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Fabulous Breakfasts, Splendid Lunches : Tops of the Morning

The Italians have a wonderful saying: A tavola non si invecchia mai --"At table, you never grow old.” While it’s not strictly true (would that it were), time does seem to slow down when you’re fully engaged in the pleasures of eating. Fortunately, each of us gets at least three chances a day to set back the clock, spending meals lost in thought, conversing with friends or doing a pleasurable bit of business.

For this annual restaurant feature, we’ve concentrated on the two less heralded meals of the day: breakfast and lunch, a different kind of restaurant experience that, in some cases, is another side of a familiar restaurant’s menu. We’ve searched out the city’s most satisfying breakfasts and considered the leisurely, indulgent lunches at some of our favorite restaurants. And since snacking is as natural to Angelenos as daydreaming or driving the freeways, we’ve also collected an array of unusual and irresistible street foods--a small sampling of the myriad traditional treats tucked away in unexpected corners of this diverse city.

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When getting out of the house on time in the morning begins to take on all the urgency of a 100-yard dash, the idea of a civilized breakfast can sometimes seem irrelevant. I’m not talking about breakfast on the run--a jolt of espresso and a croissant--but the genuine article, a real sit-down breakfast enjoyed with family and friends or as the start of a business day. This first meal, if it’s a good one, is a marvelous restorative, and it’s one of Los Angeles’ great delights. Chances are, there will be sunlight. Almost certainly there will be freshly squeezed orange juice and an oversized cappuccino.

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Whether you opt for huevos rancheros , a dizzying array of dim sum, lemon-scented pancakes or an elegant variation on eggs Benedict, breakfast just may turn out to be the best restaurant meal you’ve had in recent memory. The simplest things are often the best: farm-fresh eggs delicately scrambled, warm slabs of toast spread with sweet butter or preserves, a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal. A delicious first meal sets the tone for the rest of the day: optimistic, satisfied, at peace with the world. Whether it’s a once-a-week affair or an occasional indulgence, a good breakfast can do wonders to soothe frayed spirits.

CAMPANILE

Nancy Silverton is my designated dessert chef. She’s a technical wizard, marvelously inventive, and her sweets are never too sweet. And when she takes on morning pastries, she gets very serious indeed. The morning fare at Campanile could include tender creme fraiche coffee cake or spiraled chocolate espresso wheels. Or maybe fresh ginger scones or a warm pear crisp. With all these baked goods to tempt us, why would anyone settle for toast and jam? Because the toast is her substantial La Brea Bakery bread, the sophisticated preserves handmade. For a more formal breakfast, there are soft-boiled eggs with delicate blue shells served in marble egg cups with short lengths of toasted, buttered ficelle. And to drink: killer lattes and hot chocolate with homemade marshmallow. The best seats are in the sunny atrium, where a vintage blue-and-gold tiled fountain gurgles and the day’s newspapers are draped over an old-fashioned wooden rack. Don’t rush off, however, without picking up a loaf of olive bread or some of the thyme-scented dinner rolls from the adjoining bakery. 624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 938-1447. Breakfast served Monday through Friday, 8-11 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Cash only.

ROCKENWAGNER

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Set at the back of Frank Gehry’s eccentric Edgemar complex, Rockenwagner offers a unique breakfast experience on weekends. It can be as simple as one of the German-style pastries or strudels from the deli eaten at an umbrella-shaded table in front. Inside, the upholstered booths may be the most comfortable breakfast seat in town. First comes a basket of breads, the best a whole-grain roll in a shaggy jacket of oats. The fluffy, not-too-sweet German apple pancake is crisped at the edges, custardy within, topped with strawberries and creme fraiche. Steel-cut oatmeal is dressed up in a mosaic of berries, bananas and toasted hazelnuts glazed with sugar. If you like--and I do like--you can pour cream over it. Tender, eggy brioche is turned into French toast armored with sliced almonds. The sour-cherry butter is so good, I soon forget all about maple syrup. They do simple things well, too, like the soft-scrambled eggs with charred Black Forest ham or thick smoky bacon, fat and crisp. 2435 Main St., Santa Monica; (310) 399-6504. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.

KOKOMO

Early in the morning at the old Farmers Market, seniors from the neighborhood, producers from CBS next door and all manner of other folk stop in for breakfast. Some of the stalls are still setting up. And it’s rarely a problem getting a table with enough elbow room to read the paper. At the retro diner Kokomo, breakfasts of heroic proportions can be ordered at the requisite counter or at tables in the open-air. A sturdy French-roast coffee, black as crude oil, is poured into inch-thick mugs. You can always count on the eggs done just the way you want them, with good whole-wheat toast or apple-cinnamon coffee cake if you like. Don’t stop there; order a generous side of the superior, thick, double-smoked bacon. Kokomo’s pancakes are fluffy and stacked to the rafters. And some of the specials are so good, they’ve become regulars. Like the genteel eggs sardou : two perfectly poached eggs set on artichoke bottoms, napped with hollandaise and shored up with some fine creamed spinach. The pain perdu (“lost bread”), a.k.a. French toast, comes a couple of inches thick, freckled from the griddle and topped with apples, nuts and the diner’s own maple-blend syrup. 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (213) 933-0773. Breakfast served Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Saturdays 8 a.m.-3 p.m., Sundays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Cash only.

CAFE ZINC

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Laguna Beach is the St. Tropez of California. And at Cafe Zinc, Laguna’s most bohemian spot, you breakfast outdoors amid fragrant tropical plants while birds warble melodiously in the background. Grab one of the zinc-topped tables, the cafe’s trademark, then get in line with the artists and locals to order. (This place fills up by 10 a.m. with the precision of a Swiss clock.) Food is mostly light, uncomplicated fare in the mold of a great European cafe; wonderfully buttery homemade scones, Italian style frittate, grainy millet muffins. For breakfast purists, there are perfect poached eggs on La Brea Bakery sourdough toast and cappuccinos with lacy froth. When the sun is bright, few can resist a lush glass of peach juice or a bowlful of the cafe’s rich, nutty granola, which comes topped with a symphony of fresh berries.--M.J. 350 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach; (714) 494-6302. Breakfast served Monday through Saturday, 7-11 a.m., Sunday 7-11:45 a.m. Cash only.

LA SERENATA DE GARIBALDI

Come Sunday, I think about breakfast at Serenata de Garibaldi. It doesn’t start until 10. By now, the mariachi bands are already serenading 1st Street. Tiny girls in frothy frocks clutch their mothers’ hands, and the sun is high in the sky. Inside this venerable Mexican restaurant, it is cool and dark. When we order, a woman in the kitchen works the wooden handle of a tortilla press. Minutes later, our waitress offers a basket of steaming, freshly made corn tortillas. I’ve never had better huevos rancheros : Break into the eggs with your fork, and the yolk flows into the fragrant, fresh tomato sauce. A small bowl of juicy pinto beans accompanies each order. Fold the machaca (stewed beef, shredded and mixed into soft scrambled eggs) or the cruzados (eggs scrambled with strips of black-green pasilla pepper and golden coins of potato) into the tender tortillas. Chilaquiles verdes-- stiff tortilla triangles cooked in green sauce with melted cheese and a couple of fried eggs on top--is the best version in town. 1842 E. 1st St., Los Angeles (Boyle Heights); (213) 265-2887. Breakfast served Sundays only, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. All major credit cards accepted .

BEL-AIR HOTEL

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No matter how many times I’ve turned off Sunset and taken sun-dappled Stone Canyon Road up to the Bel-Air Hotel, I’m astonished to find such a luxurious country retreat in the midst of the city. The hotel dining room is posh, but, to tell the truth, I’ve never eaten inside. At breakfast, the outdoor terrace sheltered by an extravagant pergola of bougainvillea beckons too strongly. The best tables are set in a semicircular alcove overlooking the hotel’s romantic garden and a pond where giant swans preen while, sometimes, a bride spreads her train on the grass and smiles into the camera. The service is swell, and, surprise, the cappuccino is among the best in town. The kitchen does a very good job with haute hotel breakfast dishes like eggs Benedict or the house-smoked salmon with cream cheese and a confetti of red onions and capers. Lemon pancakes are laced with lemon zest and heaped with berries. On the lighter side, try the pretty mango-strawberry yogurt frappe. I’m also a big fan of the homemade vanilla yogurt. This is not the least expensive breakfast in town, by any means. But the setting is fabulous, the breakfast very fine, and an hour or two here is as restorative as a couple of days in the country. 701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles; (310) 472-1211. Breakfast served daily, 7-10:30 a.m. All major credit cards accepted.

A THOUSAND CRANES

This restaurant in the New Otani Hotel looks onto a rooftop Japanese garden of serene pools and walkways. When you order the traditional Japanese breakfast, a kimono-clad waitress will first pour you a cup of strong green tea and then come back minutes later with a lacquered tray covered with a series of little dishes. Seaweed floats in the warming miso soup. As you nibble on the broiled pompano garnished with a pile of sweet soybeans, she’ll replenish your bowl of steamed rice. This protein-rich breakfast is punctuated with puckery cucumber pickles. The poached egg in a light broth can be eaten straight or mixed into the rice with your chopsticks. In place of tofu, you can choose natto (fermented soybeans) or yamaimo (a glutinous, grated mountain yam) topped with a raw quail’s egg. There’s also Japanese rice porridge, if you like, served from a sizzling iron pot and garnished with sour salted plums and thick, syrupy soy sauce. Outside, guests photograph each other in front of the waterfall. 120 S. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles; (213) 629-1200. Breakfast served daily, 7-10 a.m. All major credit cards accepted.

WEST BEACH CAFE

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At this quintessential neighborhood restaurant, grab a table on the breezy patio furnished with feathery tall palms, green metal garden chairs and canvas umbrellas. Warm miniature scones are so buttery and crumbly that I have to stop myself from eating the entire basket. The Mexican breakfast fits huevos rancheros , molten quesadilla, a chile relleno napped with thin salsa verde, black beans and a dab of guacamole all on one plate. The bowl of creamy polenta topped with a poached egg and a light tomato sauce laced with grilled red peppers and zucchini makes an unusual and perfectly delicious breakfast. I tend to favor the tall Belgian waffle with lots of fresh berries or the eggs scrambled with smoked salmon or shrimp and spinach risotto croquettes. After, you can work off this indulgent breakfast with a brisk stroll or bike ride along the beach. 60 N. Venice Blvd., Venice; (310) 823-5396. Breakfast served Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.

BURRELL’S BARBECUE

Fred Burrell’s good country cooking has spawned a minor empire here in Orange County; the friendly North Carolinian has been synonymous with good barbecue for a dozen years. This is a modest restaurant with lots of blue vinyl booths and a distinctly industrial look. There are terrific smothered biscuits doused with bittersweet red-eye gravy, excellent Hancock’s country ham that Burrell has trucked in from Franklin, N.C., thick slab bacon, homemade sausage, grits and small crocks of spiced stewed apples. Hearty appetites can try the three-egg breakfasts with smoked pork chops, hot link sausage or fried catfish, served with a mountain of home fries and a choice of baked treats. The corn bread, made fresh daily, is worth a detour all on its own.--M.J. 14962 Sand Canyon Road, Irvine; (714) 786- 0451. Breakfast served Monday through Friday, 6-11 a.m., Saturday and Sunday , 6 a.m.-1 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

BRENT’S DELI

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Now that the Earthquake of ’94 has temporarily reduced Art’s to a pile of rubble, Brent’s has inherited the mantle of the Valley’s best breakfast stop. Overlook the green-and-beige-vinyl, airport-lounge ambience, and dig into reasonably priced platters like Ron’s special brunch: eggs any style, one of the deli’s delicate smoked fish, fresh bagels, home fries, assorted pickles, various garnishes and coffee. It’s all a modest $9.95. Omelets come stuffed with corned beef or chicken livers; lighter eaters can try pungent creamed herring or the wispy cracker-and-egg scramble called matzo brie . Brent’s menu reads like a wish list of deli fantasies: lean corned beef, blintzes with farmer’s cheese and strawberry preserves, even fried kippers and onions. Float everything down with an egg cream, a cool, foam-topped fountain drink fashioned out of milk, soda and chocolate syrup.--M.J. 19565 Parthenia St., Northridge; (818) 886-5679. Breakfast specials served daily, 6-11 a.m.; regular breakfasts, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.

SADDLE PEAK LODGE

Take an incomparable location in Malibu Canyon, a vast log cabin dominated by a massive stone fireplace, and throw a little good cooking into the mix. The result? Romance, pure and simple. Saddle Peak Lodge began life as a one-room cabin almost 90 years ago; today, it is a full-blown retreat. The main dining room has an open beamed ceiling, and outside is a lovely back patio with a real waterfall. Brunch is a sumptuous affair. Everyone starts with a basket of croissants, sugary muffins and fluffy baking-powder biscuits, then chooses starter and main course. The light, quiche-like wild-mushroom-and-onion pie is the best appetizer. Poached eggs on sauteed crab cakes with golden caviar and hollandaise, a twist on eggs Benedict, makes an exemplary finish.--M.J. 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas; (818) 222-3888. Brunch served Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.

HARBOR VILLAGE

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Every other weekend or so, I like to drive out to Monterey Park for dim sum at Harbor Village. The cooks make dozens of kinds every day, but the biggest selection is on Saturday and Sunday. That’s when the glittering dining room is filled with multi-generational Chinese families. Babies sit in their mothers’ or grandmothers’ laps; groups of friends chat over tea and growing stacks of little dishes as waitresses pass by with cart after cart stocked with dim sum. Ham sui gok (oily rice-flour dumpling with minced-bean stuffing)? Or dan tat (flaky miniature pastry cups holding a delicate egg custard)? Everybody has their favorites; these are some of mine: the dainty, gelatinous spareribs; supple rice noodles stuffed with barbecued pork, shrimp or even scallops. The siu mai , transparent dumplings topped with shrimp and flying-fish roe, are particularly good here. So is the steamed turnip cake and the taro-root cake larded with bits of pork. And I can’t pass up the boon tong gao (“half-soup dumpling”), which fills a small bowl. Break into it, and a rich stock laced with pork and diced mushrooms turns this “dumpling” into a soup. 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (818) 300-8833. Breakfast served Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; weekends 10 a.m.-2:30 p . m. All major credit cards accepted.


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