The hookah's natural habitat is not a nightclub with crashing music and empty drinks slamming against tables. The hookah experience, according to Kimm Smith of Hookah House, should be unrushed and mellow. "It's very meditative," she says, "and should be shared with people you care about." This was the atmosphere in which co-owner Zo spent his childhood in Algeria, where people would spend long hours gathering with friends and families in hookah lounges. He and his Bostonian wife, Michelle, wanted to bring that aspect of Algerian culture to the United States, both to spread a feeling of community and as an homage to the marriage of their distinct backgrounds.
As the fruit-tinged smoke of shisha rises from between murmuring visitors, it passes rich fabrics, which drape the exposed-brick walls, and bright lanterns dangling from a marigold ceiling. Stories seem to overflow from the furniture and textiles, gathered during the couple’s travels in Algeria or preserved from Zo's former life as a sommelier in Paris. This is where patrons linger, resting shoeless feet on bright cushions and pillows as they converse or check email on the free wireless internet. Atop inlaid tables, servers place Turkish coffee, house blends of Moroccan tea, and small plates of Mediterranean-inspired dishes.
On some weekend evenings, live jazz stirs guests to twist among tendrils of smoke before a DJ steps up to spin a range of music, from Earth, Wind & Fire to Jimi Hendrix. Belly dancers, with bells and scarves for all to borrow, demonstrate to patrons how to pass lie-detector tests with just their hips. A psychic-in-residence reads coffee grounds most nights, translating the earthy onyx shapes into predictions about the drinker's future.
The Jamaican-born family members who own and operate Big Taste Caribbean Restaurant have created a visual and culinary oasis reminiscent of their native island and its neighbors. Basking in the vivid rays of a wall-length mural of a smiling red-and-orange sun, chefs craft small batches of traditional oxtail with plantains along with their own recipes for signature jerk sauce and curried shrimp. The aromas of chicken grilled over an open flame and Fridays' yard-style fish fries invite passersby to experience the cooking of the tropics. As day sets into night, cues clink on the golden pool table and a ceiling fan lazily goads the air into circles simulating a Caribbean breeze or a coconut's whispered plea to be turned into a piña colada. Live DJs and dance performances occasionally sway the straws sticking out of a Jamaican Red Stripe lager to the beat of reggae, hip-hop, and dancehall music.
The chefs at Moran’s Italian Burger Bistro build each burger from the ground up by hand according to blueprints laid out by each customer. Diners decorate a range of patties, from fresh ground beef to portobello mushroom to alligator, with their choice of cheese and rich sauces, including bacon béarnaise and lemon-caper aioli. More convenient than keeping a dragon on retainer, Moran's brick oven crisps the dough on specialty pizzas, such as the margherita with fresh basil and mozzarella, and personalized pies made with a choice of crust, sauce, and toppings that include spicy salami, roasted fennel, and pork belly.
Two walls of windows fill the dining room with bright rays of natural light. The Tuscan ambience is highlighted by a stone-framed counter and distressed-wood tables reminiscent of an Old World tavern or the apartment Romulus and Remus shared before building Rome.
Housed in a two-story structure erected in 1926, Bizaare Ave Cafe pairs an eclectic menu of tapas and bistro meals with still more eclectic decor, earning the eatery Best Romantic Restaurant accolades from CityVoters in 2010. In the quirky downstairs dining area, coffee tables crowded with knickknacks host plates of tapas and glasses of wine. Diners in overstuffed armchairs tuck into dishes such as homemade pumpkin-stuffed ravioli or baked brie with raspberry sauce, a gift of rich, melty cheese that—like all good presents—is wrapped in puff pastry. Upstairs, things get more formal with a menu of bistro fare such as filet mignon, pork chops, and seared salmon. Aside from the fare, diners may purchase literally anything in the restaurant, including potted palms, decorative wall-mounted plates, and attractive fire extinguishers.
A third-generation Chinese restaurateur, Dragon Star owner Francisco Cho takes taste buds on a journey through Cantonese- and Szechuan-style cuisine, which his chefs make entirely from scratch and to order. Under the soft flicker of paper lanterns, amid four flat-screen TVs, guests lounge atop plush seats and nibble favorites such as kung pao chicken, sweet 'n' sour tofu, sesame beef, and barbecue spare ribs while imbibing BYOB drinks. Most of Dragon Star's cuisine is also available for takeout, provided customers have secured reservations at their dining room table.
Under the delicious direction of head chef James Campagnolo, both of these family-style restaurants serve up a variety of traditional Italian dishes, crafted with fresh, daily-delivered ingredients. Warm up mouth muscles with appetizers such as garlicy, white-wine simmered zuppa di mussels ($8.50 for a half order), or get a taste of tradition with stuffed artichokes, crafted using the chef's grandmother's secret stuffing recipe ($8.95). Main meals range from classic stuffed shells ($12.95 for half order, $21.95 for full) to the chicken Campagnolo, a meaty medley of boneless chicken, italian sausage, and roasted potatoes ($19.95–$36.95), and frutti di mare, featuring fruits of the ocean such as mussels, clams, shrimp, and sea pluots, served on a bed of saucy linguini ($17.95–$33.95). Sandwiches ($6.95–$10.95) and calzones ($5.95) fill out the lighter lunch selection, while gourmet pizzas will sate any savory slice savant, or proponent of anti-square meals.