It's sad to say, but not too many years ago, Coca-Cola was Atlanta's biggest contribution to gastronomy. Not today. In the last decade or so, the dining scene has exploded, and Atlanta has emerged as a sophisticated restaurant town, where establishments have veered away from uninventive American fare and unauthentic down-home Southern cooking (happily, there are still lots of places to feast on authentic down-home Southern cooking).
Innovative chefs, who once left Atlanta for the great food capitals, have brought their expertise and ideas to the New South. As a result, there's now a little bit of everything available -- from all around the world. You can munch on pierogi in East Atlanta, nibble fragrant Thai basil rolls in Virginia-Highland, dig into osso buco in Buckhead, and so on. There's French cuisine as authentic as any you'll find on the Left Bank, and Italian pasta that tastes like it came from Naples.
The Colonnade, Thelma's Kitchen, and Mary Mac's Tearoom, three bastions of tradition, still turn out some of the best Southern cooking you'll ever put in your mouth, but the current trend in many kitchens is to take heirloom recipes and give them a contemporary twist. So pork chops might be stuffed with eggplant and andouille sausage, collard greens sautéed and seasoned with balsamic vinegar, and comfy, familiar grits spiked with Stilton.
The audience for all these culinary concoctions is huge. Atlantans love to eat out, spending half their annual food budget on dining away from home. The debut of a new restaurant is more eagerly awaited than the opening of a new play, and Atlantans avidly peruse the local newspapers to find out about the hottest names in the food game.
Best Spot for a Romantic Dinner: There's no better spot than the tree-shaded terrace at Horseradish Grill, 4320 Powers Ferry Rd. (tel. 404/255-7277).
Best Spot for a Business Lunch: Power brokers head for steaks at Bone's, 3130 Piedmont Rd. NE (tel. 404/237-2663), in Buckhead, where the food is serious and the service is impeccable and unobtrusive.
Best Spot for a Celebration: Why not pick one of the most sought-after tables in town? That would be at Bacchanalia, 1198 Howell Mill Rd. (tel. 404/365-0410).
Best Newcomer: LUXE, 89 Park Place (tel. 404/389-0800), inhabits the space vacated by popular Mumbo Jumbo, and offers modern American cuisine with a Mediterranean influence. The interior features a wall-length banquette covered in leather and a granite bar.
Best View: Canoe, 4199 Paces Ferry Rd., in Vinings (tel. 770/432-2663), is perched on the north side of the Chattahoochee River. Ask for a table on the large, canopied patio, surrounded by landscaped gardens, and watch the river go by.
Best Wine List: The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Rd. NE (tel. 404/237-2700), is Atlanta's premier dining venue, and its cuisine is complemented by a vast wine cellar.
Best Italian Cuisine: It's noisy as the devil, but Sotto Sotto, 313 N. Highland Ave. (tel. 404/523-6678), gets my vote for its inspired Northern Italian cuisine.
Best Italian on a Budget: Pasta da Pulcinella, 1123 Peachtree Walk (tel. 404/876-1114), serves gourmet pasta for next to nothing.
Best Seafood: The Atlanta Fish Market, 265 Pharr Rd. (tel. 404/262-3165), is the ticket, with an enormous selection of fresh seafood dishes that are done to perfection.
Best New Southern Cuisine: The competition is stiff, but the Horseradish Grill wins by a hair.
Best Traditional Southern Cuisine: It's a tie between Colonnade, 1879 Cheshire Bridge Rd. NE (tel. 404/874-5642), keeper of the best heirloom recipes; and Thelma's Kitchen, 768 Marietta St. NW (tel. 404/688-5855), the city's premier soul-food spot.
Best Southwestern Cuisine: Nava, 3060 Peachtree Rd. (tel. 404/240-1984), is a stunning restaurant with food to match.
Best Steakhouse: There's quite a turf war going on, but Bone's, that powerhouse for powerbrokers, gets my vote.
Best Desserts: Bacchanalia wins this category with its warm Valrhona chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream -- a flourless confection with a sinful, gooey center. They tried to take it off the menu once, but the public outcry was too great.
Best Fried Chicken: There are lots of New Southern restaurants trying to invent newfangled ways to cook fried chicken. Well, they should just cut it out. And you should head to the Colonnade or Thelma's Kitchen for some of the best fried chicken you've ever tasted. These two establishments have been turning it out for years, and they know what they're doing.
Best Brunch: The winner of this category can be no other than Murphy's, 997 Virginia Ave. (tel. 404/872-0904), where the serving of American and Continental cuisine has transitioned right along with this funky neighborhood.
Best Breakfast: The fun and funky Flying Biscuit Cafe, 1655 McLendon Ave. (tel. 404/687-8888), fulfills all the usual breakfast expectations, and also offers a great selection of offbeat specialties.
Best Late-Night Dining: Head to the 24/7 R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, 1812 Peachtree St. NW (tel. 404/872-2942), where you can eat some of the healthiest fare in town at any hour of the day.
Best Decor: Bluepointe, 3455 Peachtree Rd. (tel. 404/237-9070), is an energy-filled multilevel restaurant in a soaring contemporary space. Its dramatic decor feels very of-the-moment and classy.
Best People-Watching: Famous beefeaters flock to Bone's, which has welcomed the likes of Bob Hope, George Bush, and the Atlanta Braves.
Best Afternoon Tea: Fresh-baked scones with Devonshire cream, finger sandwiches, pastries, and tea are served every afternoon in the posh lobby lounge of the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Rd. NE (tel. 800/241-3333).
Best Pre- and Post-theater Dining: If you're attending a show at the Woodruff Arts Center -- Atlanta's major performance facility -- dine at Veni Vidi Vici, 41 Fourteenth St. (tel. 404/875-8424), which opens early enough to have a relaxing meal. For post-theater noshing, try South City Kitchen, 1144 Crescent Ave. (tel. 404/873-7358).
For more on what to see and do in Atlanta, visit our complete guide online at www.frommers.com/destinations/atlanta.
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