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Comfort Redefines Top Chefs' Restaurants

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. ( MainStreet) -- Whether it's the recession or just a preference for more casual dining, most new or recently discovered restaurants making waves across the country are far more casual than the hot spots of a few years ago, when minimalist design and fancy dishes topped with foams and gelee reigned.

Today it's about a rustic vibe and hearty, innovative menus in restaurants that try to look far older than their actual age. Some are led by chefs that no longer require a decade under Guy Savoy or Thomas Keller, only a devoted following or perhaps a stint on Top Chef to put them atop the culinary scene.

Yardbird Southern Table & Bar just opened in Miami's South Beach with a rustic look, classic feel and no fancy dishes topped with foams and gelee.

Tertulia opened in the West Village over the summer to star sightings and foodie acclaim -- even by lofty New York standards. Its charming brick storefront with navy awning and well-shellacked doors leads to a rustic space of painted-brick walls and cozy archways framing wood banquettes, painted tiles and communal tables. Within is an open kitchen, where chefs can be seen working a wood-fired oven, and marble-topped bar that serves Spanish beers and wines by the glass. Produce-driven ingredients inspire a menu of small-plate specialties such as pig cheek with quail egg, tortilla Espanola with egg, grilled squid with Poblano vinaigrette and 40-day aged prime rib by Chef Seamus Mullen, formerly of New York's Boqueria.

Opening during the first week of October in Miami's South Beach, former Top Chef participant Jeff McInnis oversees Yardbird Southern Table & Bar just a block from ever-hip Lincoln Road. Built as a "house of worship to farm-fresh ingredients," the restaurant specializes in Southern cooking with a locally sourced, farm-to-table cooking ethos. Open for lunch and dinner, the spaces oozes farmhouse chic by mixing wide-plank wood floors with leather-tufted banquettes under chandeliers repurposed from mason jars and produce baskets. The menu uses produce from organic, biodynamic purveyors that result in such small plates as braised short-rib meatloaf or fried green tomato BLT and supper dishes of Floridian Wagyu beef ribeye or a choice of cast-iron pan-roasted or fine-fried chicken.

A foodie city such as San Francisco has no shortage of top dining draws, including in the city's Jackson Square -- home to Chef Michael Tusk's Michelin one-star Quince restaurant, which spun off the more casual Cotogna last January and watched it become one of the toughest reservations in town. Cotogna does feel-good Italian cuisine with a gourmet spin, incuding dishes such as pizza bianca with chanterelles and nettles, homemade ricotta ravioli with farm egg and brown butter or pappardelle with braised oxtail ragu.

Nearby, closer to North Beach, Park Tavern opened in early September from Anna Weinberg and Jennifer Puccio, the proprietor and chef behind Marlowe Restaurant. The eatery joins an area of quirky inns and pizza restaurants with its own vibrant and playful setting, including tufted banquettes, a wagon-wheel chandelier and veiny marble bar offering a menu of wood-oven and new American specialties.

In Los Angeles, SBE is one of the city's top restaurant and nightlife operators; Katsuya, The Bazaar by Jose Andres and Cleo are all part of the empire, and on Oct. 2 the company debuted Mercato di Vetro in place of the former nightclub MI-6 on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. It's on the same block as the legendary rock club the Troubadour, as well as perennial Hollywood favorite Dan Tana's. The two-story space has been completely overhauled, with painted-tile floors and an industrial Italian ambiance, to serve as home to Chef Danny Elmaleh, formerly of Santa Monica's now Michelin-ranked two-star restaurant Melisse. He has a farm-to-table menu and Hollywood flair, complete with Web videos with better production quality than most TV shows. Upon opening, the restaurant became the hottest reservation in town, jumping ahead of Top Chef-winner Michael Voltaggio's INK that opened only last month.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.

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