RESTAURANT REVIEW : Gloria's Cafe Serves a Homey, Eclectic Mix in Silver Lake

"Do you know any good restaurants in this neighborhood?" asked the friendly middle-aged couple. It might have seemed a harsh question. We were in a restaurant.

I knew what they meant, though. They were looking for a place where you could take visitors from, say, Scottsdale. A restaurant with booths or comfortable chairs. One with a carpeted floor. One with a level floor.

Gloria's Cafe is none of these things. The decor consists of a couple of moderately interesting paintings and neon sculptures on walls treated with marble texturing (or maybe those are just water stains). To judge from the large, flimsy doors and worn brick floor, the building might have been a florist's shop in an earlier life.

So it's not for the Scottsdale people, but a New Yorker might appreciate it. A New Yorker might feel flattered at being let in on a treasured neighborhood place. Gloria's is a sort of restaurant we don't have many of around here, a serviceable place where a whole neighborhood goes. You see the whole Silver Lake mix here, from Bohemians to retirees.

The food is mostly homey stuff with a relaxed eclecticism, particularly big on Italian and Cajun elements. And the prices are extremely relaxed: There are 18 dinners under $8, such as a meat loaf with a pleasant "Cajun" sauce of onions stewed with tomatoes and hot pepper at $5.95.

At these prices, you don't get high style, but the food tends to be light and refreshing. The clam chowder has a little sweet taste of clam. The fettuccine Alfredo tastes as if made with milk instead of cream. There's always a long list of grilled fish dishes.

The Friday special is an eight-ounce New York steak that tastes like a classic, smoky back-yard barbecued steak. The Italian dressing on the salad seems to whisper the word "Wishbone," but the barbecue sauce on the barbecued shrimp appetizer tastes as if it has been made, or at least heavily doctored, on the premises: barely sweet, quite smoky and truly hot.

The place does not shrink from spicy flavors, that's for sure. Apart from all Cajun/New Orleans names on the menu, there's what the menu calls Burbon Street chicken. This is a chicken breast marinated in lime juice, garlic, peppers, and a whole lot of allspice. It's essentially Jamaican jerk chicken.

The house specialty is another chicken dish, Silver Lake chicken, which I'd call savory rather than really exciting. It's interesting, though. It more or less splits the difference between Italian and Caribbean, being sauteed in wine with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, chile peppers, black olives and bacon.

For big eaters there is a combination plate, where you can pick two from a list of nearly a dozen entrees. I tried not-bad red snapper in tomatoes and sweet peppers and a very good, thick, breaded calamari steak.

The desserts are pastries of the usual range including a nice carrot cake with yellow raisins and an oddity that is basically a layer of chocolate cake topped with cheesecake in sugary frosting.

I've had a tasty prime rib sandwich that I had to admit was extraordinarily fatty, and Gloria's French fries are the big yellow plastic variety. Otherwise, though, there's really nothing to complain about. Maybe you wouldn't bring the Scottsdale people here for dinner, but come to think of it, maybe you might for lunch.

Gloria's Cafe, 3603 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 664-5732. Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m-3 p.m., dinner daily 5-10 p.m.; weekend brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$45.

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