Food - Glutton at Large: Fogo de Chao

An ideal big night out in Atlanta

Going out for special occasions is tricky in Atlanta. Fine dining is dead in this town save for a few standbys such as Restaurant Eugene, Bacchanalia, or fancy steakhouses like Chops or Bones. Yet people still have birthdays, anniversaries, and promotions to celebrate. When my birthday (or anyone else's in my family) rolls around, we all request the same place: Fogo de Chão Churrascaria. Why Fogo? Shouldn't I be a bigger snob considering I write about food? Shouldn't I only highlight local restaurants in my column? Maybe. But I consider Fogo to be one of our city's best restaurants — even if it is part of a chain.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool food snob, you'll probably turn your nose up at dining on all-you-can-eat meat in the company of coiffed, chiffon-clad prom-goers and John Deere hat-wearing OTP folks in flip-flops. But this "everyman quality" is one of the best things about Fogo. People are there because they love meat and want a lot of it. No judgment. Yes, it is easy to pig out here, but if you are strategic about what and how much you eat, you can have a balanced and excellent meal.

Fogo's epic salad bar is tempting. My husband likes to joke that "they trick you with the filler" and always goes straight to the meat, but I am more of an equal opportunist. There are gorgeous balls of fresh mozzarella, gargantuan spears of asparagus, sweet sun-dried tomatoes, puckery hearts of palm, cured meats, a large wheel of freshly cracked Parmesan, and other goodies to get your meal started. With the recent addition of some steam tables with potatoes, dirty rice, beans, and more means there are plenty of options to make the salad bar into a full meal if you are on a budget or a vegetarian.

Of course, the meat is what brings everyone here. The concept is based on churrascarias in Brazil, where impeccably dressed gauchos whisk through the dining room wielding skewers of various fire-cooked meats. Upon arrival, everyone gets a disk: one side green and the other red for when you need a break. If you flip your disk to green, you're met with an endless stream of fresh-off-the-fire meats carved to order at your table. The house special picanha (top sirloin) is a favorite — and one of the tenderest cuts available. The tasty Parmesan-encrusted pork loin (lombo) is a tangy foil to the beef-heavy offerings. As far as flavor goes, the garlic beef is super-juicy and packs a spicy punch. There are off-the-menu items that don't get passed around unless you ask, such as the beef ribs, served off the skewer on a cutting board. The ribs are very fatty and best enjoyed with some of Fogo's fresh horseradish sauce. Don't feel shy about asking for something special from the meat menu located on each table. In fact, your waiter will most likely ask if there is something specific you want.

Speaking of service, Fogo's is excellent. You are never without a full glass of water, a piping-hot basket of the addictive, ethereal cheese rolls, or meat. I recently took my stepdaughter, at her request, for her birthday and even she, a 14-year-old, noticed how good the service was. After accidentally spilling her drink — the fresh limeade — we were whisked away to another table and eating again as if nothing happened in minutes.

At night, a meal at Fogo will cost you $49.50, $24.50 for the salad bar only. Children 6 and younger eat free and children 7 to 12 are half price. Factor in drinks, dessert, and tip, and the experience can quickly add up, but it is a bargain for what you get. All-you-can-eat meat, access to the salad bar, plus gratis family-style sides — fried polenta cakes, mashed potatoes covered in shredded cheddar cheese, fried plantains, rice with beans — help round out the all-inclusive price. Pro-tip: Visit Fogo for lunch during the week and you'll only pay $32.50 for your meal and $22.50 for the salad bar.

If, by some chance, you have room for dessert, there are plenty of gargantuan options awaiting you. We always get a slice of the cheesecake, which is creamy and incredibly rich. The tiramisù is also choice, and there are plenty of after-dinner drinks if you need a little something to settle your stomach. There is always a bit of guilt at the end of the meal. Without fail, my husband and I look at each other wide-eyed with that "can you believe we just ate that much and spent that much money?" However, we always find our way back for another gluttonous adventure. Special occasions only. Thursday nights count, right?

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