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Small Wonders

Chicago: West Town Tavern

The neighborhood residents cheered as seasoned Chicago restaurateurs Drew and Susan Goss (their other restaurant, Zinfandel, has been a downtown institution for nearly a decade) opened this glowing, one-room tavern in the up-and-coming West Town. As the ceiling fans spin, a diverse crowd is regaled with comfort foods like beer cheese (a beer-and-cheese spread), bowls of mussels, pastas fragrant with woodsy mushrooms, and flatbread topped with butter-soft leeks, thyme, red pepper, fresh mozzarella, and truffle oil. Susan altered the sage-green curtains to fit the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows and left the rest of the spare, brick-walled space alone. Drew buzzes around fixing the basement refrigerators and fine-tuning the simple but clever wine list--this fall, it favors refreshing flavors like the apple-quince highlights of a white Vouvray from the Loire Valley and a relaxed Alderbrook Zinfandel from Sonoma that has the spritz and blackberry-soda suggestions of your Italian uncle's best garage wine. The Tavern's pecan pie is the perfect finish to a meal, with the kind of crisp, tender lid that would make any Southern boy's heart go faint. 1329 W. Chicago Ave.; 312/666-6175; dinner for two $60.

Los Angeles: G. Garvin's

By itself, the private dining room at Reign, where Gerry Garvin was executive chef until last November, seats the same number as G. Garvin's, his new restaurant in West Hollywood. "I wanted a restaurant that would be like my living room," Garvin says, and there's definitely a festive, house-party vibe here. The sound track trips from De La Soul to K. D. Lang to Marvin Gaye, and the crowd ranges from music-industry execs in suits to Hollywood starlets-in-the-making. Anchoring the room are monumental orchids, candle sconces that cast a flickery light, and Garvin's expertly prepared California cuisine, such as seared rare ahi tuna with fresh mint, cracked pepper, and ponzu sauce. Our favorite dishes show off Garvin's Southern roots: crab cakes, charred baby back ribs, and a banana mousse cake that, never mind the moniker, is simply the best banana cream pie we've ever tasted. When the restaurant gets busy, Garvin often emerges from the kitchen to bus a table or uncork a bottle for a couple who have brought their own wine. Mostly, it's because he doesn't want to miss out on the party. 8420 W. Third St.; 323/655-3888; dinner for two $95.

Napa Valley: Roux Restaurant

Of all the destination restaurants in tiny St. Helena, Roux is the one where locals spend their evenings. Perhaps that's because owners Vincent and Tyla Nattress tend to indulge them--like the customer who thought hanging a grid of white dinner plates would brighten up the burgundy walls (they now do). Tyla's in charge of the wine list, which showcases tiny California wineries like Kazmer & Blaise and Libélula. Vincent executes to perfection the short, carefully composed menu of clean flavors such as halibut cheeks and asparagus with a carrot reduction, or sweet-pea ravioli with pea tendrils. There's an emphasis on the super-local--those peas were grown in the sous-chef's garden, a couple of miles from Roux--but Vincent isn't afraid to explore far-flung places when the occasion calls for it: Valrhona Manjari chocolate, made from Madagascar-grown beans, gives fruity, nutty richness to a semifreddo. There's a quiet sophistication to this place. But mostly, it feels like you've come home to family. 1234 Main St., St. Helena, Calif.; 707/963-5330; dinner for two $90.

Brooklyn: Locanda Vini & Olii

Locanda occupies a circa-1900 pharmacy, and its mahogany chemist's cabinets and apothecary drawers have been meticulously restored. The look of the place is distinctly old-world, which makes host and owner Franois Louy, in his black suede suit, neon-green Converse All-Stars, and spiky hair, look somewhat out of place. Louy and his wife and co-owner, Catherine de Zagon Louy, grew up in Milan and Florence, respectively, and their combined culinary résumé (Cipriani, Celestino, Mezzogiorno) covers both coasts. For Locanda, the Louys imported two young chefs, one from Venice, one from Tuscany, to prepare glammed-up Italian peasant food such as veal tongue cured in salt and thyme, sliced thinly and served with an herby salsa verde, and "soppressata" of pressed octopus studded with Sicilian pistachios and pink peppercorns. If all those Italian-by-numbers restaurants have given you red-sauce fatigue, the chestnut-flour lasagnette with sausage and chickpeas is just the right prescription. 129 Gates Ave.; 718/622-9202; dinner for two $50.


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