The Varsity

Some were bad, some were great…here’s to the best of 2008!

If I’ve learned nothing else during my five years in Atlanta, I’ve learned that the restaurant scene is extremely transient. The greatest new hole-in-the-wall on Buford Highway could very well close a few months after opening, and a hot, new spot like Pie Bar (be still my beating heart) can quickly vanish. With all the disappearing acts, it’s a tough restaurant scene to keep up with, but lucky for me I have a few tried and trues that are hopefully safe for the long haul. These are the places that kept me coming back in 2008. May they live to see another decade!

1. California Pizza Kitchen – Yes, I know it’s a chain, but in a city where a good pizza can be very hard to come by, I appreciate that I can always find one here. It may not be the kind of pizza that I still miss daily from my years in Boston, but it’s consistently tasty, non-greasy and creative. Add to that a downright exciting array of salads, soups and appetizers with roots from Thailand to Mexico and you have a true winner in my book.

2. The Varsity I can almost hear the groans on this one, but let’s face it, The Varsity is a place people either love or hate, and I’ve been loving it ever since I had my first bites of their thin but flavorful cheeseburgers and to-die-for onion rings. For true meat-eaters who love a nice, thick, juicy burger, this is not the place for you. But for dainty burger eaters like me who love their patties thin and cheesy, The Varsity is heaven. In addition to thick, bloody chunks of meat, I also usually have an aversion to onion rings. But there’s something about the light, crispy, not-too-oniony rings at The Varsity that makes me pray for out-of-town visitors to show up and give me a valid excuse to gorge on them.

3. The Vortex – yet another place I always bring an out-of-town guest. Why? It’s not for the funky décor or punk rocker vibe, I swear. For me, it’s all about good food cheap, and lots of it. Personally I get the turkey burger with tater tots every time I go to The Vortex, but friends of mine who have tried other selections here including the Turkey Reuben, Cuban Sandwich, Turkey Wrap and Fried Zucchini have all raved about the place. And they have the best sweet tea in town, hands down.

4. Mellow Mushroom – Okay, I know I said it’s hard to find good pizza in this town, and I stand by that assessment, but sometimes you just want a nice, big, solid pie to pick up on the way home from work, and when I get that urge, I head to the ‘Shroom. Why? Because the pizzas are decently tasty, come with a wide variety of unique toppings and are freakin’ huge. When I really want to let my hair down, I enjoy splitting a pie and salad with a friend or loved one on the outside patio at the ‘Shroom in Brookhaven. The atmosphere is communal and laid back (especially when there’s a game on the outside TV), the food is satisfying and won’t break the bank, and if I decide to swap out my Diet Coke for a glass of wine, it can make for a pretty blissful afternoon.

5. Moe’s – Speaking of picking up something quick to bring home, Moe’s is always a no-brainer for me when I’m tired, hungry and just want the day to end on a pleasant note. Grotesquely stuffed with meat, rice, beans, cheese and salsa, Moe’s burritos are a full meal for not much more than a five spot (sometimes complete with leftovers). Besides being cheap, comforting and more than filling, they are damn tasty. When I first moved to Atlanta, I didn’t understand the obsession with Moe’s that most people around me were suffering from, but five years later I am officially an addict.

6. Lotta Frutta – Having never tried a traditional Spanish fruit cup, I was excited about this cute, little place as soon as I heard about it. Since then, I have spent many a lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoon (often by myself) nibbling on their simple, yet delicious grilled sandwiches (my fave is turkey, swiss and banana peppers) chased down by a cup of fresh fruit drenched in lime juice and chili powder. Enjoying this meal in the sun at one of their two outside tables and then meandering through the scenic Old Fourth Ward is pure weekend relaxation. If you still have room, you can even take one of their exotic ice pops in flavors like avocado and pineapple to go.

7. Harry & Sons – I’ve yet to try many of the ultra-hyped restaurants in Virginia-Highlands, but I’ve slammed many a crunchy roll at Harry & Sons. A little hip, a lot delicious, this is a perfect place to start a night out on the town with a group of friends. The vibrant atmosphere, stiff cocktails and extensive sushi menu quickly get everyone talking. Whether it’s a round of gossip or a heated debate over ordering a second spicy tuna or a good, old California roll, it’s hard not to get in on the action and have a good time at Harry & Sons.

8. Thai Star Café – This modest, relatively unknown spot in Sandy Springs is a true gem. Previously called Rice Thai Café, I thank the lord that the name change had no effect on the traditional-yet-modern décor or consistently palate-pleasing cuisine. I’ve always been a sucker for noodles drowned in sauce, but the Pad See Ew at Thai Star Café takes the cake. The thick noodles stir fried with a slightly sweet brown sauce, chicken, bits of scrambled egg and Chinese broccoli is the best Thai dish I’ve ever had, especially when I add a few healthy squirts of chili sauce, which the wait staff will gladly bring to the table if requested. Until recently I’d only been here for lunch, which can be a bit of a hustle and bustle since you order at the counter then find your own seat. However, I recently went there for dinner and received quick and friendly table service, which only added to the euphoria brought on by the noodles.

9. Fritti – Oh god, I’m back to pizza again. Admittedly gourmet and not for every day, the pizza here is ultra top-notch quality and just melts in your mouth. I also admit that I’ve only been here once, but have decided to add it to this list because I plan to return over and over again as often as my budget allows. Perhaps best known for its wide array of fried appetizers, I am guessing I did not choose the right one on my visit. The risotto and sausage croquettes did not pack much flavor at all, and just took up space that I could have reserved for another slice of that heavenly pizza. The Caesar salad was a tasty little treat, though, and I had a damn fine glass of wine here that tasted more like sparkling grape juice (just my style).

10. Eclipse di Luna – Since the tragic closing of Pie Bar, my favorite restaurant in this town has been Eclipse di Luna. Despite the crowds, it never takes very long to get a table at this funky place, and the live Latin band makes for a great soundtrack. The tapas here are approachable and affordable – my favorites being the grilled asparagus with lemon and manchego cheese, simple ciabatta bread dunked in really good Spanish olive oil and the famous spiced potatoes that you will undoubtedly yearn for again after your first visit. Of course, you can’t have tempting tapas and a groovy live band without great cocktails, so the place has those too. Just try not to chair dance to Oye Como Va while you chomp on these morsels – I dare you!

11. Swallow at the Hollow – After compiling my Top 10 I cringed that I had forgotten another true Atlanta treasure. I don’t normally rave over barbecue like some do, but gosh this place is amazing. Every bite of their barbecued meats, mac & cheese, beans and biscuits with honey makes me feel like all is right in the world. It’s a bit out of the way (in Roswell), but it’s worth the trek if you’re with the right crowd. The down home, picnic table atmosphere is cool too.

Currently well into 2009, my New Year’s resolution (in addition to losing 10 lbs. of course) is to make better use of Buford Highway. Now living just a few meager miles from that culinary wonderland, I no longer have any excuses. I recently dragged my picky little sister to Chef Liu, and we were both blown away by the wide variety of sinfully delicious things they can do with noodles and other forms of dough. I’ll definitely be checking that bare-bones spot out again, as well as many others on “the strip.” I only hope I can eat my way through all of these legendary oases before they shut down!

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