Grazing: Cliff's top 10 Atlanta restaurants

Our longtime columnist picks his favorite eateries of 2012

It's time for my annual list of my 10 favorite restaurants. As usual, I remind you that "favorites" are not typically new. Nor are they "bests." These restaurants' moderate price and relative proximity to my home in Grant Park make them regular destinations. Except for the No. 1 restaurant at the end of the list, they are not in any particular order.

Six restaurants have fallen off last year's list for a variety of reasons. I still frequently go to Spoon and Holy Taco, both in East Atlanta, but I'd like to see more new dishes. Las Palmeras was sold and reopened as Cruzado, which I like a lot, but it's too soon to call it a fave. Lunacy Black Market is still a favorite but dealing with the parking has made it an infrequent destination. Octane and the Little Tart Bakery in Grant Park are perfect, but rather expensive and not terribly Wi-Fi friendly. Miso Izakaya is still a big favorite, but it has become a special-occasion restaurant (except for the inexpensive ramen lunches). Finally, La Pietra Cucina, my No. 1 choice last year, closed.

Next: Cliff's top 10 restaurants

10) Grant Park Coffeehouse I end up here every Sunday to write, sip espresso, and eat one of the many scones baked daily (like my favorite, Turkish apricot). Sandwiches aren't fancy but they're inexpensive ($6) and huge. A grilled cheese is only $4. You'll also find the King of Pops and High Road ice cream. Drawbacks? There are only two tables inside, so camping with your laptop might induce guilt. 753-A Cherokee Ave. 404-856-0433. www.grantparkcoffeehouse.com.

9) The Shed at Glenwood Yes, you already know: I've been going to the Shed every Wednesday for $3 slider night for three years. Lance Gummere, who left the restaurant a few months back, was a genius at making the sliders with unlikely ingredients. His regular menu of mainly comfort food was also an eclectic delight. Now Todd Richards has taken over as chef. The sliders, frankly, aren't quite as inspired, but Richards is brilliantly pushing the regular menu to borderline fine dining. Entrée examples are eggplant ravioli with lamb sausage, golden raisins, and hummus; and pan-seared scallops with cauliflower gratin and apple relish. There are many small plates with similar twists. 475 Bill Kennedy Way. 404-835-4363. www.theshedatglenwood.com.

8) Arepa Mia There's plenty of good food inside the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, but Lis Hernandez has created something extra special. She's cooking arepas based on her mother's recipes back in Venezuela. Arepas are cornmeal cakes stuffed with different fillings. My fave is the pabellon with shredded beef, plantains, black beans, and feta. Empanadas are also available. Drawbacks? Like the rest of the market, Arepa Mia is only open from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Sweet Auburn Curb Market, 209 Edgewood Ave. 404-880-8575. www.arepamiaatlanta.com.

7) Stir It Up If I want to take anyone to an extraordinary, cheap restaurant, I head to this charming Jamaican spot in Little Five Points. The food is classic, like jerk chicken, but it's cooked to order and not served from the usual steam trays. Drawbacks? Its last seating Tuesday-Thursday (closed Monday) is 8:45 p.m. That's too early for me. (It's open until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.) 1083 Euclid Ave. 404-963-2384. www.stiritupatl.com.

6) Eclipse di Luna I lunch here so often on Fridays with the same friends that I deserve a VIP parking spot. The menu is all small plates and, even though it changes frequently, I usually order a longtime favorite — the charcuterie and cheese plate, the Spanish-style ribs, or the piquillos stuffed with goat cheese — plus a newbie. I've literally never had anything here I didn't like. 764 Miami Circle. 404-846-0449. www.eclipsediluna.com.

5) Desta Ethiopian Kitchen I have made so many jokes about Ethiopian food over the years that I enraged one chef who appeared at CL's offices ready to turn me into tibs. Then I discovered Desta. Now I love the stuff but, due to bad karma, most friends refuse to go there with me. The one must-try dish is fish tibs. Order it along with a vegetable entrée. You're going to be shocked by the clarity of flavors. 3086 Briarcliff Road. 404-929-0011. www.destaethiopiankitchen.com.

4) Taqueria del Sol I've been eating and loving chef Eddie Hernandez's food since TDS opened in 2000 as Sundown Café. Its conversion to an ever-expanding chain of taquerias was worrisome, but no quality has been lost. The tacos and weekly specials are all conceived with a Mexican/Southwestern style but inflected by a broad range of flavors, from Cajun to Southern. I would like to see some new dishes, but I'd kill 'em if they purged the brisket, Memphis, or carnitas tacos. 2165 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-321-1118. www.taqueriadelsol.com.

3) Cardamom Hill Few restaurants have made such a positive impression so quickly as Asha Gomez's homage to the cuisine of her native Kerala in India. It's a blend of traditional Indian and Portuguese cooking. Anything you order here is probably going to taste completely novel in a city where most of the Indian food all tastes alike. The signature dish is Gomez's fried chicken. You should try that but then go wild. There's one drawback: This is borderline fine dining, so don't expect low prices, except at lunch. 1700 Northside Drive. 404-549-7012. www.cardamomhill.net.

2) Grant Central Pizza No, it's not the best pizza and pasta in town, but I eat here so often I'd be remiss not including it. I'm talking once or twice a week since it's a brief walk from home. What attracts me most here are the specials (although the restaurant tends to run out by 9 every night). Sometimes, they're kinda weird and sometimes the restaurant gets on jags that it won't let go of. But dishes like mushroom ravioli in a cream sauce or chicken over pasta in something like a puttanesca sauce are pleasing, as are the soups and salads of the day. If I don't make it in time for those, my default dish is linguine with meatballs. 451 Cherokee Ave. 404-523-8900.

1) Pura Vida This has become my favorite restaurant in the last year. I don't get to go as often as I'd like, but I always find chef/owner Hector Santiago's cooking, based on Spanish and Latin American cuisines, brilliantly conceived. An example: ceviche of lemon-lime marinated trout loin, aji mixto jelly, celery juice, milk, and cancha corn. Always check out the specials. The restaurant, which has the perfect wine list for a tapas bar, hosts tango performances on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. I'd like to see some flamenco, too, but tango is nearly as sexy. 656 N. Highland Ave. 404-870-9797. www.puravidatapas.com.

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