published Friday, January 27th, 2012

Shrimp, salmon and Model T Fords in LaFayette

IF YOU GO

Where: One-Eleven, 111 LaFayette Square, LaFayette, Ga.

Phone: 706-996-8783.

Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.

Price range: $5 (fried green tomatoes)-$19 (8-ounce filet).

Directions: From Chattanooga, take U.S. 27 south until you reach LaFayette. The restaurant is on your left.

It's always a little heartbreaking to walk away from a sensational restaurant after a fabulous meal. It's even worse when the echo of your footsteps in the quiet dining room startles you on the way to the door.

In spite of a gifted chef, doting servers and a thrilling atmosphere, new LaFayette, Ga., restaurant One-Eleven just didn't get busy on a recent evening.

That's a crime, because One-Eleven does almost everything right.

The location, which overlooks LaFayette Square, oozes history and warmth. The food melts in your mouth and is fresher than a sea breeze; the servers are more charming than George Clooney on Oscar night.

The building formerly served as a hardware store and later an auto dealership, which explains the ancient elevator in the back, said owner Michael Lovelady.

"They used the elevator to haul the big Model Ts upstairs," Lovelady said.

The elevator is still there, along with some of the original stucco and a great deal of exposed brick. Old sliding ladders -- formerly used to access shelves full of hardware -- remain in place as a nod to the restaurant's retail past.

But while the building is well-preserved, harkening back to a town on the fringe of the roaring '20s, the food is a fresh, contemporary take on Southern dining.

It's not just a dinner joint, however.

In the morning and afternoon, One-Eleven serves specialty coffees from around the world and creates homemade milkshakes for patrons. Free Wi-Fi allows patrons to sip a latte while working on a laptop or tablet.

Lovelady connects with fans on Facebook, giving a history lesson on the day's coffee and tests their coffee knowledge for a free cup of joe.

The food

When a menu lists something called Sweet Tea Glazed Salmon ($12), it's hard to resist ordering a serving on the spot. In fact, that's just what I did.

But diners would be irresponsible to jump right in without first attempting a few of the delectable appetizers to whet the whistle.

The Fried Oysters With Cocktail Sauce ($6) seemed a good place to begin. There aren't any places to get fresh oysters, such as an ocean, for hundreds of miles, so creating a successful dish could be a challenge.

Challenge accepted.

A few minutes later, the kitchen produced a plate full of some of the most succulent, lightly battered oysters one can find this far inland.

The Fried Green Tomatoes ($5) were thick and juicy and, if ordered in sufficient number, could satiate a man for months. If paired with a glass of Riesling, the appetizer alone is worth the drive from Chattanooga to LaFayette.

Between these regional delicacies, the fresh-baked bread arrived at the table with a tub of honey butter so rich that unwary diners may find themselves filling up before the entrees emerge.

That would be a mistake, because missing out on the Sweet Tea Glazed Salmon would rank with the Hindenburg, the Exxon Valdez and the Pontiac Astek as the worst disasters of the last 100 years.

If you haven't had the entree, here's a news flash: Salmon was made to be married to sweet tea. It simply works.

And the dish was made even better by the fact the salmon was neither over nor undercooked, merely falling apart at the touch of a fork.

Another entree worth sampling is the Shrimp and Cheese Grits ($13), a domestic partnership between sweet and spicy flavors with perfectly marinated shrimp laid gently onto a bed of finely ground grits.

It's a triumph of well-cooked Southern food that doesn't give into the modern notion that good meals should be created sans the decadent delights that imbue meals with flavor.

Speaking of decadent delights, a customer who saved room would do well to consider dessert.

Dessert isn't for everyone, especially with certain New Year's resolutions still lurking in the subconscious, but the cheesecake ($7) is an exclamation point on a meal so unexpectedly good you'll want to steal the recipe.

The service

One-Eleven could host classes on how to make customers feel welcome.

Unlike many establishments where asking for Tabasco or requesting a modification to a dish may lead to rolled eyes or a deep sigh, at One-Eleven I got the impression the servers were happy to be there and delighted to help.

It's a refreshing change from the surly attitude one occasionally runs into at other restaurants and a symptom of good management, training and hiring practices.

My server was attentive without being overbearing, as cheerful as a songbird and answered every question with the patience of Job.

Fresh food takes time to cook, so expect between 15 and 30 minutes for entrees, though appetizers and drinks arrive much faster.

Some customers have complained about wait times more than 45 minutes, but Lovelady says he's made adjustments and fixed the problem.

Wine is available with meals and pairs well if you know what to get, though don't expect to have it opened for you at the table or have the opportunity to taste it before drinking.

Try a Chateau Ste. Michelle 2010 Riesling for $33 if you plan to try the seafood.

The space

Deep, nearly century-old gouges traverse the ancient wood floors.

Broad wooden doors below stained glass lead into the high-ceiling dining area illuminated by throwback light fixtures. A walk through the dining room reveals a display installed by a local artist on the left, while on the right, a well-worn track left by the rolling ladder points toward the most impressive part of the restaurant, the elevator.

The contraption once operated using a series of pulleys and ropes, some of which have survived to this day. The shaft extends upstairs to a pool hall, where old-fashioned wires run across the ceiling as they did when they were installed sometime after the building's construction in 1906.

In back, a lounge area with vintage couches and soft candlelight casts shadows across the brick and stucco.

It's all anchored by a coffee and milkshake bar in the middle of the restaurant, a scene reminiscent of Norman Rockwell's famous painting "The Runaway."

The restaurant can feel a bit empty at times, which takes away from the atmosphere, but it's understandable the community will need time to warm up to a new establishment.

The verdict

If my experience is any indication, diners will be hard-pressed to name five restaurants this good in the Chattanooga area. For LaFayette, One-Eleven is positively groundbreaking.

Many restaurants hold themselves up as fine-dining establishments, but they inevitably fall down when it comes to service, food quality or atmosphere.

This one hits on all three, and it's also just plain fun to go eat in a building where, had you lived in the early 1900s, you may have bought your first car or purchased a hammer.

The prices are higher than some LaFayette restaurants, which may drive diners elsewhere, but they'd be missing out on one of the best meals available in the region.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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