By Megan Volpert

At long last, the former location of Cakes & Ale in downtown Decatur has a new tenant open for business. The Pinewood bills itself as a Southern comfort food diner, plus a craft bar with smart cocktails. I won’t keep you in suspense: go there. Like, right now—so you can help shape this up-and-comer into the neighborhood gem it deserves to be, instead of the hipster hotspot it may otherwise become.

The Pinewood has gotten many things right so far:

-It participates in the small plate revolution going on all over the country right now. The dinner menu has 9 small plates, plus 12 sides and 4 kinds of sliders. Comparatively, there are only 6 main plates.

-It’s bar menu is twice the size of its food menu, with nearly 40 cocktail listings. This includes two cocktails on draft, and then a wine option for every taste plus a dozen well-curated beers.

-It’s offerings are a proper reflection on what the place claims it wants to be. Southern comforts abound in the form of pecans, shrimp, grits, green tomatoes, and the fact that the most common word on the menu besides “Pinewood” is “fried.”

-The craft cocktails are evenly divided between classics like a Manhattan or a Tom Collins, and inventive fancies like a Hibiscus Fizz or a Huckleberry Pop. The showcase of spirits is heavy on whiskey, but so full of fruit that light-weight ladies will not find it daunting if they give the menu half a chance.

But the place is still finding its legs, and is not yet the well-oiled machine of great service that downtown Decatur expects from a restaurant that wants to stay. There are a couple of problems lurking near the surface, which the Pinewood will soon have to confront:

-My wife and I arrived right as the doors opened at 6pm, and every table—roughly 60 seats—was full by 6:30pm. Good for them! But they don’t take reservations, and when we left at 8pm, the line was out the door.

-The cocktails are crafted too lovingly. Ticket time on one drink can be as much as twenty minutes, from the moment you order it to the moment it appears in front of you. Even when I ordered the cocktail that was on draft, I had to wait ten minutes. They need more staff behind the bar. The kitchen has no such problem, and the food came remarkably quickly—though this caused me to miss my slowly forthcoming cocktail all the more.

Now, let’s talk about the actual particulars of what I ate and drank while I was there.

APERITIF: One of the draft cocktails, called Welcome Punch. They give it out like it’s bread and butter, and it will rest gently on any palate. House-made tea-infused vodka with orange flower water and bit of lemon or lime juice. Perky, but not persistent. No bite on it, just a clean and refreshing way of settling into your sit-down without the worry of having to commit to vodka drinks for the rest of the evening. It was mellow, and indeed welcoming.

MAIN PLATE: You may be asking why I skipped the small plates. One foot in the door and I knew I’d be coming back, so on this first go around I wanted to secure enough room for dessert. I’ll have many more chances to delve into small plates. Meanwhile, let’s talk fried foods. Three of the six main plates are fried—chicken, shrimp, pork chop. I got the chicken; my wife got the pork chop. Both were delicious, plenty juicy, tender and boneless. Not too sweet, but perhaps by the time the plates were licked clean, a touch too salty.

DRINK: There are two drinks on the menu that have “Pinewood” in front of the name, and I figured if the place was going to stake its name on these, these are the ones to try. First up, the Pinewood Cup. It’s made with white whiskey, mint, bitters, soda and a pile of fruit. The majority of the signature cocktails are big on fruit. This was delicious, but I expected more pinch from the liquor. I also expected more in the glass. One fun feature of the Pinewood is that lurking in the back is a huge block of ice and a chainsaw. The gorgeously cut column of ice in my glass was so big that it was hard to wiggle the straw around, and I wonder how much of a pour the drink is without the artistry of the ice.

SIDES: I had the fresh-baked mac & cheese, which counts as two sides. I was happy to sacrifice a second side for the portion of gooey goodness steaming under the crumbly souffle top they delivered to me, and points to the Pinewood for not undercharging on the side item that’s most expensive for them to make. My wife had the white corn and bacon succotash, which was a crispy hit of smoky charm. She also got the fried green tomatoes, which held together well and continued to demonstrate that this place has a serious gift for all things fried.

DRINK: Again with the ice problem, this time in the draft Pinewood Old-Fashioned. Very brightly orange in flavor but not in color, it wasn’t too sweet and it had the right amount of bite. It was lovely and strange to look at the slivers of drink refracted all around the giant cube, but there are ways to use block ice that are more efficient and practical.

DESSERT: There are three dessert options—funnel cake, lemon jar, chocolate jar. Despite the prevalence of jars, we opted for the funnel cake based on the kitchen’s clear proficiency in frying. This was absolutely killer, covered in bananas, dulce de leche, and a tremendous pile of whipped cream. The plate presents well, is easy to share and is of course delicious. Not your average carnival sugar.

The Pinewood Tippling Room was relaxed and fun. The customers were a half dozen gay couples, some college kids, some serious drinkers, and some ScoutMob aficionados. There were no skinny jeans or elitist attitudes in sight. You could talk to strangers at a neighboring table, and we saw many who did. So, you should rush over there right now. Go now, because the Pinewood is going to get its act together soon. It will get enough staff behind the bar, a reservations account on OpenTable, and slim down those blocks of ice—and when it does, it may be invaded by people who are tired of waiting for a table at Leon’s Full Service.

Pinewood Tippling Room is at 254 W. Ponce de Leon Ave. in Decatur. For more, visit the restaurant’s website at www.pinewoodtr.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.