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The Road Less Traveled

American Roadhouse rules: Why didn't someone tell me sooner?

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I was having a friendly debate with someone recently about the best places in town to go out for breakfast. We agreed that Flying Biscuit was overrated. We tossed around Ria's Bluebird Cafe and Thumbs Up Diner, but the endless waits for a table knocked them out of the running.

"There's American Roadhouse," my friend offered.

American Roadhouse? I'd driven past it a hundred times, but the generic name (not to mention all that red, white and blue) had kept me away. What can I say? Sometimes I judge a book by its cover.

I'm glad somebody finally set me straight. There's plenty to love about American Roadhouse. Like every other diner in town, it gets crazy on weekend mornings, but it's big enough to keep the breakfast wait bearable. A rambling dining room opens up behind the hostess stand, with tables and booths aplenty. The drop ceiling's been pulled out, and everything overhead has been painted a crisp navy blue. With the contrasting red and white, I have to admit it's a spiffy space.

The five-page, diner-style menu has lots of goodies from which to choose. During a recent lunchtime visit, I was torn between the Roadhouse Turkey Reuben -- a whopper of a sandwich topped with coleslaw, Swiss and thousand island dressing -- and the Farmer's Market Vegetable Plate.

The veggie plate won. Decadent Southern sides like whipped potatoes and sweet potato soufflé dominate, but a few wholesome choices (homemade applesauce, steamed broccoli) round things out. Honey collard greens, at once sweet and bitter, pulled another brick from the crumbling wall of my resistance to greens. I stubbornly refused them for years, but I'm slowly discovering their appeal.

Mac and cheese, disguised under the name "five-cheese pasta," was a squishy mass of noodles and melted cheese. Ignore the fancy pants name -- this is good old-fashioned country cooking. I've no doubt the squash casserole was loaded with cheese and butter, but it tasted deceptively light and summery. American Roadhouse has a way with fried food, too. A blue plate of fish and chips featured a crunchy beer-battered haddock fillet and addictive twice-cooked french fries.

Sunday brunch is the Roadhouse's claim to fame, but banish the notion of white tablecloths and frou-frou dishes. All-American red flannel hash, buttermilk pancakes and steak and eggs are the stock in trade. The fanciest thing you'll stumble across on the menu is eggs Florentine, and even that is distinctly un-fussy. Poached eggs sit atop juicy grilled tomatoes, with a smidge of spinach adding color and just a little oomph. Creamy hollandaise blankets the whole thing.

I get the feeling I'm late to the party. American Roadhouse has been around for more than 15 years, and the place isn't exactly a secret. But it was such a pleasant surprise that it felt like I had stumbled upon hidden treasure. I love it when that happens.

Juicy Tidbits

La Tavola Trattoria's annual Tomato Fest runs Aug. 11-21. In addition to the regular menu, the restaurant will offer a special tomato-focused menu to celebrate the high point of tomato season. The special menu items can be purchased a la carte or as a four-course prix fixe menu for $29.95. Wine pairings are also available for an additional $14. 992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430. www.fifthgroup.com.

Dine Downtown

Downtown Atlanta Restaurant Week returns Aug. 15-21. Select downtown restaurants will offer three-course dinners for $20.05 per person (excluding tax and gratuity). Best bets? Center cut pork chop with Anson Mills grits at City Grill; roasted Georgia quail with potato and ricotta ravioli, black truffles and fig sauce at Fleur de Lys Cafe; and, for vegetarians, any menu item from Lush in Inman Park. Visit www.atlantadowntown.com for a complete list of participating restaurants.

Birthday Bash

In celebration of its third birthday Tues., Aug. 16, Woodfire Grill will host a star-studded prix-fixe dinner. Chef Tuohy has recruited fellow chefs Hugh Acheson (Five and Ten in Athens), Scott Peacock (Watershed), Chris Hastings (Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham) and Mark Miller (Coyote Café in Santa Fe) to assist him in creating a special five-course dinner for the evening. The cost of the dinner is $150 per person (all inclusive). Guests also will be treated to a champagne reception and goodies from Natural Body Day Spa. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-347-9055. www.woodfiregrill.com.

Beef up

On Thurs., Aug. 25, Spice will join up with Halpern's Steak and Seafood to host the first "Big Red" Dinner. The five-course dinner will highlight beef in all its many forms. Cost of $65 per person includes wine. The event will feature a silent auction with items from Cook's Warehouse. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the American Institute of Wine and Food. 793 Juniper St., 404-875-4242. www.spicerestaurant.com.

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