Southern cuisine gets a bad rap, no doubt about it. As a world-weary traveler once said, sitting down to a plate of chicken-fried steak with cream gravy with a side of biscuits and honey and a tall glass of Coca-Cola, "The French live to eat. Southerners eat to die." That's changing, and changing fast. Many Atlantans will tell you that the premier dining experience in their city is still two chilidogs with a Coke and a peach pie from the Varsity, said to be America's oldest drive-in restaurant. But visitors to Atlanta need not go mano-a-mano with cholesterol. Here's a sampling of the very latest in Atlanta restaurants:
* Soho, at 4200 Paces Ferry Road in the historic Vinings area, features Southwestern and Asian cooking. The tortilla soup comes with fried green tomatoes, just to remind you of where you really are.
* The Food Studio, at the King Plow Arts Center, 887 West Marietta St. NW, is meant to evoke New York's Greenwich Village. Is the restaurant's five-onion soup evocactive of Seventh Avenue South? Buy a New Yorker dinner and find out.
* Frog & Peach, 3167 Peachtree Street, is a French/Mediterranean cafe with such dishes as salmon and sole with fettuccini. Again, there is also pork tenderloin with honey ham, just to remind you that you're still in Georgia.
* The modestly named Fairlie Popular Cafe, 85 Popular Street, features such exotica as lamb with couscous (a kind of North African pasta) as well as the more prosaic angel-hair pasta with portabello mushrooms.
* Max Lager's American Grill & Brewery, 230 Peachtree Street, scheduled to open this month, is a brewpub, which is to say a restaurant built around its own brewery. It will be large, with a 230-seat dining area and another large upstairs banquet room.
* Dish, 870 North Highland Avenue, is also scheduled to open this month on the site of the former RJ's Uptown Kitchen & Wine Bar. Menu details were unavailable at presstime.
Best of the Best According to the Zagat Restaurant Guide, perhaps the most reliable of all because its reviews represent the cumulative impressions of actual diners rather than the opinion of a single food critic, there are a few places in Atlanta that do the trick when nothing but the best will do. Approach these as you would any fine dining experience--with reservations made well in advance and with an unlimited expense account budget:
* Bacchanalia, 3125 Piedmont Road. California cuisine in a Victorian house in Atlanta's upscale Buckhead neighborhood.
* The Ritz-Carlton Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. 3434 Peachtree Road Northeast. American cuisine.
* Ciboulette Restaurant, 1529 Piedmont Avenue, Clear Creek Shopping Center. French cuisine.
* Pano's and Paul's, 1232 West Paces Ferry Road, West Paces Shopping Center. American cuisine.
* Ritz-Carlton Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta, 181 Peachtree Street. Classic French cuisine.
* Bone's Restaurant, 3130 Piedmont Road NE. Steakhouse.
* Brasserie Le Coze, 3393 Peachtree Road, Lenox Square. French bistro cuisine.
* Chops, 70 West Paces Ferry Road, Buckhead Plaza. Steakhouse.
* The Hedgerose Heights Inn, 490 East Paces Ferry Road NE. Continental cuisine.
* Ritz-Carlton Cafe at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. American cuisine. Grab your credit cards and go. And don't forget about calling weeks ahead for reservations. Bon Appetit, y'all.
For More Information Georgia Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau 233 Peachtree St., Suite 2000 Atlanta, GA 30303 (404)521-6600 fax: (404)584-6331 Vanessa Hudson, Small Meetings Manager Elliott Ferguson, National Accounts Director www.acvb.com
Clayton County Convention & Visitors Bureau 104 North Main St. Jonesboro, GA 30236 (800)662-STAY fax: (770)478-1888 Barbara Camp, director
Cobb County Convention & Visitors Bureau P.O. Box 672827 Marietta, GA 30006 (770)933-7228 fax: (770)933-7220 Carla Mathis, national sales manager www.cobbcvb.org
DeKalb Convention & Visitors Bureau 750 Commerce Dr., Suite 200 Decatur, GA 30030 (800)999-6055 fax: (404)378-0941 Jeffrey Mills, director www.dcvb.org
Gwinnett Convention & Visitors Bureau 1505 Lakes Parkway, Suite 110 Lawrenceville, GA 30043 (770)277-6212 fax: (770)277-6210 Ervin Johnson, sales manager www.gcvb.org
Augusta Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau 32 Eighth St., Suite 200 Augusta, GA 30901 (800) 726-0243 fax: (706) 823-6600 Patrena Hill, sales manager www.groupz.net/augusta-cvb
Savannah Area Convention & Visitors Bureau P.O. Box 1628 Savannah, GA 31402 (800) 444-2427 fax: (912) 944-0468 John Jackson, director of sales and www.savcvb.com
North Carolina Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau 501 West Franklin St., Suite 104 Chapel Hill, NC 27516 (888) 968-2060 fax: (919) 968-2062 Joseph Blake, director of sales www.chocvb.org
Charlotte Convention & Visitors Bureau 122 East Stonewall St. Charlotte, NC 28202 (800) 722-1994 fax: (704) 342-3972 John Wilusz, vice president of sales www.charlottecvb.org
Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau 101 East Morgan St. Durham, NC 27701 (800) 446-8604 fax: (919) 683-9555 Brenda Dempsey, vice president of sales and service www.durham.nc.usa
Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau 317 South Greene Street Greensboro, NC 27401 (800) 344-2282 fax: (336) 230-1183 Ava Poppe, director of sales www.greensboronc.org
Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau 225 Hillsborough St., Suite 400 Raleigh, NC 27602 (800) 849-8499 fax: (919) 831-2887 Shirley Tucker, director of sales www.raleighcvb.org
Pinehurst Area Convention & Visitors Bureau P.O. Box 2270 Southern Pines, NC 28288 (800) 346-5362 fax: (910) 692-0619 Beverly D. Wilson, sales director
Winston-Salem Convention & Visitors Bureau P.O. Box 1408 Winston-Salem, NC 27102 (800) 331-7018 fax: (910) 773-1404 Robert F. McCoy, executive director www.winstonsalem.com
South Carolina Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau P.O. Box 975 Charleston, SC 29402 (800) 868-8118 fax: (803) 853-0444 Julie Feldman, sales manager www.charlestoncvb.com
Columbia Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau P.O. Box 15 Columbia, SC 29202 (800) 264-4884 fax: (803) 799-6529 Brenda Taylor, director of sales www.columbiasc.net
Greater Greenville Convention & Visitors Bureau PO Box 10527 Greenville, SC 29603-0527 (864) 421-0000 fax (864) 421-0005 Brad Phillips, convention services manager www.globalvision.net/ggcvb/
Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce P.O. Box 5647 Hilton Head, SC 29938 (803) 785-3673 fax: (803) 785-7110 Amy Hodge, senior sales manager