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Fine dining in Atlanta: as Atlanta grows in international stature, so do its restaurants - Travel

ATLANTA HAS LONG BEEN CONSIDERED the heart of the US South--the home of Southern hospitality and, of course, Southern cooking. Now the city is trying to position itself as a hub for Latin American trade and commerce. Although it has grown into one of the more cosmopolitan cities in the United States, this once-sleepy town--originally founded as Marthasville--still retains its heart. And nowhere is it more present than in its cuisine.

As Atlanta has matured, so have its residents' tastes for fine dining. Locals dine out an average of four times a week, second only to Houston, Texas, for any metropolis in the US. In a city where big business is its life-blood, the biggest deals are often sealed over dinner. And as national and international business has continued to flow into Atlanta, so has the need for restaurants suitable for the business traveler.

When in town, who better to ask for advice on the top restaurants for business than the town's business leaders? LatinCEO asked four CEOs to name their favorite restaurants for those times when business and pleasure overlap.

Restaurant: Bone's

Executive: A.W. Bill Dahlberg CEO, Southern Company

Consider the glass double doors at the entrance of Bone's restaurant a passageway.

Outside, city traffic flies down a four-lane highway just in front of the unassuming white building with maroon awnings. Inside, the bustling street gives way to dimmed lights, a lively buzz and rich reds and yellows. Past the leather couches and chairs which surround the wooden bar, maitre d' Bobby Donlan greets guests as if they have entered a private club-just as he has done for 20 of the restaurant's 21 years in business. The restaurant, which has no dress code, invites you to exhale.

That is the beauty of Bone's and one reason why it's a haven for Bill Dahlberg. Here, he can forget for a while that he's chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Southern Company the largest energy company in the US, with operations worldwide.

Or, as he does often, Dahlberg can use the environment to conduct business deals. "Bone's will always be on people's top-five lists of restaurants in Atlanta," says Dahlberg, a native Atlantan. "I enjoy restaurants that immediately give you a good feeling when you walk in. Bone's does that."

Lining the walls of this two-level restaurant are framed caricatures of Atlanta's well-to-do and signed photographs of celebrities and political figures.

"The atmosphere lends itself to not being stuffy," says Emile Blau, general manager of Bone's for the past 17 years. "Whether you're in a suit or golf shirt and khakis-I guess that's business casual now-you're going to feel comfortable immediately."

While guests are invited to relax, the staff never does. Bone's is Atlanta's model of consistency in atmosphere, service and cuisine. Just as the doorman and general manager have been there most of their careers, so has the butcher (17 years) and the chef (20 years). "You're not going to have somebody taking care of you who does not have a vested interest in the restaurant," Blau says.

Consistent service is one reason business travelers love Bone's. The other: the steaks. Bone's takes wet-aged USDA prime beef and ages it an additional six weeks in vacuum-sealed packs to make it as succulent as possible. Knives don't cut through the meat, they slide through it. Add to that an encyclopedic list of wines-about 550 different labels-and a selection of fine cigars.

"Service is something technical, hospitality is a culture," Blau says. "What we are is a culture. It's a whole bunch of little things."

Bone's. 3130 Piedmont Road, NE. (404) 237-2663.

Restaurant: Blue Ridge Grill

Executive: Leo Mullin Chairman and CEO, Delta Air Lines

This restaurant, now in its fifth year, has the feeling of a fine, 100-year-old mountain lodge. It's Blue Ridge Grill's balance of coziness and extravagance that attracts a Who's Who in Atlanta, where merging business and pleasure is often a way of life.

No one knows this better than Leo Mullin, chairman, president and CEO of Delta Air Lines, the world's top passenger carrier. "I love the atmosphere," says Mullin. "It's very rustic, like a lodge, with the exposed wood beams in the ceiling, the fireplace and hearth, and the wooden floors."

It's the feeling of escape and casualness that makes Blue Ridge Grill a hit with Atlanta's top business folk. On any given night, one can find after-hours business meetings going on throughout the restaurant, but in a relaxed mood. Ifs the many "outdoor" details that seem to take the edge off: the crackling fireplace in what feels like the gathering room of a lodge; the deep red leather of the booths; the hanging lanterns; the swaying trees outside the picture windows; even the canoe tucked into the rafters over the wooden bar.

"When people want to get away for the weekend, they talk about driving to the mountains," says Laura Heckart, the restaurant's general manager. "We say come to Blue Ridge Grill. The experience is like getting away."

The atmosphere maybe laid back, but the service is always on its toes. Clean-cut stewards in impeccable red jackets are attentive to diners at tables and booths (where Mullin always sits) throughout the two-level restaurant. "The service is responsive. They really get to know you," says Mullin.

The perfect complement to the Southern hospitality is the American cuisine's Southern influence. Like the restaurant, the food is simple, but with an extravagant flair -- like the grilled apple-stuffed Georgia trout, for instance. Heckart says management modifies the menu twice a year and is in the process of bringing out its summer selections. But one unchanging aspect of the restaurant is a wood-burning stove that gives its grilled dishes a splendid hickory aroma. Just ask Mullin, whose favorite dish is the wood-grilled salmon with mashed potatoes.

So while a trip to the great outdoors might not fit your schedule, at least you can get some work done -- and get a taste of being in the country.

Blue Ridge Grill. 1261 W. Paces Ferry Road, NW (Just off Interstate-75); (404) 233-5030

Restaurant: Canoe

Executive: Charles Brewer

Chairman, EarthLink

With a 90-degree sun beating down on Atlanta, the refreshing breeze off the Chattahoochee River cools you long enough to take in this splendid haven. The din of wine glasses and the chatter of clients seem subdued by the murmuring water running past, just a few feet away.

Situated on the western bank of the affectionately named "Hooch" in Cobb County sits Canoe, which, in less than five years, has made a lasting impression on Metro Atlanta residents as well as business people from around the globe.

It's in this tranquil, low-tech environment that one of the leading figures of the high-tech world likes to conduct business. When asked to choose his favorite restaurant for the business traveler, Canoe was the resounding choice for Charles Brewer, chairman of EarthLink. Based in Atlanta, EarthLink is one of the 50 largest companies in Georgia by revenue and among the most expansive Internet service providers in the US.

Whenever Brewer wants to wine and dine a client, celebrate a successful venture, or simply enjoy one of the best-prepared meals in Atlanta, he heads for Canoe, which is as famous for its setting as for its eclectic menu and refined service. "It's a beautiful spot with an attractive clientele. You get the feeling of being in a nice place in the South," says Brewer, a native of Louisville, Kentucky

The 180-seat restaurant, with its white linen table coverings contrasting a background of robust wooden architecture, offers the best in New-American Continental cuisine. From fresh fish, such as Florida grouper, to more exotic renderings, like buffalo and ostrich, Canoe is creative. But it doesn't bog down diners with fluff; the dishes are prepared simply and flawlessly

Brewer, who prefers the fresh fish of the day for his meal, loves to munch on the "incredible flatbread" that comes to every table. "You should definitely sit outside," he says. "The food's great, but the riverside setting is what makes it."

When it comes to patrons striking business deals, the crew of Canoe can play the role of unobtrusive servants or masters of ceremony "If they're doing business, we try to be invisible. If they're celebrating, we like to help them celebrate," says Vincent Palmero, director of operations for Cooking Inc., which owns Canoe. "That's part of service - understanding what the guests want." And for backdrop and menu, no place in Atlanta beats it.

Canoe. 4199 Paces Ferry Road. (770) 432-2663

Restaurant: Nava

Executive: Rolando H. Santos President, CNN en Espanol

In a museum, art is something to be appreciated quietly and at a distance. At Nava, art is something to carve with a knife and fork.

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