Monday, August 10, 2015

Zac Rates Atlanta: Day Three

Recently, my fiancee, mother, father, brother, and I spent the better part of a week taking in Atlanta. I hadn’t seen my family in months and thus we had much (an engagement, a promotion, milestone birthdays, etc.) to catch up on and celebrate. Doing so gave us the opportunity to take in some of the best – and worst – that Atlanta had to offer.
Day Three


Given the rather extensive (more than ten miles!) amount of walking the day before, we set about making day three of our trip somewhat lighter. We started with the nearby Inside CNN Studio Tour (190 Marietta Street NW), a behind-the-scenes look at the cable news leader. As a former print journalist, I’ve always had a somewhat low opinion of television news. This tour did nothing to change that, but it was a reasonably informative overview of the cable news production process.

The tour begins in an atrium shared with the Omni Hotel. From there, you ride the world’s steepest elevator up eight floors and are led, room by room, on a tour that shows off the CNN and HLN newsrooms, smartboard and green screen technology, teleprompters, and other aspects of news production.

Our guide was very knowledgeable and did a good job of fielding questions, but the tour lacked interactivity. Though the Inside CNN tour wasn’t the time-waster that World of Coca Cola proved to be, it isn’t a must-see unless you are an avid CNN viewer.

7/10



Following the tour, we took another MARTA ride out to the Georgia Tech area for lunch at The Varsity, a renowned local fast food chain. The original location (61 North Avenue NW) is home to the world’s largest drive-in, and we arrived in the thick of lunchtime, so we anticipated some crowding. Despite that anticipation, it was astounding to see how busy this place gets. There must have been at least half a dozen registers open and lines more than ten people deep at each one. I shudder to think how much more foot traffic The Varsity sees during the school year.

Despite this, the food proved was very nearly worth the wait. The hot dogs were nothing fancy (and the chili was a bit weak) but are tastier than you can find many places. The signature Frosted Orange had a very synthetic flavor yet still managed to satisfy on a hot day. It was like drinking an orange creamsicle. The onion rings were tastily greasy.

Truth be told, nothing at The Varsity was exemplary, but as others have said, part of the reason you go to iconic eateries is for the experience, and by that measure, The Varsity – and it’s endless bustle – succeeded.

7.25/10
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Another bit of walking sent us back toward the Centennial Olympic Park area where we picked up another attraction: the Center for Civil and Human Rights (100 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard). Having toured Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Center and Museum, I was already familiar with a lot of the history. However, Atlanta’s relatively new (opened 2014) addition still managed to surprise.

For starters, this museum is not for the meek. As expected, it documents the deaths of the victims of white supremacist violence quite well. It also gives those willing a chance to step in the shoes of a sit-in protestor and have pre-recorded verbal abuse heaped on you for a few minutes. That, plus some effects taken from Martin Luther King’s funeral, makes for a very affecting experience.

The upper floor of the museum moves beyond the Civil Rights era and looks at human rights progress and abuses across the globe. One wall depicts oppressive dictators, another activists striving to make a difference, and another still shows the status of human rights in every country.

For as comprehensive as all this seems, however, there are several glaring omissions. For instance, the museum does not really address the Holocaust or even Leo Frank, a Jewish Atlanta man whose lynching helped reinvigorate the KKK.

Despite its somewhat narrow focus, the Center for Civil and Human Rights is a powerful representation of some of the darker chapters of recent history as well as those who fought for positive change.

8/10

Following this, we took the Atlanta Streetcar (free until 2016!) out to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. Though a fitting testament to the man and his legacy, I was quite tired during the time of our visit and shall refrain from trying to offer a review.




Day Three ended at Ruth’s Chris Steak House (267 Marietta Street NW) for a meal to celebrate the good news of the past few months. This Atlanta location of the national chain did not disappoint. The filet I ordered was cooked to the desired medium rare and was quite flavorful, as were the shared sides (creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, and sweet potato casserole). The desserts here are equally satisfying: the chocolate sin cake is decadent while the berries and cream are light and refreshing.

As befits an upscale steakhouse, prices are high. All dishes are served a la carte, and it is very easy to eclipse $50 per person. However, you will feel like you are getting your money’s worth. In addition to the quality food and quiet ambiance, our server was very helpful. I was up for a cider (which they did not carry), and he was able to recommend a wheat ale that substituted nicely.

Ruth’s Chris proved to be the perfect venue for a memorable meal. Those in search of an “occasion” restaurant should put this atop their lists.


9/10


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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Zac Rates Atlanta: Day Two

Recently, my fiancee, mother, father, brother, and I spent the better part of a week taking in Atlanta. I hadn’t seen my family in months and thus we had much (an engagement, a promotion, milestone birthdays, etc.) to catch up on and celebrate. Doing so gave us the opportunity to take in some of the best – and worst – that Atlanta had to offer.
Day Two


The second day of our Atlanta excursion began with a visit to the College Football Hall of Fame (250 Marietta Street Northwest). As several members of our group attended D-3 schools not known for football prowess and/or had minimal interest in college ball, this became a destination due to logistics (it was practically across the street from where we were staying) rather than to fervor. Nevertheless, it proved to be one of the better museums of the trip.

First and foremost, the Hall is very well-organized. Upon entry, each visitor is given an RFID-chipped badge and an opportunity to select a school. The foyer contains a massive wall of helmets, and after your selection, your school’s helmet will light up. Come within close proximity of any of the Hall’s many displays and kiosks, and you will be recognized by name. Some will give you a chance to answer trivia questions, others will display information, and others still will play videos. This is a very effective way to utilize technology to promote interactivity.

Speaking of interactivity, did you ever want to call a broadcast or attempt to kick a field goal? You can do that here too. The ever-patient staff won’t mock you for your futility, and you’ll likely end up having fun no matter how badly you fare.

For those with more interest in the sport, there is much, much more to appreciate. One room breaks down each Hall of Fame Class by year. Another houses trophies in all their shimmery glory. Gameday traditions, rivalries, and even uniforms round out a comprehensive list of exhibits.

At $20/ticket for adults, the price is reasonable for the experience offered. Also, those irked by massive lines at other Atlanta attractions will find a welcome respite here. We showed up on a Sunday morning and had no wait, but even later in the day, there wasn’t a huge crowd.

Though it certainly helps, you do not have to be a college football fan to appreciate all the College Football Hall of Fame has to offer. Modern, comprehensive, and welcoming, this museum is a winner.

9/10


Following the Hall, we walked a short distance to the nearby MARTA station, caught an eastbound train to Inman Park, and walked some more until we reached the Little Five Points neighborhood. Described as the Haight-Asbury of the Southeast, this area had a distinctive alt vibe. Record stores, tattoo parlors, retro fashion, and funky murals give the neighborhood a colorful character.



Criminal Records (1154-A Euclid Avenue NE) is one such shop, and one worth visiting. In addition to music, this place offers comic books and graphic novels, cult films, and much more. The selection is promising (the mainstream comingles seamlessly with the rare and offbeat), the ambiance isn’t forbiddingly elitist, and the pricing is moderate: not highway robbery but easily beatable online. Were I an Atlanta resident, I could see Criminal Records becoming a regular haunt.

8.25/10



Day two of the trip ended on a quest for Southern cuisine. Though there was no shortage of options in the area, we settled on the venerable Pittypat’s Porch (25 Andrew Young International Boulevard). This establishment dates back to 1967, and it looks its age – not necessarily a bad thing when you are craving homestyle cooking. Though the menu included everything from ribs to pork chops to salmon, three-fifths of our group opted for the fried chicken. My fiancée and I, the holdouts, went with shrimp and grits and fried catfish respectively.

True to form, the food took a while to arrive. Fortunately, Pittypat’s had an excellent salad bar (the sideboard) to tide us over. The availability of pickled watermelon rind proved to be a pleasant surprise. When our entrees finally did arrive, they largely met expectations. My shrimp were nicely blackened, and the accompanying grits were creamy enough without being runny. Though not the best preparation of this dish that I’ve had (the long pepper strips were odd), it did not disappoint. The fried chicken (moist on the inside, crispy on the outside) was similarly well-received though the chunkiness of the mashed potatoes was off-putting. Pittypat’s also offers desserts that should not be missed. Both the pecan pie and the bread pudding were very sweet yet had satisfyingly complex flavors (thanks to the use of Southern Comfort and bourbon-based sauces, respectively). All told, the meal delivered.



With entrees in the upper teens and twenties, the food here is no bargain. Mary Mac’s Tea Room offers much of the same fare for less. However, Pittypat’s pricing isn’t out-of-line for the immediate area. Our server was personable, knowledgeable, and left no reason for complaint.

Pittypat’s Porch has a few rough edges and plenty of competition, but if you are seeking a good Southern meal, you can still get it here.

8/10



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Zac Rates Atlanta: Day One

Recently, my fiancee, mother, father, brother, and I spent the better part of a week taking in Atlanta. I hadn’t seen my family in months and thus we had much (an engagement, a promotion, milestone birthdays, etc.) to catch up on and celebrate. Doing so gave us the opportunity to take in some of the best – and worst – that Atlanta had to offer.

Day One



The Hilton Garden Inn in Downtown Atlanta (275 Baker Street) served as our base for the first half of the trip. In terms of location, you would be hard-pressed to find a better spot. Situated just across from Centennial Olympic Park, the Hilton is within walking distance of several major attractions as well as a MARTA station. Beyond that, the rooms are comfortably sized and nicely appointed, and the front desk staff is helpful and accommodating.

That said, we did experience a few drawbacks. The entrance to the hotel is not well-marked, and it is easy enough to walk right past it. Our stay coincided with several family reunions, which made waiting for – and squeezing into – an elevator a bit taxing. Lastly, while the rates are reasonable given the location, charges for parking and breakfast make the Hilton pricier than first glance suggests.

7.75/10



We were hungry after checking in, and thankfully we didn’t have to travel far for a great lunch. Located across the street, Twin Smokers BBQ (300 Marietta Street NW) provided some of the best barbeque I’ve had anywhere.

Though the establishment’s name refers to its pair of wood-fired smokers, it could just as easily allude to the two styles – Texas and Southern – served here. The environment is appropriately rustic, and the lengths of hickory and mesquite stacked along the walls add a nice touch of authenticity. If you aren’t already hungry walking in the door, one whiff of the aroma here will change that promptly.

Our group opted for a Pride and Joy, a $75 combo platter that feeds four to six. The quantities were generous, and the food did not disappoint. The ribs were smoky, the pulled pork moist, the sausage nicely spiced, the mac n cheese creamy, and the collards well-seasoned. The free homemade pork rinds will make converts out of skeptics, and the assortment of half a dozen sauces (from sweet to spicy to vinegary) means you will find at least one to your liking.

Twin Smokers may not have the cachet of a legendary BBQ joint, but give it time. The food is all-around excellent.

9/10

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Our sight-seeing commenced after lunch and began with a trip to the Georgia Aquarium (225 Baker Street). The largest aquarium in the western hemisphere, this is also the only place in this part of the world to find whale sharks. Between them, belugas, giant manta rays, an albino alligator, and countless fish, the collection here offers astounding depth and breadth. The Ocean Voyager exhibit in particular is impressive: a conveyor belt moves you through an underwater tunnel while sea life swims all around you.


Despite this majesty, visiting the Georgia Aquarium is not an altogether pleasant experience. Entry lines can be exceedingly long (pro tip: get a CityPass), and once you are inside, expect significant crowding at some of the exhibits. Since much of the aquarium is family-oriented, expect a fair share of screaming children as well. At $39 for adults, general admission is quite steep as well though the aquarium does run several discounts.

Overall, there is lots of sea to see here, but squeezing past waves of fellow patrons may put a damper on your experience.


7.75/10




Following the aquarium, we took in World of Coca Cola (121 Baker Street) next door. A museum dedicated to all things Coke, this is proved to be a disappointment. After clearing a security checkpoint, visitors are herded into a series of waiting areas. When the doors finally open for your group, you are subjected to an introductory spiel and a promotional video. Presumably, this was done to prevent a mad rush to the more popular exhibits, but it still felt like corporate indoctrination and a waste of time.

The exhibits themselves include a soda bottling production line, a collection of Coke-themed pop art (including the requisite Andy Warhol composition), and, of course, the tasting room. The latter grants you unlimited samples of Coke products from around the world. While it’s easy to see the appeal in that, it isn’t all that it could be. Even with multiple sample stations (one for each continent), there tends to be heavy crowding. And for every decent flavor you stumble across, there is another that will inspire regret (Beverly, an aperitif marketed in Italy, is notoriously bitter and unappealing).

World of Coca Cola offers a few bright spots, but even loyal Cocaphiles will likely leave underwhelmed.

6/10



Day One ended by taking in a lighter meal at Max’s Coal Oven Pizzeria (300 Marietta Street NW). Since none of us was up for pizza, we couldn’t attest to the signature offerings, but a glance at the rather limited menu suggests a good assortment of meats (sausage, pepperoni, capicola, salami) and cheeses (mozzarella, fontina, parmesan, feta, goat) at slightly high ($15- to $19 for a 12-inch pie) prices. Instead, we all opted for the $10 salad and half sandwich combo. The Italian sandwich was satisfying albeit a bit heavy on the hot peppers while the Caesar salad, though basic, tasted fresh and hit the spot. The ambiance was lively and comfortable, and service proved adequate.

Though it is not a standout eatery, you could do far worse than Max’s.

7.5/10


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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Natty Greene's Brewing Company

Located at 345 South Elm Street in Downtown Greensboro, Natty Greene’s Brewing Company serves brewpub cuisine for lunch and dinner. There are indoor and outdoor dining areas, an upstairs taproom, and a bar with rotating beers on tap. A private dining area and daily food and drink specials are also available.

It took seven years of living in Greensboro for me to finally make it over to Natty Greene’s, but now that I have, I envision several returns. This place delivers all you can ask of a brewpub: a fun atmosphere, a good selection of food and drink (and some menu items that infuse the former with the latter), reasonable pricing, and competent execution and service.

Despite its aged visage, the inside of Natty Greene’s doesn’t feel badly worn. The brick-and-wood décor is a classic look, and a wall mural adds a splash of color. Multiple dining areas (downstairs, bar, upstairs, outside) ensure that there is plenty of space.

The menu here is unpretentious without being boring. Fish n chips and barbeque aside, this is an app/salad/sandwich place, but the sandwiches go beyond mere chicken and burgers (both of which are available). Pork belly, capicola, and ahi tuna make an appearance, and many of the meats are ale-marinated.

For our first visit, my companion and I split an order of Cajun fries. They came loaded with bacon, scallions, and cheese and proved to be salty and spicy enough to make us forget about the calories contained therein. I followed up with a Cohiba sandwich: a variant of the Cuban with Pale Ale-marinated pork and barbeque sauce. That the sandwich was slathered in sauce (as opposed to merely housing it) made it a mess to eat, but it delivered the right combination of sweet, smoky, and savory. My companion’s veggie burger (with avocado, red pepper, and tomato) was similarly satisfying.

To escape the noise, we opted to eat in the bar area. The bartender who took care of us was amiable and knowledgeable. Neither the service nor the pricing (generously portioned sandwiches are $9 to $11 and include a side) left any reason for complaint.

It may take a few more visits for Natty Greene’s to grow on me the way that Foothills Brewing has, but if nothing else, it showed that “local institution” needn’t mean needlessly hyped. This is as good a lunch spot as any for the downtown crowd.


8/10

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Iron Hen Cafe

Located at 908 Cridland Road in Greensboro, the Iron Hen Café serves coffee drinks as well as sandwiches, salads, and entrees for lunch and dinner. Catering is available through the café’s parent company (Fresh Local Good), and there is limited outdoor seating.

Iron Hen is yet another “looks good on paper” restaurant. The concept (fresh, locally sourced ingredients meets southern comfort food with an eco friendly twist) holds appeal, and several of the menu items look enticing, but the overall experience is underwhelming.

For starters, this is not a particularly comfortable place to eat. Though the green décor adds a note of brightness, Iron Hen is small, loud, and crowds easily. There is little room between tables, and lots of bustling at breakfast.

Of course, this would be forgivable if the food was worthwhile, but this is sadly not the case. Tempted by the prospect of corned beef from Giacomo’s, I went with the corned beef hash. The beef was almost overwhelmingly salty. The eggs, while cooked well, had almost no flavor (until pepper was added). The highlight may have been the sweet cinnamon butter served with the accompanying toast.

At $9 this made for a somewhat pricey disappointment. Other breakfast items offered no greater value. Stacks of pancakes were available at $7 to 9 (depending on the toppings) with no sides save for fruit while something as simple as granola, milk/yogurt, and blueberries goes for $6 here.

Iron Hen’s one unqualified positive is the service. Despite being absolutely slammed, the servers were polite and cheerful, food came out quickly and correctly, and everyone seemed poised to handle the volume.

There are far worse places to grab a bite for breakfast or lunch, but the brisk business that Iron Hen does suggests an appeal that I’ve yet to discover. A good concept and hard-working staff can’t overcome inconsistent food and a lackluster experience.


6.5/10 

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a mechanically skilled thief, has been released from prison and is trying to reconnect with his daughter. He is recruited by former SHIELD scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his doubtful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to steal a piece of dangerous size-altering technology engineered by Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s former protégé, from Pym’s earlier research. To do so, Lang must embrace Pym’s former identity as Ant-Man.

If last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy showed that Marvel Studios can make the unlikeliest of properties into a success if the tone is right, then Ant-Man largely repeats that lesson, albeit on a smaller scale (puns semi-intended). Here, a lower-tier character powered by ridiculous science is given a boost by energetic direction, a capable cast, and a focus on fun.

Up until the moment of a release, this was a film that may have had even Marvel’s staunch supporters second-guessing. First came the news that Hank Pym – the primary Ant-Man of the comics – would be portrayed by Douglas and thus shunted off into a mentor role. Next came the announcement that director Edgar Wright, beloved for his Cornetto trilogy with Simon Pegg, would be stepping aside. Add to that his replacement by a lightweight comedy director (Peyton Reed) and a lead better known as a Judd Apatow ensemblist than an action star (Paul Rudd), and this film had disappointment written all over it.

Fortunately – and perhaps surprisingly – a lot of those perceived liabilities proved to be strengths. Douglas keeps Pym’s prickliness even as he serves in a largely benevolent capacity. Rudd, who would not have been convincing as a typical hero, plays Lang as a down-on-his luck everyman and largely succeeds. And Reed, freed from the constraints of lofty expectations, focuses on delivering solid entertainment. The pace is brisk, the action sequences, CGI-laden as they may be, are credible, and the screenplay (cobbled together by Wright, Rudd, Joe Cornish, and Adam McKay) allows for plenty of humor, at the expense of everything from Baskin-Robbins to other Marvel properties.

The supporting roles are somewhat thinly drawn, but the cast handles them well. Lilly plays Hope as both capable and conflicted, forced into an alliance with a father she resents and a new recruit she distrusts. As a bald, ruthless, tech-savvy CEO, Cross is easily read as a second-rate Lex Luthor ripoff, but Stoll fills his shoes with menacing zeal. And Luis, Lang’s fast-talking criminal accomplice, would be an insulting sidekick caricature…if Michael Pena’s comic timing wasn’t as great as it is here.

So what’s not to like? Refreshing as the film’s lightness is, it also renders it somewhat insignificant. Guardians of the Galaxy may have been comedy-heavy, but the introduction of Thanos and the Infinity Stones had grave and far-reaching implications for the universe. Here, we are left with a guy on a personal mission (to prove himself a competent father) who is pressed into taking care of a problem that could have been handled by half a dozen other heroes had they been available. Only a post-credits scene really makes an effort to tie this film into the broader fictional universe, and even in that context, it’s clear that Ant-Man will have a much smaller role to play going forward.

In the grand scheme of things, Ant-Man may not be one of Marvel’s stronger offerings, but it’s still a highly watchable action-comedy. For those reeling from the doom-and-gloom of Avengers: Age of Ultron shrink your expectations and ant-ticipate a fun if somewhat forgettable flick.


7.75/10

Undercurrent

Located at 327 Battleground Avenue in Downtown Greensboro, Undercurrent offers fine dining using locally and regionally sourced ingredients. There is a full bar, a private dining room, and patio seating. The menu changes every few months and wine tastings and specialty dinners are held periodically. Reservations are recommended.

“Downtown” plus “fine dining” plus “farm to table” seems like a winning formula for getting away with overcharging and underwhelming, but Undercurrent actually gives patrons reason to take those buzzwords at face value. Excellent food, competent service, and a comfortable atmosphere combine to make for a decidedly decent dining destination.

Though many of Greensboro’s downtown eateries tend to be a bit cramped, Undercurrent is fairly spacious. The main dining area features columns, high ceilings, and large windows that offer a view of the cityscape. The ambiance doesn’t compare to that of Print Works, and more space between tables would have been nice, but it still made for a cozy dining environment.

The menu here is narrow, but it does not lack appeal. Soups, salads, small plates, large plates, and entrees make good use of seasonal fruits and vegetables (they are big on compotes here), and the dishes are complex without seeming too pretentious to succeed. For my first visit, I opted for a garam masala rubbed duck breast. It came at the desired doneness and was plated beautifully atop rice and vibrant veggies. The duck had a nice char, and the accompanying blueberry puree added some welcome sweetness to play off of the dish’s savory components. My companion went with a red snapper dish on special and was equally satisfied: the fish was cooked well, and the sides (okra and a farro tabbouleh, if memory serves correct) seemed to suit it nicely. For as good as the entrees (and the fresh bread) were, however, dessert may have been the highlight. A white chocolate-blueberry bread pudding was gooey, rich, and decadent, but both the freshness of the berries and a sprig of mint kept it from tasting like pure sugar.



Both service and pricing here were what was expected given the level of food. The former was attentive without being overbearing. The latter was high but not exorbitant. Our entrees ran in the upper $20s, and portion sizing was adequate.

Undercurrent isn’t for the faint of wallet, but unlike certain other high-priced concept eateries, you will get what you pay for here, and you will most likely enjoy it.


8.5/10

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