Food news served to order

Whenever my family comes to see me from North Carolina, a big part of our visit involves planning where to eat out. It’s not that there are not good restaurants where they live near Asheville. It’s just that the Atlanta area offers so much more.

We pore over menus and debate choices. Should we go to one of the immigrant-owned restaurants on Buford Highway, Atlanta’s international boulevard? Should we visit a Buckhead classic that offers impeccable service and food in a familiar environment? Should we try one of the new, chef-owned neighborhood restaurants that tend to so quickly develop a passionate following of regulars?

Dining out is entertainment in the Atlanta area, the way live music is the center of the scene in Austin. Foodies and aspiring foodies will never run out of choices.

So it’s probably no surprise that food and dining are one of the most popular topics we cover in our daily and Sunday living sections.

The AJC has a long tradition of covering the dining scene. Over the years we’ve had many popular restaurant critics assess the trends and identify the hot spots. Chief critic John Kessler currently leads our coverage and we often hear from readers who enjoy his irreverent writing and eclectic tastes.

Kessler has nearly 15 years on the job in Atlanta, so his expertise is enormous. But all that expertise still does not make it easy for him to narrow a list of Atlanta’s dining destinations, as he recently did for our special “Atlanta 50” report of noteworthy restaurants.

Kessler says in years past we had occasionally designated 100 restaurants, but the smaller scope feels more appropriate.

“Fifty is a good number for this city,” Kessler told me in an email interview. “About 30 to 35 restaurants are sure bets — head and shoulders above the rest. But the rest allows me to fill in the blanks with some oddball favorites (like a little Dominican place in Norcross I’m wild about).”

Kessler and his editor, Tracy Brown, say it’s important to choose a favorite or two among big classes of restaurants, such as similar steakhouses or similar pizza places, and to represent the full geographic richness of the metro area and not focus exclusively on so-called ITP restaurants.

Brown said in this project it was also important for the reviews to be up to date, and that involved a lot of sampling by Kessler and return visits to some restaurants he had not recently reviewed.

“We wanted to be sure that if John talked about a dish, that not only was it still available, but that the execution was still on point,” Brown said in an email. “That proved to be a great idea, because there were a couple of places on the initial list that fell off after new visits.”

The print and online dining guides have been staples for years. What was different this year was the decision to offer the report as an e-book for reading devices like the iPad and Kindle, and to offer a printed-on-demand book as well.

Both versions are available for order at

Chris Kraft, who leads the digital group in the newsroom, said the Atlanta 50 is an experiment, to see how popular the e-book would be and what it would take to produce it.

“Our goal is to serve our readers in as many ways as possible. For decades, newspapers had only one way to reach our readers. Now we have many, including this growing tablet space,” Kraft said. “The popularity of the Kindle, iPad and the like — especially for reading — has really given us a great opportunity to deliver content in a new and engaging way.”

Brown says the e-book includes expanded reviews with more details and gives readers suggestions of other good places to try beyond the original 50.

We hope to learn enough from the venture to allow us to quickly and easily produce other e-books and apps.

“We’ll continue to explore books and other products, following our customers’ lead and their preferences,” Kraft said. “I see us mining our archives for some books, as well as pulling from the content we produce on a daily basis.”

It’s a brave new world and Atlanta’s taste for reading is changing to include more electronic formats. What isn’t likely to change is Atlanta’s taste for great restaurants and great dining coverage.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wants to explain openly to readers what we do and why. Public editor Shawn McIntosh writes a column every other week to provide insight into newsroom operations, the newspaper’s role in the community and the industry. Write McIntosh at or join the conversation on editor Kevin Riley’s Facebook page,