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RUTH REICHL’S TOP 40 RESTAURANTS

Ruth Reichl is the Los Angeles Times' food editor and restaurant critic.

EVERY TIME I FINISH WRITING A REVIEW OF A REALLY WONDERFUL RESTAURANT, I AM OVERwhelmed by a pair of conflicting emotions. The first is enormous excitement over a great discovery. The second is enormous sadness that I won’t be going there again.

Restaurant critics must move on. While you’re dining at the latest discovery, I’m eating at the next new place. There aren’t enough nights in the week--or enough dollars in the expense account--to allow me the luxury of going back to eat in a restaurant simply for the fun of it.

That’s why this assignment was such a pleasure. When I was asked to pick the Top 40 restaurants in the region, I immediately wrote a list of places I was eager to revisit. I came up with almost 100 restaurants, and during the past four months I ate in all of them.

I had a terrific time. I also had some disappointing evenings. At dinner in one of Los Angeles’ most revered restaurants, the waiter arrived at the table only to ask who got the chicken. This might not ordinarily offend me, but since the chicken in question cost $28, I thought he should know. Other lapses in service convinced me that, although the restaurant was good, it was not good enough. Another high-priced place had wonderful service but food so dull that had I been asked to spend my own money on the meal, I would have been incensed. I thought you would be, too; I left it off the final list (which is in no particular order).

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Also missing are some of the amazing places that have opened during the past few months. If the restaurant wasn’t open when I began my research, it wasn’t eligible for the Top 40.

The Top 40 are special-occasion places. Most people can’t afford to eat in them very often; I can’t either. If you want to know where to find me most days, look at the recommendations that appear in the margins. These are the restaurants I go to again and again. As far as I’m concerned, it is the abundance of great, inexpensive ethnic restaurants that makes living in Los Angeles so exciting.

Finally, if you find yourself convinced that I’ve missed a truly great restaurant, please drop me a card. I’m always ready to eat--even if it’s only my own words.

CITRUS

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If you asked me where I want to eat, right this minute, I’d probably say Citrus.

This is a restaurant with soul, because chef-owner Michel Richard truly loves his work. No chef enters a kitchen with greater joy--and few chefs send such consistently satisfying food out of it.

Richard’s technique is French, but his years in Los Angeles show. This is light food with a sense of humor. Shrimp might come wrapped in strands of potato and deep-fried. Scallops float in a bit of stock with a banner of pink pasta floating across the top. Whitefish lounges on a bed of mashed potatoes wearing a sauce of chicken and shallots. Richard’s years as the city’s premier pastry chef show, too. Nobody makes more beautiful food.

Can’t decide what to eat? Don’t despair. Simply ask the chef to make a meal and then sit back and wait for the fireworks.

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Are there problems with the restaurant? Of course. You may be kept waiting at the door. This casual room can become uncomfortably crowded, and the covered patio tends to be too hot or too cold. The chairs could be more comfortable. Still, it’s hard to get grumpy when you can look up and watch Richard running around in his glass-enclosed kitchen having such a wonderful time.

6703 Melrose Ave.; (213) 857-0034. Entrees from $21 to $26.

VALENTINO

Many years ago, I went to lunch at Valentino and stayed for dinner. It’s that kind of restaurant--a place for languorous meals, lots of wine and romance. But afterward, when I told people how wonderful the restaurant was, they’d look at me knowingly and say, “But Piero Selvaggio knows you.” And of course he does.

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So I sent a secretary in for dinner and waited to see what would happen. Her report? “I’ve never had a better meal--or felt so well taken care of. Piero came up and asked us if we would like him to make a meal for us. He talked about what was in the kitchen, and together we devised a menu for the evening. It was heavenly; we started with little deep-fried cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms, went on to deep-black squid risotto and then had loin of beef in balsamic vinegar. I asked him to choose the wines as well--and they were fabulous. He made me feel like I was someone: I’m saving my pennies for the next meal there.”

And so am I. I go for the fried squid and ricotta fritters, the risotto (any risotto), the sweetbreads and mushrooms in Cabernet. I go for the pasta. I go for the wine (the wine list is L.A.'s biggest, and probably its best). In a town of few elegant, upscale, good restaurants, Valentino stands out. The restaurant was remodeled a couple of years ago, and now the city’s best Italian food has a room that is worthy of it.

3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (213) 829-4313. Entrees from $17.50 to $26. KATSU

When I first discovered sushi, eating it seemed like an amazingly mysterious ritual. The initiation rites included memorizing the names of the fish in Japanese, bribing the sushi chefs with big tips so they’d remember me on subsequent visits and ostentatiously demonstrating that I knew that the fish was supposed to be dipped into the soy sauce, not the rice. The other part of the ritual was learning not to jump when the sushi chefs shouted vociferous hellos.

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But one sushi bar was different. It was a quiet, beautiful room where the walls held the sort of art that makes you think (a Barofsky, a Mark Lere), and the sushi was served on trendy, handmade plates. And it was a place that demystified the process of eating sushi; behind the bar they spoke English, and at the table the waiter simply handed you a list of what was available and you checked off the fish you wanted to eat.

There was one other thing that impressed me about this particular sushi bar. The sushi looked more beautiful than it did in other places, artfully arranged on those spectacular plates. And it tasted better, too; you always knew that everything you ate at Katsu would be wonderful.

After all these years, you still do.

1972 N . Hillhurst Ave.; (213) 665-1891. Entrees from $7.50 to $16; sushi from $2.75 to $10.

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CITY

When I met Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger 10 years ago, they were cooking in a kitchen so small that it could barely contain them both at the same time. They didn’t mind: They were so excited by cooking that they acted as if the City Cafe was the most wonderful restaurant in the world.

Now they’ve got an empire--City Cafe became the Border Grill, they opened City restaurant and now there’s a new Border Grill in Santa Monica--but they still work with the same exuberance. Cooking is their passion.

City is young, hip, spare, cool--a huge barn of a room with the most eclectic, eccentric menu of any Los Angeles institution. The chefs are impeccably trained in French cooking, but they are equally interested in the cuisines of other countries: Susan goes to India every year to cook in a small village, and Mary Sue has cooked in Thailand. Together they spend time in Mexico researching food.

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Unlike other chefs, however, they feel no need to put their own stamp on the dishes. Their Indian food--great tandoori meats and breads, wonderful little fried appetizers--are unadulterated. Their Thai melon salad is like a taste of Thailand. They make wonderful Korean ribs, great American hamburgers, a delicious reinvented beef Stroganoff. Their menu also has Greek touches (peppers with feta cheese), Japanese touches (sashimi) and an occasional Italian accent (terrific gnocchi). The desserts, however, are pure Americana: They even make their own version of Hostess cupcakes.

180 S. La Brea Ave.; (213) 938-2155. Entrees from $16.50 to $23.

MANDARIN

Cecilia Chiang, who started the first Mandarin in San Francisco in 1961 and opened the second in Beverly Hills in 1975, is a force of nature. During the 1949 revolution, she walked out of China with gold sewn into the hems of her dresses. On a return trip a few years ago, she managed to drink 32 shots of cognac at one banquet without showing the slightest effect. She is one of those women who always looks gorgeous, says the right thing and seems to be having a better time than anybody else in the room. It is no wonder that her restaurants--the first in California to serve Northern-style Chinese cooking--for years have been the best places to eat Chinese food outside of Chinatown.

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But last year Mrs. Chiang sold the Beverly Hills Mandarin to her son. To everyone’s surprise, the restaurant actually improved. Philip Chiang injected energy into the restaurant, updating the room so that it is still elegant but now seems younger. He changed the menu, too, adding all sorts of wonderful little tidbits--steamed dumplings, fried-onion pancakes, crepes wrapped around a chicken-and-vegetable mixture, glazed walnuts. You can nibble these little dishes at your leisure, then go on to superb Peking duck, an unusual braised lamb on a bed of spinach or whole steamed fish. And if you like, you can drink well while you eat; this is one of the few Chinese restaurants around that actually pays attention to the wine list.

430 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills; 272-0267. Entrees from$6 to $34.

CELESTINO

Of all the little Italian restaurants in town, this is the one that most makes me feel that I’m eating in Italy. Locanda Veneta is like a Hollywood dream of a cozy trattoria . Angeli is a bit too hip, Pazzia a tad too fancy. But bright little Celestino, with its table of desserts plunked in the middle of the room and its waiters with their charming accents, makes you start looking for lira to pay the valet.

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The food doesn’t do anything to dispel this illusion. I think the restaurant’s two strengths are the rustic dishes--such as malloreddus with sausage, tomato and pecorino cheese and a wonderful roasted rabbit in black olive sauce--and its way with fish. Spaghetti with bottarga (a sort of dried caviar) is exotic; the restaurant’s most famous dish is seafood cooked in a huge balloon of foil, and they work wonders when they simply throw a piece of fish on the grill.

Desserts here are forgettable, but that’s true to form: When was the last time you got a great dessert (other than fruit and cheese) in a small Italian trattoria ?

236 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (213) 859-8601. Entrees from $17 to $21.

CHAYA BRASSERIE

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Chaya’s so hip that I never expect the personnel to be nice to me. The surprising thing is, they always are.

Why go to Chaya? Because it is among the prettiest rooms in town, an improbable cross between a traditional Japanese inn, a French bistro and a New York singles bar. And because of the buzz that settles just beneath those high ceilings. At lunchtime, this is echt Hollywood--the seats filled with agents and actors looking around to see who’s there to see them. The same people show up for dinner, but they’re harder to spot because at night they blend into a crowd of foodies, businessmen and tourists.

And finally, you go because this is the city’s most original blend of French, Italian and Japanese food. You can start with sashimi or seaweed salad, go on to escargots a la bourguignon, follow it up with fettuccine and have steak for a finale. Wash it down with a bottle from a truly exciting wine list (it’s not big, but everything on it is good). And walk out the door with an understanding of what new Pacific cooking is all about.

8741 Alden Drive; (213) 859-8833. Entrees from $9.50 to $30.

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REBECCA’S

This restaurant drives me crazy. I think it’s the loudest room in town--the sound assaults you; it can actually be a relief to walk out the door. And getting in the door isn’t easy; you almost always find yourself standing around waiting for a table or trying to squeeze into a place at the bar. I am usually in a rage by the time I get a seat.

And then I calm down: The food is worth the wait. The kitchen does almost everything right: It creates fresh seafood cocktails from just-opened shellfish and fresh juice, serves the lime-sprinkled corn chips hot from the fryer, uses great ingredients for the steak tostadas, the lobster enchiladas and chicken chilapitas . The French fries are fabulous, and the flan is a dream. This is Mexican food at its most uptown--and it’s absolutely terrific.

The architecture is something, too. Designed by Frank Gehry, it’s California goofy, with an alabaster private dining room floating over the bar and huge crocodiles dangling from the ceiling. Between the food and the room, Rebecca’s is a diner’s Disneyland, a roller-coaster ride that leaves you breathless and happy.

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2025 Pacific Ave., Venice; (213) 306-6266. Entrees from $14 to $22.

SPAGO

The thing to remember about Spago is that it’s just a neighborhood restaurant for stars. While you wait (and you probably will wait), console yourself with unabashed people watching as the famous are led past you to their tables; and remind yourself that they are part of the reason you wanted to come here in the first place.

Once you’re finally seated, you’ll feel fine. The food is consistently delicious, the service is good and the place simply rocks with good vibrations. Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff manage to make you feel as if you are in the midst of a very fun party.

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What to eat? Personally, I think the famous designer pizzas are the least-interesting things on the menu. But Spago does serve the world’s best chopped salad, incredibly good homemade salami and smoked salmon and a delightful array of pastas. Among the entrees, the Chinese duck is good, the lamb is wonderful and the roasted salmon with black pepper and Cabernet butter is a treat. If there are enough of you, ask for a combination plate for dessert. And don’t be embarrassed to ask for a doggy bag; portions are not small, and even the stars sometimes walk out with leftovers.

1114 Horn Ave., West Hollywood; (213) 652-4025. Entrees from $19.50 to $26.50.

ST. ESTEPHE

There is not another restaurant in the world quite like St. Estephe. It began as a very good little French restaurant under the aegis of classically trained chef John Sedlar. One day, Sedlar decided to go back to his New Mexican roots, exploring his own heritage of blue corn tortillas, tamales and chile peppers. He studied the art of his native region as well, turning out plates as lovely as sand paintings.

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When the dishes are successful--as in carne adobada- stuffed ravioli served in a cream garlic chevre sauce, blue corn tortillas served with smoked salmon and American caviar, and lamb with chile, grapefruit zest and yucca root--this food is a revelation. (When it is not, it seems downright silly. And some of the dishes are so small you have trouble finding them on the plate.) Desserts can be outstanding, too; don’t miss Sedlar’s version of crepes suzettes, which uses blue corn crepes and pumpkin ice cream.

The restaurant, in a shopping center, once looked like a typical little French place. A recent remodeling left it with the clean, easy lines of the Southwest. If you sit on the adobe patio on a sunny day, it’s almost possible to imagine that you’re in New Mexico and that the car revving up in the parking lot on the other side of the wall is actually a coyote starting to sing.

2640 N . Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach; (213) 545-1334. Entrees from $22 to $29. CHAMPAGNE

See those people at the table in the corner, eating dinner with their little boy? It’s probably proprietors Patrick and Sophie Healy sitting down to a meal with their son, Benoit. They almost always seem to be here--which is one of the things that gives this restaurant a personal touch.

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Patrick Healy is one of the best young chefs in town. Trained in France, he went to work at L.A.'s Le St. Germain. Two and a half years ago, when he opened his own restaurant, Healy decided to do things differently. Most chefs go out and find investors; Healy put his own money where your mouth is. The result is a kitchen that really cares. And you can taste it.

The menu is divided among rustic French dishes (great cassoulet ), contemporary California fare (crispy Norwegian salmon with leaf spinach and a black peppercorn sauce) and spa cuisine (the best eggplant soup you’ve ever eaten--and only 150 calories). Big eaters will want to try the spectacular prix fixe menu. It’s $68 a person--and worth it.

When Champagne first opened, the service was shaky and the wine was list a joke. But now the restaurant is aging well; both have grown up and gotten respectable.

10506 Little Santa Monica Blvd.; (213) 470-8446 . Entrees from $14.75 to $24.50.

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THE GRILL

Ever wonder why there aren’t more older waiters in Los Angeles? I do--every time I walk into The Grill and find myself being served--beautifully--by men who make waiting tables seem like a profession. They aren’t hip, they don’t tell you their names and they don’t seem like they’re about to rush off for auditions. They simply serve food with grace and dignity.

That’s one of the nice things about The Grill. Consistently fine, no-nonsense food is another. Eating here is not a great gourmet experience; there’s nothing fancy or frilly about what they serve. But you know that you will always find great basic American fare: a spectacular Caesar salad, good shrimp Louis, fine grilled meats and fish, huge baskets of sourdough bread and, at lunchtime, one of the city’s best burgers.

You also know you’ll always find an interesting mix of people. It’s a power place: The guys huddled at the next table may be making a movie deal. It’s a celebrity joint, too: You’ll almost always see a famous face. But it’s also a genuine family restaurant where you can bring your kid and not be embarrassed if he starts playing peekaboo with the couple in the booth across the way.

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9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills; (213) 276-0615. Entrees from $14.50 to $27.50.

CHINOIS ON MAIN

I have a special relationship with Chinois: While it was being built, I spent months on the site, writing about what it takes to open a restaurant. I hung around so much that everybody forgot that I was there. I watched Barbara Lazaroff charm inspectors, fight with workmen and come close to having a nervous breakdown when the glass for the bar was cut the wrong way. And I watched Wolfgang Puck experiment with the menu, creating a new kind of Chinese-French-California hybrid cuisine.

Opening night was a hectic event: At 6 p.m. the painters were still painting, the electricians were still working and the cooks were on the verge of hysteria. At 7 there was still chaos. It seemed almost magical, but it all came together, and when the first guests walked in, they entered a serene fantasy of flowers and copper and chinoiserie. And they sat down to eat dishes like sauteed foie gras on pineapple in cinnamon sauce. They were charmed by duck, mushrooms and cilantro in Sichuan pancakes and amazed by “sashimi tempura.” The restaurant’s opening was an event; the place had an energy about it. To date, nobody has managed a successful imitation. Chinois is the restaurant that wrote the book on East-West cuisine.

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2709 Main St., Santa Monica; (213) 392-9025 . Entrees from $17.50 to $28.

TULIPE

I wish Tulipe were a little less loud. It would be nice if the tables had a little more space between them, too. And if the lights were just low enough to give the room some romance, this would be the perfect little French restaurant.

As it is, it’s practically perfect. This is a wonderful modern bistro, serving true French food at its robust best--fully flavored, gutsy, fun to eat. It is French food that, unlike much of what is served in town, has not been California-ized into something pretty, small and delicate. This is also, it must be added, French food that you can afford (a couple can easily get out the door for $50).

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My favorite dishes are the ones with the most intense flavors. A tart made of pears and Roquefort cheese. An occasional special appetizer made of pig’s trotters and snails fashioned into a most elegant little dish (a friend said it was the best thing she’d ever tasted--before she found out what it was). A whole lamb’s shank. A pot - au - feu made of pigeon. Striped bass served in a sliced-potato coat. And be sure not to miss the city’s best apple tart.

There’s one more wonderful thing about Tulipe: It has one of the nicest little wine lists in town, filled with interesting, moderately priced wines from small producers.

Oh, if only the lights were a little bit lower. . . .

8360 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (213) 655-7400. Entrees from $14.50 to $22. LOCANDA VENETA

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My husband tried to bribe me into not writing about Locanda Veneta.

He argued that it was the perfect cozy little Italian restaurant with good food and reasonable prices that everybody in Los Angeles was dying to discover.

He was right: The only way we’ve managed to get in since is by reserving a table weeks in advance.

When we do go, we tend to order the same things. We start with a pile of fried whitebait with onion marmalade, homemade white cheese with prosciutto or insalata di radicchio. Then we have a simple pasta--maybe just spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce. Occasionally we’ll splurge on the Venetian seafood soup (chef Antonio Tommasi is from the Veneto) or a piece of grilled meat.

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And then, when we think about dessert, we look at all the people waiting for our table (the restaurant is really small) and decide to take pity on them and leave. Invariably, as we pay the bill, we wonder why more people don’t open restaurants just like this one.

8638 W . 3rd St. (213) 274-1893; Entrees from $13.95 to $18.

RUTH’S CHRIS STEAKHOUSE

If you’re American (and not vegetarian), you probably get a craving for steak every once in a while.

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When I do, this is where I come.

Ruth’s Chris (the name, if you need to know, came about when a woman named Ruth bought the Chris Steak House in New Orleans, added her own name and franchised the concept) looks the way a steak place should. Dark. Down-to-earth. Serious.

The portions look the way they should, too. They’re huge. Especially the porterhouse, which is big enough to serve 2, 3 or 4. That’s the cut to have: I’m convinced that steak that comes to the table still attached to its bones tastes best. Besides, there is nothing quite as satisfying as gnawing on a bone at the end of a meal. Potatoes come in seven varieties, and all of them are good. So are the onion rings; grown men have been known to squabble over the last one left on the plate.

The desserts here pay homage to New Orleans: If you are still able to eat when you come to the end of your steak, order the bread pudding with whiskey sauce. And then hum a few bars of the “Star Spangled Banner” as you stagger out the door.

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224 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (213) 859-8744. Entrees from $17 to $22.

THE IVY

“I hate the place,” said a friend one day. “They’re always mean to me. The food’s expensive. And it’s not very good.”

“Want to have lunch at The Ivy?” I asked the next day.

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“What time?” she replied.

The Ivy is the restaurant that everybody loves to hate. My files are groaning with letters from people complaining about how badly they’ve been treated and promising never to again darken the restaurant’s door. And I’ll bet that every one of the writers has gone back for more.

There is something seductive about The Ivy. It’s cozy and pretty, with the air of an inn in the south of France. It has a certain buzz, too. And in the end, the food is really very good. What it serves are new American classics--great cracked-crab salad, big plates of pasta, lime-grilled chicken, crab cakes. It’s a simple menu but a satisfying one. And after you’ve watched your weight and eaten something clean and fat-free for your main course, you can indulge in one of the delightful desserts.

They might ask you to hurry up and drink your coffee (they’ve done it to me). You’ll be momentarily annoyed. But you’ll be back.

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113 N. Robertson Blvd.; (213) 274-8303. Entrees from $19.75 to $27.75. PATINA

Of all the restaurants in Los Angeles, Patina is the one that would be least embarrassed if it woke up one morning and found itself in France. It is, despite its white walls, modern sconces and cool contemporary airs, an exceedingly proper restaurant.

You sense this immediately; the service is absolutely comme il faut. Is your ice melting in your ice tea? The waiter will wordlessly replace it. Do you need more bread? Here’s the busboy at your elbow. The glasses are so thin they seem to float into your hands, and the plates were made just for these tables. The cutlery is heavy, the napkins are, too, and the single stem on your table is absolutely elegant.

As is the food: Joachim Splichal and his wife, Christine, have created a perfect setting for his state-of-the-art French cooking. Some of this food is inspired: Try the brilliant lasagna made of polenta , salmon and parsley. Don’t miss the exquisite salade nicoise. The rare tuna with ponzu sauce is a wonderful dish, and the creme brulee with corn is so good you wonder why you’ve never eaten it before.

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As good as Patina is, the food here occasionally lacks elan . This is a restaurant to which I’d invariably send proper people who care deeply about both food and service. But for those who want to be thrilled by a meal (and who might not mind a little noise, a little wait), Citrus is the place.

5955 Melrose Ave.; (213) 467-1108 . Entrees from $19.50 to $23.50.

TRUMPS

When Trumps first opened, I thought it was Los Angeles gone mad--all white, all concrete, all noise, all flash. And the menu seemed like something of a joke. Were they seriously intending to serve caviar on top of plantains and black beans?

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It soon became clear that Trumps would have the last laugh. The restaurant was extremely serious about everything, except those concrete seats. It dumped them, but not much else has changed. It is still modern, still white, still objectionably noisy. And the plantains and caviar are still on the menu.

For good reason: They’re delicious. So are all of Michael Roberts’ seemingly outrageous combinations. Roast duck with black beans and pickled pumpkin? Superb. Chicken with candied lemon? An inspiration. Even the silly sounding Brie and grape quesadilla with sweet-pea guacamole turns out to be solidly delicious.

Beware of Trumps imitations--too many chefs without Roberts’ skill have taken outrageousness to heart. It’s a pity more don’t follow another of his creative (and more easily cloned) leads: serving a wonderful afternoon tea.

8764 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (213) 855-1480. Entrees from $16 to $28. MUSSO AND FRANK GRILL

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Nobody could call the food at Musso’s great--but to me this is still a great restaurant. Ask me if I want to eat there, and I’ll always say yes.

I love the way it looks. The front room is filled with people huddled comfortably in dark wooden booths. Along one wall runs a counter where men have earnest conversations as they watch a cook fling huge chunks of meat onto a charcoal grill. The back room is brighter and filled with people who look happy to be there. And everywhere, waiters scurry about, serving great martinis and pretty good prime rib (my usual choice) and sea bass and a lot of other things that you probably don’t want to eat (like Welsh rabbit or creamed spinach that tastes mostly like nutmeg).

I love the way Musso’s feels, too. It’s the sort of place where people waiting at the bar will turn and talk to one another. It hasn’t changed much in 71 years; it has always been a restaurant where people feel comfortable. Is it any wonder that this is the bar and grill that half the other restaurants in town wish they could be?

6667 Hollywood Blvd.; (213) 467-5123. Entrees from $6.55 to $31.45. PAZZIA

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I know that the fact that I’m including Pazzia and not Mauro Vincenti’s other place--his big-deal downtown Rex--is going to raise a lot of eyebrows. Rex is undoubtedly the most beautiful restaurant in Los Angeles. It has the most amazing tables, the most extraordinary silverware, the clearest crystal--and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the least-interesting menus in town. Once I get past the first courses, I can never find anything I want to eat.

Pazzia is different: At Pazzia I always want to eat everything on the menu. I never know whether to start with the pappa al pomodoro or that amazing salad of pears, Cacciota and walnuts. There’s wonderful risotto. Terrific pizzas. And the pasta is always impeccable.

I like the main courses as well: Something as simple as the lamb chops with thyme, artichoke and eggplant can make me perfectly happy. Give me some gelati to end the meal and I’m a happy woman.

The place is pretty, too. It’s not Rex--but it’s by far the most dignified and modern of the small Italian restaurants in town. So I’m sorry: If you want to go to Rex and spend hundreds of dollars, be my guest. I’ll be far happier spending far less at Pazzia.

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755 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (213) 657-9271. Entrees from $14 to $24.

L’ERMITAGE

Let’s face it; when it comes to old-line fine French dining, Los Angeles is at a disadvantage. We simply don’t have anything to equal the great elegant French restaurants of New York (Le Bernardin, Le Cirque and Lafayette come immediately to mind). If you want to dine on that level, you can choose L’Orangerie or L’Ermitage. L’Orangerie offers a gorgeous setting, but the last meal I had there was so disappointing--amateur service, high prices and food that was little more than bistro cooking--that I’ve narrowed the field to L’Ermitage.

This is the last bastion of really correct French cooking in L.A. The kitchen has the personnel to do things right, and the service is both fond and solicitous. The room is so dark, muted and pleasant that it’s a bit like dining beneath the sea.

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And the food is good; chef Michel Blanchet is a great technician. His food may lack the excitement and innovation of places like Patina, Citrus and Champagne, but you come here knowing exactly what you will find--dishes such as truffle soup in the style of Paul Bocuse, a rather fussy saddle of rabbit stuffed with spinach and truly remarkable home-cured salmon. It makes you feel that French food has remained unchanged for centuries. But as the waiter rolls up with the huge glass cheese cart and slices off a ripe piece of Brie, it might suddenly occur to you that this is not such a bad thing.

730 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (213) 652-5840. Entrees from $27 to $32. KITAYAMA

This is a restaurant built by the Japanese for the Japanese. At lunchtime it is filled with what must be the Japanese equivalent of ladies who lunch--tables of women who all seem to be eating the same thing. At night it is filled with Japanese businessmen eating the rarefied and wonderful multicourse kaiseki dinners.

But unlike many restaurants that the Japanese have created for themselves here in California, this is one where you feel totally welcome. It’s a lovely, soothing, peaceful place where the waitresses wear kimonos and make you feel incredibly cared for. And the food is exquisite. The shumai alone--ruffle-edge pyramids stuffed with the most astonishingly delicate crab meat filling--are worth the trip. And the lunch of marinated black cod, which also comes with a bit of sashimi, pickles, steamed spinach and eggplant, a bowl of rice and miso soup, is probably the most delicious lunch in Orange County; at $7.50 it is certainly the most amazing value.

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In the evening, reject the rather pedestrian American menu and ask for the translation of the Japanese list. Better still, splurge and call ahead to order a kaiseki dinner.

101 Bayview Place, Newport Beach ; (714) 725-0777. Entrees from $12 to $22.

72 MARKET ST.

One reason why people come to 72 Market St. is to stare at the celebrities. And with Tony Bill, Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli as owners, there are plenty of those. Some nights you’ll even catch Moore at the piano in the back dining room.

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Another reason is that it is a swell-looking restaurant--architecturally innovative and filled with good art by the likes of Robert Graham and Laddie John Dill.

But the main reason is the food. Leonard Schwartz has turned out to be something of a culinary prophet, the first serious chef to spot the all-American trend and put meatloaf on his menu, along with chili and mashed potatoes. This is serious, delicious, intelligently conceived food. The shellfish from the oyster bar is fresh and fine. The salads are terrific. Entrees--grilled veal chop with porcini and broiled polenta, charred tuna with olives, capers and lemon--are simple and satisfying. The desserts are big, rich and American. During the day, it’s a great place for a hamburger.

Over the years, 72 Market St. has turned into one of those well-run, consistently reliable restaurants that everybody is eager to get into. Sometimes we all remember that the owners are celebrities, but most of the time we forget.

72 Market St., Venice; (213) 392-8720. Entrees from $12 to $32.

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MICHAEL’S

Michael McCarty breezed on to the Los Angeles restaurant scene in 1979 like a brash whirlwind, stirring everything up. “I want to blow your socks off,” said this then-25-year-old wonder, proceeding to do just that. His was a new kind of restaurant that ushered in the modern age of American cooking. Michael’s was hip, modern, expensive and good. The food was French, but it was made with American products and cooked by young American chefs. It was an overnight success.

Eleven years later, Michael’s is no longer young, brash or innovative. (It’s not as expensive either; prices were recently lowered by a third.) But it’s still a reliable place to go for elegant food and good service in an atmosphere that has improved with age. The modern art collection gets better and better, and as the garden has grown, it has become Los Angeles’ loveliest outdoor eating area.

My favorite meal at Michael’s is brunch--the blueberry pancakes or the barbecue beef sandwich. At other times of the day, I’ll eat pasta with seafood and Chardonnay cream sauce (a signature dish) for old times’ sake. The specials are always the most interesting offerings, salads are a close second, and dishes such as sweetbreads with lemon, capers and parsley butter or grilled chicken with French fries are beautifully cooked. Come thirsty: The wine list is one of the finest in town.

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1147 3rd St., Santa Monica ; (213) 451-0843. Entrees from $18 to $32.

CAMPANILE

I could happily eat Campanile’s earthy food every night. I’d start, perhaps, with the poached mozzarella. Or maybe I’d have the world’s most delicious nicoise salad. And then I’d follow it with flattened chicken. Or fish soup. Or the boneless prime rib with white beans and greens--a great piece of red meat. While I ate, I’d be scarfing down the bread (it comes from the La Brea Bakery, also brought to you by owners Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton).

And then it would be time for dessert, and I’d be eager to try everything because Campanile has raised dessert to a new art. Silverton’s desserts are food, not fluff, more flavorful than sweet and utterly delicious.

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The room’s great, too: The office building once owned by Charlie Chaplin and his first wife has been turned into a neo-romantic fantasy that combines all the best elements of old and new. There’s a fountain in the courtyard, there are vaulted arches, there are balconies; at the same time, there’s an open kitchen and modern art.

There’s only one problem with this little fantasy: I’d have to spend all my time waiting. Everybody complains about this problem. Personally I think this is food worth waiting for, but if you demand a table instantly, plan to eat early or late.

624 S. La Brea Ave.; (213) 938-1447 . Entrees from $18 to $27.

LA TOQUE

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“When I own my own restaurant,” Ken Frank said at the ripe old age of 23, “I’ll start making a lot of money.” He was then the head chef at Michael’s.

A few months later, he opened his own restaurant--and found out how wrong he’d been. Ten years later, he has yet to make his fortune, but bad luck and hard work have honed the talent of this formerly brash young man and turned his restaurant into one of the town’s most pleasant places to eat.

Ken Frank is probably our most regularly underrated chef. And his restaurant--one of the few places that is romantic, quiet and serves state-of-the-art food--is too often overlooked. The food at La Toque--French food with California accents and a little soupcon of Asia (Frank was an early worshiper at the sushi shrine)--is innovative and delicious; for a real measure of his craft, try one of his degustation dinners at $55 per person. If you want to spend less, you can have a wonderful salad and a plate of pasta. People think of this as a fancy--and expensive--restaurant, but if you’re careful you can eat well and reasonably.

8171 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (213) 656-7515. Entrees from $16 to $26.

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MATSUHISA

The Zagat guide rates Matsuhisa as having the best food in Los Angeles. That’s one of the reasons I don’t trust the guide. As much as I like Matsuhisa, I wouldn’t put it that high on the list. (It also rates Magdalena’s as having the next best food in Los Angeles; I took a few trips to Bellflower, and I did not agree. But that’s another story.)

Matsuhisa is an unadorned little place with just a few tables, a sushi bar and an ever-present line of people waiting for tidbits from Nobu Matsuhisa, a brave chef who has broken the rigid sushi code and actually started playing with the form. He uses garlic; he uses chiles; he uses truffles. The results of his experimentation can be fascinating. His great triumphs include a dish in which squid is scored to look like shell pasta, quickly cooked and served in a garlic and asparagus sauce. Toro, fatty tuna, is grilled like a steak in one spectacular presentation. Chilean sea bass is showered with sliced truffles in another.

The problem is that the restaurant encourages omakase dinners, in which the chef sends what he will to your table. Regulars seem to do well with this, but the last time I tried it I got the same sauce twice, some pretty dull dishes--and an enormous bill to boot.

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129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (213) 659-9639. Entrees from $16 to $20. PASCAL

When I first walked into Pascal, my heart sank. Stuck off in the corner of a shopping mall, it doesn’t look like an impressive restaurant. And the menu, with its old-fashioned offerings (standbys like onion soup and chicken Provencal) was hardly encouraging. Then I noticed a French couple off in one corner having a serious discussion over an even more serious cheese plate. I noticed that the people at the next table were French, too. And I noticed that the salad they were eating looked pretty spectacular.

Then chef Pascal Olhats walked out of the kitchen, and I knew this was the real thing. His eyes scanned the room, looking for problems. He walked from table to table, making suggestions, receiving compliments, offering advice. This is, in short, that good little French restaurant we’re all always hoping to find.

The food, with its emphasis on fresh herbs, fresh vegetables and olive oil, leans toward Provence; it is fragrant and remarkably light. Meals begin with a basket of crudites and go on to dishes such as crisp-skinned, free-range chicken on a bed of diced tomatoes or sea bass in a coating of herbs. And while you eat the sweet, thick lemon tart, you’ll remember all your favorite places in the south of France.

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1000 Bristol St., Newport Beach; (714) 752-0107. Entrees from $15.95 to $21.50. TALESAI

Right before I moved to Los Angeles, I spent a month in Thailand eating the best food of my life. It seemed almost impossible to get a bad meal there; I’d munch my way down the streets and through the markets, eating sticks of grilled meat and wonderful bowls of herb-laden noodles and curries so hot they set my mouth on fire. I ate sticky black rice with coconut and mangoes and raw crabs and fish that were grilled right on the beach. The only times I ever ate badly were when I walked into fancy restaurants.

That’s why Talesai is such a surprise. It’s Los Angeles’ fanciest Thai restaurant; it’s also one of its best.

The setting is charming, and the food is delicate and surprising. Try the Talesai special, a mixture of shrimp, peanuts and minced pork cooked in coconut milk that you scoop up with crisp rice crackers. Or naked shrimp, silky little morsels that wear nothing more than a clear sauce whose major notes are lime, chile and fish sauce. There’s a great ginger duckling, the city’s best pad Thai and cool coconut ice cream to end the meal.

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9043 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (213) 275-9724. Entrees from $6.95 to $15.95.

FENNEL

It seemed like the silliest gimmick: Four chefs with restaurants in France decided to open a restaurant together in California. They made a deal with Air France making it economically feasible to come flying into town, a few weeks here, a few weeks there. It seemed like it would be total chaos.

It’s not; it is, instead, a restaurant that is constantly in touch with its roots. Chef Jean-Pierre Bosc is the glue that holds it together, the one who is always there. When the owners--Michel Rostang, Yan Jacquot, Andre Genin and Michel Chabran--show up, they bring a jolt of energy into the kitchen. And a lot of fresh ideas.

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The result is that in addition to the regular offerings--dishes such as the wonderful rotisserie chicken served in two courses and the spectacular hot chocolate tart with pistachio sauce--there is a constant parade of new dishes. If you want to know what’s going on in France and can’t afford the air fare, this is a good substitute.

There are two drawbacks. The room itself is not totally charming: It is cool (both physically and visually), slightly cluttered and hardly a serene setting for a wonderful meal. And the prices on the wine list are ridiculous.

1535 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (213) 394-2079. Entrees from $20 to $24.

ROCKENWAGNER

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The first time I walked into this tiny restaurant, it was 3 weeks old and I was the only person in the place. That, it appeared, was an improvement. “Last night,” the waiter confided, “not a single person came to dinner.”

Things have changed. These days, you need to reserve far ahead to get one of the 50 seats in Hans and Mary Rockenwagner’s restaurant. And no wonder--it’s one of the few places that serves really fine modern French food at an affordable price.

The best of the menu are Hans’ signature dishes such as crab souffle with sliced papaya or a salad of baby lettuces and sauteed sweetbreads topped with an icy tomato sorbet. My favorite entree draws upon his German heritage, his French training and his California experience--roast pork tenderloin rolled in cracked black pepper, topped with warm goat cheese and served with homemade spaetzle.

But it is more than food that draws people to Rockenwagner. The restaurant is so small, the owners so young and appealing, that you end up feeling as if you are truly their guest. As you scoop up the last morsel of a wonderful hot apple tart, you can’t help being glad that Rockenwagner survived its rocky beginnings.

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1023 W. Washington Blvd., Venice; (213) 399-6504. Entrees from $16.50 to $22. TRATTORIA ANGELI

When the original Angeli opened on Melrose Avenue, it was a great day for Los Angeles eaters. It was small, loud, modern, plain. But it served the sort of simple Italian food you’d actually find in a similar setting in Italy : fragrant pizzas with crisp crusts and real ingredients on the top, pasta without a lot of sauce, simply roasted chickens. At lunchtime, there were wonderful sandwiches, made with the restaurant’s own bread, of roast pork loin or fresh ricotta cheese. It was all delicious and inexpensive, and it was so wildly successful that within months it had dozens of imitators.

When Angeli opened a second restaurant, it did more than imitate itself--it improved upon the original. The Trattoria is bigger, with a far more ambitious menu. (And, it should be mentioned, an incredible wine list.) In addition to the pizzas, pastas and antipasti , there are grilled fish, great fish soup, impressive desserts. It’s still loud, still young, still filled with energy. But although its cutting-edge modern decor may make Angeli look like here, the food makes it taste like there. 11651 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; (213) 478-1191. Entrees from $10.50 to $16.50. PARKWAY GRILL

Would I put Parkway Grill on the list if it weren’t in Pasadena? Probably not. It’s just another Spago clone, with an open kitchen, wood-burning oven, pizzas, grills and so forth. They even make their own version of Wolfgang Puck’s famous “Jewish pizza” (smoked salmon and cream cheese.)

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But it is in Pasadena, a town that once had one of the area’s most ambitious restaurants--La Couronne--and didn’t support it; a town that seems most eager to spend its dining dollars elsewhere; a town that has any number of pleasant places--Old Town Bakery and Roxxi to name just two--but doesn’t seem eager to support any real culinary innovation. In this atmosphere, the success of Parkway Grill is slightly surprising.

For it is a thoroughly modern restaurant plunked down in a large old brick building. The menu is as eclectic as they come, mingling delicious pizzas, crisp Chinese duck, blue corn tostadas, Thai tagliatelle . . . no food trend is absent. To make matters even more interesting, the restaurant has a program that brings some of the country’s most innovative chefs (Mark Miller, Jasper White, Anne Rosenzweig) flying in for visits. So if I’m eating in Pasadena, this is probably where you’ll find me.

510 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena; (818) 795-1001. Entrees from $8.50 to $22 GINZA SUSHIKO

When I first walked into this sushi bar, hidden in an unprepossessing strip mall in the mid-Wilshire district, I didn’t know I was about to order the most expensive meal I had ever eaten in Los Angeles.

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How could I? Nothing about the place was particularly ostentatious. It looked, in fact, like almost every other sushi bar I’ve been in. With one exception. This was not a sushi bar with a glass case filled with fish for diners to point at. The chef stood behind his counter, following his own whims, taking fish out of a hidden refrigerator, slicing it and placing little morsels before me.

But what fish it turned out to be! Perfect slices of pink abalone. The richest tuna I’d ever tasted. An orange and purple clam that looked like a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. Sea urchins that were bigger, fatter than any I’d ever encountered. The meal went on and on, ending with two giant strawberries. And a bill for $100.

This may seem expensive. But to the Japanese businessmen who make up the majority of the clientele, Ginza Sushiko is a bargain. Were they eating at the Tokyo branch of the restaurant, the bill would be at least twice as much.

3959 Wilshire Blvd., A-11, Los Angeles; (213) 487-2251. Sushi from $4 to $10 per piece.

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FINO

Worth the trip? Probably not. But if I lived in Torrance, I’d haunt the place, for Fino is certainly the most interesting restaurant to open in the South Bay in quite some time.

It feels wonderful, with all the energy of a small bistro in the south of France. It smells even more wonderful, primarily of the roasted garlic and olive oil that are plunked on your table, along with a dish of olives and a loaf of bread, when you sit down. And there’s a real warmth about it, which might emanate from all the wine and beer that is consumed on the premises (both the beer list and the wine list are gems).

Certainly the food in this cozy little boite all sounds spectacular; the menu offers a list of rustic Mediterranean favorites, stretching from Spanish tapas to Provencale tapenades and Italian pesto. But much of the cooking is too intense; the chef seems to think that if a little of something is good, more is better. When a stew has wine and orange peel in it, neither is subtle; when a pasta is made with olives, they are overwhelming. Still, it hardly matters. This is the sort of place where you drink your wine, eat a large order of tapas and think about how much fun life can be.

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24530 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance; (213) 373-1952. Entrees from $7.95 to $19.95.

FRESCO

When I feel in need of comfort, I think of Fresco in Glendale. It’s one of those restaurants that always manages to make me feel cared for.

There’s even something comforting about the scale of the place: Everything is a little too small. The effect is to make you feel that you’re in a restaurant in some small town (well, actually, you are). And co-owner Lino Autiero is one of those people who must have been born in a tuxedo; he’s the perfect maitre d’, who acts as if his sole desire in life is to make you feel good. More warm bread? Yes, please--it’s fabulous. How about some wine? But of course. You don’t see anything you want on the menu? The chef would be happy to cook something special.

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The fact that the chef can cook something special is what makes all this work. Lino’s partner is chef Antonio Orlando, who loves to make fancy Italian food such as corn crepes with duck in port sauce and cannelloni stuffed with lobster and spinach. These may be impressive, but I prefer his simpler dishes; there’s nothing quite as comforting as fried calamari followed by a plate of whole wheat pasta with cheese and black pepper.

514 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 247-5541. Entrees from $13 to $20.

HARBOR VILLAGE

At 11 a.m. you might get a seat, but by noon you’ll find yourself surrounded by hordes of people, waiting clamorously for a table. Considering the size of Harbor Village (huge), that’s quite a testimonial to the quality of the food. Take a seat in the ornate dining room, and you’ll instantly understand: The carts that roll endlessly past contain the most inventive selection of dim sum this side of Hong Kong.

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Harbor Village, a branch of a Hong Kong restaurant, is also the perfect choice for a blowout Chinese banquet. At night, the enormous dining room shrinks when ingenious sliding panels slice it into a multitude of private dining rooms. On almost any evening, you can peek into one of these little rooms and see tables filled with privileged people eating truly exotic delicacies.

For regular evening diners, however, the restaurant can be problematic. You might end up with fabulous food--great steamed fish, special salads, simple plates of vegetables, Peking duck. Or you could be unlucky and wait a long time for food that turns out to be merely mediocre. (To be safe, don’t order fried food at night, and stick to simple dishes.) Even on the off nights, however, there’s something so wonderfully foreign about the place that you end up feeling as if you’ve been on a quick trip to Asia.

111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (818) 300-8833. Entrees from $5 to $25.

SORRENTO GRILLE

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Laguna Beach on a sunny day can be so seductively lovely that you are inclined to plunk yourself down on the sandy beach in the middle of town and just sit there, gazing out to sea. If you get hungry, you don’t have far to go; the Sorrento Grille is just a lazy walk inland, and it serves the perfect sort of food for this setting.

Freshness is the hallmark here: The produce in this casually elegant restaurant comes from the superlative Chino ranch, the chicken is free-range, the bread is homemade. The theme is basically Italian, but the chefs feel free to cook anything that strikes their fancy. You can watch them tossing a really springlike pasta primavera in the open kitchen--but you can also see them slicing a slow-cooked beef brisket that would please any red-blooded meat-eater. Soups and salads are especially good here; pizzas are not.

Finding the Sorrento Grille in Orange County is a special pleasure. Orange County, after all, is the place that only yesterday prided itself on offering footstools and roses to the ladies in its best restaurants and enormous bills to the gentlemen. Things have changed: These days, flowers and footstools are hard to find. Good food, however, is not.

370 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach; (714) 494-8686. Entrees from $11.50 to $20.

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IL GIARDINO

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t believe that so many rich people were clamoring to get into a place where the rug was Astroturf, the prices high, the waiters hardly able to speak English, the chairs uncomfortable and the tables too small. Then I tasted the clean, straightforward Italian food, and I understood.

There is something seductive about the sheer simplicity of Il Giardino. When you arrive, there’s a big bowl of raw vegetables sitting on the table and a bowl of oil and vinegar to dip them into. The risotto is superb, as are the simpler pastas (when you get into the more baroque offerings, the quality goes down). The best entrees are the grilled bronzino-- served with roast potatoes and greens--and the herb-scented broiled sliced steak.

Power is the other seduction of Il Giardino; it’s all around, and it’s ostentatiously low-key. As one studio executive explained to me early on, “It’s where famous people go when they don’t want to be seen.”

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9235 W . 3rd St., Beverly Hills; (213) 275-5444. Entrees from $10 to $25.

BEST BREAKFAST

THE COFFEE SHOP AT THE BEVERLY HILLS HOTEL

Come on in to the perfect pink counter shop. Sit down; watch Gary as he grills greaseless bacon and pours perfect pancakes. Drizzle real maple syrup over the pancakes, have some eggs and wash it all down with a glass of orange juice that was squeezed just seconds ago. If there’s a better way to start the day, I haven’t found it. 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills; (213) 276-2251.

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BEST CHICKEN VERSAILLES

Everybody knows that the garlic chicken at Versailles is fantastic. And who am I to disagree? The black beans and rice are pretty swell, too. But there’s one pressing question: With a new restaurant about to open on La Cienega Boulevard, will the big time ruin Versailles? 10319 Venice Blvd., Culver City; (213) 558-3168.

BEST LUNCH DEAL

CAFE BLANC

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This is what you get: homemade soup; a large, fresh salad; a plate filled with mashed potatoes and crisp chicken in mustard sauce. This is the price: $4.95. Spend a little more and you can have Chilean sea bass topped with orange rind and pink peppercorns. A line starts forming around noon. (Dinner prices are much higher.) 3706 Beverly Blvd.; (213) 380-2829.

BEST HOT DOG

THE WURST PLACE

There are two schools of thought on hot dogs. The non-food approach demands that the dogs be nothing more than good greasy fun and makes eating at Pink’s perfectly legitimate. The other school requires that the hotdogs have some sort of nutritional value. If you fall into the latter category, you can’t do better than the Wurst. 17874 Kinross Ave.; (213) 824-9597.

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BEST STOREFRONT THAI

JITLADA

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been coming here so long. Maybe it’s because it’s so convenient for me. Although there are hundreds of more authentic Thai restaurants in Southern California, I have an abiding affection for Jitlada. I know that when I tell them I want really hot food, they’ll believe me. 5233 Sunset Blvd.; (213) 667-9809.

BEST TACO

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YUCA’S HUT

It’s just a little stand in the middle of a parking lot, but it’s such a friendly place, and the food’s so terrific, that it’s become a community hangout. People sit at rickety tables eating great carne asada tacos, letting the grease from the cochinita pibil run down their cheeks and pouring fiery hot sauce onto great bean burritos. 2056 Hillhurst Ave.; (213) 662-1214.

BEST BURGER

MEATY MEAT BURGERS

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There’s lots of controversy about who makes the best burgers. The truth is that if you’re willing to spend big bucks, any number of places make great ones. (The Grill, West Beach Cafe, City and Morton’s come immediately to mind.) But if you’re looking for the people’s burger--fatty, peppery meat, lots of lettuce and tomatoes, all the works and not much money--this is the place. (The fries are pretty good, too: They may be limp, but they’re greaseless and have a fine potato flavor.) 5855 W. Pico Blvd. (corner of Fairfax Avenue);

(213) 933-2640.

BEST POT STICKERS

MANDARIN DELI

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These pot stickers are fat crescents, soft on one side, crunchy on the other and filled with an airy mixture of meat. They’re wonderful. (So are the boiled fish dumplings, the noodle soups and the garlic-drenched seaweed salad.) 727 N. Broadway, (213) 623-6054; 356 E. 2nd St., (213) 617-0231; 701 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (818) 570-9795; 9351 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (818) 993-0122.

BEST SAUSAGE JODY MARONI SAUSAGE

Even if Jody didn’t make terrific sausage, it would be worth coming out to the Venice boardwalk just to watch him run through his spiel. He shouts, he cajoles, he pleads, he exhorts; he wants you to try his sausage. Go ahead; you’ll be glad you did. Venice Boardwalk; (213) 730-0941.

BEST AIRPORT FOOD

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HOST CAFETERIA AMERICAN AIRLINES TERMINAL

Your plane’s late. You face one more miserable meal in this cafeteria where everything is overpriced and awful. Don’t despair: For the increasing flow of Japanese travelers, Host now sells a big bowl of udon-- noodle soup. It’s good, and it’s only $5.95.

BEST SRI LANKAN FOOD

SIRI LANKA CURRY HOUSE

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There are dozens of good Indian restaurants serving northern tandoori dishes and curries as well as a growing number of places offering vegetarian food of the south. But this is the only place I know serving the fragrant food from the island at India’s southern tip. I love the lacy egg-topped pancakes called appam. 1308 N. Highland Ave.; (213) 466-8238.

BEST LEBANESE FOOD

MAROUCH

Before you’ve finished a meal in this bare-bones restaurant, your table will be covered with little bowls containing wonderful concoctions to scoop up with pita: smoky eggplant dip, fat beans, bowls of tangy sour cream. Go on to roast chicken with garlic sauce, wrapped up in big sheets of lavash. And be amazed by how little it all costs. 4905 Santa Monica Blvd.; (213) 662-9325.

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BEST SHRIMP

OCEAN STAR

The “swimming shrimp” are fished, live, out of the tank, steamed and served with a bowl of soy sauce and chilies. Other tanks hold live lobsters and scallops. (There are plenty of non-fish foods worth eating here, too, such as a Cantonese beef stew with turnips.) 112 N. Chandler Ave., Monterey Park; (818) 300-8446.

BEST PUB

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MITSUKI

Pity the poor people waiting for a table; customers sit here for hours, drinking and munching their way through the large menu. The sushi’s good, and there are grilled offerings (eggplant, mushrooms, various meat and fish) and big bowls of warming soups. The perfect place after a very hard day. 201 N. Western Ave.; (213) 871-0703.

BEST SANDWICH

PHILIPPE’S

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Maybe Philippe didn’t really invent the French Dip back in 1918--but his restaurant still makes a mean one (I like beef best, but the lamb’s good, too). Sawdust on the floor, communal tables, 10-cent coffee and great doughnuts--why aren’t there more restaurants like this one? 1001 N. Alameda St.; (213) 628-3781.


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