Former boozer hits some pubs

Finds bar food not so good without beer to help get it down

I used to drink. A lot. I'm talking Billie Holiday-style boozing, sitting in my chair, filled with despair. Oh, there was no one so sad as me in my solitude. Well, maybe "solitude" isn't exactly the right word. I went to bars a lot. I'm so old I used to hang out at the Stein Club on Peachtree — a very seedy, boho sort of place — but I didn't talk much to anyone. I just liked to drink and look bad-assed.

I haven't had a drink in 20 years — scary, isn't it? — but I still find myself attracted to pubs. I remember my father taking me to the pub above Sonneson's Grocery in Bryn Athyn, Pa., when I was a child. I'd play darts and dunk pretzels in orange soda. Mr. Sonneson would come upstairs and frighten me by placing his false tooth on the end of his tongue. There's something about a pub's wood, the smell of the beer, the woozy conversation that makes me dopey with nostalgia.

Of course, since I don't drink, the nostalgia dies rapidly when I actually go to a pub, usually about the time I visit the bathroom. Nevertheless, I was anxious to visit the new James Joyce Pub (22 N. Avondale Road, 404-296-5097). My birthday, June 16, is Bloom's Day, the Irish holiday commemorating the day on which Joyce's Ulysses takes place. So, seeing as the pub is a monument to Joyce and me, I thought I should visit.

The place is charming. The owners, Michael and Denise Gerard, have created a pub far larger and more smokeless than the kind you'd actually visit in Dublin but it is cozy and decorated with all kinds of Joyce memorabilia. There are bookshelves with real books and, of course, dark wood everywhere. You'll find over 15 beers on tap and 20 bottled brews available. Wayne was excited that he got to take his glass home. Of course, Wayne won't leave a butter pat on a table.

The menu is a mix of American dishes (often with names of characters from Joyce stories) along with some Irish standards. I'm sure I will get an angry letter from the Irish Potato League, but Ireland is not exactly a culinary jewel in my experience. Of course, the point of pub fare is mainly to provide inexpensive and fast homestyle cooking to accompany the more social function of knocking back beers.

Even still, I'm sorry to say that the food at James Joyce was immensely disappointing. We stuck mainly with Irish dishes. A ploughman's platter ($8.50) is a starter big enough for two but the three cheeses that make the bulk of the dish are grim. The two cheddars were tolerable buried under bread, but the blue cheese was amazingly repulsive — like eating compressed cream cheese with a few blue streaks. Pickled onions and chutney were also on the dish, with a bit of salad.

Another starter is "The Sisters" — a hard-boiled egg rolled in sausage meat, deep fried, halved and served over greens with hot mustard ($6.95). It's dece

nt junk food but the sausage had virtually no flavor.

I knew I was taking a risk when I ordered the Irish mixed grill ($9.95) as my entree, since I have a relatively low tolerance for fried food. It's basically a big breakfast. My "over-easy" eggs featured rock-hard yolks. But they were heavenly compared to the plate's mysterious slab whose particle-board texture caused us to consult the menu to see that we were eating fried Irish brown soda bread. Canned-tasting baked beans and bland bangers were also on the plate, along with a heap of fries and some good fried bacon. The sliced black-and-white pudding was the best thing on the plate, though quite mild. Black pudding is sausage made with pig's blood, whereas the white variety substitutes liver for the blood.

Wayne departed from the Irish dishes and ordered an entree of tilapia ($12.95). It was far better than anything else we sampled, decently but mysteriously sauced. He also sampled a watery corn soup that was basically inedible. It came with his entree but you'd be happier with a glass of water.

I was very disappointed. I can't imagine Leopold Bloom dining here. There's not even any lamb on the menu; the stew is made with beef. Other dishes include fish and chips, shepherd's pie, sandwiches (including burgers), pork chops, steak and a daily pasta dish.

br>?More pubs
The next day I decided that I should try another pub for lunch. This time I headed to Atkins Park Restaurant (794 N. Highland Ave., 404-876-7249). This popular spot has been around since 1922 and is the oldest continuously licensed tavern in Atlanta.

The space here is divided into a bar and a dining room and, at least evenings, Atkins Park attempts a serious menu. Lunch, however, was no improvement over my meal the night before at James Joyce. A friend and I tried two starters — a bowl of gumbo ($3.95) and some soft pretzels dipped in ale and sprinkled with salt ($3.95). Forget the pretzels. Too soft, too bready and insufficiently salted, they can't even muster a response to the hot mustard with which they are served. The gumbo is watery but has decent flavor.

I chose one of the lunch entrees, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, creamed corn and broccoli ($7.95). Honestly, I've had better food at Piccadilly Cafeteria. The pate-like meatloaf was under an unpleasant barbecue glaze and the potatoes were so dry I couldn't comfortably swallow them.

My friend ordered pasta primavera made with roasted-garlic fettucine topped with fried shrimp ($8.25). The tomato sauce was inadequate, but profuse compared to the three shrimp the dish featured. We could hardly wait to leave.

The next night, Wayne and I headed to Manuel's Tavern (602 N. Highland Ave., 404525-3447). This spot, a longtime favorite with media types, has been around since 1956. My first meeting with Debbie Eason, the founder of CL, was in a dark corner of Manuel's with our backs turned to the wall. I was at the time editing a competing paper and she was interviewing me to edit CL.

The food here has likewise been up and down over the years. It got very good briefly a few years ago when Alix Kenagy was hired to overhaul the menu. It continues to offer some good dishes and far better food than either of the other pubs I visited. But it's not primo.

My herb-roasted lamb sandwich on rosemary focaccia ($7.95), for example, would have been two times better had the lamb slices not been dessicated despite a dip in an oily au jus. But a simple bowl of chili ($4.25) was just the way I like it — with chunks of meat and a mild dose of those bottled seasonings.

Wayne's dish — a blackened tuna steak — was an $8.50 surprise. Its side of "wild rice" was silly and tasteless but the fish was killer.

One of the cheapest and most popular brunch venues in Midtown is Java Jive (790 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-876-6161). There's usually a wait for one of the linoleum dinette tables at the retro-decorated cafe but you'll feel rewarded.

The staff, certainly, is one of the most entertaining and efficient I've encountered in a long time. (I've never had my name sung when being called to a table.) I sampled both gingerbread and pecan waffles here, along with cheese grits and bacon. There are plenty of egg dishes, too, including omelets with everything from Greek- to Santa Fe-style ingredients.

Everything is under $8, tastes very good and is accompanied by amazingly good, privately roasted coffee whose source the restaurant won't reveal.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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