Although the sign out front promises "Aegean Dining in the Venus Room," there's nothing about this dark, divey eatery that indicates the dining inside is going to be anything but mediocre. But get ready to take the plunge, because South Central II serves the best gyros, the best avgolemono soup, the best souvlaki and the best moussaka in town. Before you get to eat those treats, though, you'll have to make your way through the smoky bar, with its blaring TV and Bud-downing regulars, to the Venus Room, a dimly lit, foliage-filled space that holds about a half-dozen tables and about as many little Greek statues and tattered-edged posters of the Mediterranean. But one bite of the gyros, with its greasy juice and moist meat, and those sides of fat French fries and a thicker-than-usual tsatsiki sauce, should convince you that you've gone authentically Greek. A few slurps of the avgolemono should seal the deal: This chicken-based, lemon and egg soup with rice is Venus in liquid form, a beautiful yellow elixir that will have you using a piece of pita to sop up the last drops. Every entree comes with that soup and a salad, a Greek assemblage that includes lettuce, tomatoes, olives and feta, all drizzled with a yogurt-based, black-pepper-laced dressing. Finish off your meal with a triangle of honey-drenched baklava, and thank the Greek gods for the Venus Room.

South Central II
Although the sign out front promises "Aegean Dining in the Venus Room," there's nothing about this dark, divey eatery that indicates the dining inside is going to be anything but mediocre. But get ready to take the plunge, because South Central II serves the best gyros, the best avgolemono soup, the best souvlaki and the best moussaka in town. Before you get to eat those treats, though, you'll have to make your way through the smoky bar, with its blaring TV and Bud-downing regulars, to the Venus Room, a dimly lit, foliage-filled space that holds about a half-dozen tables and about as many little Greek statues and tattered-edged posters of the Mediterranean. But one bite of the gyros, with its greasy juice and moist meat, and those sides of fat French fries and a thicker-than-usual tsatsiki sauce, should convince you that you've gone authentically Greek. A few slurps of the avgolemono should seal the deal: This chicken-based, lemon and egg soup with rice is Venus in liquid form, a beautiful yellow elixir that will have you using a piece of pita to sop up the last drops. Every entree comes with that soup and a salad, a Greek assemblage that includes lettuce, tomatoes, olives and feta, all drizzled with a yogurt-based, black-pepper-laced dressing. Finish off your meal with a triangle of honey-drenched baklava, and thank the Greek gods for the Venus Room.

Sean Kelly knows his way around the Mediterranean, and his Aubergine Cafe navigates a delicious course through the region's varied cuisines. Aubergine's menu not only hits on all of the major cooking styles found in that part of the world, but it does so using local ingredients -- a philosophy that captures the Mediterranean spirit just as much as the recipes do. Although most of the dishes are classics, Kelly updates them with style, and so the grilled Moroccan free-range chicken breast over saffron couscous is sided with a roasted-fennel-and-eggplant-tomato chutney, and pan-roasted halibut sits on a soft bed of crab "gumbo" with housemade, Old Bay-seasoned potato chips and a textbook rouille. All of these delights are served in a dining room that is at once romantic and casual, a bistro in every sense, with the colors of Provence and Tuscany mixing with the smells of the sea. And with a staff as accommodating as a Greek family at their daughter's wedding, this is one club Med we should all join.

Sean Kelly knows his way around the Mediterranean, and his Aubergine Cafe navigates a delicious course through the region's varied cuisines. Aubergine's menu not only hits on all of the major cooking styles found in that part of the world, but it does so using local ingredients -- a philosophy that captures the Mediterranean spirit just as much as the recipes do. Although most of the dishes are classics, Kelly updates them with style, and so the grilled Moroccan free-range chicken breast over saffron couscous is sided with a roasted-fennel-and-eggplant-tomato chutney, and pan-roasted halibut sits on a soft bed of crab "gumbo" with housemade, Old Bay-seasoned potato chips and a textbook rouille. All of these delights are served in a dining room that is at once romantic and casual, a bistro in every sense, with the colors of Provence and Tuscany mixing with the smells of the sea. And with a staff as accommodating as a Greek family at their daughter's wedding, this is one club Med we should all join.

Now that bread puddings have become as ubiquitous on dessert menus as crème brûlée and cheesecake, it's tough to find one that stands out -- but Radex's does. Not surprisingly, the pastry chef at this hip spot offers a hip variation on the standard, taking a sour cream-enriched cornbread and turning it into a cross between old-fashioned spoonbread and fruit-filled polenta, a bundle of warm goodness bearing the flavors of pears, blueberries and raisins. It's sort of sweet, a little tart, very rich and, topped with vanilla ice cream, downright sinful. Bread alert!

Now that bread puddings have become as ubiquitous on dessert menus as crème brûlée and cheesecake, it's tough to find one that stands out -- but Radex's does. Not surprisingly, the pastry chef at this hip spot offers a hip variation on the standard, taking a sour cream-enriched cornbread and turning it into a cross between old-fashioned spoonbread and fruit-filled polenta, a bundle of warm goodness bearing the flavors of pears, blueberries and raisins. It's sort of sweet, a little tart, very rich and, topped with vanilla ice cream, downright sinful. Bread alert!

Carmine's on Penn
Mark Antonation
We've got an offer -- and a restaurant -- you can't refuse. After six years and a few management changes, Carmine's on Penn has finally hit its stride. Not only is this one of the best family-style eateries around, it's also the best Italian, any style. The atmosphere is welcoming, the servers efficient, the wine list impressive, and the food incredible. These dishes are all about vibrant flavors, well-cooked pastas, tender, tasty meats and huge portions that are suitable for sharing like a big Italian family in the middle of the hustle-bustle dining room or out on the spacious, inviting patio. This is upscale Italian at low-scale prices. Start with a platter of bruschetta and anything the blackboard lists as having balsamic on it, because Carmine's is one place that knows to use a well-aged version. And then it's off to find a new belt, because not even loosening yours a few notches could prepare you for such a feast: ravioli alla vodka, rich and filling; or a thick, ragoût-like bolognese; or veal alla Carmine's, fork-tender medallions covered with cappacola and mozzarella and then baked until it becomes as one; or gooey baked ziti; or the spicy seafood fra diavolo. Mangia, mangia.

Readers' choice: Carmine's on Penn

We've got an offer -- and a restaurant -- you can't refuse. After six years and a few management changes, Carmine's on Penn has finally hit its stride. Not only is this one of the best family-style eateries around, it's also the best Italian, any style. The atmosphere is welcoming, the servers efficient, the wine list impressive, and the food incredible. These dishes are all about vibrant flavors, well-cooked pastas, tender, tasty meats and huge portions that are suitable for sharing like a big Italian family in the middle of the hustle-bustle dining room or out on the spacious, inviting patio. This is upscale Italian at low-scale prices. Start with a platter of bruschetta and anything the blackboard lists as having balsamic on it, because Carmine's is one place that knows to use a well-aged version. And then it's off to find a new belt, because not even loosening yours a few notches could prepare you for such a feast: ravioli alla vodka, rich and filling; or a thick, ragoût-like bolognese; or veal alla Carmine's, fork-tender medallions covered with cappacola and mozzarella and then baked until it becomes as one; or gooey baked ziti; or the spicy seafood fra diavolo. Mangia, mangia.

Readers' choice: Carmine's on Penn

Tante Louise is romantic, it's charming, and the food is a francophile's dream. What more could you want from a French restaurant? Everyone's favorite aunt is about to turn thirty, and while she hasn't aged a bit, her experience shows. Duy Pham has more than filled former chef Michael Degenhart's shoes, and he's beginning to inject some of his own style into the menu. And so the classics come with a twist: duck seasoned with Chinese five-spice, roasted-red-pepper oil on pan-seared John Dory in a lobster demi-glace, mushroom leek custard with rack of venison. The wine list is wonderful, and owner/host extraordinaire Corky Douglass couldn't be more inviting. Do we still love Tante Louise? Mais oui.

Readers' choice: Le Central

Tante Louise is romantic, it's charming, and the food is a francophile's dream. What more could you want from a French restaurant? Everyone's favorite aunt is about to turn thirty, and while she hasn't aged a bit, her experience shows. Duy Pham has more than filled former chef Michael Degenhart's shoes, and he's beginning to inject some of his own style into the menu. And so the classics come with a twist: duck seasoned with Chinese five-spice, roasted-red-pepper oil on pan-seared John Dory in a lobster demi-glace, mushroom leek custard with rack of venison. The wine list is wonderful, and owner/host extraordinaire Corky Douglass couldn't be more inviting. Do we still love Tante Louise? Mais oui.

Readers' choice: Le Central

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