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Casual Chic

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It's always a nice surprise to find an appealing neighborhood bar and a menu that's a cut above average, especially when they're in the same place. Brothers Alexander and Nikola Samardzija have taken over the corner tavern operated by their Serbian grandmother for the past 27 years and turned it into XIPPO, a slick hideout where the upholstery is crushed red velvet, the music (acid jazz, hip-hop, house) is DJ-mixed, and the staff has a great personality. Their longtime friend Adrian Solis (Union League Club) heads up the kitchen, and his flair and attention to detail show even in seemingly run-of-the-mill dishes like quesadillas and chicken wings; the latter come either buffalo style or spicy Asian style, with sesame seeds, scallions, and ginger. There are a few sandwiches--grilled chicken, steak, and a burger--but it's the entrees that shouldn't be missed. A grilled duck breast and leg was perfectly cooked then charred on the outside, set in a delicately balanced red wine sauce with dried cherries, and served with veggies and a wedge of potato au gratin. Grilled salmon topped with a rich lemon basil butter came over a bed of couscous (mistakenly listed as Israeli couscous). There's also a pretzel-crusted pork chop with red onion confit and a Guinness stout mustard sauce, plus several steaks. The place feels more like a well-oiled machine than a newly opened bar run by incredibly young and minimally experienced owners--their grandma should be proud. Xippo is at 3759 N. Damen, 773-529-9135.

Former New York wine bar proprietor Dominic O'Mahony, 15-year veteran bartender Steve Bringas, and former Lettuce Entertain You manager Andreas Antoniou pool their talents at River North newcomer GARRETT RIPLEY'S, which is more bar than restaurant. The long-unoccupied space that was last home to Mango has been completely gutted, and now it's appointed with a long wood bar, unadorned dark wood tables, brick walls hung with vintage photos and a collection of antique hats from all over the world, and a powerful sound system. The food is decent, and the entrees are definitely the high point. Starters are mainly dishes that the owners like to eat while drinking--creamy artichoke dip served with pumpernickel toast points, "buffalettes" (mini boneless buffalo chicken breast sandwiches, served with blue cheese and celery sticks), and grilled chicken quesadillas with guacamole and salsa fresca. Garrett's chopped salad is a light entree full of diced chicken, avocado, Gorgonzola cheese, tomatoes, and bacon in a ranch dressing. Standard entrees include a 16-ounce New York strip and shrimp linguini in arrabbiata (spicy tomato) sauce; a few more interesting ones are potato-crusted salmon (cooked to a nice medium rare) served with grilled squash and pan-seared mahimahi in a roasted shallot and lemon sauce. A half dozen premium beers are served, from ales to wheat beers, and the wine list offers only half bottles and glasses. There's also an extensive list of "fine cocktails for the modern saloon": a Casual Fling is a raspberry lemon-lime martini; a Flirtini is a mix of orange vodka, pineapple juice, and a spot of champagne; and the Viagra is Kahlua and white chocolate liqueur poured over a shot of espresso. While there's no live entertainment, O'Mahony is a one-man show behind the bar, exuding hospitality and welcoming patrons like a pub owner in Ireland might. Garrett Ripley's is at 712 N. Clark, 312-642-2900.

It's hard to imagine a more cheerful, inviting room than the one at Lincoln Park's CALLIOPE CAFE, where the walls are painted eye-opening shades of coral and chartreuse, trimmed in lemon yellow, and hung with colorfully framed Brian Andreas story prints. Chef-owner Tim Bruce (former corporate chef for Goose Island Brewery) and his wife and partner, Deeana, show their style in both the decor and the food. Jewel-toned tables and chairs are purposely mismatched--some adorned with clouds and dog prints, others solid--and colorful pillows line the long bench that runs along one wall. A chalkboard behind the counter displays the frequently changing menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches, which are as vibrant as the decor. A grilled salmon club has an element of smoke from slices of hickory bacon along with an herbaceous tone from the mustard dill aioli, and the chicken sandwich that was a special one day used dandelion greens for crunch and a citrus-thyme aioli for punch. All sandwiches come with waffle fries. Homemade soups might include pinto bean with ham or dill-scented cauliflower with carrots. Generously portioned salads, served in lined baskets, range from a Chinese chicken salad with a soy-ginger vinaigrette to a spinach salad with mandarin oranges, walnuts, and mushrooms. Sandwiches and salads are all made to order using noticeably fresh ingredients, and the desserts--tangy key lime pie, gooey fudge brownies, and peanut butter cookies--are also worth a try. Calliope Cafe is at 2826 N. Lincoln, 773-528-8055.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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