Los Angeles Times

Love it or shove it?

Best new restaurant
Chef Paul Kahan and his partners in Blackbird had been promising a lower-priced casual concept for years, but when Avec finally opened this fall, it was worth the wait. The menu, overseen by chef Koren Grieveson, features "rustic" Mediterranean fare: house-smoked salami, pungent cheeses and small, shareable dishes, such as braised duck breast and olives served in miniature cast-iron cocottes (who knew peasants ate so well?). And the wine list--full of hard-to-find, bargain-priced choices--is a wine geek's dream. What's not to like? Well, the restaurant's minimalist, sauna-inspired design is kind of a drag (but watching people struggle to find and then open the door helps pass the time while you wait for a table). And don't bring your parents here--Mom won't go for the crowded communal tables and spartan bench seating. But for food this good, we're willing to suffer.

Best (and worst) store opening
Swedish den of cheap couture H&M opened in September with much fanfare--and long lines just to get in the place. While we love satisfying a shopping urge for less than the cost of a meal at Old Country Buffet, we aren't so enamored with some of the garments' shoddy construction. When a sweater disintegrates on your back the first day you wear it, you know you've been had--no matter what you paid.

Best comeback
When Crobar reopened in late October after 10 months of renovations, club denizens lined the block to check out this Chicago legend's facelift firsthand, and no one was disappointed. Crobar ditched its gritty, warehouse feel for a more airy, South Beach-like ambience. The focal point is the massive dance floor, framed from above by a balcony lined with booths perfect for people watching. DJ Teri Bristol, who helped put Crobar on the map in the '90s, continues to spin her aggressive club mixes on Saturday nights, and Chicago's gay fashionistas flock to the weekly "Anthem Sundays" with DJ David Knapp.

Best theater trend: No venue required
Shows like "Downsize," performed in men's bathrooms throughout the city, and "Job Opportunity," staged inside an '85 Oldsmobile while tooling around town, proved you don't need to have a theater to put on a play. While both plays now have closed, "Job Opportunity" plans to open again in 2004.

Most overhyped new restaurant
When Latin-Japanese fusion restaurant SushiSamba Rio opened this summer, velvet-rope rats scurried to check out the over-the-top decor, fleshy Brazilian dancers and potent caipirinhas. If any of them had actually eaten, they would have found what we did: wildly inconsistent food and service. Several chefs later, the restaurant still seems to be trying to iron out the kinks. If only the action in the kitchen were as well choreographed as the scantily clad dancers in the dining room--a restaurant cannot live on breasts alone.

Saddest (and scariest) closings
One of gentrification's saddest casualties this year was Uptown's Rainbo Roller Center, closed in March to make way for condos. But, during the last stages of the building's demolition in November, we found out we'd been couples-skating over human remains: Construction crews discovered six bags of bones--and a couple sneakers--in the rink's basement.

Another unfortunate closing was Prodigal Son Bar and Grill, home of some of the wackiest food specials in the city, due to a fire in October. Now where are we going to get free, all-you-can-eat bacon on Wednesdays? And who's going to batter and fry anything we want--including a can of corned beef hash--on Thursdays? For now we can only hope the bar will rise from the ashes like a greasy, batter-coated phoenix.

Worst theater trend: Off Loop closings
The city's surprise crackdown on theaters without the required Public Place of Amusement (PPA) licenses closed a number of small theaters including WNEP, Artistic Home, Playground Improv and Timeline, which, at the time, had a hit on its hands with "The Lion in Winter." This is a big slam to Chicago's equivalent to New York's Off Broadway productions and a sad day for all who love the homegrown feel of these non-glitzy venues.

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