by Susan Hamilton

She may be Spokane's youngest restaurateur, but she has many years of experience under her belt at her aunt and uncle's area restaurant, Azar's. At 20, Shanez Azar knows what she wants.

"You have to take a chance," Azar says. "I know how a restaurant works, and this is what I want to do."

With help from her father, Karim Azar (who previously owned an Azar's restaurant on North Nevada), Shanez fixed up the former Ron's Drive-Inn on East Sprague near Freya. Opened early last month, Azar's Express' bright red-and-white interior is clean and inviting.

This is not your usual fast food -- unless you live in Athens, Greece. Gyros are the specialty at Azar's Express. Served in soft pita bread, the marinated and rotisserie-grilled lamb and beef are sliced and topped with tahini sauce with tomatoes or susiki sauce with cucumbers. The savory sandwiches are ever so tasty, although a bit messy. Chicken gyros, falafel (garbanzos) and added cheese are options as well. Appetizers of hummus (using a family recipe), foule (a fava-bean dip), babaganoug (eggplant), feta and falafel are also available. Salads -- Greek, tabula, gyra or chicken -- are more out-of-the-ordinary offerings.

If you must eat Westernized fare, Azar's Express offers burgers, but even these include a gyro burger. Cold sandwiches -- turkey, clubhouse or B.L.T. -- are served on pita bread. Specials are offered daily. The day I stopped by, it was lentil soup with ham and cheese on pita.

Azar's Express has a drive-through and will offer delivery service beginning next month.

Azar's Express, at 3624 E. Sprague, is open Monday-Saturday from 11 am-8 pm and Sunday from 11 am-4 pm. Call 534-4114.

A Fresh Start -- Sometimes you just have to start over. Taking over a well-known restaurant can be tricky. How do you keep customers' favorites and introduce new dishes while retaining an established clientele?

After a little more than a year at Dewey, Cheatam & amp; Howe and three menu changes, owners Janice and David Maas decided to try something new. They know the local restaurant trade well, with two other successful eateries (Europa Pizzaria and the Wall Street Diner) under their wing, and felt that some changes were in order.

"We wanted to create an environment that is inviting for more people," Janice Maas says about the change.

And they've done just that with the Garden Grill, which debuted two weeks ago. With yummy breakfast items ranging from build-your-own Belgian waffles to tofu veggie wraps and lunch/dinner offerings from Ancho chile chicken fettuccine to rib-eye steak with Bourbon Street pepper sauce, there is something to please everyone's tastes.

Executive Chef Colleen Steele says she has had fun creating a new menu, using fresh, local ingredients. Her breakfast offerings include house-prepared lox; French toast (baguette-style) dipped in vanilla egg custard, spiced with cardamom and served with huckleberry syrup; Swedish breakfast crepes with fruit topping; and house-baked muffins, cinnamon rolls and Danish. Lunch and dinner bring a wide array of items, like a tempura vegetable appetizer, harvest pear salad with citrus-poached salmon, Gambretto pizza with spicy shrimp, vegan grilled Portobello burger, a spicy lumberjack sandwich with beef and chilies, tequila lime trout and coconut chicken. A variety of senior dishes are available, and desserts are from Europa's bakery.

The decor is pleasing as well. Designer Pat Jeppeson worked his magic to produce an interior that is comfortable and appealing. The main dining room sports yellows and greens, stained-glass windows, wood paneling and framed produce-crate labels on the walls amid live plants. The vintage bar has been retained, but has a fresher feel, with Italian bistro tapestry chairs and brass rails above the booths. An upstairs room with a view is surrounded by open railing and topped with live plants. Low river-rock walls and decks frame the exterior.

The Garden Grill, at 3022 N. Division, is open daily from 7 am-10 pm. Call 326-7741.

Encore! -- "Our first Kay's Teriyaki Plus is so popular that we decided to open a second restaurant in Spokane," says owner and chef Kay Housan.

The Housans remodeled a former Skipper's restaurant to house their restaurant that opened earlier last month on the South Hill. Reasonably priced, all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner buffets are offered at the Asian eatery, as well as take-out.

True to its name, Kay's features teriyaki chicken, pork and beef, served with rice and chow mein. Special stir-fries are also offered, including mong bean noodle, Bul Go Ki (beef and vegetables) and spicy pork. Almond or cashew chicken, sweet and sour chicken or pork, broccoli beef, chicken with black bean sauce and rice bowls are also menu items at Kay's.

What keeps customers coming back for more? Kay says it's her quality ingredients -- spices, lean meats and oils--without MSG, as well as her homestyle Korean cooking.

Kay's Teriyaki Plus, at 2808 E. 29th Ave., is open Monday-Saturday from 11 am-9 pm. Call 532-8781.

Trendy Dining -- Laith Elaimy was inspired by a New York City trend toward private dining for the recent expansion of his popular downtown restaurant, Niko's. The Greek restaurant and wine bar now includes four upscale, private dining rooms as well as a private cigar room. Elaimy describes the rooms, designed by John Roftar, as having "very elaborate d & eacute;cor, with sophisticated marble floors and woodwork." The dining rooms will seat up to 18 people, and the cigar room accommodates 20 smokers.

Niko's, at 725 W. Riverside, is open Monday-Friday from 11 am-2 pm for lunch, 5-10 pm for dinner, Thursday-Saturday until 11 pm, Sunday from 4-9 pm. Call 624-7444 to reserve private rooms.

Parisian Flair -- This year's Spokane Opera Holiday Gala, "An Evening in Paris," takes place at the Davenport Hotel on Saturday, Dec. 28. The annual fund-raiser begins with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at 6 pm in the Hall of Doges, followed by an unusual wine auction. The catered dinner includes four bottles of wine at each table. During dinner, solo performances and waltzing dancers will be accompanied by the Spokane Opera Orchestra. Parisian swing dancing to the music of Casey Magill begins at 10:30 pm. Tickets are $125 each. Call 535-7051.

A Merrie Olde Time -- Charles Dickens has always been closely associated with the Christmas spirit and festivities. Dickens festivals are popular in England and America during the holidays, especially with those who enjoy celebrating in the lavish Victorian tradition. Here in the Northwest, we have a unique Dickens festival in a quaint North Idaho town.

This Saturday's Victorian Christmas Celebration in Kellogg will transport you to Victorian England. With townspeople in Dickens-era costumes, downtown shop windows decorated in attendant Victorian attire, and various themed events taking place in the former mining town, you'll think you've landed in another time and place.

"Ours is a Dickens festival with a home-town feeling," says Doris Miller, director of the Kellogg Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the event.

Kellogg's seventh-annual Victorian Dickens celebration features a classic high tea from 2-4 pm. The four-course meal of authentic English fare includes scones with fruit butter and clotted cream, mini-sandwiches and pasties, and elegant Victorian desserts. This year, the high tea will be held at the recently opened Veranda Restaurant, which will be decorated in period style. Mid-1800s entertainment will delight guests, including troubadours, flutists, skits and Dickens recitals. Guests will also receive a Victorian favor.

A Christmas craft fair takes place from 10 am-4 pm in various locations along McKinley and Main Street. Pie and hot drinks can be purchased at the fair. At 4:30 pm, Santa will arrive at the town square with gifts for the children. Festival-goers can enjoy the troubadours and other entertainment while sipping on hot chocolate. A Christmas tree lighting and the ever-popular town sing-along follows.

The Victorian Christmas Celebration takes place in Kellogg, Idaho, on Saturday, December 14, beginning at 10 am. Reservations are required for the high tea, which costs $25 per person. Call: 208-784-0821.

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