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Solstice Restaurant and Lounge

Tall plants and warm hues in Solstice's large main room won't diffuse its din, even early on a Monday night. But it's a joyous noise, with the clatter and chatter amongst tables of friends sparking an energetic atmosphere matched by exceptional dishes that represent the cultural melange of San Francisco's flavorful neighborhoods. After culinary school and a stint at Postrio, chef Jay Hotch steps up and proves his chops with nearly every dish on this small plates menu by selecting textural contrasts that work wonders along your tongue.

Stellar veggie plates include the roasted beet salad ($7), which enhances both the meaty bottoms and the rarely-used tops with a delicate dance of shaved fennel, aged feta, and oregano vinaigrette. And sliding your Thai basil crostini past Kaffir lime leaves and cilantro into the blissful juices of pan-roasted coconut curry mussels ($10) will make you forget les moules de Belden Lane forever. But I'm still daydreaming in drool over the gorgonzola mac-n-cheese, a rich ramekin of perfectly oozing noodles topped with toasted walnut dust and brunoise of Granny Smith apples. With these three dishes, Solstice raises the bar on the word savory.

Made with fresh fruit, Solstice's signature cocktails ($7) are worth the trip alone, and two of their best make great use of Bacardi Limon. The Raspberry Mojito will have you greedily sucking fresh mint and muddled berries though your wide little straw, and the Ginger Rummy tingles your tongue with double tarts of fresh lemon and immaculately pureed ginger. But to really impress your date, order the dirty Damrak martini not yet on the menu. Its combination of soft floral and cucumber notes, contrasted with a chunk of infused red bell pepper, specially grown for this new Dutch gin company, will glitter through your body like an alien abduction and send you into an uncharted orbit. Solstice offers Chimay, Guinness and Hoegaarden on tap; a swell selection of bottled brews with equally delicious names (Poppy Jasper, Rochefort No. 10 Trappiste Ale, and La Fin Du Monde); and a smart, manicured wine list offering most bottles under $30.

Dessert options include an artisan cheese plate ($11), chocolate fondue (with fresh fruit and pound cake fingers) and strawberry rhubarb crisp (each $5). Be sure to shake your moneymaker up to the loo: the isolated wooden stairwell inevitably draws more eyes than a catwalk in Milan, especially when high heels are involved.

The sunken lounge area offers a friendlier setting for public displays of affection among lean banquettes and plump ottomans. Solstice's prime happy hour, from 5pm to 7pm daily, offers a $2 reduction on drinks and half-price menu treats. The late night happy hour - $1 off drinks and select menu items from 11pm to 1am, Sunday through Wednesday - offers a good excuse to get the week started with a bang. With exceptional food at reasonable prices, and great drinks available during two happy hours, Solstice seems bound to keep its buzz (or yours) going for a long time.