ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Food is a huge part of any destination for me, and my home base -- Atlanta, Georgia -- is no exception.
The Earl, in East Atlanta, is a hip neighborhood restaurant and lounge.
Don't get me wrong. Atlanta has some intriguing attractions. A stroll in the city's historic Oakland Cemetery or the High Museum of Art is a nice way to spend an afternoon, and Zoo Atlanta's giant panda cub, Mei Lan, is a charmer.
But the day-to-day excitement of living in this Southern metropolis comes from the flavors that make it so diverse. Here are a few of my longstanding favorite restaurants and bars in Atlanta and neighboring Decatur, as well as a newer, swankier spot or two.
"Warning! Food Contains Flavor!" is an apt tagline for Bhojanic, an eclectic North Indian restaurant in Decatur. The menu ranges from traditional platters with your choice of deliciously spiced meats and vegetables to a selection of inventive Indian tapas such as seekh kebabs, made with spiced ground turkey, onions, garlic and mint leaves, served with mint chutney. Bhojanic chicken 65, marinated in yogurt and spices, is a strong choice in the tapas category. Live music from jazz to drumming adds to the festive atmosphere several nights a week. Entrée platters $11-14. 1363 Clairmont Road, Decatur; 404-633-9233
This vibrant cantina, tucked away in an industrial area on Atlanta's west side, offers some of the best Mexican fare in the city. Bright Virgin Marys and neon beer signs pepper the interior, which has the feel of a cozy double-wide trailer. Chile con queso and fresh garlicky salsa swimming with cilantro provide a real temptation to eat your weight in chips. I usually add an order of cebollitas -- charbroiled green onions with salt and lime -- to this chip-heavy start and finish with one perfect grilled shrimp taco. Pace yourself if you order one of the house specialties such as Laredo-style barbequed brisket served with rice, beans and tortillas. Expect to wait during prime dinner hours. Entrée platters $9-17. 1495 Chattahoochee Ave., Atlanta; 404-352-9009
For affordable, high-quality pizza and pasta dishes, try this casual neighborhood eatery in Atlanta's trendy Virginia Highland. The classic buttery shrimp scampi over linguine is a winner at $10, or opt for a thin-crust pizza. The white pizza with smoked prosciutto, rosemary, taleggio cheese and balsamic vinegar reduction is bold and delicious, or choose from nearly a dozen more traditional combinations. Simple salads, such as arugula topped with parmigiano, lemon and olive oil, are large enough to split as an accompaniment. Kid-friendly Osteria is a great choice for families; arrive later in the evening if you want to dodge the younger set. Entrées $8-13. 832 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta; 404-897-1414
The elegant dining room, dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows covered in gauzy white sheers, has an ethereal quality that pairs nicely with the fresh, pure flavors of Trois' modern French cuisine. Sit down before the sun sets to savor a signature gin cocktail -- a frothy concoction featuring green tea- and mint-infused Tanqueray -- in the airy, sun-drenched space. This summer, the restaurant is offering a four-course menu for $40, Sunday through Thursday, which recently started with a light, savory tuna crudo appetizer on a bed of thinly shaved crudités and finished with pistachio shortbread crumbles in a tart fizzy strawberry Meyer lemonade with yogurt sorbet. Go to the restaurant's Web site to print the offer. Entrées $20-33. 1180 Peachtree St. (at 14th), Atlanta; 404-815-3337
Butter and pork fat are key in the down-home Southern specialties created by renowned chef Scott Peacock at this upscale Decatur eatery. Entrées include rich classics such as fried catfish or a thick pork chop served with collards and sharp macaroni and cheese. Crisp, juicy fried chicken with buttery mashed potatoes and crisp green beans draws crowds Tuesdays, the restaurant's fried chicken night. The Very Good Chocolate Cake lives up to its name. Entrées $16-34. 406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur; 404-378-4900
DRINK (AND EAT SOME MORE)
Skinny-jean hipsters and their forebears rub tattooed shoulders at this East Atlanta restaurant and bar that draws people from all over the city and beyond with a full lineup of obscure bands and college-crowd headliners. I tend to arrive senior-citizen early for a booth, beer and the best bar food around, heading home before the bands arrive. The Greenie Meanie sandwich -- char-grilled Cajun chicken breast topped with roasted poblano peppers and salsa verde -- is a fiery treat. Burgers, fresh salads, sides and sandwiches and weekly specials like meatloaf and country-fried steak also keep patrons satisfied. Burgers and sandwiches $6-10. 488 Flat Shoals Road, Atlanta; 404-522-3950
Beer lovers rejoice (and beware): The Brick Store offers more than 200 bottled beers and about two dozen beers on tap, with a wide selection of high-gravity brews. Dark wood, exposed brick and barrel-bottomed bar tables add to the pub's genuine atmosphere. Try the snug Belgian bar upstairs for beers such as St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Blanche de Bruxelles on draught. Pub standards like fish 'n chips are the best bets for soaking up the star attraction. Sandwiches and entrées $7-10. 125 E. Court Square, Decatur; 404-687-0990
This intimate wine bar, housed in the forklift storage shed of a former pot-belly stove factory, offers nearly 50 predominantly Spanish and Italian wines by the glass or bottle. The menu's "If You Like" column with simple descriptions -- "Dry Melony White," "Smooth Herbal Cab" -- provides clues to unfamiliar producers and varietals. Sample savory Mediterranean snacks as you sip, from olives and cheeses to chorizo, raw ahi tuna and beef carpaccio. The almond butter, apple and goat cheese finger sandwich is a tasty nibble. Small plates $2-8. 112 Krog St., Atlanta; 404-524-1618
Marnie Hunter is CNN.com's Travel Producer. She has lived in Atlanta since 1999.
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