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Pie in your eye

Piebar's quite the looker, but prime-time meals can be a discouraging experience

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A humongous concrete cake stand.

A contempo temple for the worshippers of Apollo.

The slowly revolving spaceship from the pilot episode of "The Greatest American Hero."

The Trust Company Bank of Georgia is a compellingly modern, enigmatically circular building that rouses memory and imagination. It was designed and built by respected architect Henri Jova in 1962, and customers filled out deposit slips within its curved walls for nearly 40 years. SunTrust closed it in 2000, and the building instantly became a forlorn relic of midcentury fantasy. But such an innovative structure was not destined for abandonment.

Credit Bob Amick and Todd Rushing for not only rescuing the Trust Company Bank building from desertion, but also making it the latest center of scenester madness. The duo has altered the structure as little as possible. The bank's safe, which weighed more than a ton, was swapped out for a wood-fire pizza oven. A titillating patio has been erected over the former drive-thru windows. The patio's massive awning glows a ghostly indigo at night. It looks as if the Flying Dutchman's sails are careening down I-85's access road.

Since the space was rechristened Piebar more than two months ago, the nightly crowds have descended voraciously. Why wouldn't they? Clearly, with the undiminished success of their other endeavors, One Midtown Kitchen and Two Urban Licks, Amick and Rushing know how to stoke a hip frenzy. Richard Blais, Atlanta's pied piper of outré cuisine, designed much of menu, which the restaurant refers to as "sun food." And, well, this is the grooviest restaurant setting the city may have ever seen.

If only the actual dining experience were as rousing as the architecture.

The restaurant does not take reservations, and its immediate popularity hasn't given the staff much chance to manage the pandemonium. In fact, after an initial visit just to gauge the vibe, I decided to return twice -- on the busiest night and time possible, and then at a quieter time slot -- to grasp how the service and food hold up under varying extents of duress.

A very long engagement: Saturday, 8 p.m.

The SUV wall of shame frightens me.

At least four dozen Ford Expeditions, Lincoln Navigators, Lexus 330s and other luxury monsters have been neatly wedged onto a grassy strip that backs up to the highway. Hoards of folks are waiting to check their cars in and out, and the valets literally jog from person to person to keep the line moving.

"The wait right now is an hour and a half," says the woman at the hostess stand with a practiced, steady tone. "Name, please?" She makes a few notes of what we look like to find us later in the throng and then sends us off to get a drink.

People. Everywhere. Full tables wrap around both sides of the room. The exposed kitchen resides center stage and is insulated by the bar. Those who haven't claimed bar seats stand in huddled clumps, bellowing their conversations.

The stark space is beautiful in an odd, clinical way. Decor is minimal. The innards of the edifice itself -- along with pointy, overtly phallic light fixtures -- create the ambiance.

Yep. The wait is truly 90 minutes. Our feet hurt. We have stood coveting the bar seats in front of us for most of the duration, and at 9:25 p.m. they become vacant. We formulate a game plan: If the hostess wants to sit us inside this calamitous echo chamber, we'll pass on a table and decamp at the bar. But if there's a table outside on the patio, we'll take it.

I approach the hostess stand at 9:30 p.m. on the dot. The woman scrolls down the list and says, "We've only got a few more tables ahead of you."

I'm about to concede to the bar option when another woman at the stand, whom I'd spotted roving around the restaurant assessing table turnover, pulls me aside.

"If you get the other half of your party right now, I can seat you on the patio immediately," she says urgently.

Sweet.

By this point, we've basically memorized the quirky menu, and we're ravenous. Our kicky server with dangling earrings makes a few astute wine recommendations and takes our order: We'll start with an antipasto plate, continue with a couple more starters, then sample some half-pizzas.

Not five minutes later, the create-your-own antipasto platter has arrived. We nibble a dull slab of country pâté alongside Robiola and Cremosina -- both creamy, close-to-ripe Italian cheeses. An "accessory" listed as saffron cauliflower is pickled and has no taste of saffron, only the luminescent yellow color. A bacon-studded potato salad is by far the most compelling element, sassy with flavor and softened by a silky dab of aioli on the side.

We've not yet sampled each component of the antipasto when our "micro plates" arrive. A soggy cap of portobello mushroom doesn't connect with Asian pear, watercress and a couple skimpy shavings of pecorino. Linguine and clams starts off abominably: Two clams in their shells atop the pasta are inedibly chewy. Thankfully, the chopped clams tossed among the al dente linguine are tender, and the buttery sauce thrums with garlic and herbs.

Five minutes later, the pizzas arrive. Did our server request all our food to be delivered at once? Looking at the half-eaten plates scattered about, I open my mouth to protest until I realize that we haven't much enjoyed anything but the linguine and clams. Sure, bring it on.

Pizza is undoubtedly the soul of Piebar's kitchen. Most of the concoctions read as unexpected and jarring, but many of them work. We devour a summery riff with peaches, fontina, extra-strength peppermint and a splash of balsamic vinegar. The pepperoni on one pie is meaty and not too greasy, but the smoked mozzarella covering the crackery crust can't compete.

The "sushi" variation with raw tuna, wasabi, ginger and soy jelly? Fusion overkill. The ingredients are proven cohorts but don't translate to the context of pizza.

It is now 10 p.m. We have consumed the savory portion of our meal in one half-hour. I feel cheated. We ask for a cup of the frisky rosemary-pine nut-cherry gelato (the only dessert worth ordering) and our check. At least the valet line has diminished.

A room of one's own: Tuesday, 6 p.m.

"Right this way," croons the same beleaguered hostess with a fresh swing in her step. A discreet post-work crowd chatters in front of the bar, and rows of tables remain empty. Wow. I barely recognize the place.

Our relaxed server gives us time to chat before we order. The food arrives in measured courses, and a few new synapses connect concerning the food: Hone in on the Italian-American offerings, even if they sound weird. Squid "scampi" features shrimp and ribbons of supple squid in a rich, garlicky lagoon of butter. Veal parmesan on a stick? Three chaste portions of classic veal, red sauce and blanketed cheese impaled on a bread stick. Sadly, the Bolognese lasagne is a soupy mess of sauce and cheese, though it might make a nice dip for the puffy garlic knots.

More pizza discoveries: Bacon, quail egg, breakfast sausage and maple syrup may sound like a swanky version of a McGriddle, but the combo engenders honest Americana. And both the rabbit pizza with mole and queso fresco, and the duck creation with blue cheese, caramelized onions and grapes navigate a smart balance between savory machismo and playful sweetness. But the over-garlicked escargot pizza could clear the population of Transylvania, and pineapple clashes abjectly with shrimp and grits on another pie.

The lights dim, the multitudes once again gather. With my recent Saturday night visit fresh in my mind, I begin to feel claustrophobic -- and sorry for the other patrons. I want to clue them into the trick I'll be exercising from here on out if I want one of Piebar's wacky pizzas: the pick-up option. Call ahead, order half a breakfast pizza, half a duck pizza and a bottle of wine (how convenient is that!) and pull up to the old teller window. Though it's glorious that this venerated building has been given a renewed life, the prime-time wait simply is not worth it. Hungry souls will be worlds happier getting carryout. Bank on it.

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