What makes a restaurant great?
Criteria differ from person to person, but for me, a great restaurant earns high marks in four important categories: food, friendliness, consistency, and affordability.
After reviewing our dining patterns over the past year, I've come up with a short list of restaurants that, again and again, earn high marks in all four categories. These are our can't-miss, must-go, good times local joints. If they aren't on your personal list, they ought to be.
The King and I. You can pay a lot more for Thai food in this town, but at this long-tenured restaurant in Ainsley Mall, the friendly staff serves up no-frills Thai home cooking that is consistently delicious and remarkably affordable. It's on our "at least once a week" list.
Roxx. Originally uneven and iffy, this affable Cheshire Bridge eatery has grown into a dependable destination for right-priced comfort food. The management is affectionate -- it's not unusual to see the staff bear-hugging the regulars -- and the specials, including the honey barbecue chicken, offer good food at a great value.
La Fonda (West Midtown Location). The margaritas are ice-cold, the wrought-iron pans of seafood paella are hot, and the Mexican/Spanish/Cuban fare at La Fonda is a cut above the dishes cranked out at other chips-and-salsa joints inside the Perimeter. While the location on Ponce de Leon is not a favorite due to parking woes and an increasingly sketchy neighborhood scene, we cross the bridge to West Midtown at least once a week.
The Colonnade. The low-priced early bird specials and huge platters of fried chicken, friend shrimp, turnip greens, fried okra, mac and cheese, and more have us rushing to this Atlanta mainstay as often as our caloric intake limits will allow. Popular with the "gays and grays" crowd, this place is always a hit with friends from out of town.
Radial. Not so great on weekdays, this joint is jumpin' on weekends, when the specials (like Grandma Radial's praline French toast) combine fresh and organic ingredients to create breakfasts that can't be beat. Add a side of applewood smoked bacon and a cup of Atlanta's best coffee, and rediscover what breakfast is supposed to be.
Grand China. Insane lunch specials and intensely delicious dinner entrees offset the 1980's vibe of this reliable (and often overlooked) Buckhead gem. You can't go wrong with the lemon chicken or any Chinese dish on Grand China's menu -- though I don't recommend their Thai offerings at all.
Fuze Burger. Visitors love this sleek little burger joint next door to MF Sushi on Ponce ... and with good reason. Unique recipes, tasty sides, and the staff's casual, laid-back attitude make this beer-and-burger diner one of those places you look forward to going back to.
Einstein's. After completely losing its way from 2008-2009, this neighborhood spot (favored, in good weather, for its great patio) is once again plating delicious burgers, good pasta, and a variety of tasty small plates. Since we live next door, I'm glad they've made a comeback!
Gilbert's. This cozy Middle Eastern-influenced diner has it all -- atmosphere, chatty locals, a staff that remembers your name, a convenient location, and savory lamburgers, gyros, salads, and filets. Go on Monday when the entrees are half-price!
Pizza. After a lot of experimentation, I still don't have a hands-down favorite pizza place in the ATL ... but I do recommend Village Pizza (especially for vegetarian or specialty pies), Rocky Mountain Pizza Company (when you're lonesome for your college days), or Little Azzio (when you're in a hurry during the lunch hour). Honorable mention goes to Quattro (good if you're in Peidmont Park) and FlipFlops (serving surprisingly good, if very basic, pies on Midtown's Crescent Avenue).
To the owners and staff of these great local restaurants -- thanks for many great meals and good memories in 2010!