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Best Outdoor Dining 

Sofia Bistro

With all due respect to Bar Italia's verdant, lushly landscaped courtyard -- a nationally recognized jewel for al fresco dining -- this past summer we found ourselves drawn more toward the unlikely environs of Bulgaria than the Renaissance-style splendor of Italy. Sofia Bistro is the brainchild of Bulgarian native Teddy Ivanov. Its Continental dishes sound gluttonous -- beef tenderloin stuffed with shrimp; tomato Provençal and cheese; eggplant Riviera, a manicotti-like creation involving feta, ricotta, basil, tomato coulis, mozzarella, fontina and a béchamel sauce -- but they come off as refined, subtle. (No hungry-man megaportions here.) This elegance matches wonderfully with Sofia's sophisticated sidewalk dining. Ten or so wrought-iron tables and chairs, canopied by shade trees garlanded with twinkle lights, suggest privacy, coziness, perhaps a bit of romance. The very sight of it all practically charms us into buying a bottle of wine on the spot, before we've even sat down.

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