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Crowd pleasers

Five favorite restaurants for holiday gatherings

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They're heeeeere: The holidays are upon us, bringing the usual sturm und drang of activities and get-togethers. One of the frequent requests I've received from readers is recommendations on the best restaurants for gathering with a festive crowd. Here are five very different spots that do well at accommodating larger groups. Be sure to call well ahead to snag prime-time slots.

Buca di Beppo

This suburban carnival of Italian kitsch sports the ideal gathering spot for a boisterous crowd: The Pope Room. Yes, gang, for an evening you can have an audience with a spinning bust of John Paul in a space jam-packed with Vatican memorabilia that's taken its cues from the shrines of rabid Elvis fans. It's all in good fun (the Pope's round table with a lazy susan seats a minimum of 12, maximum of 18). Italian-American classics awash in a sea of red sauce ain't foodie food, if you know what I'm saying, but I can guarantee you won't leave hungry.

2335 Mansell Road, Alpharetta. 770-643-9463. www.bucadibeppo.com.

Iris

The way to approach a group gathering at this shining star of East Atlanta's dining scene is to book space in the restaurant's back room. It's a semi-private area with six tables. You can push a few tables together to accommodate 12, or book the whole space for a maximum of 28. Iris serves down-to-earth, not-too pricey American with a hint of a French accent. Tis the season for their sultry butternut squash soup and the Niman Ranch pork tenderloin with mustard compote.

1314 Glenwood Ave., 404-221-1300. www.irisatlanta.com.

Mezza

Atlanta loves its tapas, and this Lebanese tapas joint is a gem in an area of town short on good chow. Though the humble, sedate interior has a romantic aura about it, I love to come here with a crowd. Why? Mezza offers a family-style meal for parties of three or more. For a reasonable price, you get your choice of a glorious array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Mixed in familiars like hummus and baba ghannoush (and my favorite falafel in the city), there are treats such as spinach with caramelized onions, Lebanese sausages and skewered chicken in tahini sauce.

2751 Lavista Road, Decatur. 404-633-8833. www.mezzabistro.com.

Udipi Cafe

Indian at the holidays? What the hell, do something different. Udipi was one on the pioneers of Decatur's thriving South Indian vegetarian scene. Though Madras Saravana Bhavan has stolen the spotlight, Udipi still holds its own. There are plenty of long tables in the center of the cavernous room, prime for watching servers dash from the kitchen delivering eye-popping dosai (the lithe, crepe-like staples of South Indian cuisine). Other favorites here include Chana Batura (hot, puffy bread served with spicy chickpeas) and meltingly tender okra curry.

1850 Lawrenceville Highway, Decatur. 404-325-1933.

Woodfire Grill

This is a fine choice for an elegant gathering. Woodfire has rooms in the back of the restaurant that are curtained off, creating an intimate setting for smaller groups. Servers have learned to navigate the space: They are capable without being intrusive. Now is my favorite time for meals here: the smoky smells wafting from the grill and the hearty, cold weather fare (I'm still in love with Rocky the free-range chicken and the pommes frites that accompany them) strike just the right autumnal tone.

1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055. www.woodfiregrill.com.

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