw at Sotto Sotto are the menu standards that never change and never go downhill. The free-form lasagne — a tangle of sheer noodle, bolognese and béchamel — makes you curl your toes with pleasure. The always milk-fresh bufula mozzarella with roasted peppers, anchovy and caper can’t be improved upon. And if you’ve never had the seafood risotto, you’ll have a hard time looking at the other fine risottos and pastas.
Rest assured this time-tested menu bears deep exploration. (JK)
Sushi House Hayakawa
To know Sushi House Hayakawa is to love Sushi House Hayakawa. Atsushi Hayawaka — known as “Art” to his American clientele and as “Haya-san” to his Japanese fans — leads a very merry band of chefs and waiters in logo T-shirts. You may be here for raw fish. But be aware of the lengthy hot food menu and the terrific selection of Japanese spirits, from sake to shochu to whiskey.
Highlights always include the ikura (salmon roe), marinated in sweet cooking wine to soften its salinity and bedded atop warm rice. If Art has a giant clam behind the counter, grab it. He’ll sliver the whole beast into canny slices that show the range of textures and flavors. Also, don’t ignore the sushi-grade flounder that he cuts from the bone and sends to the kitchen to fry, along with the skeleton. The fish itself is juicy and delicious; the skeleton crunches like potato chips. (JK)
Table & Main
Table & Main, which opened in 2011, put a Southern stamp on the blossoming food scene in historic Roswell. From the beginning, it was wholeheartedly embraced by the community, and later increasingly so by those outside the confines of Roswell.
Chef Ted Lahey won hearts with his signature dishes like the Hogs ‘N Quilts, smoky pork shoulder tucked in chive crepes with a vinegary barbecue sauce you’ll want to take home by the gallon. The shrimp and grits spring to life with a stunning layering of flavors, from the char on the grilled shrimp to the saucy tomato chunks.
Some of Lahey’s recent menu additions reveal a new finesse in the kitchen. Take the goat ravioli — house-made pasta squares enveloping tender, butter-braised goat. A white truffle jus highlights the butter notes and little green peas perk it up in both color and flavor.
Co-owner Ryan Pernice has created an unparalleled warmth and charm in the front of the house. Like its many bourbon selections, Table & Main just needed a little time to develop its full character. (JK)
Taqueria La Oaxaquena
There are scores of wonderful Mexican taquerias around Atlanta. But look as we might, we can’t find any quite as wonderful as this Southside destination. You walk past a statue of a cheery fellow in a broad sombrero and serape, past a grand salsa and salad bar, and past a counter where locals stop by for fresh fruit cocktails and juices. Once in the dining room, you’ve got your work cut out as you navigate the menu.
There are any number of tacos, including our favorite with lean shredded goat. Tacos in hand, make a trip to the salsa bar to load up on the various concoctions of green and red, as well as pickled vegetables and nopales cactus salad.
Crisp, pressed torta sandwiches burst with the likes of fried chicken cutlets, tender steak, avocado and cheese. The Oaxacan-style tlayudas are like giant tostada pizzas, and are a must try for a large group. Staying in that Southeastern Mexican region, try the banana-leaf tamales bathed in dark, spicy mole.
Did we mention there’s free guacamole on the salsa bar? Did we mention this place rocks? (JK)
Here’s a broad generalization: Cantonese Chinese chefs must get used to the fact that folks who come to their restaurant don’t like to eat the same things they do. Sichuan chefs, on the other hand, know their tastes align. If you set foot into Tasty China (the Marietta restaurant made famous by long-since-departed chef Peter Chang), chances are you appreciate spank-your-mouth spice and you can deal with bones and offal. You want the good stuff, and everyone in the kitchen and dining room knows that.
We still prefer the janky strip-mall Tasty China to its far fancier sibling on Powers Ferry Road. And we still find new dishes that blow us away. Our newest obsession is called “vegetable salad with mustard” — a heap of finely julienned cucumber and green pepper tossed with cilantro and dried tofu in a bright, sneaky dressing that refreshes and slaps. Also great: fried spare ribs tossed with cups of red chile pods, ginger and Sichuan peppercorn. But we can never resist the dry-fried eggplant and the definitive dan dan noodles. (JK)
Tomo Japanese Restaurant
Most big cities now support a glamorous sushi-porium where the ceilings are as high as the miniskirts on the hostesses and the chef’s visual artistry is as notable as his sourcing of quality seafood. In Atlanta, that means Tomo.
Here’s our advice: Don’t let the glitz sidetrack you, because Tomo is the real deal. Chef-owner Tomohiro gets the best ingredients in the city, and if you’re willing to let him go to town on your meal, you’ve got many treats in store.
Japanese snapper sashimi may arrive on a sheet of kelp on which it has been lightly cured, picking up all its glutamic acid and flavor and filling your mouth with the sensation of pure umami. Chawan mushi — a traditional egg custard baked in a teacup — turns luxurious in Tomo’s hands with the addition of sea urchin and Périgord black truffle shavings. The basic nigiri sushi here is made with the best of Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, and each morsel is a one-bite wonder. (JK)
Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft
If you tire of the similarity of all Thai menus around this town, then give this second-story Brookwood Plaza spot a shot. Owner Deedee Niyomkul — the daughter of local Thai royalty Charlie and Nan Niyomkul (Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro, Nan Thai Fine Dining) — opened it three years ago with the idea that she wanted to make Thai street food. While there’s no mistaking that you’re in a high-gloss uptown restaurant, the cooking here comes as a surprise.
Try neau sawan — sweetly seasoned strips of warm beef that are two shades past well done and four chews away from jerky. Or mieng kum, spinach-leaf wraps topped with minced toasted coconut, ginger, rind-on lime, onion and one fierce red ring of Thai bird chile. You fold it up like a bitty taco, pop it in, and it goes pow. Ba-mee moo dang unites slivers of barbecue pork, thin egg noodles (mee), sauteed yu choy greens and gobs of scallion, cilantro and red pepper in a bowl. It looks lovely and tastes lusty, the perfect combination. (JK)
Watershed on Peachtree
Watershed permanently closed its Decatur location in 2011. When it reopened last spring in Brookwood Hills, with it came a new menu and new life. No longer cooking under the shadow of his predecessor, Louisiana-born chef Joe Truex presents fresh takes on Southern classics, infusing international influences.
Be sure to try the goujonettes of catfish. These salty fried fingers of North Carolina catfish are surprisingly light and tender, with clean flavors. Also, sample Truex’s deconstructed jambalaya. Each ingredient receives a different treatment — the smoky rich andouille gets grilled, plump oysters fried, shrimp butter-poached. It comes layered over a puddle of soulful etouffee with crab and crawfish tails.
If you’re yearning for the Watershed of old, you can still order the seasonal vegetable plate and the Wednesday night fried chicken. But you’ll likely find the true magic in the Truex originals. (JT)
(not yet rated)
Star chef Kevin Gillespie may have left the premises, but Woodfire Grill remains what it has always been: a restaurant for grown-ups. People come here to dine, not shout. They may have a good cocktail before dinner, but they’re far more interested in the thoughtful wine list. If there’s a large group in one of the back rooms, it will most likely consist of Emory professors entertaining visiting academics or family members celebrating a birthday. It won’t be a gaggle of friends out carousing. That’s why we love Woodfire, and why it deserves a place on this list.
New chef Tyler Williams comes from his previous position at Abattoir, where he goosed the menu with international flavors and gave it a needed shot of fun. He seems to be trying the same tactic here, though he may need time to figure out the right tone.
Gorgeously cooked nuggets of sweetbread hold their own against a trendy maple foam, and a dish called “grains and seeds” presents a fantastic lineup of textures.
The whimsy comes on a little strong when a plate of buffalo carpaccio topped with puckery pickled blueberries gets garnished with frozen mint swiped from a steaming pan of liquid nitrogen. Some of the food arrives on what appears to be paving tiles, and you can see the waiters concentrating as they try to place rather than drop them.
But both Williams and pastry chef Karie Brown are talents to watch. (JK)
Woo Nam Jeong Stone Bowl House
We’d love this little Korean spot on Buford Highway if only for the terrific stone-bowl bi bim bap — a one-dish meal of meat and vegetables placed over rice sizzling in a superheated vessel. You won’t find better nurungji (crunchy, golden rice crust) anywhere.
But the menu demands exploration for dishes you won’t find elsewhere.
Gu jeol pan, or “nine delicacies,” arrive in a geometric dish to show the rainbow of colors. Take one of the thin crepes from the center and load it with strips of beef, pepper, crab stick, jellyfish and shiitake. It’s a party. On the other end of the spectrum is kong biji — thick “tofu dreg” soup that you season with chile-soy; it’s the ultimate in gluten-free comfort.
If you’re adventurous, try the 12-course menu, which offers a tour of the kitchen. It comes delivered with the infectious good cheer of owner Young Hui Han, a smiling woman of a certain age whom you may address as “grandma.” (JK)
5953 Buford Highway, Doraville [map]. 678-530-0844