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SEEING STARS <br> OUR ANNUAL WRAP-UP OF THE YEAR'S BEST LOCAL RESTAURANTS

There's never a scarcity of restaurant news. It might concern a monumental fight over whether an eating place has a right to open in a certain neighborhood, for instance. (We're referring to the recent Starbucks/Elmwood Avenue imbroglio, in which the nationally-based coffeehouse prevailed.)

Or it might concern a game of culinary dominoes: 1. John Baiocco is one of the buyers of the gloriously historied but defunct Park Lane on Gates Circle. They're hoping for a February opening.

2. Baiocco sells his profitable Biac's World Bistro -- chefs Sam Reda and Chuck LaPress, late of Zuzon's, are to preside over the stoves. (Sam also cooked at the Park Lane once upon a time -- how incestuous can you get?) At last reports, they plan to open sometime in January.) And ...

3. Mark and Sue Warren of Zuzon's form a new corporation, change the menu of the place and install John Kellner as chef. They change the decor, too -- there are monkeys everywhere. The restaurant is now known among the cognoscenti as "the Nu Zu."

What we're trying to say is that you can't really follow this game without a program. Here's our annual listing of restaurants that scored a rating of or better in the Gusto reviews this year.

Our rating scale goes like this:

*fair

**good

***very good

****excellent

*****extraordinary.

Please note, as it says in the review box in very small italic type, these stars are awarded for the quality of the food only. A * means that the rating is provisional -- it's applied to new restaurants in most cases. The date given is the date the review appeared in the paper -- you can check the full review in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

Please call ahead for credit card information and hours of operation. Call ahead for reservations, too. These places are busy.

And -- we don't have to tell you this, do we? -- once you make that reservation, honor it. Or call to cancel.

Billy Ogden's, 1834 William St. (896-8018). A rough and ready place that features terrific old-time Italian as well as very sophisticated innovative food. *** 1/2 (Jan. 17).

Christino's, 1340 Millersport Highway, in the Buffalo/Niagara Marriott (689-6900). Sleek, attractive bistro with specialties like steak, risotto and martinis. *** * (May 2).

Da Caruso, 26 Church St., St. Catharines, Ont. (905-641-0279). This tiny restaurant is colorfully decorated; "regional Italian cuisine" with unusual pastas is featured. *** 1/2 * (Aug. 1).

Dacc's, 3175 Millersport Highway, Getzville (568-2130). A bright, casual restaurant with a diverse menu. Many contemporary touches. *** 1/2 * (July 3).

Eckl's, 4936 Ellicott Road, Orchard Park (662-2262). Renowned, well-established restaurant that specializes in roast beef and steak. ***(Oct. 17).

Enchante, 16 Allen St. (885-1330). A very French restaurant that serves carefully prepared food. **** 1/2 (June 20).

Fanny's, 3500 Sheridan Drive, Amherst (834-0400). Very glamorous setting for beautifully presented contemporary food. ****(Jan. 24).

Farfalle, in Casino Niagara, 5705 Falls Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont. (888-946-3255). Fine dining in a quiet, elegant room that's a complete contrast to the pandemonium outside the door. *** 1/2 * (Dec. 27, 1996).

Golden Duck, 1840 Maple Road, Williamsville (639-8888). A big menu of favorites; also Dim Sum and Mongolian Barbecue on weekends, and -- every day of the week -- Peking Duck. ***(Feb. 7)

Grano, 8900 Main St., Clarence (633-6972). Simply decorated, this little place features an elaborate and sophisticated Italian menu. *** 1/2 * (July 11).

Grille 91, 91 Niagara St. (856-8373). A comfortable restaurant on Niagara Square that offers well-prepared classic food. *** 1/2 (Feb. 21).

Harry's Harbour Place Grille, 2192 Niagara St. (874-5400). Great big and gorgeous, this newly opened steak and seafood restaurant has beautiful views, classy furnishings and a sophisticated menu. *** 1/2 * (Sept. 12)

Il Fiorentino, 8485 Transit Road, East Amherst (625-4250). This popular Tuscan restaurant has just moved to a country setting in Clarence. Fine authentic food. ****(Dec. 12).

K. Gallagher's, 73 Allen St. (882-3550). Everything from a sandwich to Cajun blackened haddock in this charmingly furnished tavern/grill. Food has a definite contemporary slant. ***(Sept. 26).

McMahon's, 952 Maple Road, Williamsville (689-3011). A personality change for what was once an Italian family restaurant and an homage to the late, great steak house of the same name. *** * (Nov. 21).

North Park Cafe, 1434 Hertel Ave. (836-6684). Informal restaurant specializes in homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and baked goods. The food is very fresh, quite original and carefully prepared. ***(Sept. 19).

Old Orchard Inn, 2095 Blakely Road, East Aurora (652-4664). This quintessential country inn has changed ownership, but the old favorite homestyle dishes are still in place. *** 1/2 (April 25).

Osaka, 3112 Main St. (831-0443). Handsome Japanese restaurant with a good-size sushi bar. Also a large menu featuring grilled items, noodle dishes and bento boxes. *** * (Nov. 28).

Peabody's, 423 Elmwood Ave. (881-6228). Attractive small restaurant offers innovative contemporary food. Garden dining in season. *** * (May 9).

Protocol, 6766 Transit Road, Williamsville (632-9556). Long-established, family-owned restaurant flourishes amid the cookie cutter chains. Order the ribs. *** 1/2 (Jan. 10).

Shaw Cafe & Wine Bar, 92 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. (905-468-4772). This expansive restaurant is quite informal and sports a menu of stylish salads, sandwiches and pastas. *** * (June 27).

Shepherds, 8222 Transit Road, Williamsville (689-7802). A successful restaurant in a shopping plaza. It has a huge and varied menu. ***(May 30).

Tapestries, 209 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. (905-468-458). In the old-timey Kiely Inn, this Victorian-looking restaurant serves contemporary food. ***(Sept. 5).

Vineland Estates, 3620 Moyer Road, Vineland, Ont. (905-562-7088). Canada's own Napa Valley! This pleasant restaurant sits smack dab in the middle of the Vineland Estates vineyard. It serves elaborately constructed food made from unique ingredients. ***(Oct. 3).

Wellington Court Cafe, 11 Wellington St., St. Catharines, Ont. (905-682-5518). An attractive 16-table restaurant that offers imaginative food. Contemporary, well-thought-out ingredients. ****(April 4).

Wild Flower, 200 Highway 20 East (at Rice Road), Fonthill, Ont. (905-892-6167). A tiny restaurant in the midst of farm country that serves contemporary cuisine. ***(Aug. 22).

Honor roll
Below is a list of restaurants that were not reviewed this year, but have received a rating of or more in the past.

Asa Ransom House, 10529 Main St., Clarence (759-2315). Fine old house; naturally wholesome food.

Daniels, 174 Buffalo St., Hamburg (648-6554). Small, personal chef-owned restaurant.

E.B. Green's, 2 Fountain Plaza (Hyatt Regency) (856-1539). New York-style steakhouse where the operative word is "big."

Fiddle Heads, 62 Allen St. (883-4166). Small restaurant; extremely well-prepared, innovative food.

Hillebrand's Vineyard Cafe, Highway 55, Niagara-on-the Lake, Ont. (800-582-8412). Overlooking the vineyards, wonderful food.

Hutch's, 1375 Delaware Ave. (885-0074). Creative bistro food.

Hourglass, 981 Kenmore Ave., Kenmore (877-8788). Superb seafood; superb wine list.

Justine's, 120 Church St. (Buffalo Hilton) (845-5100). Romantic dining room with beautifully presented food.

Just Pasta, 307 Bryant St. (881-1888). Handsome contemporary surroundings; imaginative food.

MacDuff's, 317 Pine St., Jamestown (664-9414). Intimate restaurant with sophisticated service.

Ming Teh, 126 Niagara Blvd., Fort Erie, Ont. (905-871-7971). Some of the most innovative Chinese cuisine in this area.

Oliver's, 2095 Delaware Ave. (877-9662). Fine food in glitzy surroundings.

Pranzo, 4243 Genesee St., Cheektowaga (634-2300). Fine northern Italian food surprisingly served in an airport motel.

Rue Franklin, 341 Franklin St. (852-4416). Beautiful restaurant; fine French food.

Sequoia, 718 Elmwood Ave. (882-2219). Newly redecorated restaurant serves carefully prepared American cuisine.

Truffles, 1141 Kenmore Ave., Kenmore (877-1111). Fine non-trendy continental fare.

1997 will also be remembered for:

1. The invasion of the chains. Mexican, Southwestern, down-home country -- you name it. More and more nationally based franchise restaurants with deep, deep pockets moved into the area.

They may pack 'em in at first, but many are very mediocre and not particularly cheap. Maybe that's why most of our fine locally owned restaurants are still around.

2. Intensive chef and restaurant marketing. It's a competitive field and image is all. Public relations firms are beginning to get involved. And that's OK -- just as long as the cuisine stays as important as the "product."

3. The ascent of Canadian restaurants. They swear Casino Niagara has nothing to do with it, and maybe it doesn't, but -- as you'll note in our list above -- a large number of fine eating places are beginning to open in what was once a gastronomical wasteland.

Just over the border, we mean.

Many of them stress seasonal ingredients, grown within miles of the kitchen. U.S. restaurants, take note.

May 1998 be remembered for:

1. More Asian restaurants.

2. More vegetarian restaurants.

3. Fewer (unnecessary) ingredients in each dish.

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