You may have read last week that Atlanta has won the prize for having America’s widest gap between the haves and have-nots. The very rich protest, as always, that their abundance trickles down to keep the poor from, I guess, starving to death under the bridges where they’re lucky to find shelter. “Let them eat cake,” in other words.
So, perhaps an IRS refund has allowed you to join the ranks of the rich for a few days. You may even want to let your cake trickle down and take a friend who owed taxes to a pricey restaurant. Or maybe you have no cake-trickling friends and would be just as happy to gnaw on a corn dog in a cheap restaurant.
Following are a few alternating choices for both tricklers and trickleeze. Let’s get something clear, though. High-price does not necessarily mean you are going to get a meal superior to a cheap one. Ambiance, service, attention to ingredient sources, and, of course, creative skill of the chef all contribute to good dining out. But you can get a plate of great-tasting comfort for a comparatively small price at many Atlanta restaurants, especially ethnic ones.
Restaurant Eugene: Yes, you will spend a lot of money here and you will likely eat sublimely. Chef/owner Linton Hopkins, who grew up in Buckhead, daily invents and reinvents a fascinating menu wholly dependent on what’s fresh from the farm. Try the tasting menu which reads like free verse with random capital letters. For example: “smoked acorn Squash, Fennel, kumquat” and “roasted Cauliflower country captain, Parsley, Granola, bitter orange.” Eugene has a national rep, but it’s also a mainstay for the Buckhead crowd. 2277 Peachtree Road, 404-355-0131, www.restauranteugene.com.
Desta Ethiopian Kitchen: It seems crazy to compare the inexpensive food of a poor nation like Ethiopia to that of Restaurant Eugene. But the kitchen here brings a similar obsession and creative twists to a cuisine that is mainly eaten by hand, scooped up in gluten-free injera bread. (Silverware is available for the fussy.) Most people’s favorite seems to be the fish tibs, chunks of tilapia sautéed in mysterious spices. I love the lamb, but the big don’t miss here is the savory vegetable dishes. Although it attracts Atlanta’s huge community of Ethiopians, the restaurant also caters to the spice-shy Atlanta palate. There are sauces on the table to bring greater depth for the more adventurous. 3086 Briarcliff Road, 404-929-0011, www.destaethiopiankitchen.com.
Better Half: Marietta native Zach Meloy and his wife Cristina opened this restaurant recently as the follow-up to their two-year-old pop-up supper club, PushStart Kitchen. Before that, the two operated a restaurant in Costa Rica. The cost here borders on high-priced and is wildly creative. Standouts during my one visit were a short rib flavored with coffee and burnt onions, and “silk handkerchief pasta” filled with wild mushrooms, topped with tomato marmalade. But the brief menu literally changes daily, so plan to experiment. The IRS wants you to go crazy with your refund and grow the economy. 349 14th St., 404-695-4547, www.betterhalf.com.
Pallookaville Fine Foods: Dirt cheap and full of carnival kitsch, this is TV chef Jim Stacy’s brick-and-mortar offspring of his Pallookaville Corndog Wagon. Just go. My faves: the Fryenstein corn dog with a link of frankfurter, kielbasa, and Italian sausage; and a perfect Reuben made with house-cured pastrami. There are truly insane milkshakes like one featuring coffee ice cream, molasses, toasted coconut, candied ginger, and Sriracha sauce. Add booze to others. Make crazy sodas. Huge fun to bury your taxed misery. 17N Avondale Plaza, 404-500-1785, www.pallookaville.com.
Cliff Bostock, PhD, conducts workshops in various subjects, including gay aging and the psychology of taste. 404-518-4415. www.cliffbostock.com.