Lots of places let you eat at the bar; few offer the sort of special incentives we appreciate, like finger food that's more fun and less froufrou than whats being consumed in the dining room, and a democratic ambience that sanctions both spirited socializing and unmolested introspection. At Sono, the reflective Franco-Japanese haven, a trickling waterfall and artfully rugged furnishings make the undiscovered bar an ideal midtown refuge. Slender curried-chicken spring rolls and miso-dabbed crab dumplings are scrumptious and as visually striking as chef Tadashi Ono's hand-crafted ceramic dishes. Just the things to nibble with inventively Asianized classic cocktails like a kaffir-lime gimlet or a Bloody Mary enlivened with sansho pepper and wasabi. Runners-up: Merge (142 West 10th Street; 212-691-7757), for its "two-handed BLT," a monstrous sandwich that defies completion; its Mexican seafood tacos; its fried oysters; and its adorable tiny tinis in flavors like pear and Creamsicle. And at Cafe de Bruxelles (118 Greenwich Avenue; 212-206-1830), where the menu is as effortlessly appealing as the zinc-topped bar, the Belgian-beer selection is famously staggering, the burger deeply satisfying, and best of all -- if you've been, you'll know what we mean -- everything comes with fries.
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