Gimme Five: Restaurants in Athens fall into three basic categories: the ones that set ambitious goals and succeed (a small group), the ones pitched at an everyday level (the majority of places in town) and the ones that aim both to provide you with pretty good food and to separate you from a significant amount of cash at the same time. Although Athens is, on the whole, relatively impoverished, there are folks in town who do not shy away from spending $4 for a Budweiser, and it’s only smart business for some places to market themselves to that audience.
Five Bar (269 N. Hull St., in the Cotton Exchange Building, 706-543-5515) is doing exactly that, and rather successfully. On a Friday night, the place is hopping, and more than a dozen people are working the dining room, suggesting the restaurant provides significant employment for locals despite its Alabama roots (there are two other locations, in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa). Although its offerings are targeted somewhat to a college crowd, it’s more of a date night restaurant or a place for students to bring their parents than a party-party environment.
The space has always been a nice one, with high ceilings, a nice second level at the back of the room (which offers both a sushi bar and a kind of bar seating that looks out over the interior and is great for people watching) and a somewhat open kitchen. It has lots of different options for seating and good areas for waiting, too. The decor is a bit of a mish-mash, with chandeliers adorning the ceiling and the walls decorated with Steve Keene-esque paintings of musicians, reproductions of some bizarre artwork and large blow-up photographs of Vince Dooley and the Dalai Lama.
The concept is a little silly but decently executed. The idea is minimalist—five options, saving you from the stress of a Cheesecake Factory-type giant menu—but the categories pile up, making it less so. Still, there are five entrees and five appetizers, plus five regular and five specialty sushi rolls to choose among, so it’s not too overwhelming. The menu consists of surprisingly well-executed bar food, with smart options in both lighter and heavier categories.
Among the appetizers, the baked avocado is a highlight. It sounds gross but, in fact, is kind of a sophisticated vehicle for delivering bacon, concomitant with low-carb if not low-fat eating, and, requiring a spoon to eat, does not even get your fingers dirty. The sushi is of the cream-cheese-and-crunchy-bits variety. If you are a fish snob, it will not challenge your palate, but it’s not insulting, either.
It may sound terrible if I compare the cheeseburger to the basic one at McDonald’s, but I mean it in the nicest possible way. It falls into the flat rather than fat school, which enables maximum Maillard reaction all over the two patties. The bun is super soft without falling apart, the cheese of the bright-yellow variety and the dressing of it all beautifully simple. Rather than BSing about how you’d like it cooked then bringing it to you well-done regardless, the staff skips that part so the kitchen can cook it just right.
The excellent salad (tart apple, sunflower seeds, good greens, well-dressed) and the big pile of fries that accompany the burger help explain the $13 price tag, which is still a little hard to swallow in Athens. Five is open for dinner every night from 5 p.m. and for brunch on Sundays. It has a full bar and takes credit cards.
BBQ Beat: Rooter’s Grocery and Barbecue (150 E. Whitehall Rd., 706-207-5668) has been open for a few weeks now in the historic building where Jot ‘Em Down got its start, and the offerings are very similar, down to the delicious yellow mustard sauce that is good enough to drink as a shot. The zoning on the space is such that there is no dine-in possible, but the field behind the building provides a nice spot for a picnic. Unlike its predecessor, it has taken credit cards from the beginning, making impulse buys easier. The cabbage casserole is once again on the menu and is worth a special trip: hot, mayonnaisey, crunchy and salty, it is a marvelous side.
The ‘cue could, unfortunately, be better. The ribs are too tough, and the pulled pork and the half-chicken need a flavor boost. They have plenty of smoke, but the bark is lacking. The stew isn’t very good, and the baked beans are too soft and too sweet, but the slaw is tasty and works well on your sandwich to add some zip and texture. The medium sauce is more tomatoey but still has plenty of vinegar. The hot and extra-hot should be taken at face value. Habaneros are no joking matter! The mini-desserts are adorable, with tiny chess and pecan pies available at good prices.
Rooter’s is open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. It does catering and sells groceries including pickled eggs, old-fashioned sodas and candy.
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