Cliff’s top 10 Atlanta restaurants for dining on a budget

Our longtime columnist picks his favorite wallet-friendly eateries of 2013

Something shocking happened in 2013. I started regularly cooking again. For the decades I wrote Grazing weekly, I had to eat the vast majority of my meals in restaurants. This became so demanding that I looked forward to “freedom-from-food-weeks” when the paper’s scheduling allowed me to take one off. Now, almost all my eating out is limited to Fridays when I lunch and dine with friends at places I like — rarely at places I have to write about.

What follows is my annual list of 10 restaurants that keep calling me back for inexpensive, reliable meals. These are casual and convenient to the Midtown-to-Grant Park area where I live. These are not the best restaurants in Atlanta. For example, my favorite cuisine is Vietnamese. The best in Atlanta now might be Nam Phuong on Jimmy Carter Boulevard, but I’m not going to drive that far for a quick lunch. I’ll go to Saigon Basil in Midtown near my gym.

As usual, except for my No. 1 favorite (and this year’s No. 2) these are not arranged in any particular order.

10) Saigon Basil I lunch here often, almost three times a week. When the staff sees me parking my car, they instantly begin preparing the only dish I ever order, the No. 9. It’s Vietnamese bun (rice noodles) with barbecued pork, three grilled shrimp, one spring roll, pickled carrots, bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, and some lettuce. When I come through the door, they say, “$8.91, please.” I pay, and I toss the bowl with fish sauce and Sriracha. I stab my chop sticks now and then into a bit of hoisin sauce. One suggestion: Ask for the dish to be served in a bowl. Otherwise they pile it on a squeaky Styrofoam take-out container. Friends swear by the pho and there are also plenty of Thai dishes. 1870 Piedmont Ave. 404-892-8688.

9) Bantam & Biddy Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere have created a restaurant that is the apotheosis of every positive trend in dining these days. The big draw is the juicy chicken (which I douse with Piri Piri sauce). These are birds that sang in the sunshine before landing on the restaurant’s rotisserie, so you’ll pay a few extra dollars. There are a lot of vegetable sides, including daily specials. I like the (chicken) Bangers and Mash, as well as the Southern Cobb salad (with chicken or roasted pork). 1544 Piedmont Ave. 404-907-3469.

8) Grant Park Coffeehouse Just a few blocks from home, this is my go-to place many weekday afternoons and Sundays to write without harassment by the cats. The shop remodeled and vastly increased the seating area this year with a sleek wraparound wood counter that gives a view of the patio and zoo crowds across the street. Deal: $6 sandwiches. I like the TBLT (turkey bacon) with spicy aïoli on grilled sourdough. The best of the house-made pastries are the scones. Lately, I’ve been digging the cranberry-white chocolate. The Turkish apricot is my standard. 753-A Cherokee Ave. 404-856-0433.

7) Chef Liu This is one of those “return-to” places for my Friday night dinner group. The big draw is the menu of dumplings and the best of those is the xiao long bao — Shanghai-style soup dumplings, served in a steam basket, looking altogether unordinary. Then you pierce the delicate skin with your teeth and encounter a savory splash of broth and a knob of ground pork. There’s more to enjoy, including lamb kebabs and spicy cold noodles with sesame, but I make a meal of the various dumplings. 5283 Buford Highway. 770-936-0532.

6) Roxx Tavern The crowd is mainly gay, especially at dinner, but it’s not the kind of place where you have to worry about your wardrobe. (Worry instead about the state of your scruff.) The restaurant, open since 2001, had some drama over a lousy health department inspection this year, but all is resolved. Roxx mostly serves pub food and the burgers are always reliable. Keep an eye out for specials. During the last year, I encountered a good coq au vin and a roasted pork shank. 1824 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-892-4541.

5) Morelli’s Gourmet Ice Cream You didn’t know you could make an entire meal out of ice cream? Well you can. Morelli’s has scored a place on multiple national “best” lists. Owner Donald Sargent was formerly a pharmaceutical salesman. Maybe he was inspired to produce more flavors than meds he sold. Whatever, his brain is on fire with cold delight. I like anything with ginger — like the coconut-ginger and the ginger-lavender. Dieting? Sugar-free chocolate-caramel pecan is for you. Salted caramel is everyone’s fave. 749 Moreland Ave. 404-622-0210; 1220 Caroline St. 404-584-2500.

4) Bhojanic I’m sure you have had this experience: You want Indian food. You love the spicy vegetarian dishes of southern India. Your friends want meat. That’s just one reason to go to Bhojanic, probably the city’s best for traditional North Indian cuisine. Also, its comfy Western ambiance doesn’t intimidate your carnivorous, cowardly friends. The deal: small plates you can pass around and generous thalis — traditional combo meals — that I usually order. The big attraction here is the intensity and complexity of the spices. 1363 Clairmont Road. 404-633-9233; 3400 Around Lenox Road. 404-841-8472.

3) Daddy D’z BBQ Joynt I know. “BBQ” should be re-translated as “Blustering Bull Quip.” No matter where you eat barbecue, someone will begin ranting about what bad taste you have. Daddy D’z is in my neighborhood, but I really do prefer its spareribs over almost everyone else’s. You get the char, the spicy sauce, and a dab of sweetness. I like the collards and the mac and cheese. I hate the plastic knives and forks. The cops that hang there make me nervous but make others feel safe. 264 Memorial Drive. 404-222-0206.

2) Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano This is probably the restaurant I most often recommend to friends who want delicious, not-too-spicy, and unique food in Atlanta. It would certainly be numero uno had Stir It Up not reopened. It’s next door to Giovanni Di Palma’s original restaurant, Antico Pizza. You get a half-roasted chicken prepared in one of seven ways, piled in a lightly brothed bowl with potato wedges and focaccia slices. My faves are the self-explanatory Sorrento lemon, and the Amalfi with Castelvetrano olives, cippoline, olive oil, garlic, and Italian bread crumbs. There are four heavy pasta dishes. I recommend ordering those for sharing. 1099 Hemphill Ave. 404-347-3874.

1) Stir It Up I have a reason to go on eating! Stir It Up, which became my favorite during its three years in Little Five Points, closed this summer. But it has reopened in Midtown. It’s bigger, open later (Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 1-8 p.m.) and hosts DJs and live music in its lower level, the “Artist Den.” Chef Chris Williams continues to prepare the city’s best Jamaican cuisine, layering its multicultural influences with studied intention. Dishes featuring the brown-stew gravy and jerk seasonings are favorites. The salted cod with cabbage is fab, too. 12th St. 404-600-5871.

Other notable cheapos: Eats, Gu’s Bistro, Grant Central Pizza (specials), Octane, Republic Social House (burgers) Desta, Little Bangkok (green curry), Taqueria del Sol, Ann’s Snack Bar, Popeyes Chicken, Zesto (for the Toffee Coffee Arctic Swirl only), Arepa Mia, Crawfish Shack Seafood, Antico Pizza, and Mezza.

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