Take the High road

Dining out in and around Highlands, N.C., plus lunch at Eclipse di Luna

All right. Now that I've seen a man wearing a toupee with a ponytail, I've seen it all.

Where else could I have glimpsed this terrifying sight of a baby boomer refusing to go hairless into that dark night but Highlands, N.C.? About two hours north of Atlanta, this once sleepy town at an elevation so high it's cool even in summer turned into a refuge for the moneyed a decade or so ago. A pony-tailed toupee is a good expression of the ostentation that tends to prevail there.

Nonetheless, the natural scenery around Highlands is beautiful since the town occupies one of America's only two rain forests. The route there, through Rabun County in northeast Georgia, is a favorite for fall color watchers. Unfortunately the route is also mainly a catastrophe for anyone who wants to eat well, especially in Highands. So eat on your way.

I am sad to inform you that Green Shutters, my longtime favorite in Clayton in Rabun County, has closed. Owner Steve Mazarky died Aug. 28. A soft-spoken, immensely hospitable man, Steve created an idyllic restaurant with a view of a pasture where I once watched baby foxes cavorting for hours. His menu of Southern comfort food, including fried quail, was the best of its sort in our state. Whether the restaurant will reopen isn't known yet.

If you want a big banquet of Southern favorites, you'll now have to go to The Dillard House (706-746-5348) in Dillard, a few miles north of Clayton on Highway 441. I've found the food irregular over the years but, for the money, it's acceptable. If you want to eat cheap and have very good barbecue, try Oinkers (706-782-7010), a few miles south of Clayton on Highway 441. And for the only designer sandwiches and really good coffee in all of northeast Georgia, visit Grapes and Seeds (42 E. Savannah St., 706-212-0020) in Clayton.

More often in recent years, we have dined at Julia's (706-782-2052), about five miles south of Clayton on Highway 441. The restaurant recently moved from a simple building to something that resembles a 1970s interpretation of a chalet perched on a hill with buildings around it. I'm afraid I don't like the kitschy mountain look nearly as much as the old place. It didn't help that a singer droned continually throughout our meal, every tune sounding like "Margaritaville." Do you know the way to Margaritaville? I've been away so long. Hello, Margaritaville, my old friend. There's a kind of hush all over Margaritaville.

Julia's food remains competent, certainly the best in Rabun County, but the prices aren't for hillbillies. Specials are chalked on the sidewalk out front, where a puppy pissed near my feet while I was reading them. Both our starters were good. Wayne had a straightforwardly fried softshell crab and I had a weird concoction called crawfish cheesecake served with those buttery little Saltine-like crackers to spread it on. "I swear it's good!" the waitress said. She was right.

My rib-eye steak, cooked medium rare and served with garlicky mashed potatoes and some sauteed zucchini, hit the spot. I didn't at all care for Wayne's halibut stuffed with crab in a creamy basil sauce. But I'd rather eat barely cooked pudding than halibut. They have the same texture in the hands of most cooks.

I haven't spent a lot of time in Highlands the last few years, though Wayne has. His cabin, Unabomber Acres, is five miles from there in the decidedly un-tony Scaly Mountain community. He has become enamored of Gaslight Cafe (828-526-4188) which is "behind Wright Square in historic Helen's Barn" just as you enter Highlands.

It's always a shock when someone you've dined with for years takes you to a restaurant that makes you want to commit suicide. This is where I saw the clip-on male ponytail. It's also where I ate high-priced Italian food that outraged me. OK, the starter — bruschetta with sun-dried tomatoes — wasn't bad. But Wayne's caprese salad featured pink mealy tomatoes layered with fresh mozzarella whose texture on reflection more resembled halibut than barely cooked pudding does. These starters approached $10.

An entree of veal Provencal should have been nailed to the door to scare away beggars. Honestly. It was a tiny piece of veal whose breading — light, according to the menu — was so heavy my plate looked like a bowl of stuffing pulled out of a turkey. I'm not kidding! Wayne ordered the dish that he buys for takeout all the time: chicken Alfredo. It wasn't bad, even served tepid. Big, decently grilled pieces of chicken topped well-cooked linguini tossed with roasted red peppers. The big draw is the gallon of artery- clogging Alfredo sauce.

You want to eat in Highlands? I have three words: On the Verandah (1537 Franklin Road, 828-526-2338). Yes, it's a bit expensive, but it is by far the best restaurant in town, offering a restrained fusion cuisine with some very interesting use of chiles because of the owner's fascination with hot sauces.

Stay home and eat

You know, I was sad when Nancy Delgado Mathews left Eclipse di Luna (764 Miami Circle, 404-846-0449). Her tapas menu dramatically improved the restaurant's fare. But I have to say that chef Robert Garrett and owner James Erhlich continue to do a fantastic job here.

I lunched at Eclipse recently with my friend Brad Lapin and we ate our way through the tapas menu, overlooking some very tempting sandwiches, including one made with grilled skirt steak. I insist you order the costilla Espanola, ribs slow-roasted in balsamic vinegar; fried calamari tossed in a very light, piquant tomato sauce; serrano ham with roasted pepper salad and olives; and spinach sauteed with raisins and pine nuts. The day's soup was a heady asparagus gazpacho; a traditional one is always available.

The restaurant, originally founded by Paul Luna, retains its artsy Soho-goes-Spanish feel. Dinner is also served nightly with more tapas — I'm intrigued by the quail with white bean salad — along with a daily paella.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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