Charms aplenty at Commercial Drive's cozy Carthage Café

Hy's Steakhouse celebrates half-century with retro menu

What are the ingredients that make a restaurant not only appealing but irresistible? Nestled behind exquisite, bevelled glass doors on Commercial Drive between Second and Third Avenues is Carthage Café, a surprisingly detail-driven, charming haunt with no shortage of good French and Tunisian tastes.

At night, the heritage storefront-its bay-window alcoves, just big enough for an intimate table, tucked in either side of the door-glows. It's easy to be seduced by the newest, the greatest, the latest and the trendiest. But when it comes down to it, what we crave is good food, fair prices and some extra special attention, all of which this unpretentious and cozy room delivers in spades.

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Our special Brie and artichoke salad (big enough for two) rewarded with fresh mixed greens tangled with slices of ripe Brie and marinated artichoke, topped with pinenuts and a vibrant raspberry vinaigrette that had us craving more ($13).

Carthage mainstay mussel bowls (all $15) range from the cumin-and harissa-spiced Carthago to proven-çale, blue cheese, and poulette (with chives, shallots and white wine). Our choice of aioli was a showstopper, thanks to plump bivalves swimming in a heady broth, laden with garlic, lemon and olive oil, plus fries on the side.

While there's no shortage of good French classics here (including bouillabaisse, pepper steak and steak frites), we opted to stay on the Tunisian side of things with a piping hot bowl of chicken couscous, ample for sharing, and packed with tender chicken pieces over carrot and zucchini with a deeply spiced brown sauce with chick peas ($19).

Wines are smartly picked and well priced. Gray Monk 2010 Pinot Noir turned out to be a flexible choice to accommodate such a wide range of flavours.

With its cozy setting and welcoming service, there's no doubt Carthage will lure us back for more couscous (such as lamb shank or merguez), not to mention onion soup, meschouia salad, lamb shank and much more when the winter rains finally arrive.

(1851 Commercial Dr., 604-2150661; open for dinner nightly and for lunch Tuesday to Saturday.)

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In the fickle realm of Vancouver's dining world where, according to retired restaurateur Bud Kanke, 85 per cent of independents fail in the first five years, it's something for a restaurant to make it through one decade, let alone five.

It's been 50 years since Hy Aisenstat served up his first steak Diane at Hy's (637 Hornby St., 604-683-7671), making it one of the longest running family-owned restos in the city's history. Hy's marks its first half century with a celebratory menu glance back at tastes of yore, including classics such as tournedos Rossini, scampi, steak Diane, Dover sole Meuniere and more. They'll be gone again at month's end-but not the famed cheese bread!

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If you're a B.C. wine lover, the lineup of 24 gold medal winners from last week's B.C. Wine Awards, which I helped judge, add up to a serious shopping list. Cabernet Franc (Church and State, Tinhorn Creek, Sumac Ridge) gained lots of attention. As did Syrah (Cassini, Black Hills) and Riesling (Pel-ler, Wild Goose Lang). Kudos to Quinta Ferreira for its Syrah 2009 (Best Red of show), and to Lang Vineyards for its Farm Riesling 2008 (Best White of Show). Best sparkling went to Road 13 Vineyards Chenin Blanc. Full results at hiredbelly.com or owfs.com. info@hiredbelly.com

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