What is the difference between a coffee shop and a bar and grill? A liquor license? The ambiance? The menu--the cost? How do the lines get drawn? Rich Lizzy's American Bar and Grill in Westwood would be a puzzle for restaurant sociologists.

The grill or restaurant portion of Rich Lizzy's is romantically bathed in pretty pink neon. Deco geometric mirrors line the walls. Black flowered tablecloths are set under glass. The chairs are bentwood and comfortable. It would be a good place for Woody Allen to set a love scene. Unfortunately, the loud noises and music from the bar on the other side of the wall filter through. Woody would end up yelling across the table to his date.

Noise is not the only problem; the cook and the designer may have their signals crossed. The menu ranges from omelets and hamburgers to chicken Wellington and baby back ribs. One night we tried a mixed platter of "munchies," as they are called here. Zucchini sticks and chicken, "tempura" style, both came in a zaftig fritter dough. Burnt potato skins contained a nice combination of bacon and cheddar cheese. The buffalo wings, on the other hand, "a house specialty," were beyond vinegary--they were acrid.

Main courses were also erratic. Baby back (pork) ribs were meaty and delicious. Chili was nicely textured, sweet, mild, topped with crunchy scallions. One night the barbecued chicken was quite tasty, another night it came overcooked and cool.

Cajun-style chicken was doused with a mediocre sauce. Chinese chicken salad, with mandarin oranges, tiny bits of chicken and rice noodles, came inadequately dressed. Chicken Wellington was merely a curious interpretation of a classic dish; a thin, crisp crust surrounded a large, bland white piece of chicken that in turn was filled, not with the usual foie gras or pate, but with a mixture of cream cheese and tarragon. A large slab of blackout cake was drowned in a lukewarm hot fudge sauce. The apple pie, on the other hand, was extremely good.

Service also varied. In the afternoon a very pleasant hostess greeted me at the door, but most evenings the service was lackluster, even rude. When we asked what had happened to their weekend champagne brunch, the waiter said in a disdainful tone that they'd discontinued it since customers had ordered "as if they were in a coffee shop." Given that, and our full-meal dinner orders, we were surprised by his less-than-first-class style. Requests appeared to annoy him. The restaurant can't seem to figure out whether it wants to be fancy or casual, and I couldn't figure out what kind of restaurant this was.

Perhaps it's a place for an afternoon tryst. Since happy hour is from 4 to 8, I thought I'd try the restaurant without the sound effects from the bar. It was pleasant coming into the nightclub-lit room during the day; the room was much more serene. But the cold seafood salad, with its tiny shrimp, crab and avocado slices, just barely lived up to coffee-shop standards. Or maybe this is the perfect place to duck into after a late-night movie, now that Ship's is gone. Rich Lizzy's is open until midnight, and it has all those munchies on the menu. Or maybe this is a good bargain restaurant for early eaters. From 5 to 6 p.m. an early-bird dinner (barbecue or roasted chicken) is served for a mere $4.95. It may be a little bit of all these things, but--with its finger bowls and its waiters proffering freshly grated pepper--it obviously wants to be more.

Rich Lizzy's American Bar and Grill, 2260 Westwood Blvd. (just south of Olympic Boulevard), (213) 470-4950. Open seven days: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-midnight; Saturday, Sunday, 5 p.m.-midnight; happy hour, 4-8 p.m. daily. Food served in restaurant and bar. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two (food only): $15-$45.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Gourmet fast food may sound like a contradiction, but an increasing number of fancy restaurants are finding the idea very appealing. The latest one to jump on the bandwagon is La Scala, which opened La Scala Presto Trattoria last week in Brentwood (11740 San Vicente Blvd., 213 826-6100).

The room, which looks like a cross between Spago and Burger King, has a slightly frenetic air: The waitresses look like they just came in from jogging. Nothing on the menu costs more than $8, and yet that menu would leave most of middle America extremely puzzled, with dishes like pa y tomaquet, (toasted peasant bread topped with tomato and olive oil), carpaccio, zuppa di vongole, (steamed mussels) and spaghetti carbonara.

A first tasting proved that the pizzas are good, the pasta properly al dente, (if occasionally over-sauced), and many of the antipasti are very fine. Don't miss the mozzarella marinara. The Caesar salad is a delight. There is Jean Leon's own cabernet for under $10, and good espresso to finish the meal. But caution is advised--everything on the menu is reasonable, but if you order a lot you will discover that fast applies not only to the food, but also to the speed with which the bill builds up.

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