Food Feature: Serving history

John B's antique setting a match for fancy, down-home cooking

Atlanta's antique and country knick knack collectors may already know about Mr. John B's. The restaurant sits on one side of the crossroads at Crabapple Corner antique village in Alpharetta. If you're keen to nose out what's left of the country around Atlanta, head north on Ga. 400 to Roswell. Crabapple Corner, less than five miles from the highway, is a surprising whiff of the past surrounded by new subdivisions.

My teenage children and I made the trek at noon one day last week. Climbing the wooden steps and crossing the porch of the old house that holds John B's, we could tell that we were in for both lunch and a history lesson. The personable host brought us a tattered and stained folder with a written "legend" of the restaurant, including a few Xeroxed photos of the late John B and one of his wives.

John Broadwell gained a pleasing notoriety among farmers in the late 1800s for developing a high yield cotton and for marrying a succession of women, including his deceased wife's nurse and, later, his housekeeper. These days, his house, a tin-roofed wooden structure built in the late 1700s, is a three-room restaurant serving meals five days a week.

Owner and Executive Chef Ben Sheldon keeps the old home looking rustic, with mismatched chairs and tables, and a sparse medley of antique furnishings that date mostly from the 1800s. A painted portrait of Mr. John B overlooks the main dining room where a loud radio tuned to easy-listening pop serves as disturbing background music.

Service was sometimes brusque, always attentive. Our first impression of the cooking came in the form of wonderful, hot, crusty biscuits. The midday menu, with a daily soup, pasta and catch of the day, along with the regular appetizers and entrees, is priced from $2.95-$12. Entrees come with salad or soup. My son chose the chef's tomato basil soup, a spicy, rich red broth with bits of whole tomato and celery. My daughter and I opted for small, creamy Caesar salads. Both were good starters.

Focusing on pork, chicken and fish, the main dishes include herb-crusted pork medallions ($9), potato-crusted trout cakes ($9) and the signature Broadwell "Kicken Chicken" sandwich ($8.75). Almost every choice on the menu is "crusted" and topped with sauce, making for a heavy lunch.

Among our selections, the crabapple smoked pork sandwich ($8.50) won first place. The sandwich came with two small salads, mild-flavored pasta and roasted potato. My daughter left most of the thick roll behind, concentrating on her serving of smoked and shredded pork in a bourbon, black coffee barbecue sauce.

Since the restaurant had run out of the longed-for Louisiana crawfish cakes, my son chose Georgia Coast crabcakes ($11). The two small, meaty crabcakes, made with diced green, red and yellow peppers, were served under a light cream sauce with orzo pasta and smoky-flavored slivers of carrots and green beans. Declaring the dish far too rich, he traded plates with me. I'd ordered the eggplant pancakes and tomato Asiago sauce for $8.75. The chef's version of eggplant parmesan looked like a double-decker pizza: two slices of crispy fried eggplant, stacked and layered with tomato sauce and a mixture of ricotta, goat cheese and mozzarella. Served with pasta and veggies, the tasty eggplant was firm, the tomato and cheese sauces freshly made.

We left a fraction of appetite for dessert. In a small bakery out back, Ruby Pittman makes all of the sweets except for the restaurant's peach cobbler. She even takes special orders for her pies and cakes. The cobbler ($3.75), served with a dip of vanilla ice cream and a squirt of whipped cream, was delicious. We'd have liked more peaches, less crust. Edged in a white chocolate sauce, sliced strawberries and whipped cream, Pittman's amazing chocolate cheesecake touted chips of white chocolate and an apricot glaze.

Lunch and dinner menus are a close match, with prices going up about $2 an item at dinner. Choices for dinner include whiskey-smoked salmon, fresh jumbo stuffed shrimp and steamed shellfish, as well as a black pepper-crusted New York strip and roast rack of Australian lamb. On Sundays, the brunch buffet features hot dishes, salads, soup, a carving table, made-to-order omelettes, waffles and peach pie a la mode for $16.95.

John B's is definitely a local favorite, but visitors, too, seem to find Crabapple Corner a good spot to graze and browse. Just steps away from the restaurant, you can shop for antiques, reproductions and Southern-style gifts in restored mercantile shops, small houses and a circa 1860 cotton gin.??

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