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Serving up the past year's restaurant news

It was an eventful year in the local restaurant world -- but when is it not an eventful year? The restaurant business must be what the ancient Chinese people had in mind when they made up their famous curse: "May you live in interesting times."

The year 2006 is a quintessential example.

The October surprise was "interesting." So is the shrinking population in this area. So is, alas, the fact that an increasing number of chain restaurants are opening in the Buffalo Niagara region. (Many people perceive chains as "inexpensive," and that perception does a number on the small "mom and pop" restaurants.)

And so we had this year perhaps more than the usual closings -- but also a respectable number of openings.

And let us not forget that we have a couple of -- let us call them "gleams in the eye" -- new restaurants that are supposed to open within the next few months or so. Let us hope (unlike certain outdoors stores and bridges all of us might mention) these plans come to fruition. Our salivary glands await.

Accentuating the positive, here are some of the major restaurant openings that occurred in 2006. It's not a complete list, so let's call it a "sampling": Saffire Grill, contemporary American food on Main Street, Clarence; La Tee Da on Allen Street; Buffalo Smokehouse on Franklin Street; DiGiulio & Co., contemporary food on Hertel Avenue; North, a cute little boite in the basement of the Lenox Hotel on North Street, and sushi-based Kibarashi on Elmwood.

Also: Mulberry Cafe, a surprise in Lackawanna; Chocolate Bar on Chippewa; Fillipo's on Hertel Avenue; Vino's, hearty Italian with lots of love on Elmwood Avenue; Vado Pazzo on Main Street; Blue Lantern in Elma; Rick's in East Aurora; Empire Grill, a Tribeca-like transplant on Hertel; Muse in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and Sole in the Walker Center, Williamsville.

And these will be mourned: Tsunami on Kenmore Avenue, Kenmore; Daffodil's, Maple Road in Amherst; Just Pasta on Lexington Avenue; Park Lane (supposedly closing on New Year's Eve); Borealis in East Aurora (now Rick's); Lotis on Delaware Avenue; Brocco on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore; Dakota Grill in Amherst.

And these are coming: Torches, new owners take over from Tsunami on Kenmore Avenue in March. Aroma by owners of Caffe Aroma takes the place of Just Pasta on Bryant Street, said to open this winter.

Stay tuned.

And now, since no restaurant column at this time of year would be complete without a prognostication or two, here are mine:

* The rising of the check: Once not so long ago, the top price for an entree in a Western New York restaurant was $22, and that was seen as expensive. No more. This has gone up to $29, give or take.

And expect to see plenty of $30 entrees on menus next year.

* The resurgence of red sauce. OK, OK for some people it never left -- but whatever goes around comes around and, maybe as a reaction to contemporary food and the high prices it can command, we'll see more and more basic spaghetti and meat ball houses opening.

They will be cheap, they will be non-threatening, they will be lovable.

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