All You Can Eat

What's the toughest reservation in town?

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Spago. Spago. Spago.

Wolfgang Puck and his wife and partner, Barbara Lazaroff, know how to put the sizzle in the scene--and the food. Their Spago Beverly Hills, with its romantic courtyard garden and state-of-the-art kitchen, practically smolders from the heat of Hollywood honchos and celebrities. So much so that prime-time reservations are next to impossible. The restaurant, on the site of the former Bistro Garden, debuted last April. The original Spago in Hollywood is alive and well, and, these days, it just might be easier to get a good table there, but this is where you'll find Puck most of the time. And it's here that he--with the help of formidably talented chef de cuisine Lee Hefter and his crew--is showing L.A., once again, what he can do in the kitchen. Leaving his signature California cuisine behind, he has returned to his roots in fine dining, turning out inspired and casually elegant food for grown-ups. (The young Puck, remember, came to Ma Maison from celebrated three-star kitchens in France.) What's astonishing is how the kitchen can produce this pared-down, sensual cooking so consistently for so many people, often several hundred diners a night. Add the wonderfully eclectic, fairly priced wine list, and it's easy to understand why Spago Beverly Hills draws not only the see-and-be-seen crowd but also, now, serious eaters. If only it were easier to get a table.

Is there still a place to go for a taste of old L.A.?

The Musso & Frank Grill. Where else can you find jellied consomme or Welsh rarebit, or a waiter who has been fussing over you for the past two or three decades and knows exactly how you like your French-cut lamb chops cooked? And where but Musso & Frank do you find old-fashioned American cooking by a chef, as the menu proudly states, from France? If you stick to classics such as shrimp cocktail or hearts of lettuce with Roquefort dressing, the juicy steaks and chops or the terrific grilled liver with sweet, charred onions, you'll do fine here. I love the open-face prime rib sandwich, served with a bowl of jus, a dab of horseradish and mashed potatoes. Sipping a dry martini at this 79-year-old Hollywood hangout, you can almost imagine the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other literary luminaries who made Musso their favorite haunt.

There's usually a line at each of the 10 carving stations at Philippe the Original near Chinatown. What's the big attraction? The French-dip sandwiches (beef, lamb, pork and turkey) Philippe has been serving to an eclectic downtown crowd since 1908, when French emigre Philippe Mathieu "invented" the combination of hand-carved, roasted meats and a soft bun dipped in the 1835360628to take home) and a side of creamy potato salad and sweet, vinegary slaw. Check the chalkboard for top-notch wines by the glass. A steamy mug of coffee is just nine cents, and the lemonade is puckery good.

Pacific Dining Car, which dates to 1921, is housed in an old railroad car now outfitted in clubby Victorian splendor. The 6th Street restaurant serves prime steaks and chops at stockbrokers' prices all night, so if you get a craving for steak and eggs at 4 in the morning, this is the place. Also in downtown and now owned by L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, the Original Pantry Cafe--call it the original greasy spoon--claims it has closed only once in 74 years. You never know who you're going to see at this unpretentious 24-hour, seven-days-a-week spot known more for heroic-sized portions than for fine cuisine.

How about a place to wow out-of-town friends?

For people-watching and great food, take them to Spago Beverly Hills (see above). Or treat them to the new Vincenti in Brentwood. Gino Angelini, who was Rex Il Ristorante's last chef, and partner Maureen Vincenti offer exciting contemporary Italian cooking--sumptuous pastas, plus assorted meats and whole fish cooked in a wood-burning rotisserie. Vincenti doesn't aspire to Rex's grandeur. Despite its suburban setting, it's closer to a smart urban restaurant in a city like Milan.

Orange County harbors two of the best French restaurants in Southern California. After remodeling, Liza and Tim Goodell's 3-year-old Aubergine will reopen later this spring in Newport Beach with a handful of additional tables. Meanwhile, Goodell is turning out stylish bistro cooking at the couple's new South Coast Plaza bistro, Troquet. Everything--rustic breads baked in the wood-fired oven, impeccably fresh oysters, the savvy cheese course and exquisite desserts--is sophisticated and on the mark. It takes just one taste of Goodell's lobster strudel or veal cheeks en cocotte to know why these two places are so cherished by Francophiles.

At Patina, the small French-California restaurant that launched a growing collection of Pinot bistros, Joachim Splichal plies his guests with a choice of tasting menus, including a shellfish extravaganza and intricate vegetarian dishes. In fall and winter, he offers a splendid repertoire of game. And enthusiasts eagerly await each February's lavish black truffle menu. Splichal's cooking is intellectual and full of whimsy--the things he can do with a potato! The sophistication of the room, the excellent service and a remarkable, if pricey, wine list focused on the best from France and California make Patina a destination for foodies throughout the country.

Piero Selvaggio recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of Valentino with a string of lavish wine dinners--and a wealth of white truffles. The best way to experience this well-known Italian restaurant in Santa Monica is to entrust the food and wine selections to Selvaggio. If you do, you'll enjoy a series of small, elegant courses. Just be prepared for a hefty bill. The regular menu seems left over from another, less- sophisticated era and doesn't show off chef Angelo Auriana's cooking to advantage. On Thursdays and Fridays, if the fish from Italy has arrived, you can sometimes feast on delicious, tiny fried fish from the Mediterranean, a fish couscous from Trapani and fabulous tagliolini made with fresh cuttlefish ink.

Are there any really elegant restaurants left?

At L'Orangerie in West Hollywood, Virginie and Gerard Ferry have conjured up an extravagant fantasy of an 18th century orangerie, complete with potted orange trees, trellis-covered walls and towering arrangements of lilies and white roses. The mood is festive, if a bit stiff, and a bevy of nattily attired waiters dances attendance on the well-heeled, dressed-up crowd. The garden room offers more privacy than the cramped banquettes and, on fine nights, its glass roof opens to the sky. The cuisine is French, naturellement, and expensive enough to create the illusion that you are dining in France. Wine prices are shockingly high, too. But if you order carefully, you can eat reasonably well.

Last year, Stephanie Taupin moved her popular West Hollywood restaurant, Cicada, downtown into Rex's old space in the Art Deco Oviatt Building. Spruced up with a gold-leaf ceiling, curvaceous high-sided leather booths and stylized murals of Italian landscapes, the former haberdashery is looking unabashedly glamorous. The mezzanine bar, furnished with demure chenille sofas and leather club chairs, is still a swell place for a drink, and there's live piano music most nights. After a somewhat shaky start, Andrea Tranchero, who cooked at Sadler in Milan, is coming into his own.

The Belvedere at the posh Peninsula Beverly Hills offers top-of-the-line hotel dining in a serene room decorated in a lovely garden theme. It's perfect for when you want to feel pampered or when you prefer a spot quiet enough for conversation. Chef Bill Bracken's polished California cooking stars here. Light, yet full of flavor, even his low-fat, low-salt dishes seduce with their focused tastes. A fine high tea is served every afternoon in the Living Room, and, on Sundays, the Peninsula's elegant brunch showcases Dom Perignon Champagne.

Lavande, the new restaurant in the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, shows promise. The room is beautiful, warmer than most hotel restaurants, and has an unparalleled view of the ocean at sunset. The restaurant's theme is Provence, the sun-drenched part of France where Alain Giraud, former chef de cuisine at Citrus, grew up. He has created some enticing dishes for his new menu, such as Provenal-style fish soup, olive-studded beef daube braised in red wine and squab glazed with lavender-scented honey.

Does anyone still put on a show in the kitchen?

Now that Michel Richard of Citrus has set up camp in Washington, D.C., to oversee his restaurant there, I miss seeing him at the stoves on the other side of the glass wall, trying out some new inspiration or technique, and, perhaps even more, the well-practiced interplay between Richard and his longtime chef, Alain Giraud. But the new chef de cuisine, Daniel Rossi, and his staff, in their whites and tall toques, also know how to entertain. The best view is from the two tables set right against the glassed-in kitchen. Stay alert: If you aren't distracted by the conversation at your table, you just might pick up some cooking tips.

Chinois on Main has a handful of seats at the counter in front of the open kitchen where you can watch the chefs in action. The woks are immense; the heat, intense. One cook pulls catfish after sizzling catfish from the boiling oil, pausing to shake off the excess before arranging the whole fish in an arched curl on a platter. Other experienced hands saute lobsters over high heat, brown hand-pleated pot stickers in a skillet and untangle a skein of black and gold noodles destined for a grilled salmon dish. Makoto Tanaka, the chef in the headband, produces such intriguing dishes that the place is just as hard to get into now as it was when it opened 15 years ago. My favorites at this East-West fusion trendsetter: the sweet barbecued baby pork ribs in a dark honey-chile sauce, tempura ahi tuna sashimi in an uni sauce, curried oysters in cucumber sauce and Mongolian lamb chops in a brilliant green cilantro sauce.

Once Musso & Frank opens at 11 a.m., you can get breakfast all day long. (The floppy flannel cakes are the exception; order them before 3 p.m.) I love to sit at the counter and watch the seasoned cook ladle pancake batter onto the griddle and then juggle frying bacon and sausage, folding mushrooms into an omelet and making toast, all while keeping an eye on those pancakes as they bubble and brown. Later in the day, he struts his stuff at the grill.

Serge Burckel, the chef at Splash in Redondo Beach, designed his kitchen as a fishbowl, with a table that seats as many as eight just a few feet from the stoves. Under a chandelier strung with glass chile peppers, diners get a bird's-eye view of the French-born chef creating a Euro-Asian fusion menu just for them.

Who wouldn't be seduced by the Hotel Bel-Air's emerald lawn, swans gliding about on the pond and the splendid open-air restaurant terrace? Fortunately, Gary Clauson, the able British-born chef, can cook. Last year, he added an elegant chef's table with a view of the kitchen where he serves as many as eight people a custom menu with wines to match.

Can you find a classic pizza here?

Ever since Wolfgang Puck dreamed up smoked salmon and creme fraiche as a topping, Angelenos have been scarfing down so-called "gourmet" pizzas topped with everything but the kitchen sink--combinations of ingredients that would no doubt horrify a pizzaiolo from Naples, where pizza is prized for its simplicity. For a pizza with the taste of Napoli, where pizza Margherita was born, go to Antica Pizzeria, next door to (and part of) L.A. Trattoria on 3rd Street. Owner Pepe Miele's pizzas emerge from the wood-burning oven blistered at the edges and smeared with fresh tomato sauce and molten mozzarella. The pizza Napoletana adds anchovy filets, a version from Capri combines diced marinated tomatoes with mozzarella and the carretiera combines ricotta, black olives and escarole.

At Alto Palato on La Cienega Boulevard, Roman-style pizzas are also spare by California standards. Baked in a wood-fired oven, the crust is cracker-thin and slightly smoky. The Margherita is exemplary in its restraint. There's also a pie with a thin veil of melted mozzarella covered with peppery arugula and salty-sweet prosciutto. Another is topped with sliced potatoes, caramelized onions and fresh rosemary. And the calzone, a crescent-shaped turnover of pizza dough stuffed to bursting with ricotta, Parmigiano and emerald spinach, is molto buono, too.

Does anyone cook food as good as you find in Italy?

Another reason to go to Alto Palato is the rustic dishes from Piedmontese-born chef Roberto Perotti, who cooks a three-course menu from a different region of Italy every Wednesday (that's where dishes "try out" for his regular menu). The antipasti and pasta dishes are particularly strong. The gelato and ices are terrific--and no other place serves such correct espresso or cappuccino. The perfect marriage of the two? Gelato affogato, vanilla ice cream with a cup of espresso poured over.

At Vincenti, Gino Angelini is cooking some glorious food: strozzaprette sauced in a pigeon ragu or spaghetti with lobster and a touch of red pepper; custardy sweetbreads drizzled with aged aceto balsamico; and rotisserie-cooked whole fish, game birds and meats. Look for the most interesting dishes, though, among the specials and on the nightly tasting menu. For those who want to eat the real thing, Angelini is prepared to cook it.

Luciano Pellegrini, the enthusiastic chef at Posto in Sherman Oaks, has such a touch for pasta that I used to imagine his Italian grandmother was tucked away in the kitchen, rolling out the pasta dough. My favorite way to eat here is to ask for a sampler of pastas. It's different every time: perhaps black agnolotti with a shrimp and sea bass filling napped lightly in butter, rabbit-stuffed ravioli embellished with black truffles from Umbria and handmade garganelli sauced with lobster and fresh dill or with a quail rag and two quail's eggs sunny side up.

Opened by a quartet of Drago alumni, Cucina Paradiso provides South Bay diners with hearty and irresistible Italian fare. Start with the generous antipasti plate piled with mountain ham, cacciatori (hunters') salame, cotechino sausage and roasted peppers bathed in anchovy vinaigrette. Pastas include Tuscan pappardelle in duck sauce or shell-shaped Sardinian malreddu in a sausage and tomato sauce laced with fennel seeds. Also notable: the mixed grill of venison, beef filet and baby lamb chops.

What's new on the bistro scene?

The word Troquet means casual bistro, and right now this new Costa Mesa restaurant stands at the head of the class. Not only is the food sophisticated and inventive, but the restaurant is also lovely enough to evoke comparisons with the chic bistros of Paris' bourgeois quartiers. Troquet is a love letter to French cuisine. The kitchen bakes its own breads daily, serves delectable oysters on the half-shell, farmhouse cheeses and transcendent desserts.

On Beverly Boulevard just west of Fairfax Avenue, Mimosa is always fun. It's an adorable little bistro with a cheery disposition, an interesting crowd and delicious, straight-ahead bistro cooking. What's best? A sumptuous charcuterie platter, shiny black mussels cooked in white wine and shallots, comforting daube de veau (veal stew)--and steak frites, especially the grilled prime rib-eye chop for two, served out of a copper pan with a heap of perfect golden fries. Chef-owner Jean-Pierre Bosc is always cooking up something new, like baeckenoffe, a hearty Alsatian stew of three kinds of meat, or choucroute royale, sauerkraut garnished with all manner of meats and sausages. Maitre d' Silvio De Mori is a real pro.

The first of Joachim Splichal's Patina spinoffs is Pinot Bistro in Studio City. With its saucy cafe chairs, black-and-white tile floor and dark wood interior, it looks the part. The food is hearty French bistro fare, supplemented with lighter dishes and scripted plats du jour, a format Splichal has followed at Cafe Pinot downtown (with tables outside in the Maguire Gardens adjoining the Central Library). At Pinot Bistro, delve into warm new-potato salad with horseradish cream or crispy duck confit. On Tuesdays, try the baby suckling pig with fresh sauerkraut.

Name the spots for outstanding sushi.

Ginza Sushiko is serious about sushi and seriously expensive. What other restaurant in L.A. charges $160 or more--without drinks? What you get for that money, however, is an exquisite parade of sushi and little dishes prepared right in front of you by genial chef Masa Takayama. This is not a restaurant for sushi novices: To enjoy the full experience, you should be able to eat everything, letting the chef serve what he likes. Each meal I've had at the 10-seat bar has been different from the last and as good as anything you'd get in Tokyo. I've eaten things I've never seen in L.A. before: fugu (blowfish) and other seafood flown in from Japan, fragrant matsutake mushrooms warmed on the grill and fabled Kobe beef. It's a remarkable aesthetic experience--and worth the splurge, at least once. By reservation only.

Nobu Matsuhisa is the toast of New York, London and Aspen with his Nobu restaurants. But he started here with the much more modest (but not modestly priced) Matsuhisa on La Cienega's Restaurant Row. No big-time interior designers have touched the place, of that you can be sure. Still, a steady stream of aficionados makes this one of the tougher reservations in town. The straightforward sushi is exemplary. But what draws the crowd is Matsuhisa's special dishes seasoned with garlic, chile--and butter. Prettiest dish? His squid "pasta" with asparagus. Tastiest? Grilled sea bass marinated in sake lees.

If you're looking for Katsu Michite, the genie behind the popular sushi restaurant Katsu in Los Feliz, these days you'll find him behind the sushi counter at Katsu on Third, where, if you ask, he'll serve an omakase--chef's choice--menu. He hasn't lost his knack for graceful salads and interesting cooked dishes; the sushi and sashimi, of course, are first-rate.

Eating at Sushi Nozawa in Studio City isn't nearly as intimidating as the studio executives who frequent this mini-mall sushi bar make it out to be. Yes, Kazunori Nozawa may be disgruntled if you're gauche enough to ask for spicy sushi or some other trendy concoction. So just let him orchestrate a meal, sending you pairs of nigiri-zushi topped with buttery toro or silvery sardine, or ochre sea urchin roe wrapped in crisp nori.

Sushi Roku on 3rd Street is rockin'. Literally. The decor features pebbles and rocks set into the walls and boulders along the floor. There's a congenial bar populated with people in black. Fortunately, this place doesn't get by on good looks alone: The sushi is very good. Be sure to try the fried calamari, too, or the seafood ceviche in avocado sauce spiked with shiso and capers. Nightly specials such as octopus sashimi or Santa Barbara prawns with baby abalone are often terrific. The wine list is surprisingly well-edited. And Sushi Roku is open late.

Open even later is Shibucho on Beverly Boulevard, where valiant chef-owner Shige Kudo caters to the music crowd by keeping his doors open until 3 a.m. If the empty bottles are any indication, Shibucho is big with wine buffs as well. Wines from as far afield as Tuscany and Spain are available and, if you're interested, Kudo will show you his list of older Burgundies and Bordeaux.

Where's the beef?

The three major steakhouse chains all have outposts in the L.A. area: ARNIE Morton's of Chicago, part of Morton's of Chicago, offers prime, well-aged steaks with football-sized baked potatoes, and all the fixings. Ruth's Chris STEAKHOUSE has better side dishes--and the prime steaks come to the table sizzling with butter, which gives them an extra dimension of flavor. Get the T-bone or the porterhouse. The Palm is much livelier than either of the other two, but the service is rude and cavalier. You don't like that table with a chair in the aisle? Tough, back to the end of the line.

Pacific Dining Car has not only good prime meat but also a super wine list (put together by sommelier Ron Washam) that includes big reds from around the world at reasonable prices. PDC is famous for its aged prime filet; still, my vote goes to the 25-ounce porterhouse, followed by the Delmonico (basically a bone-in New York strip). The Grill ON THE ALLEY in Beverly Hills, an old-fashioned chophouse, is a class act all the way, from the impeccable oysters and crab cakes to the hefty prime steaks, chops and burgers, with terrific side dishes, too, like creamed spinach and, especially, the platter of frilly fried onions and shoestring potatoes. It also has the best waiters in town. Note: Sunday night is now prime rib night, and, in the summer, watch for the respectable clambakes. Lawry's The Prime Rib is packed every night because the price is right and it puts on a good show. Don't miss that spinning salad and the chilled salad forks or the gleaming stainless-steel meat carts that glide to your table at the appropriate moment. Choose your cut, and a chef in toque and white gloves will deftly carve off a hefty portion. The booths are ample; the room, grand.

The meat isn't prime at these two family steakhouses, but the prices and atmosphere more than make up for that. At Taylor's Prime Steaks in Koreatown, the booths are quilted red Naugahyde, the waitresses call you "doll face," and the best steak is the top-of-the-line culotte, a beautiful hunk of meat cut from the sirloin, only two per steer. The burgers, freshly ground from steak trimmings, are great, too. At GEORGE Petrelli's STEAK HOUSE in Culver City, the owner ages and butchers his own beef, and his wife, Sophie, seats you. Steaks--all choice--come with homemade beef noodle soup (so that's what they do with all the bones), an iceberg salad, khaki green beans, fries or a baked potato, and coffee. Best by far is the T-bone. The "small" porterhouse, weighing in at 23 ounces, is not for wimps.

Where can you get a nice piece of fish?

The handsome and clubby Water Grill in downtown L.A. is notable for its raw seafood platter--and for beautifully fresh oysters on the half-shell. The menu's seafood preparations are frequently overwrought, but, fortunately, the kitchen will simply grill or saute a piece of fish if you ask. Former Spago chef Michael Cimarusti's specials are also worth considering.

At Gustaf Anders in Costa Mesa and the more casual Back Pocket next door, chef Ulf Anders Strandberg cures his own Icelandic herring and salmon. Gravad lax, "buried" in fresh dill, is superb. I'm partial to his silky sugar- and salt-cured North Atlantic salmon. Other fish dishes are understated and light. In season, nothing can cure the summer doldrums better than an iced platter of crayfish, simply boiled with dill and spices. For dessert, have his Swedish princess cake, tender yellow cake layered with barely sweetened whipped cream and strawberry jam, the whole thing enrobed in a pale green sheet of marzipan.

What if you're looking for something wild?

Saddle Peak Lodge, a romantic stone-and-timber hunting lodge high in the Santa Monica Mountains, specializes in game. Since Josie LeBalch came on board as chef, she's been fine-tuning the rather staid menu and adding more contemporary game specials. She's also been researching sources for unusual game, such as specially raised venison from New York, eland from Africa (the leg alone weighs more than 100 pounds) and rattlesnake. Even the fish is often wild--sturgeon, striped bass, and John Dory from the Fiji Islands. Sunday brunch is worth the drive, too.

Each fall and winter, Joachim Splichal creates a special game menu at Patina. Aficionados may come in several times a season to feast on Scottish grouse, wood pigeon, wild hare and other unusual game in complex, winy sauces. Patina has the big, mature reds from the northern Rhone, Burgundies and Bordeaux to enhance the intricate flavors.

Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta, the chef-owners at Santa Monica's JiRaffe, are just as fascinated with game as Splichal. They put it on the menu as specials as often as possible. Venison appears frequently; partridge or squab show up sometimes, too. And occasionally they feature something as exotic as wood pigeon or really gamy wild hare.

I've also had fabulous wild game dishes at the superior French restaurant Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe, north of San Diego. One night, chef Martin Woesle prepared medallions of Scottish hare saddle in a juniper berry sauce, with apple rings, braised cabbage and spaetzle noodles. Superb.

Name a few spots for exotica.

Splash in Redondo Beach stands out for innovative fusion cuisine from Serge Burckel, who understands Asian cooking better than most, having lived and worked in Hong Kong for years. His "Italian-style shredded veal shank with riso pasta served like a cake" and "ravioli stuffed with porcini and foie gras in a celery broth scented with green apple" may sound contrived, even crazy, but his inventive combinations crackle.

Even in decidedly hip Los Feliz, Vida feels exotic. In the bar, seated at low tables with a dugout space to dangle your feet, intrepid diners sip the "road kill" of the night. Fred Eric, an itinerant club-hopping chef before he opened Vida, blows hot and cold. His cooking can taste breathtakingly good or it can fall flat. Or it can do both in the same meal. In any case, Vida is an original.

With the departure of Patrick Healy, Xiomara the French bistro is no more. Its Cuban-born owner, Xiomara Ardolina, has returned to her Latin roots with a menu of what she now calls New World cuisine (nobody understood what Nuevo Latino meant). Her Cuban-born chef, Roberto Ferrer, takes the flavors of Cuba and South America and gives them an insouciant twist.

Koreatown is filled with funky barbecue restaurants, but this upscale Korean place in Pasadena is something different. Set in a sleek, warehouse-like space decorated with Korean antiques, Arirang offers Korean barbecue, complete with a dizzying assortment of panch'an, the little dishes that are a traditional part of the feast.

With no sign out front, Les Deux Cafes was last year's insider Hollywood secret: a chic garden restaurant that felt like somewhere in Provence. Owner and former designer Michele Lamy closed the cafe for much of the garden season while she renovated a run-down Arts and Crafts-style bungalow she had moved to the property. Now the place is open again, this time as two cafes--that magical walled garden and, inside, an understated and lovely dining room with a fireplace. Chef David Wynns can produce some truly delicious things when everything's going right--wonderful terrines, pretty salads, braised meats.

Guelaguetza in L.A. and Palms serves the foods typical of the markets of Oaxaca, Mexico. A steady stream of Oaxacenas arrives to buy special ingredients and herbs delivered each week from southern Mexico. Stay to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate or one of the clayudas, gold disks of hand-shaped masa dough covered with crumbled cheeses and black bean paste, garnished with stubby chorizo or the salty dried beef called tasajo. Soledad Lopez's mole negro, the famous black mole of Oaxaca, is made from scratch, as are all her moles. There are little deep-fried ribs, enchiladas folded like handkerchiefs, huge masa turnovers filled with chicken and a complex yellow mole and, my favorite, the barbecued goat tacos. And for breakfast, the huevos rancheros are terrific.

Does anyone still serve good old American chow?

Patrick Healy of the THE Buffalo Club in Santa Monica may be better known for the French cooking he did at Xiomara, but I think his American cooking is even better. Oh, the braised lobster with morels, or the tall apple-cured pork chop and the custardy golden hush puppies! And now the club does lunch and has a pretty outdoor garden. Too bad the place has so much attitude. Once you get there, you have to be vetted by the doorkeeper before you can enter. Please.

I still get a hankering every once in a while for Leonard Schwartz's definitive and intricately spiced "kick-ass chili" or a slab of fine-textured meatloaf with sterling mashed potatoes at Maple Drive in Beverly Hills.

How about classic California cuisine?

Michael's, the new kid on the block way back in 1979, is now a classic. The menu has barely changed in 19 years. If you're hungry for a delicious wild mushroom-topped pizza, prettily composed salads or salmon in Champagne sauce, this is the place. Michael's was one of the first L.A. restaurants to emphasize raw materials; the seafood, meats and produce are the best available. And the garden is the most relaxing space around.

The "gourmet" pizzas, inventive pastas and crisp-skinned duck or quail in sweet fruit sauces continue to attract crowds--both tourists and stars--at the original Spago Hollywood. But you may prefer to let the kitchen prepare something special just for your table.

Joe Miller of Joe's Restaurant in Venice is one of my heroes for the saucy French-California cuisine he produces in his cramped kitchen night after night. Joe's is a great neighborhood restaurant, the kind of place where you're more than likely to strike up a conversation with the people at the next table. The imaginative prix fixe menus still seem like a steal. And the wine list harbors some older French and California bottles.

Where do you go when you're in the mood for real soul food?

Mark Antione Foster at Cafe N'Awlins in Burbank started out with a tiny storefront. Then the Cajun-Creole chef, who worked with Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans, annexed and remodeled the adjoining space, and now he's thinking of opening a place in Old Town Pasadena. That's good news because this Big Easy native can cook: rich seafood gumbo and shrimp etouffee and, more recently, proper po' boys and fried seafood.

Memphis, not far from South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, is a haven for Orange County foodies of the Southern persuasion. Sidle up to the bar for a good selection of micro-beers or, if you don't mind the roar of jets on their way to John Wayne Airport, take a rickety table in the fenced-in patio. Deep in chain-restaurant territory, Memphis is an anomaly, offering fine nouveau Southern cooking from young and enthusiastic chef Diego Velasco. Be sure to try the terrific crab cakes, great spice-rubbed pork chop with creamy grits and the soul burger with chipotle aioli.

Harold & Belle's in Jefferson Park has a big reputation for its soulful Creole cooking. Harold Legaux makes his crayfish and crab cakes from scratch. The kitchen does a particularly good job of frying: Just taste the crisp oysters at lunch (when they're folded into generous po' boy sandwiches), massive platters of cornmeal-dusted chicken, catfish and assorted seafood.

The flashy new Shark Bar restaurant on La Cienega draws a high-profile music and entertainment crowd with its updated Southern cooking and lively scene. Best dish: the Southern fried chicken and ribs combo.

Who does Asian fusion best?

Despite glitzy wannabes like Crustacean in Beverly Hills with its Euro-Asian cuisine, Chinois on Main is still at the top of its game. No one has really copied Chinois' distinctive East-West style successfully. It's almost impossible to get a reservation on the spur of the moment but it's worth the wait for those succulent ribs, the warm oysters in cucumber sauce, the Shanghai lobster and any number of other dishes. This is the restaurant most requested by my out-of-town guests.

Suzanne Tracht at Jozu has tweaked and refined her Asian-inflected menu until each dish shines. A meal at this entrancing and serene Melrose Avenue venue begins with a complimentary glass of sake as a gracious gesture of welcome. I like to start with crispy quail in tangerine sauce or soft cushions of Japanese eggplant in salty-sweet miso. The beautifully conceived seafood specials are terrific.

Don't forget Nouveau Cafe Blanc on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, where Tommy Harase is always at the stove. A passionately dedicated cook if ever there was one, he creates French food filtered through a Japanese sensibility. And his fish, whether it's a lightly smoked carpaccio of albacore, a beautifully cooked lobster or Chilean sea bass with a wild mushroom risotto, is exceptionally light and elegant.

Shiro in South Pasadena is consistently good. Hideo "Shiro" Yamashiro cooks only at dinner and changes his specials enough to keep himself--and diners--interested. Although his deep-fried catfish is still the most popular item, I'd vote for his ravioli filled with wild mushrooms.

Where is scene better than substance?

It's an unusual night when a flock of paparazzi isn't posted outside Drai's doors. The former space of L'Ermitage, once L.A.'s toniest French restaurant, now sports leopard-print sofas and an outdoor garden carpeted in Astroturf. What's the allure for the famous and the near-famous flocking to this West Hollywood spot? You've got me. The food is just OK. But I guess longtime L.A. chef-to-the-stars Claude Segal knows exactly how the ladies like their composed salads.

The ever-popular Ivy in West Hollywood and Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica specialize in first-class people-watching opportunities despite food that is, with the exception of the huge salads and the ice cream sundae, mediocre at best. Oh, the drinks are very pretty. But who cares about eating when you can rub shoulders with celebrities?

Situated directly across from each other at the corner of Melrose and Robertson Boulevard, Mortons and Eclipse vied for the same high-profile industry crowd. Now that Eclipse has been, ahem, eclipsed, Mortons has regained much of its old crowd. (I spied a generous sprinkling there on a recent drop-in visit.) And now that the kitchen has given up trying to be creative and returned to its chophouse roots, the food is actually much better. Mortons is still one of the best-looking restaurants in L.A., with generously spaced tables, luxurious banquettes and lighting that is flattering to the Joan and Jackie Collinses of this world.

The Bar Marmont on the Sunset Strip may not boast the same views as the Mondrian's Sky Bar, but it doesn't have as much attitude either. Arrive at 8, have a little dinner (a Caesar and a steak, perhaps). It's quiet enough to talk at that hour, and you still get to eye the, er, interesting crowd that begins to pour in later--before it gets really crazy.

Where do the chefs hang out?

You're bound to see a few at Campanile's exuberant Monday night family-style dinners, which chefs Mark Peel and Suzanne Goin launched last fall to great success. Thirty dollars buys a three-course meal, including a rustic loaf of La Brea Bakery bread and house-cured olives and almonds bathed in warm olive oil. A first course is followed by the piece de resistance, which is always a festive communal dish--a glorious pot de feu, sumptuous cassoulet, bouillabaisse or choucroute garni, for example, the kind of thing even passionate home cooks can't spare the time to make anymore. And then, of course, you get one of Nancy Silverton's superlative desserts. There's also Manfred Krankl's eclectic wine list. Where else can you find Austrian Gruner Veltliner along with exciting wines from little-known, hard-to-find producers from France, Italy, Australia and California?

When cooks get off their shifts, it's already too late to drop in at most restaurants in this early-to-bed town. But Fred 62, Fred Eric's wild take on the American diner, is always open--24 hours a day, seven days a week--for Asian-inspired noodle dishes, tall "Juicy Lucy" burgers and mix-and-match sandwiches.

Are there any good neighborhood places?

2424 PICO at that address in Santa Monica has a worldly spin--Mexican sopes and Korean tacos coexist on the same menu with Greek salad terrine and whole Thai fish with a tropical salsa. The big plus here is the wine list, an engaging selection of interesting bottles from all around the globe. Most nights someone will circle the room, offering tastes from one or more bottles. It's a chance to make some delightful discoveries.

Woodside in Brentwood is a neighborhood hang without the glitz of some of San Vicente Boulevard's more celebrated spots. The new chef, Dean James Max, steps right into the groove with polished dishes such as mussels in lemongrass broth swirled with cream, guinea fowl with a gratin of potatoes and Brussels sprouts and halibut in a cardamom glaze with fennel confit.

Boxer on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax, ground zero for trendsetters, feels like a storefront restaurant in Soho or Greenwich Village. It's cramped, it's loud, it's fun. A good spot for lunch.

In the Valley, three neighborly places come immediately to mind. Joe Joe's, Joe's little brother in Sherman Oaks, has developed its own charming personality with Thomas Munoz at the stoves. The room is boxy and just a bit noisy, but it offers such quality for the price that it's hard to complain: succulent lamb shanks with eggplant gnocchi, whitefish beneath browned potato "scales," Mexican sea bass with succotash. Young Welsh chef Neil Rogers at Cafe Bizou, also in Sherman Oaks, is still turning out tasty, modestly priced French cooking to a passionately loyal following. The $2 corkage fee encourages folks to bring in their best bottles. A swell time is had by all. And Out Take Cafe in Studio City is always a good bet for a casual meal. I like the crimson Ukrainian borscht, plump Dungeness crab cakes and the mighty lamb shanks in red wine sauce. (Also in Studio City, the new Perroche looks very promising, with its French, Italian and British menu.) And in Thousand Oaks, 2087 An American Bistro has been a welcome addition to the scene there with its well-conceived contemporary cooking. Who'd have thought you could find a smart lobster cocktail or wasabi-encrusted ahi tuna with a spunky Asian slaw in Ventura County?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MAKE YOUR RESERVATIONS NOW

ALTO PALATO

755 N. La Cienega Blvd.

Los Angeles

(310) 657-9271

*

ANTICA PIZZERIA

8022 W. 3rd St.

Los Angeles

(213) 658-7607

and

13455 Maxella Ave.

Marina del Rey

(310) 577-8182

*

ARIRANG

114 W. Union St.

Pasadena

(626) 577-8885

*

ARNIE MORTON'S OF CHICAGO

435 La Cienega Blvd.

Los Angeles

(310) 246-1501

*

AUBERGINE

508 29th St.

Newport Beach

(714) 723-4150

*

BAR MARMONT

8171 Sunset Blvd.

Los Angeles

(213) 650-0575

*

THE BELVEDERE

Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel

9882 Little Santa Monica Blvd.

Beverly Hills

(310) 788-2306

*

BOXER

7615 Beverly Blvd.

Los Angeles

(213) 932-6178

*

THE BUFFALO CLUB

1520 Olympic Blvd.

Santa Monica

(310) 450-8600

*

CAFE BIZOU

14016 Ventura Blvd.

Sherman Oaks

(818) 788-3536

*

CAFE N'AWLINS

122 San Fernando Blvd.

Burbank

(818) 563-3569

*

CAFE PINOT

700 W. 5th St.

Los Angeles

(213) 239-6500

*

CAMPANILE

624 S. La Brea Ave.

Los Angeles

(213) 938-1447

*

CHINOIS ON MAIN

2709 Main St.

Santa Monica

(310) 392-9025

*

CICADA

617 S. Olive St.

Los Angeles

(213) 655-5559

*

CITRUS

6703 Melrose Ave.

Los Angeles

(213) 857-0034

*

CUCINA PARADISO

1611 S. Catalina Ave.

Redondo Beach

(310) 792-1972

*

DRAI'S

730 N. La Cienega Blvd.

West Hollywood

(310) 358-8585

*

FRED 62

1850 N. Vermont Ave.

Los Feliz

(213) 667-0062

*

GEORGE PETRELLI'S STEAK HOUSE

5615 S. Sepulveda Blvd.

Culver City

(310) 397-1438

*

GINZA SUSHIKO

Two Rodeo

218 N. Rodeo Drive

Beverly Hills

(310) 247-8939

*

THE GRILL ON THE ALLEY

9560 Dayton Way

Beverly Hills

(310) 276-0615

*

GUELAGUETZA

3337-1/2 W. 8th St.

Los Angeles

(213) 427-0601

and

11127 Palms Blvd.

Palms

(310) 837-8600

*

GUSTAF ANDERS

1651 W. Sunflower Ave.

Santa Ana

(714) 668-1737

*

HAROLD & BELLE'S

2920 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Los Angeles

(213) 735-9023

*

HOTEL BEL-AIR

701 Stone Canyon Road

Bel-Air

310-472-1211

*

THE IVY

113 N. Robertson Blvd.

West Hollywood

(310) 274-8303

*

IVY AT THE SHORE

1541 Ocean Ave.

Santa Monica

(310) 393-3113

*

JIRAFFE

502 Santa Monica Blvd.

Santa Monica

(310) 917-6671

*

JOE JOE'S

13355 Ventura Blvd.

Sherman Oaks

(818) 990-8280

*

JOE'S RESTAURANT

1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd.

Venice

(310) 399-5811

*

JOZU

8360 Melrose Ave.

Los Angeles

(213) 655-5600

*

KATSU ON THIRD

8636 W. 3rd St.

Los Angeles

(310) 273-3605

*

LAVANDE

Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel

1700 Ocean Ave.

Santa Monica

(310) 576-3181

*

LAWRY'S THE PRIME RIB

100 N. La Cienega Blvd.

Beverly Hills

(310) 652-2827

*

LES DEUX CAFS

1638 N. Las Palmas

Hollywood

(213) 465-0509

*

L'ORANGERIE

903 N. La Cienega Blvd.

West Hollywood

(310) 652-9770

*

MAPLE DRIVE

345 N. Maple Drive

Beverly Hills

(310) 274-9800

*

MATSUHISA

129 N. La Cienega Blvd.

Beverly Hills

(310) 659-9639

*

MEMPHIS

2920 Bristol St.

Costa Mesa

(714) 432-7685

MICHAEL'S

1147 3rd St.

Santa Monica

(310) 451-0843

*

MILLE FLEURS

6009 Paseo Delicias

Rancho Santa Fe

(619) 756-3085

*

MIMOSA

8009 Beverly Blvd.

Los Angeles

(213) 655-8895

*

MORTONS

8764 Melrose Ave.

West Hollywood

(310) 276-5205

*

THE MUSSO & FRANK GRILL

6667 Hollywood Blvd.

Hollywood

(213) 467-7788

*

NOUVEAU CAF BLANC

9777 Little Santa Monica Blvd.

Beverly Hills

(310) 888-0108

*

ORIGINAL PANTRY CAFE

877 S. Figueroa St.

Downtown L.A.

(213) 972-9279

OUT TAKE CAFE

12159 Ventura Blvd.

Studio City

(818) 760-1111

*

PACIFIC DINING CAR

1310 W. 6th St.

Los Angeles

(213) 483-6000

and

2700 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica

(310) 453-4000

*

THE PALM

9001 Santa Monica Blvd.

West Hollywood

(310) 550-8811

*

PATINA

5955 Melrose Ave.

Los Angeles

(213) 467-1108

*

PERROCHE

11929 Ventura Blvd.

Studio City

(818) 766-1179

*

PHILIPPE THE ORIGINAL

1001 N. Alameda St.

Los Angeles

(213) 628-3781

*

PINOT BISTRO

12969 Ventura Blvd.

Studio City

(818) 990-0500

POSTO

14928 Ventura Blvd.

Sherman Oaks

(818) 784-4400

RUTH'S CHRIS STEAKHOUSE

224 S. Beverly Drive

Beverly Hills

(310) 859-8744

*

SADDLE PEAK LODGE

419 Cold Canyon Road

Calabasas

(818) 222-3888

*

SHARK BAR RESTAURANT

826 N. La Cienega Blvd.

Los Angeles

(310) 652-1520

SHIBUCHO

3114 Beverly Blvd.

Los Angeles

(213) 387-8498

*

SHIRO

1505 Mission St.

South Pasadena

(626) 799-4774

*

SPAGO BEVERLY HILLS

176 N. Canon Drive

Beverly Hills

(310) 385-0880

*

SPAGO HOLLYWOOD

1114 Horn Ave. (at Sunset Boulevard)

West Hollywood

(310) 652-4025

*

SPLASH

350 N. Harbor Drive

Redondo Beach

(310) 798-5348

*

SUSHI NOZAWA

11288 Ventura Blvd.

Studio City

(818) 508-7017

*

SUSHI ROKU

8445 W. 3rd St.

Los Angeles

(213) 655-6767

*

TAYLOR'S PRIME STEAKS

3361 W. 8th St.

Los Angeles

(213) 382-8449

and

901 Foothill Blvd.

La Canada-Flintridge

(818) 790-7668

*

TROQUET

South Coast Plaza

3333 Bristol St.

Costa Mesa

(714) 708-6865

*

2087 AN AMERICAN BISTRO

2087 E. Thousand

Oaks Blvd.

Thousand Oaks

(805) 374-2087

*

2424 PICO

2424 Pico Blvd.

Santa Monica

(310) 581-1124

*

VALENTINO

3115 Pico Blvd.

Santa Monica

(310) 829-4313

*

VIDA

1930 Hillhurst Ave.

Los Feliz

(213) 660-4446

*

VINCENTI

11930 San Vicente Blvd.

Brentwood

(310) 207-0127

*

WATER GRILL

544 S. Grand Ave.

Los Angeles

(213) 891-0900

*

WOODSIDE

11604 San Vicente Blvd.

Brentwood

(310) 571-3800

*

XIOMARA

69 N. Raymond Ave.

Pasadena

(626) 796-2520

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