Depending on your disposition, the light cedar slats, hickory floors, and blond oak benches at AVEC–a gem from the owners of Blackbird–can make you feel like you’re sitting in a sauna, a cigar box, or a coffin. It’s a charming space if you don’t mind sharing food and making new friends: there are just five eight-person communal tables. The menu is the first solo effort from chef de cuisine Koren Grieveson (she’s worked with Paul Kahan for five years at Blackbird), and if her homemade salami–genoa, sopressata, bresaola, lomo–isn’t to your taste, there’s also a tantalizing selection of artisanal cheeses and a variety of rustic but sophisticated small plates coming out of the wood-burning oven. A roasted rabbit becomes comfort food in the company of fall squash, escarole, and brown-butter-and-sage sauce; the panfried sardines with crispy serrano ham and olive tapenade are good enough to convert fish haters; and the smoky artichokes with grilled chicory, pecorino cheese, and a simple lemon-juice-and-olive-oil drizzle have remarkable flavor and texture. The larger plates, including tender pork shoulder and a succulent poached-fish stew scented with fennel and saffron, are intriguing too. Avec doubles as a wine bar, with 30 by-the-glass options and 150 bottles of esoteric and small-producer wines from France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. It’s at 615 W. Randolph, 312-377-2002.

Lisa Schmidt, a veteran Chicago chef (Hudson Club, Gordon), breaks out on her own with SQUARE KITCHEN. Opening on Lincoln Square’s increasingly competitive restaurant strip, Schmidt plays it straight with American food in a mix-and-match format: pick your pan-roasted fresh fish (salmon, halibut, or tuna) or grilled meat (chicken, pork, or beef), then top it with one of six sauces–a classic white-wine-and-butter option or the more risque chili and rosemary sauce, for example. Starters outnumber main courses, and with ten side dishes to choose from (including wild mushrooms, lemon-garlic spinach, and skinny fries), grazing and eating meatless are viable options. The salads are huge, and so are the portions of comforting pastas like penne with grilled chicken, artichokes, and spinach in tomato-garlic sauce and fettuccine with asparagus, grape tomatoes, lemon, and Parmesan. There are simpler choices, too, like sandwiches and burgers. The mostly domestic wine list is limited, but the waitstaff’s energy and attentiveness are a bonus. Square Kitchen is at 4600 N. Lincoln, 773-751-1500.

Edgewater’s BANADIR, named after a state in southern Somalia, is a nice addition to the city’s rich ethnic cuisine, with food that’s quite different from the West African fare served at most African restaurants in Chicago. Goat, chicken, and fish are accompanied by wonderfully fluffy basmati rice with cardamom and other spices. The meats are stewed for a long time, rendering them tender and flavorful (though the goat can be a bit dry). The foul is a meatless chili with beans, tomatoes, and onions that makes a nice side with the rice. The place fills up at lunchtime for an $8 buffet–a good way to sample several of the dishes–but breakfast is also served. (Somalian breakfast might be a small pancake called injera served with beef stew or a plate of goat liver and onions.) The homemade hot sauce goes great with the salty, fairly heavy food, and all that spice and salt will make you thirsty for the bright orange fruit drink served in pitchers to every table. The space is low-key, with lime green walls, brown vinyl booths, and a TV blaring news up front. Husband-and-wife owners Amina Buho and Garaad Samatar want the place to feel “like we’re having friends to our home,” says Samatar. At the end of October, Buho and Samatar will break the Ramadan fast with a feast and party at the restaurant. Banadir is at 6221 N. Clark, 773-274-2778.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Anthony Tahlier.