Now that demon red meat is right up there next to butter and salt on the illicit-substances list, steakhouses, curiously enough, are booming. And that occasional steak--well-aged, juicy, nicely marbled--seems to taste even better. Except for a green salad and some kind of potato dish, the best steakhouse strategy is to forget about sides and desserts and focus on the main attraction.

Everybody has their preference, but I will always go for any bone-in steak because the best, most flavorful meat is found closest to the bone. A nice red wine and a big, scary steak: Now that's a meal worth a few extra laps around the track. Here's my report on seven of the area's top steakhouses:

In Los Angeles, where any place 20 years old qualifies as an institution, Pacific Dining Car, open since 1921, is a legend. The narrow, wood-lined dining car, with its leather wing chairs, has sprouted more rooms over the years, providing plenty of secluded corners, which may be why it's a favorite with politicos and lawyers. Service is top-notch. And it's really the only local steakhouse with a truly super wine list. (Compiled by sommelier Ron Washam, it includes the best big reds from around the world at impressively reasonable prices.) So if you're a wine lover in the mood for steak, this is the place to indulge.

The PDC is famous for its aged, prime filet, which doesn't stint on flavor. (Surf 'n' turfers can get it with Maine lobster.) Still, my vote goes to the massive, 25-ounce T-bone, with the Delmonico (basically a bone-in New York strip) running a close second. (And for Diamond Jim Brady types, double portions are available.) All steaks here are cooked over mesquite. And while it's easy to get the tall "baseball" cut rare; other cuts, ordered rare, tend toward what I consider medium rare. Onion rings, shaved thin, dipped in buttermilk batter and wrapped in a white napkin, are splendid; the Caesar salad, merely ordinary. And should you get a hankering for red meat deep in the night, this Downtown steak haunt is open 24 hours.

Pacific Dining Car, 1310 W. 6th St., Los Angeles; (213) 483-6000. Best steak: 14-ounce prime filet $34.95, 25-ounce T-bone, $38.95. Best side: onion rings. Wine picks: Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva "Cascina Francia," 1985; Gaja Barbaresco, 1989. Also at 2700 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 453-4000.

For more than 40 years, the Taylor family, originally from Texas, has been serving up prime steaks at regular people's prices. The bar at Taylor's Steakhouse in Mid-Wilshire is filled with cops and other salty characters who saw away at hefty T-bones with their eyes riveted to the ballgame on the tube. Taylor's best steak is its top-of-the-line culotte, a beautiful hunk of meat cut from the sirloin--only two per steer, says owner Bruce Taylor. The Molly salad, named after a veteran waitress, now retired, is terrific: hearts of romaine and iceberg lettuce with diced tomato, cloaked in a light blue-cheese dressing. All steaks come with soup or salad, good baked potatoes or fries. Best deal? The smaller culotte with onion rings and fresh corn on the cob. I'd be equally happy with the sirloin rolled in cracked peppercorns or one of the great burgers, freshly ground from steak trimmings. And while that '82 Lynch Bages has all been drunk (small wonder), Taylor's list still has some older Beaulieu VineyardPrivate Reserve at very fair prices along with a few very old bottles of Cha^teau Latour and Mouton-Rothschild.

Taylor's Prime Steaks, 3361 W. 8th St., Los Angeles; (213) 382-8449. Best steak: 16-ounce culotte, $16.75 (with soup or salad, potatoes and another vegetable). Best side: Molly salad. Wine pick: Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve, 1980.

My Culver City friend Bill kept pressing me to visit Petrelli's before it made the big move earlier this year--across the street. "Old man Petrelli ages and butchers his own beef," he told me, "It's a real institution." That it is. Arrive on a weekday night, and the parking lot is jammed. The Stars and Stripes and a black P.O.W. flag flank the new entrance. Bottles of the house steak sauce read: "Owned by the same family since 1931." That's Mrs. Petrelli who seats you and worries if there's a wait. No-nonsense waitresses call me honey. My favorite spot is one of the leatherette booths in the bar where we can tuck into one of George Petrelli's hand-cut steaks and watch the news at the same time. Arnie Morton's it is not, but Petrelli's offers good value. Steaks--all choice--come with a cup of comforting homemade beef noodle soup (so that's what they do with the bones!), an iceberg lettuce salad with a slice of beet, school-cafeteria green beans, fries or a baked potato--and coffee. Best by far is the New York, bone in. "Some people call it a Delmonico," explains our wiry waitress, who looks as if she could bench-press any of the guys at the bar. "That's big," we comment when she's sets down the "small" Porterhouse, all 28 ounces of it. "I can eat the 32-ounce Porterhouse easy," she shrugs. It may not be the tenderest beef you've ever had, but for whole steak dinners starting at $16.50, I'll be back.

Petrelli's, 5615 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 397-1438. Best steak: 28-ounce New York, $19.95 (includes soup, salad, vegetable, potato and coffee). Best side: beef noodle soup. Wine pick: Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva, 1990.

After a brief incarnation as a red-sauce Italian-American restaurant last year (when it was renamed Dominick's East Village), 555 East in Long Beach is back to being a steakhouse. The handsome new interior has a black and white tiled floor, mahogany leather booths, dark wainscotting and a vaguely New Orleans feel. To start, there are beautiful Malpeque oysters on the half-shell and a ravishing hearts of romaine salad with a Maytag blue cheese dressing. Deep-fried "onion strings" are all crunch, not a bit greasy. Asparagus comes with real hollandaise; spinach is a fresh tangle of emerald green leaves. Steaks are no slouches either. All prime, corn-fed Midwestern beef, they're served on platters that sizzle with butter without swimming in it. Kansas City strip is fabulous, charred a true medium rare, with a deep aged taste that gets better near the bone. The meaty T-bone is my next choice. And prime lamb chops dressed up with herbed bread crumbs cut like silk. For dessert, try the rich, heart-shaped mascarpone in raspberry coulis. The reasonably priced wine list is strong on California Cabernets.

555 East, 555 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; (310) 437-0626. Best steak: 16-ounce Kansas City strip, $24.95. Best side: hearts of romaine. Wine pick: Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Russian River, 1993. *

At clubby Arnie Morton's, the Beverly Hills outpost of the Chicago-based steakhouse chain Morton's of Chicago, dinner begins with an entire loaf of warm, squishy onion bread. Then the waiter returns, this time with edible props, to recite the menu at breakneck speed. He holds up a tomato, a red onion, each of the plastic-wrapped steaks and a russet potato almost the size of a football. A huge lobster waves feebly by way of introduction. When the waiter is done, pass on the fish, the Sicilian veal chop and most of the sides (potatoes lyonnaise are greasy; spinach, cooked to death; desserts, entirely unremarkable) and cut to the chase--superb prime, grain-fed Midwestern steak, wet-aged, incredibly flavorful and cooked with precision. "Rare" here means blue, cool center; "medium rare," red, warm center. And if you request your steak charred medium rare, which is how I like it, they can do it--perfectly. Porterhouse (24 ounces for one, 48 ounces for two!) is the best steak. That's filet on one side of the bone, New York on the other. The slab of New York strip is excellent, too.

Arnie Morton's of Chicago, 435 S. La Cienega Blvd; (310) 246-1501. Best steak: 24- or 48-ounce Porterhouse, $29.95 and $59.90. Best side: potato skins. Wine pick: Cha^teau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape, 1990. Also in Palm Desert and South Coast Plaza Village in Santa Ana. *

No matter what kind of day it's been, as soon as I slip into one of the curved leather booths at Ruth's Chris Steak House, everything is fine. Part of the New Orleans-based chain, the Beverly Hills Ruth's Chris is more elegant than most steakhouses, featuring fine hardwood details and tabletop orchids. Our waiter one night is wonderful. When we want to share the hearts of lettuce, he lets us each choose our dressing. The sheaf of crunchy iceberg drizzled with a true Thousand Island or the house mustard-garlic dressing is a perfect prelude to steak. "Take the T-bone," he advises, "it costs a little more, but it's a much better piece of meat than the Porterhouse." And he's right. When I want to order the steak fries, the waiter gently steers me toward the French fries. I'm sold on the richly marbled T-bone, when it arrives in a puddle of sweet butter. (You can ask for no butter or extra.) Though sides are better than those at Arnie Morton's, the cooking of the steaks is not quite as precise. And Ruth's Chris' idea of "medium rare" is considerably more cooked. Desserts? Don't bother.

Ruth's Chris Steak House, 224 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 859-8744. Dinner only. Best steak: 24-ounce T-bone, $28, or 48-ounce Porterhouse for two, $45. Best side: hearts of lettuce. Wine pick: Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon, 1991. Also in Palm Desert and soon in Orange County. *

Twenty this year, the West Hollywood branch of The Palm manages to look much more established than its New Nork counterpart, with walls of yellowed celebrity caricatures, high wooden booths, dark wood wainscoting and pressed-tin ceiling. The place has a definite big-city buzz. And it's famous for its surly waiters. Ours rushes off before we can order sides, which are mostly forgettable: Caesar salad that tastes as if it has been dressed for hours, sodden onion rings and creamed spinach oozing grease. But you can trust the cottage fries, which are more like homemade potato chips and irresistible. Steaks are New York (18 ounces) or New York strip (34 ounces), both well-marbled but short on flavor. (All right, there's a filet, too.) You can guess which one Mr. T was enjoying at the next booth. Warning: The Palm's "rare" tends to resemble medium rare elsewhere. Lobsters are enormous, starting at three pounds--and at $18 a pound this week, that's easily a $60 crustacean. If you had the same meal at these prices somewhere else, you'd be less than impressed.

The Palm, 9001 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 550-8811. Best steak: 34-ounce New York strip for two, $56. Best side: cottage fries. Wine pick: Ratti Barolo "Marcenasco," 1989. *

stylist: Janet Miller

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