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Atlanta restaurants offer plenty of options for celeb sightings

"What, am I the only one drinking?" Usher asked, showing off his signature smile as he walked through the door at the recent opening of The Grape at Inman Park.

As the new co-owner of the wine-retail chain, Usher had reason to be flashing those pearly whites.

"I'm very excited about being a part of The Grape," Usher said. "Their philosophies are similar to my own, and I think we will be a very good team."

Usher is the latest in a long line of celebrities with ties to restaurants in Atlanta. Teaming with business partner Solomon Smallwood, the R&B-world mogul, formally known as Usher Raymond IV, opened the free-standing Inman Park restaurant on Dec. 14 to further extend what he calls his "brand," which already includes music, television and philanthropy.

"I've been approached by many restaurants who want me to be part of a franchise, and this one just feels right," Usher said. "I want my brand to represent me. My brand, it's classy, sexy, sophisticated. And that's also what The Grape is. My life motto is 'Taste everything.' I want to have a hand in all kinds of industries and not be limited to just entertainment."

In this philosophy, Usher is not alone. Celebrities across the board are seeking to develop an individual brand, often venturing into the restaurant business.

Thankfully for area star-seekers and diners, celebs aren't solely focusing their efforts in the mega markets of L.A. and New York. Atlanta has quickly become a home base for many star-studded outfits, with celebrities from Ashton Kutcher to Gladys Knight diving into the foodie world of the South.

The Grape

With a sleek, swanky ambiance, The Grape strives to be more than a dining experience. Offering its own 10-level wine classification system and a stocked retail section to purchase wines sipped with meals - such as Usher's favorite, the Oriel's deep purple pinot noir - The Grape is a center for "edutainment," said Jack Mazur, CEO and founder of The Grape.

The first The Grape wine bar opened in Atlanta in 2000, and there are now more than two dozen locations in the Southeast, including seven Georgia locations. The closest The Grape is at The Forum in Norcross, and The Grape at Inman Park is the first free-standing Grape location.

Odds of celeb sighting: 2 out of 5 stars

Cafe Dupri

The label is So So Def, but the food is "so so good." At least, according to the tag line of Jermaine Dupri's dining venture, Cafe Dupri.

Dupri grew up in College Park, so Atlanta is familiar stomping ground for the music-world tycoon. Basing his nutritionally savvy cafe here was only natural.

"We try to keep the menu as healthy as we can and still serve Southern food, like using turkey bacon instead of pork," said Cecelia Dupri, Jermaine's mother and general manager of the cafe. "We have real good food, and we get a lot of celebrities in here, too. Usher, Bow Wow, you know."

Serving breakfast all day, as well as lunch and dinner options, the cafe is where Waffle House meets, well, something much nicer.

Homemade oatmeal, omelets and grits are staples, and lunch and dinner entrees include Teriyaki Salmon Pops, marinated salmon on a stick, and Tomatoes Dupri, a plate of fried green tomatoes with blackened crawfish, Hollandaise sauce and Asiago cheese.

Odds of celeb sighting: 4 out of 5 stars

Dolce

Ashton Kutcher, Wilmer Valderrama, Danny Masterson and Laura Prepon, all of "That '70s Show" fame, are billed as top owners of Dolce at Atlantic Station. The show may be retro, but the restaurant is anything but.

A suave, sexy Italian restaurant serving up gourmet fare, the locale is a virtual who's who of celebrity owners, with other investors including Chris Masterson from "Malcolm in the Middle," Dule Hill from "The West Wing," and comedian/prankster Jamie Kennedy.

Yet Dolce isn't all about the stars, said David Jarrett, vice president of the Dolce Group.

"Dolce is fine dining, but really, it's fun dining," he said. "We take the traditional and make it cool. Our ambiance, our flawless service, and our great food and wine, that is what we are all about."

The menu emulates the restaurant's demeanor, with a signature dish of Ossobuco alla Milanese, braised veal served over saffron rice, as a standout option.

"That's what these stars love about being a part of Dolce - the food," Jarrett said. "They love eating here all the time. These famous investors aren't really involved in the day-to-day, but they come in a lot to eat and see what's going on."

Odds of celeb sighting: 4 out of 5 stars

Gladys and Ron's

Chicken and Waffles

The chicken and waffles combination was not born in the South, but the salty-sweet dish is becoming a staple among diners below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Pairing with gospel singer Ron Winan, legendary Motown singer Gladys Knight has brought the breakfast-dinner delicacy here to her hometown, with the appropriately named Gladys and Ron's Chicken and Waffles restaurant in Atlanta.

In the diner, Knight doesn't shy away from her fame. The menu follows a music theme, and is divided into sections including Grammy Winners, Solo Acts, Headliners and Encores.

Traditional Southern foods run rampant on the menu, with fried chicken, corn muffins and a gala of vegetable sides offered. The top dish, Midnight Train (paying tribute to Knight's hit "Midnight Train to Georgia") is a plate of four jumbo fried chicken wings served with a warm waffle.

Odds of celeb sighting: 3 out of 5 stars

Ted's Montana Grill

Stuffy it is not. Ted's Montana Grill is the classic American restaurant, dishing out a slew of burger options, including Bison, beef and veggie. Decked out in a Western motif, the restaurant, owned by Ted Turner, has quickly gained popularity since starting in 2002, and will open its 10th Georgia location at Cumberland Mall this month.

Don't let the lengthy burger list fool you - Ted's offers a health-conscious menu, said George McKerrow, co-owner of Ted's. Bison is a heart-healthy meat with half the fat of beef, and the menu offers a wide variety of dishes to please an array of diet plans, from diabetic to gluten-free and low sodium.

"No microwaves, no freeze-dried foods. Everything is fresh and made to order," McKerrow said. "We'll squeeze 40 lemons for your lemonade and cook your steak however you want. "

Aside from aiding good health, Ted's is a good steward to the environment. Implementing a sustainable cuisine menu, never using Styrofoam and always opting for recyclable materials such as glass and aluminum, Ted's works to earn a gold star for being a friend to planet Earth.

Odds of celeb sighting: 2 of 5 stars (At the Lucky Street location)

Watershed

How do you make country cooking sophisticated? You mix a celebrity owner with renowned executive chef, add a cool location, and voila - dishes like okra pancakes with cucumber and squash salad are invented.

While Watershed may be housed in a converted gas station, the food is anything but greasy, and the atmosphere is airy and fresh. Indigo Girls' band member Emily Saliers and chef Scott Peacock joined forces for this Decatur diner, building a menu of seasonal Southern foods, made-from-scratch desserts and fine wines.

"It's simple food with a Southern flair," said Daniel Morrison, a manager at Watershed. "During the day, it has a very open feel. At night, the tablecloths and candles come out, but it's still a very relaxed place to eat."

Beyond dishing out flavorful fare, Saliers and co-owners Ross Jones, Susan Owens and Leslie Zweben strive to play a role in the community, through philanthropic efforts and a commitment to social and environmental issues in their business practices.

Odds of celeb sighting: 2 out of 5 stars

If you go

•The Grape at Inman Park, 300 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta. Call 404-577-4662 or visit www.yourgrape.com.

•Cafe Dupri, 3135 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. Call 404-846-2773 or visit www.cafedupriatl.com.

•Dolce, 261 19th St., Atlantic Station. Call 404-872-3902 or visit www.dolcegroup.com.

•Gladys and Ron's Chicken and Waffles, 529 Peachtree St., Atlanta. Call 404-874-9393 or visit www.gladysandron.

com.

•Ted's Montana Grill, 133 Luckie St., Atlanta. Call 877-76BISON or visit www.www.tedsmontanagrill.com.

•Watershed, 406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. Call 404-378-4900 or visit www.watershed

restaurant.com.