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A YEAR OF WONDROUS MEMORIES

Flipping through my files I find torn bits of paper bearing cryptic messages like, “dill is the new parsley,” “the invasion of New Zealand seafood” or “yellow peppers as ubiquitous as kiwi.” Another note says, “Are there any unblackened redfish left?” All year I’ve been scribbling these little memos to myself, intending to do a year-end roundup of all the crazy things we’ve been eating.

But now that the end of the year is here, I feel more celebratory than cynical. It’s been a wonderful year for restaurantgoers. So I’ve asked each of The Times’ regular restaurant critics to look back at 1985 and choose what they consider the three most memorable restaurants they reviewed this year.

In my own case, the choice was especially difficult. After narrowing the list down to six favorites, I decided to single out new restaurants whose impact, I think, will be felt in the future.

City Restaurant (180 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 938-2155) is the first grown-up restaurant of the punk generation. It has the charm of black tie in blue jeans. Its eclectic menu of beautifully cooked dishes from all over the world may be the most original in town, and its super-modern design is certainly the most architecturally daring. It has been packed from the moment that it opened, and it will certainly have an impact on the way we eat.

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Primi (10543 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 475-9325) is a restaurant based on the simple principle that everybody likes spaghetti better than scaloppine. Realizing that nobody can figure out what he wants to eat in an Italian restaurant after the antipasto and the pasta are gone, Primi did away with everything else. It’s a wonderful idea, and one that is sure to be much imitated.

Max au Triangle (233 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (213)550-8486) opened in a blaze of glory. Chef Joachim Splichal is enormously talented, and all the critics love his food. The public has been somewhat less receptive, and if the restaurant ultimately can’t survive its upstairs location and its unconventional design, we are not likely to see many more expensive but untraditional French restaurants opening in Los Angeles.

Comments from other Times reviewers:

ROBIN GREEN:

Reading through my reviews of the past 12 months was a pleasure, not because of my writing, but because the reviews reminded me of some good times and great eating. There was that lovely lunch at La Toque (8171 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 656-7515), with my mother--the pretty pink room, the steaming hand towels, and the food!--wonderful toast rounds topped with baked goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes; tender pork, roasted in a dark, sweet honey/mustard/vinegar sauce; the best lemon meringue pie we’d ever tasted.

And speaking of mothers, there was my dinner with Andy and his mom at Hugo’s (8401 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 654-3993). Andy’s wonderful veal chop smothered in sauteed wild mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes (a big year for sun-dries). Remember, Andy’s mother said at that time that the person who sucked the marrow from the osso bucco bone would be married in six months? My time will be up Jan. 12.

Then there was a visit to the Border Grill (7404 1/2 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, (213) 658-7495) on hip Melrose. I raved then about the grilled chicken (a juicy, charred, boned breast smothered in sauteed roast peppers and onions); I was there the other night, ordered the chicken, and it was still great.

L.N. HALLIBURTON:

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For me, the experience of a restaurant becomes less specific over time while the overall sense impression remains. The three places which resonate most from the past year’s reviewing each have a distinctive flavor, like a trio of good eaux de vie.

The Skyroom (210 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (213) 432-8781), at the top of the Breakers Hotel is swanky with chic art moderne decor, classy low key service and a spectacular harbor view. The inventive yet restrained French menu changes seasonally. An expensive, wonderful spot for romance or celebration.

At modest Cafe Beignet (234 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 396-6976) I think it’s a tossup what grabs me the most: the three plays for a quarter juke box, the bowling-alley clientele, the way the light floods through the windows, or the food. The young owner-chef makes honest food: from fried oysters to real hot cakes, thick charred pork chops to freshly made beignets . The Oriental Dish (1512 Pacific Ave., Venice, (213) 392-6695) serves traditional Filipino cuisine. In simple but stylish surroundings, two beautiful co-owners guide diners through the exotic menu of carefully prepared, distinctive food. Make sure not to confuse the in-house menu with the steam-table food at the entryway take-out stand.

CHARLES PERRY:

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Newport Beach’s Bubbles Balboa Club (111 Palm St., (714) 675-9093) is a witty dream, a recreated ‘30s nightclub in an Art Moderne building. In dreams, of course, anything is possible: You can have Art Deco giddiness without a breath of modern snideness, and ‘30s nostalgia without, ahem, having to eat real ‘30s food. Instead they’ve invented a fantasy ‘30s cuisine, French-Italian-American, coming from an imaginary time of gourmet dining before the onset of gourmet self-consciousness.

As gourmet as you can get, Antoine at the Newport Meridien (4500 MacArthur Blvd., Newport Beach, (714) 476-2001) has a sous-chef from the famous Hotel Negresco in Nice running the kitchen. It’s rather classical stuff, based on a grandly simple menu and extraordinarily good ingredients, with a little straight-faced Gallic whimsy here and there.

Once upon a time, when all Orange County aspired to was Continental Cuisine, the place to go was Ambrosia. The big news in Newport is that the same building now houses a super-sharp French restaurant named Vintages (501 30th St., Newport Beach, (714) 675-1557). The restaurant specializes in charming, elegant and rather classical French dishes on a changing menu.

ROSE DOSTI:

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The mandate of the “Let’s Eat Out” column (in Food on Thursday) is to review only moderate and low-priced restaurants. Finding recommendable restaurants, much less true discoveries, in this price range is not easy. Most of the restaurants visited, in fact, were best left undiscovered. But among the few that made it to the column, there emerged a handful deserving of special mention:

Edward’s Steak House (733 S. Alvarado St., (213) 385-0051; 9600 Flair Drive, El Monte, (213) 442-2400). Here’s a place worth exploring, not only because the steaks are so homespun and ample for the money you pay, but because the ambiance tugs at your heart. Sawdust on the floor, motherly waitresses, a place to park your car and table condiments you would actually dare to use.

Cafe Linz (7818 W. Sunset Blvd., (213) 876-3703) was not chosen because it is a glorious food emporium. It was chosen because it’s theater--circa 1940 with Bogart, Dietrich, Greenstreet and Paul Conreid all there, digging into the wiener schnitzel , linzer torte or sipping Viennese coffee. And it’s not my fault if you can’t see them.

Sofi Estiatorion (8030 3/4 West 3rd St., (213) 651-0346). The closest you’ll get to good Greek home cooking most of the time. The attraction here is Sofi herself, a medical doctor turned restaurateur-cook, whose table-side manner is a cure in itself.

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BARBARA HANSEN:

ABC Seafood Restaurant (708 New High St., Los Angeles, (213) 680-2887). I’ve spent many weeks in Hong Kong breakfasting daily on dim sum. ABC captures the feel of these jammed, noisy places where the food is wonderful, and you never know what treasure will be on the next cart to roll out of the kitchen.

Marix Tex-Mex Cafe (1108 N. Flores St., West Hollywood, (213) 656-8800). Good Mexican food is surprisingly hard to find in Los Angeles, so Marix was a delightful discovery. Great fajitas. Great steaks. Great Margaritas. The atmosphere is informal and the prices are reasonable.

Hong Phuong Restaurant (711 1/2 New High Street, Los Angeles, (213) 972-9573). Asian cuisines are becoming more and more prominent in Los Angeles, and the best food is often found in assuming small cafes like Hong Phuong, a Vietnamese restaurant on a back street in Chinatown. The atmosphere is shadowy, even drab, but it is worth venturing inside for the dishes prepared by the southern Vietnamese cook.

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LOIS DWAN:

The restaurant of little tastes--today’s answer to the cafe--was the most dramatic development of 1985, obviously meeting a vital need. In spite of noise, a degree of discomfort, and some difficulty with reservations, they filled to overflowing as rapidly as rain barrels in a storm. We could have been a city under siege, subsisting on rats and elephants.

For the most part, these are children of respected parents, and to everyone’s credit, parental standards are generally upheld, particularly in the food. As even the more ambitious new restaurants are noisy, I suppose that is not a factor. Noise is one of the less happy embellishments of recent years.

Not yet strong enough to be called a trend, the return of the middle-level restaurant should be noted and encouraged. It deserves the name of restaurant, offering an experience between the cafe and the established stars, with requisite amenities and a simpler menu at lesser cost, but with attention to quality of ingredients and preparation. It is mannerly enough to give the feeling of occasion, but demands no awe. It is comfortable and friendly, found mostly in neighborhoods as of now. I hope its tribe increases.

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There are also some indications our wandering chefs have stopped wandering and settled into permanent place--happily or unhappily for them, but happily for us. Only Ma Maison remains on the loose.

It also seems the wild experimenting of recent years has slowed and a much needed polishing and perfecting begins. New restaurants do not seem to be opening with quite the wild overconfidence--and over-pricing--of recent years. A bit of wariness is all to the good.

All in all, I found 1985 an encouraging year. May 1986 be even better.


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