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суббота, 8 октября 2016 г.

Top 6 Fine Dining Restaurants in the Auburn-Opelika Area

The Auburn-Opelika area has been growing in sophistication as well as population over the past few decades. In addition to the perennial favorite, Auburn Tiger Football (and other sporting events), we now have many other cultural attractions, including an art museum (the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, which also hosts a recital series), East Alabama Arts association and their performing arts series, the Auburn Chamber Music Society and its series, and many concerts, theatrical events, and lectures sponsored by Auburn University. Our area also has wonderful parks (which also host events), recreational activities, historic sites and museums, and no doubt many more attractions I am forgetting or have yet to discover.

Still, many people are surprised to discover how many good restaurants the area offers. Being quite interested in food, I believe my husband and I have sampled them all on multiple occasions over the years. I am always excited when a new one opens, and still mourn the passing of some old favorites. I hope this description of our current top 6 will be a jumping off point for diners to enjoy a sample of the Auburn-Opelika area’s wonderful dining opportunities.

Photo: Josh Hallett. Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art – Auburn, AL. CC. 25 Sept. 2006.

No. 1: The Warehouse Bistro

It’s always fun to take first-timers here because it is located in an unlikely warehouse district of Opelika. After threading our vehicle through narrow streets lined with industrial properties, we suddenly turn into a well-lit parking lot, on one side of which a soft glow spills from a low, unremarkable building.

Weather permitting, there are tables outside, as well as white ornamental lights and decorations alluding to the restaurant’s award-winning wine list (it won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 2005-06). Inside are two dining areas, a cozy room with a comfortably large bar and an eye-cheating mirror that makes it look bigger, and a longer room off to the side for overflow and larger parties.

Dress is business casual, and the service, though impeccable, is warmer and less formal than you would typically find in a big city. The noise level is subdued, the music, usually jazz, pleasantly interesting.

The menu is American and continental and not often changed, which suits us fine, as we cannot afford to go as often as we would like (it’s not cheap, but we find it good value for the money). We especially enjoy their rack of lamb and, more generally, the chef’s use of herbs, and we like to explore their exceptional wine list.

Whatever the occasion, our meals at The Warehouse Bistro never fail to enhance the warm glow we feel towards each other and our friends and guests.

Source: The Warehouse Bistro website.

No. 2: Maestro 2300

Located in a shopping center in the Moore’s Mill area, this restaurant has a more open plan than The Warehouse Bistro, but has cleverly used drapery and partitions to create semi-private spaces for dining. The service is excellent, the noise level noticeable but not intrusive. Dress is business casual.

Like The Warehouse Bistro, Maestro 2300 has an award-winning wine list. It won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2014 and “emphasizes wines of the Mediterranean region.” The menu is “new world Mediterranean” prepared with an unusual elegance and attention to subtle blends of flavors as well as presentation. It features local foods, and if there is a slight Southern accent here and there—a corn fritter, some pickled okra, and peach cobbler are on their current menu—it is all beautifully done and sophisticated.

Again like The Warehouse Bistro, Maestro 2300 is pricey enough that we have not eaten there as often as we would like. But we have found it to be a memorable dining experience, one that seems to be improving over time.

Source: Maestro 2300 website.

No. 3: Acre

  The Ohio City Farm is one of the country’s largest contiguous urban farm at nearly 6 acres. It provides urban farmers with low-cost land, shared facilities and technical assistance and is designed to develop and support entrepreneurial farmers.
Acre is new to Auburn, having opened in 2013, and we have only been twice so far. It is right in the center of town and has valet parking, which is needed. Dress is casual to business casual.

The restaurant is spacious, and its concern with sustainability is reflected in its use of repurposed materials in its décor. But Acre is very popular. It is often crowded and noisy. The first time we went we had to eat on the spacious enclosed porch—not terrible, but we didn’t get to appreciate the décor—and the service, while very good, seemed to suffer from too many demands while we were there. On our second visit, however, we got to sit inside, which is prettier, but also noisier, and we had very good service.

The menu at Acre, described as “new Alabama cuisine,” is unusual, local, and gourmet (the restaurant has an “on-site vegetable garden”). Colin Donnelly, the former chef of the sadly defunct Yellowhammer Restaurant in Waverly (outside of Auburn) is chef de cuisine and “in-house butcher,” so we are not surprised at the flavor wizardry in its use of local produce. On our first visit we found the menu almost too unusual, and the bread that came with a soup we ordered was dry. The soup itself was good, however, and the menu had tasty options for our vegetarian guest. Our second experience of Acre's cuisine was far superior to our first, with wonderful seafood, tender, perfectly cooked duck, a delicate panna cotta and the most interesting part of my meal, a delicious pickled bone marrow appetizer.

We enjoy Acre, and we approve of slow food. We look forward to further informing ourselves about it on repeat visits.

Source: Acre website.

Photo: Horticulture Group. Urban Farm visits 2012 131. CC. 6 Aug. 2012.

No. 4: Zazu Gastropub

Zazu Gastropub was also right in downtown Auburn. It is currently closed and plans to reopen in historic downtown Opelika in Dec. 2014. I am leaving its place on my list while we wait, and I look forward to visiting at its new location.

In the Auburn restaurant, the décor was strikingly minimalist. The food belied the surroundings, though. The menu was gourmet American cuisine, interestingly prepared and presented. I found the seafood particularly memorable, and where else could I get cornbread waffles with my fried chicken? I also liked their fun cocktail menu and the funky glasses that reminded me of Dr. Seuss illustrations.

Source: Zazu Gastropub website.

No. 5: Ma Fia’s Restaurant and Pizzeria
Mmm . . . Pizza Margherita

Cute name, right? Located in the historic Railroad Avenue district of Opelika, Ma Fia’s serves up boldly flavored Italian food in a rustic atmosphere. Service is good, and the menu has many interesting options, like salmon pizza. Dress is business casual.

It is pleasant to eat in their extensive outdoor seating area on a fine night with well-dressed people enjoying their nights out all around you and music piped in by the city through unobtrusive outdoor speakers. Almost equally nice is the interior of the restaurant, with hardwood floors and some dark wood beams and paneling.

The food is hearty and satisfying, the wine list adequate. I have noticed that sometimes the food is not perfectly cooked. My salmon pizza was well seasoned, but the salmon was a little dry. Another time I finished a delicious but over-rich bowl of pasta to find a noticeable puddle of oil at the bottom of the plate. But I never complain about such minor flaws because I always enjoy the array of comfort food and the overall relaxing experience at Ma Fia’s.

Source: Ma Fia's Restaurant and Pizzeria website.

Photo: jeffreyw. Mmm . . . Pizza Margherita. CC. 7 July 2013.

No. 6: Hamilton’s on Magnolia

One block from Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner and just down Magnolia Street from Zazu is Hamilton’s, a long cozy restaurant with brick and dark wood and jazzy art (there is also a small outdoor seating area). Hamilton’s is very popular and always full of Auburn University people, especially at lunch and on the weekends. Dress is casual to business casual.

One of my favorite experiences at Hamilton’s was after Auburn had an amazing comeback to beat Alabama in the 2010 Iron Bowl (the Tigers went on to win the National Championship). The Iron Bowl is always played around Thanksgiving, so my in-laws were visiting from Tulsa. We waited a respectable interval after the game, and then, since it was away in Tuscaloosa, we thought we might safely venture out to eat.

Little did we understand the true Auburn faithful. Hamilton’s was still packed with people in orange and blue (I was most unfortunately wearing red) who were waving pompoms, cheering, and animatedly rehashing the game. We were grateful the staff were able to seat us at all, and did not mind a bit that the unusual circumstances occasioned some delay in our meal.

It was a colorful and exciting experience for my Sooner fan in-laws. When we left hours later, the crowd had thinned only a little, and the enthusiasm had not dimmed at all.

Under normal conditions, service at Hamilton’s is efficient and hospitable. The menu varies little, consisting of well-prepared “contemporary American selections,” many of which, like cranberry-pecan salad, or shrimp and grits, have a decidedly Southern flavor.

There is some gourmet flare in the flavors and presentation at Hamilton’s, but not much spirit of adventure. I find the appetizers, such as shrimp and fried green tomatoes, some of the most interesting dishes. The cocktail menu is fun, the wine list adequate. Lunch is considerably less formal or gourmet.

A Personal Taste
In conclusion . . .

This list is very much my subjective opinion, and no doubt my enjoyable experiences at these eateries were influenced by many personal factors. But it is equally certain that the dining experiences these restaurants provide have made my special occasions memorable and joyous.

If you live in or visit the Auburn-Opelika area, I hope you have many opportunities to create your own memorable occasions at these fine restaurants.

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