Photo Credit: CD Skehan
New Coat of Paint: The last time I went to Chonell’s (now at 1080 Baxter St.), it was probably five years ago. The restaurant’s previous location probably started out better than it ended up, when the shopping center on Broad that now contains the Omni Club had a Kroger in it. The work-out crowd just doesn’t overlap all that much with the fried chicken crowd these days. So, the move to Baxter Street a couple of months ago, into the building that was most recently Gnat’s Landing, made decent sense.
The square footage is probably about the same, but the digs are slightly upgraded, and the restaurant has retained a banquet room in the back that can be rented for private events. The interior feels like the same old Chonell’s that’s been in business for 17 years, complete with the maroon plastic-seated chairs and a generally spartan sense of decorating. Gnat’s Landing had a full bar, but Chonell’s doesn’t swing that way, so the bar instead serves as a place to take orders and sit if you’re dining solo, watching "CNN Headline News."
A board with the day’s items and specials hangs opposite the cash register, promising more meats most days than many another comparable eatery and a few vegetables that you don’t see turn up too often either (rutabagas, yams). My impression is that much is made to order. The food doesn’t feel like it’s been sitting under a heat lamp, but it also isn’t exactly ready in a flash for take-out.
Chonell’s is known for its fried chicken and its desserts and rightfully so. The dark-meat chicken is well-cooked, tender, juicy, flavorful and better than the white-meat version, although when you lick your fingers you may detect a sugary taste to the batter that is otherwise imperceptible. The strawberry shortcake is nice, too, nothing fancy but made with care and not overly sweet. Collards, lima beans, potato salad and black-eyed peas acquit themselves fine, but nothing is a stand-out. The country-fried steak, despite the restaurant’s current emphasis on health, is hard to locate under an impressive amount of white gravy.
The prices are excellent ($6.60, for example, for a mixed dark-and-white fried chicken plate with bread and two vegetables), and the people are nice. Chonell’s doesn’t transcend what it is, but it doesn’t disappoint either. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and noon to 3 p.m. weekends at the moment, although the sign says those hours aren’t necessarily permanent. It does take-out, takes credit cards and posts menus on Facebook.
New Digs: When Siri Thai first opened in Athens, in the Bottleworks on Prince Avenue, where its original location remains in business, it gave away little prizes with the meals. I still have an ornate bottle opener that came with the check when I ate there some years ago. Now well established, it feels no need to do the same with its second operation, open in the Ansonborough mixed-use development (1040 Gaines School Rd.) since December. When you’re in the back of the development, it’s easy to feel that you’re not in Athens at all, and the restaurant is so shiny, new and immaculate that it contributes to that impression. The space is large, open, carpeted and quiet, with some greenery sprinkled about and a large flatscreen that plays travel programs on Thailand (especially attractive on a gray, cold day). It’s also somewhat lacking in personality, but the restaurant trades on professionalism rather than quirk.
I’ve found Siri’s offerings reliable and well executed, considering our location in the Southeast. Even in Atlanta, it can be hard to find more adventurous Thai cuisine, let alone Athens, and Siri’s menu is pretty familiar stuff. That said, the tom yum soup is fresh and fragrant, the fried spring roll that comes with the combos is flavorful, the pad thai not too full of palm sugar, and the general quality fairly high. Unless you order your food on the hotter side (they’re serious about spicing), nothing will knock your socks off. The flavor profiles of many of the dishes are similar, and the same vegetables appear repeatedly, albeit not cooked into oblivion and well balanced. Consistency can be a worthy trait, despite not being as exciting as innovation, and the restaurant does further diversify the culinary array on the Eastside. It’s open for lunch and dinner (closing in between except for Sunday) every day but Tuesday, does take-out, takes credit cards and has a wide selection of Thai desserts.
What Up?: Herschel’s Famous 34 Pub & Grill (wings, burgers, ribs, beers) is open in the former Chango’s on East Clayton downtown. Los Coyotes, with Mexican food, is open on Mitchell Bridge Road in the big blue development. Cook-Out Restaurant, a small chain out of North Carolina that inspires devotion from its fans, is opening a branch in what is technically Oconee County, on Epps Bridge Pkwy., near Kohl’s. If you’re looking for something a little different from the usual V-Day routine, White Tiger is doing comfort food, with steak or tofu, mashed potatoes, green beans and a little box of chocolates. You can even get it to go.