Serious cooking at a reasonable price? It can be done, and some of the city's best neighborhood restaurants prove it.
Don't let the cafe looks fool you. The food at this newcomer, sister restaurant to Shiro in South Pasadena, is top notch. Consider a chilled salad of sweet Dungeness crab or golden halibut tempura served with house-made curry powder and salt. The menu is compact, exclusively of small plates. A handful of them make an exciting dinner for two.
* Small plates $5 to $11. 2006 Sawtelle Blvd., West L.A. (310) 268-2212.
Gina Lee's Bistro
The menu at this South Bay restaurant takes inspiration from Korean, Chinese and Japanese cuisine, and it turns out such starters as golden chicken dumplings in a beguiling spicy broth. Fans of whole fish preparations might try the crispy catfish.
* First courses $4.50 to $9.95; entrees $9.50 to $19.95. 211 Palos Verdes Blvd., Redondo Beach. (310) 375-4462.
This Venice charmer in the yellow cottage has a pedigree: Brooke Williamson and Nick Roberts, formerly of Zax in Brentwood, are the owners and chefs. They have a new menu, but the food is still delicious and simple at heart: Try braised beef short ribs with parsnip puree and wilted rapini. Desserts such as cool maple panna cotta hit just the right note.
* Small plates $8; large plates $14 to $20. 796 Main St., Venice. (310) 450-1956.
At the base of one of downtown's trendy loft buildings, this bright cafe attracts a good mix of business and arty types. The menu runs from a fine burger and good shoestring fries (with or without a generous dose of molten blue cheese) to salmon over polenta. The vibe is cool, but not aggressively so, meaning they're genuinely glad to see you here.
* Starters $7 to $10; entrees $10 to $19. 400 S. Main St., L.A. (213) 617-1000.
At lunchtime, this dream cafeteria is packed for a reason: sensational sandwiches such as hearty meatloaf or autumn chicken salad on pecan-raisin bread, soulful soups and lovely salads. And who can resist the oversized cookies and frosted cupcakes?
* Salads $3.75 to $10.25; sandwiches $7.95 to $9.50. 1751 Ensley Ave., Century City. (310) 552-1080.