Atlanta's time-tested restaurants

What brings you back to the same restaurant again and again? For us, good bites and beverages matter, but the spirit and spunk of the place also play a role in turning us into repeat customers.

If you are in need of an eatery of distinction, consider these 14 spots in and around Atlanta. They range from some of the city’s most expensive food labs to joints where you can spend less than a ten-spot. They’ve all been around for a decade or longer. And if we had our druthers, we’ll get to enjoy them for years to come.

The night at Restaurant Eugene began with amuses of pimento cheese sandwiched between itty-bitty black pepper macarons and a demitasse filled with grapefruit agua fresca seasoned with olive oil and sea salt. Next came cornbread with the airiest of house-churned butter. There was that ephemeral first-run, soft-shell crab, brought in from the Georgia coast only hours before, fried to an airy crispness and napped in sauce Louis. On it went: sweetbreads with a mustard jus, truffle-crusted flounder with a sweat garlic cream, rib-eye with bordelaise. The dishes were decadent, rising to art form in presentation. The service was impeccable. And how did the car just magically appear when we stepped outside at the end of the night?

Then there was that visit to Bacchanalia in late March, the last week of service before it closed to move to its new home on Ellsworth Industrial Boulevard. The four-course prix fixe saw the appearance of Anne Quatrano classics, like crab fritter and coddled egg. There were odes to springtime — delicate fennel fronds over flounder crudo, gorgeous red-and-white striped cross-sections of Chioggia beets on local Capra Gia goat cheese atop a spring onion pancake. The meal was a celebration of the bounty from near here, capped with Bacchanalia’s parting gift: a loaf of bread that you select as you pass through sister store Star Provisions on your way out the door.

With the rise of fast-casual concepts, long-standing, high-end gastronomic destinations like Restaurant Eugene and Bacchanalia might seem dated and irrelevant. I don’t think so. Through ambitious tasting menus that champion local flavors, highly curated wine lists and remarkably informed waitstaff, these restaurants display a commitment to excellence. They are reminders that dining is an experience. Their gift to us is the special memories they help to create. It’s why we go there to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays.

But these restaurants do far more than make us feel like kings and queens for one night. As aspirational restaurants, they foster the next generation of chefs, sommeliers, servers. What will Atlanta’s dining scene look like in the years to come? No doubt it will include the minds currently at work at Bacchanalia and Restaurant Eugene.

— LIGAYA FIGUERAS

Atlanta’s restaurant scene has long benefited from the wealth of culinary diversity that runs along Buford Highway. When I think of time-tested restaurants, I can’t help but start listing the reliable restaurants that have made that roadway such a dining destination. The Sunday morning rolling dim sum carts of Canton House are always laden with tray after tray of delicious Chinese treasures. It is always a good idea to drive across town for the barbacoa de chivo tacos on handmade tortillas at El Rey del Taco, even long after midnight. The rich bowls of pho and crispy banh mi that Quoc Huong has been serving for well over two decades might be some of the best value for your dollar in Atlanta. We’d be a lesser city without the immigrant restaurateurs that transformed that stretch of highway.

Shifting to another side of town, I was surprised to notice that Atlanta’s most successful restaurateur of recent years, Ford Fry, isn’t quite as new anymore. His first restaurant, JCT Kitchen, turns 10 years old this year and, yet, the Westside spot still feels as relevant to Atlanta’s restaurant scene as any new kid on the block. That’s quite the accomplishment.

— WYATT WILLIAMS

Two nights before my wedding, my husband and I went out to dinner with a few family members. It was our moment of calm before the swarm of out-of-towners and hoopla. We went to Sotto Sotto.

Our last restaurant outing before delivering our first child was to Sotto Sotto. Given that the baby was pretty much cooked, I’m certain I sneaked several sips of wine.

And a couple of weeks ago, when my mother-in-law was visiting from Texas, we went again. There was no big event looming this time. It’s just that Sotto Sotto is our perfect place — and has been for so many years now.

The weather was lovely and the glass doors to the light-swagged patio were thrown open. Our server was the picture of cool, expert elegance. Our daughters crayoned masterpieces on the table’s white butcher paper and hogged the Strozzapreti. They fit right in, despite the white tablecloths and wine goblets bigger than their heads.

Our crisp-skinned lemon chicken with garlicky wilted spinach was perfection and so was the earthy Risotto al Funghi and the three creamy nubs of Bufala mozzarella, enrobed in jewel-colored peppers and the most aromatic of anchovies.

I’ve never had a night at Sotto Sotto that wasn’t like this — reliably and simply exquisite.

Which makes me realize that Sotto Sotto is both my family’s special occasion place and the place that makes every occasion special, be it a life passage or just a splurgy Sunday night.

— ELIZABETH LENHARD

Always among Atlanta’s top-rated fine dining restaurants, since opening some 17 years ago, Buckhead’s Aria somehow retains the intimate, relaxed aura of an undiscovered gem.

Last year, chef-owner Gerry Klaskala undertook a makeover that opened up the bar area, with more seating for casual dining and walk-in customers. But it remains a cozy club for neighborhood regulars, a beloved special occasion destination, and a discreet go-to for visiting celebrities. That’s mostly because Klaskala won’t fool with what those folks crave, from perfectly executed seasonal vegetable and seafood dishes to the signature short rib of beef. With impeccable wine and cocktail lists, and Kathryn King’s luscious desserts, it all adds up to a luxe experience that feels timeless.

— BOB TOWNSEND

La Tavola sits just steps from the Virginia-Highland intersection at the heart of the neighborhood where I landed as a squeaky-clean college grad in 1982. Back then, the space was home to a restaurant called Capo’s, makers of a rich Fettuccine Alfredo and a famous chicken breast stuffed with cream cheese and finished with a sauce of brown sugar, Dijon and pecans. (Vivan los ’80s!)

La Tavola is a different story.

The restaurant where St. Cecilia’s Craig Richards solidified his reputation, it’s a cozy room where bright, flavorful cooking shines. I visit this trattoria again and again for executive chef Brian Moll’s luscious tagliolini with mushrooms and pecorino; his house-cured charcuterie; the killer wine program.

You can get traditional veal meatballs with marinara and a terrific Bolognese, but you can also swoon over risotto with whipped marrow; simple roasted fish and some of the most intelligently nuanced seasonal vegetables in town. (How about cauliflower and romanesco with bagna cauda; roasted carrots with kumquat agrodolce or roasted fennel with preserved lemon?)

Moll cleverly marries old and new, in a way that makes me feel at home and keeps things interesting, too.

— WENDELL BROCK

Ceviche Taqueria & Margarita Bar in historic Roswell is hands-down my favorite spot for anything from date night with my husband to lunch with my 2-year-old son. It’s a tiny hole in the wall, but this intimate little Mexican joint with a twist serves amazing food and killer margaritas (I usually go with a skinny or the coconut margarita). They have a massive menu — with everything from fresh shrimp ceviche to staples like chicken tacos (I’m obsessed with its red pepper ranch sauce) — but I typically end up ordering the chicken tostadas with a side of refried beans, which is deeply satisfying without stuffing you. The atmosphere is lively and the servers are always friendly. Their front sidewalk patio on Canton Street is great for people-watching or dining with your dog. My Lab-mix is too much of a nut job for that, but I always see well-behaved pooches chilling tableside on the weekends.

If I’m celebrating a special occasion, my go-to is Rathbun’s in Inman Park. They do a great job of balancing excellent service, great food and ambience. The space feels both classic and modern, with just the right amount of lighting to give it a romantic vibe. And the food never disappoints. I still dream about a deconstructed plate of mussels I had there years ago for an anniversary dinner. So. Very. Good.

— JESSIE DOWD

Part coffee shop, part diner, part bakery, Westside’s West Egg Cafe has hosted an army of brunchers for 13 years. It’s survived the bubble and the burst while serving one of the best (all-day) breakfasts in town. My go-to is the Blue Plate: scrambled eggs, biscuit, country ham and skillet taters. Pro tip: The bar carries a small but tight whiskey selection.

Then there’s Wisteria, which helped to redefine Atlanta fine dining as an early adopter of the farm-to-table movement some 15 years ago. This Inman Park institution is Southern comfort with white tablecloth service. Get the crabcakes and mountain trout. The bar’s list of simple classics includes a solid daiquiri, but if I’m feeling scotchy, it’s always the smoky penicillin.

But I can’t leave out the Colonnade. When I moved here in 1995, it was the first restaurant recommended to me. The people-watching and old-school martinis alone are worth it. I’m a sucker for the shrimp cocktail, fried chicken and lengthy lineup of Southern vegetables. Mac-n-cheese is a vegetable, right?

— BETH MCKIBBEN

OUR SUGGESTIONS

Aria, 490 E. Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta. 404-233-7673, aria-atl.com.

Bacchanalia, 1460 Ellsworth Industrial Blvd. N.W., Atlanta. 404-365-0410, starprovisions.com/bacchanalia.

Canton House, 4825 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 770-936-9030, cantonhouserestaurant.com.

Ceviche Taqueria & Margarita Bar, 963 Canton St., Roswell. 678-461-4025, cevichetaqueria.com.

The Colonnade, 1879 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-874-5642, colonnadeatlanta.com.

El Rey del Taco, 5288 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-986-0032, elreydeltacoatl.com.

JCT Kitchen, 1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-355-2252, jctkitchen.com.

La Tavola, 992 Virginia Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-873-5430, latavolatrattoria.com.

Quoc Huong, 5150 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-936-0605.

Rathbun’s, 112 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-524-8280, rathbunsrestaurant.com.

Restaurant Eugene, 2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-355-0321, restauranteugene.com.

Sotto Sotto, 313 N. Highland Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-523-6678, urestaurants.com.

West Egg Cafe, 1100 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-872-3973, westeggcafe.com.

Wisteria, 471 N. Highland Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-525-3363, wisteria-atlanta.com.