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57th Fighter Group, Twisted Taco and S&S Cafeteria

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War, what is it good for? Dubya's erection? CNN's ratings? How about restaurant decor?

I'm not quite sure why I've never before made it to 57th Fighter Group (3829 Clairmont Road, 770-457-7227). Located adjacent to Peachtree-DeKalb Airport in Chamblee, this sprawling restaurant is decorated in World War II aviation memorabilia. I'm talking fighter planes out front, Red Cross trucks by the entrance and endless black-and-white pictures inside.

It's quite disorienting, rendering war a kind of cozy nostalgic enterprise. Under glowering photos of Churchill and FDR, in the golden light of fireplaces that remind you of a European farmhouse, you feel far from the present world of high-tech killing. It's all very clubby and male. At the urinal, a man asked me if this wasn't about the coolest place I'd ever been. "Hell, yeah," I grunted, looking over my shoulder for John Wayne.

Honestly, as much as I usually dislike themed restaurants -- and this one is owned by a large chain -- 57th Fighter Group is very cool. Even if you don't want to wax nostalgic, it's fun to watch the planes land. And if you take the booth I did, you can put on earphones and listen to the chatter in the airport tower.

Alas, the food is not as attractive as the decor, although you can eat reasonably well (though not cheaply). The menu is pretty strictly American, aimed at the palate of the lowest common denominator. My friend Dred picked spinach-artichoke dip ($5.95) for his starter, which caused my eyes to roll until I decided, what the hell, I'll try the "Reuben pockets" ($5.95). The latter was corned beef and sauerkraut fried in spring roll wrappers and served with Russian dressing. If the Koreans can make Spam a delicacy, why shouldn't we turn the Vietnamese spring roll into a deli sandwich? Actually, as junk food, the Reuben cha gio weren't too bad and more than adequate for two.

The spinach-artichoke dish, served with fried tortilla chips and heavy with cheddar and Parmesan cheeses was, as usual, addictive. Don't touch the salsa served with it. Frankly, you could order the beer-cheese soup ($3.95) as your starter and skip just about anything else.

The menu is heavy on steaks, and you should almost certainly confine yourself to one. My filet mignon ($20.95) was tender, cooked medium rare as ordered and a generous size. But its Bearnaise sauce was a joke -- what seemed to be a small lump of seasoned butter struggling to melt itself. Cheddar-seasoned mashed potatoes were bland, and a perfunctory slice of tomato was so grotesquely mealy that I gagged and spit it out, just as a manager walked by. "Is something wrong, sir?" he asked. "Oh no!" I replied. "I just didn't like the tomato." "May I get you another?" he asked.

Dred, at my insistence, ordered the stuffed pork tenderloin ($16.95), touted as a signature dish on the menu. Don't order it. The stuffing of sauteed portobellos, sun-dried tomatoes and provolone cheese is weirdly acrid and sweet at turns, and the pork itself tasted over-marinated. The plate featured a pile of Success-style rice and more of the mashed potatoes. There was a tomato slice, of course.

There are also chicken and seafood dishes on the menu. My frank advice is to take your kids to lunch here, when you can get a burger. True, you will sacrifice the nearly romantic nighttime ambience. But, if you want to go then, I suggest you hang out in the bar and, if you eat, definitely stick to a steak.

Service, I should warn you, is amazingly loopy. Our server disappeared for fully 10 minutes after taking our drink and appetizer orders. Halfway through our meal, a new server introduced himself and said he'd be taking over. But the replacement never returned and our original waiter reappeared. Whatever.

Here and there

Speaking of weird decors, mediocre food and dizzy service, Twisted Taco (66 12th St., 404-607-8771) has it all. Opened by the folks who operate Cherry and Leopard Lounge, the restaurant wishes, apparently, to be all things to all people. The menu is Mexican via Texas and California. The decor features a lot of movie posters from Westerns, and the big-screen television upstairs smacks of a sports bar. There's a 30-foot bar where you can sit on a saddle.

The service at my lunch was absolutely clueless. Our waiter tried to write our order on a napkin that shredded as he wrote. I had to beg for a fork and knife. When my quesadilla arrived with the wrong filling, I sent it back. Meanwhile a manager stopped by and asked how our food was. I said, "I don't know, I was sent the wrong quesadilla."

"Well, did you like what they sent you?" he asked.

"Hello," I said, "I sent it back!"

"Good idea," he said.

OK. I couldn't bring myself to order a taco -- many of which, like the fried chicken, fish and barbecue, appear to be ripped off from Sundown Cafe. We started with some chips and three salsas ($2.50). The salsas -- particularly the green -- were fresh and bracing. My friend ordered the poppers, batter-fried jalapenos stuffed with cheese, onions and peppers ($5.95). These are about as appealing as spinach-artichoke dip to me (and, yep, that's on the menu). But just like that stuff, poppers are addictive. Twisted Taco's are the best I've been forced to eat in a long time.

My steak quesadilla ($6.95) -- the one that first arrived with chicken -- was very unpleasant. Fully half the slices had no steak in them at all and the filling of corn and black beans was too oniony. The cilantro was not even noticeable. My friend's shrimp burrito ($6.95) was among the weirdest experiments I've tasted in a while. It was made with Romaine lettuce and dressed with a chipotle-spiked Caesar sauce.

The Cherry/Leopard Lounge people seem way too concerned with being clever to me. Hire a consultant.

Rough trayed

I need an apartment at Ansley Mall. I write at Starbucks nearly every day. I work out at LA Fitness there. And I confess I eat now and then at Piccadilly Cafeteria. Hell, I used to eat there with friends when it was Morrison's. About the only thing I enjoy is the chopped steak, which is automatically served to me by an eye-rolling woman who thinks I should try some of the other delicacies like the fluorescent congealed salads or the fish paralyzed in a puddle of something gooey.

A friend encouraged me to broaden my cafeteria experience recently by visiting S&S Cafeteria (3583 Chamblee Tucker Road, 770-455-8941) located next to a Day's Inn. I did. And so should you.

The place is a total time trip. It features one of those long claustrophobic halls into which you're herded like a cow. A staff of people who reminded me of my Southern aunts could hardly wait to serve me. And, honestly, the food is surprisingly good for cafeteria fare. Indeed, a friend ordered a chopped steak that cost half what it costs at Piccadilly and tasted much better. I ordered classic country-fried steak, which was better than most I've had around town. Vegetables are cooked to death, of course, but my biscuit was big, fat and fluffy. An apple dumpling was good enough to eat.

The decor is amazing. If the cafeteria ever closes, it should be converted into a retro nightclub. We love yellow walls, lividly green Naugahyde booths and red carpet, don't we? Yes we do! And we love eating with crotchety old people because, well, we know we are going to become them.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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