New Middle Eastern, pizza eateries tempt tastebuds

We’ve got two new mid-priced restaurants in Midtown—the highly anticipated Varuni Napoli and the undeservedly neglected Babylon Café. We also need to talk about potties a bit this week.

Babylon Café (2257 Lenox Road NE, 404-329-1007, is the latest of countless restaurant attempts at the corner of Lenox and Cheshire Bridge roads. If you’re a fan of Middle Eastern food, you definitely want to visit this newbie. It is the only Iraqi restaurant in the city.

It’s easy to lump all cuisines in the Middle East together. Indeed, much of the menu at Babylon looks like it contains Persian (Iranian), Lebanese, Greek, and even Indian dishes. But all of these cuisines date back to Sumerian times in the third century B.C. The cooking, as it migrated to different regions, developed unique characteristics, mainly in the way spices are used.

I’ve sampled very little of the menu but can’t wait to return. My favorite so far is the Ghormeh Sabzi, a stew of spinach, parsley, chickpeas and lamb. Lamb is featured in just about all Middle Eastern cuisines, but the Iraqi taste is unique. It doesn’t burn the palate at all, but complex layers of herbs make it uniquely spicy. It’s a large portion and it seemed absurd that I might eat the whole thing myself.

A warning: We tend to think that all ethnic foods should be dirt-cheap. Babylon’s entrees range from $16 to $24. Some of them come with a cup of lentil soup, a departure from other regional varieties. It’s pureed but not thick, and in this instance, slowly produces a mild burn in the back of the throat. The classic southern Iraqi dish here is Samak Masquf, a whole grilled fish, uniquely spiced. I haven’t tried it yet, but a friend has raved about it.

We all know that a pizza war has been raging in Atlanta the last few years. Antico Pizza is usually regarded as the city’s best. It deserves the ranking, but the place is often chaotic. Despite long community tables, it can get so crowded that customers eat off stacks of cardboard boxes of San Marzano tomatoes.

Now, a former employee of Antico has opened Varuni Napoli (11540 Monroe Drive, 404-709-2690, Owner Luca Varuni told Atlanta magazine that his pizza ingredients exceed Antico’s in their authenticity. Maybe, but “authenticity” is one of those words that shouldn’t be equated with necessarily better taste. As my friend Salvatore in Italy tells me, there is too much else at play—smell, eye-appeal, salt, humidity, oven and talent—to assume much on the basis of ingredients alone.

Like Antico’s, the Naples-style pizza here is thin-crusted, kind of gooey in the center and crisper as you eat your way to the charred outer crust. My test of any pizzeria is the Margherita, a simple pie made with tomato sauce, basil and buffalo mozzarella. One of only two vegetarian pizzas on the menu, mine was a bit of a disappointment. I much preferred a friend’s pie, the Pako, that includes mozzarella, roasted smoked peppers, basil and pecorino cheese.

Architect Giancarlo Pirrone’s huge, open interior is mind-blowingly beautiful. Glass cases of food and a bar for eating wrap the kitchen. Yes, seating is mostly community tables, including a dazzling red one in a separate room, but there are plenty of two- and four-tops. There’s a pleasant patio in the rear.

My favorite surprise at the restaurant was the restrooms. One is labeled male, another female … and a third “undecided.” As most members of the feminist and LGBT communities know, gendered restrooms—especially single-user ones—are controversial.

Obviously, it all gets even more complicated in restrooms that accommodate more than one person. There, gender-nonconformsts are especially at risk of encountering shit-slinging cisgender folks.

In recent years, many restaurants have become more enlightened than Starbucks. There’s even a website,, that lists gender-nonconforming restrooms around the country.

Cliff Bostock, PhD, besides being a longtime Atlanta dining critic, is a psychotherapist-turned-life coach, specializing in creativity, midlife transition and gay issues.
He offers individual sessions and group workshops.