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Dining destinations

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some Angelenos are obsessed with perfection. They want perfect noses, perfect thighs, perfect skin, perfect food and perfect vacations. Public-transit fanatics just want a perfect subway; so much so that they spend hours fantasizing about their dream line: the often-discussed “subway to the sea,” or a 24-hour route down Sunset Boulevard through Echo Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz.

Today, with gas prices at record highs, fantasizing is no longer an option for more and more people. We’ve got to make due with what we have: three light-rail lines (Gold, Blue, Green) and two rapid transit subway lines (Red, Purple) stopping at 62 stations and totaling 73.1 miles of rail. True, those slender threads don’t go everywhere -- and the trains never seem to run often enough or late enough -- but if you’re in the know, there’s a gold mine of dining and entertainment options within walking distance.

To dig up the nuggets, we spent three days riding the rails with a backpack full of water and good books. We didn’t read as much as we thought we would -- we were too busy watching the parade of characters that came and went. High school girls danced wildly to rap music, a little bearded man sang a cappella for change because his guitar had been stolen, and a man with a worn suitcase talked on and on about the aliens in his backyard. That was all before we got off the train. As our blisters and sunburns prove, there’s much more to discover on all sides of the tracks.

Golden opportunities

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If Metro lines were beauty pageant contestants, the Gold Line would be crowned Miss Universe. With 13 stops, it winds on elevated tracks from Union Station past Chinatown and through the curvaceous brush-covered hills bordering Lincoln Heights before making a ground-level descent through Highland Park and into Pasadena.

The last three stops of the line (Lake, Allen and Sierra Madre Villa) are basically commuter stops along the center of the 210 Freeway with walking bridges to parking garages (exactly what you’ll find across the board on the Green Line, which is why it won’t have its own section in this article).

The Memorial Park stop, however, lets you off a few blocks from Colorado Boulevard and Old Town Pasadena with its many movie theaters, shops and restaurants. From the station, head west on Holly Street and you’ll run into the cozy Cal-French bistro Cafe Bizou and 54 Holly, a breakfast/lunch diner filled with worn booths and colorful knickknacks. Swing south on Raymond and you’ll hit the Chado Tea Room (which has intricate afternoon tea trays), Mojitos Restaurant and Rum Bar (Cuban-fusion cuisine and a raucous Saturday night salsa band) and the Vertical Wine Bistro, a wine lover’s paradise with bottles stacked floor-to-ceiling and plenty of small bites including fresh cheeses and grilled skirt steak.

At the Mission stop, the Gold Line slices diagonally across the intersection of Mission Street and Meridian Avenue, directly between Steven Arroyo’s minimalist-chic French and Mediterranean-inspired restaurant 750 ml and the funky Buster’s Ice Cream & Coffee Shop. With its historic brick facades, tidy flowerpots and well-swept sidewalks, it’s an idyllic little corner.

“I tell my friends to park and take the train in,” says Arroyo. “It’s romantic and fun. It also makes for nice atmosphere at the restaurant to watch the trains go by.” (By the way, 750 ml recently announced a “commuter’s discount”: Show your Metro ticket and get half off the price of up to two glasses of wine.)

For vibrant street life and cheap eats, hop off at the Highland Park stop, located a block from the neighborhood’s main drag on Figueroa Street. A right on Figueroa will take you to the historic Highland Theater, which shows first-run movies for $3 all day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Dining options range from family-style Mexican restaurants like La Fuente to Folliero’s Pizza, which has been in business since 1968 and still features prices from the ‘90s. Cinnamon Vegetarian restaurant serves up hard-to-find plates of vegan and vegetarian enchiladas, burritos and tamales.

Red means go

Slicing northwest with jagged determination, the Red Line whisks riders from Union Station, MacArthur Park and Los Feliz through Hollywood to its final destination in North Hollywood.

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Throw back a quick dry martini at Traxx bar in downtown L.A.'s Union Station or grab a spicy bite at nearby Olvera Street (across Alameda) or a juicy French dip at Philippe the Original (a few blocks north on Alameda) to shore up for your journey.

The Vermont/Sunset stop is just a hop-skip-and-strut away from the bohemian-cum-yuppie pleasures of Los Feliz Village. The refined Vermont Restaurant, the hopping retro Dresden Room with its lounge act still commanded by Marty and Elayne, the jovial classic Italian of Palermo, the funky yet refined French-ness of Figaro Bistrot and the too-cool-for-you 24-hour diner Fred 62, to name a few, can be reached by walking north up Vermont after you leave the station.

At Hollywood/Vine you’ll emerge directly across the street from the richly ornamental Pantages Theater and the rollicking classic Tinseltown hang the Frolic Room. Turn left and sup on sushi at Katsuya, or stroll down Vine toward Sunset to sample some of the city’s finest seafood at the ever-popular Hungry Cat.

For no-holds-barred people-watching, disembark at Hollywood/Highland, where you can soak up the drama surrounding Grauman’s Chinese Theatre before throwing back a pint at the old-school dive Powerhouse (on Highland) or sitting at a sidewalk table nursing a 32-ounce mug of Stella Artois at the diminutive Snow White Cafe (next to the kitschy Hollywood Wax Museum). Walk east on Hollywood Boulevard to nosh on prime rib at Musso & Frank Grill, or head west to the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to drink cosmopolitans by the pool at the Tropicana bar or fill up on steak at Dakota off the plush lobby.

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If you want to spend your day quaffing monstrous blue cocktails at Saddle Ranch Chop House at Universal CityWalk while feeling alternately amazed and confused by big-chested women in tiny tops riding the mechanical bull, the subway is your best friend. You can avoid the parking fees ($20 for preferred spots) and not worry about how you’ll find your way home. Just hop off at the Universal City stop, cross Lankershim and board the free shuttle up the hill to CityWalk, where you’ll be dropped off almost directly across from Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom.

Non-Universal dining options, which can be found by crossing under the 101 Freeway to Cahuenga, include the tasty, candle-lighted Italian of Miceli’s and the Latin dance, music and dining haven Mama Juana’s.

The North Hollywood stop is your gateway to the NoHo Arts District, which boasts 22 theaters, one-of-a-kind shops such as the unfathomably colorful Someone Else’s vintage costume shop, as well as food from across the culinary spectrum. Walk south on Lankershim to Magnolia and you’ll pass the looming jukebox exterior of Tokyo Delve’s Sushi Bar and the plaster hot dog sculpture above Vicious Dogs before coming across the upscale but casual Eclectic Wine Bar & Grille, which features a free-flowing champagne or mimosa Sunday brunch for just $17 (definitely a subway-worthy activity, if you catch our drift).

Purple pleasures

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Technically, the Purple Line, which runs west from Union Station and ends abruptly at Wilshire and Western, has eight stops. In reality, it shares six of those with the Red Line; leaving only two unique Purple Line stops: Wilshire/Normandie and Wilshire/Western. (This is the line that many people hope will one day reach to the Pacific.)

Wilshire/Normandie drops you off in Koreatown. If you walk east on Wilshire you’ll reach the nautically themed HMS Bounty bar and restaurant, where legend has it Sarah Vaughan used to throw back Martel cognac before performances at the recently vanished Cocoanut Grove. Swing a right on Mariposa Avenue and you’ll pass the karaoke haven Caffe Brass Monkey and wander into the heart of K-Town, where you can find delicious Korean barbecue, including at the smoky, bustling Soot Bull Jeep at 8th and Kenmore.

Directly across the street from Wilshire/Western is the teal Art Deco masterpiece that is the Wiltern. Tucked into its east wing is Opus, an ‘80s noir restaurant that recently hired the former sous-chef from Blair’s in Silver Lake and is ramping up to make a comeback after chef Josef Centeno left. If you walk north on Western, you’ll hit the miraculously cheap dive bar Frank ‘n Hank’s and the supremely bizarre Cafe Jack, which serves juices and teas inside a space resembling a mini Titanic cruise liner.

The full bloom of blue

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The Blue Line is the longest line in the Metro system and cuts south through downtown L.A., passing through South L.A., Vernon, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Watts, Compton and Carson before making a loop at the mouth of downtown Long Beach and heading back into town.

The Pico stop, also known as the Chick Hearn stop, is Staples Center heaven, providing access to the events there, at the Nokia Theatre and the Convention Center. Plenty of restaurants can be found in the area, including the famous Original Pantry Cafe and the mega-club/cigar bar/wine den J Restaurant & Lounge.

If you get off about halfway down the line at 103rd Street, you’ll be within walking distance of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. Walk east on 103rd to Graham Avenue, take a right and walk about four blocks to 107th Street. Swing a left and you’ll behold one of America’s most famous works of folk art: the 17 futuristic sculptures, two of which reach 100 feet, created by an eccentric Italian immigrant on a residential lot between 1921 and 1955.

If you seek overstimulation, then the Transit Mall stop at the line’s end will bring you near the heart of downtown Long Beach. Walk south on Pine Avenue, and you’ll hit the Sky Room (an Art Deco restaurant and bar atop the Breakers hotel, also home to La Cantina Del Cielo -- see the Nightlife chapter for more) and the free shuttle stop to the Queen Mary; walk north and you’ll pass the magnificent Madison located in a stately old bank and serving up sirloin, Porterhouse and rib-eye. Other options include Italian at tony L’Opera and seafood at King’s Fish House.

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Pine Avenue can be overwhelming, so for a bit of calm and quiet use the 1st Street stop to launch you into the East Village Arts District. Head east on 1st to Utopia restaurant, a classy neighborhood joint that loans wall space to artists and serves up a mean beef marsala. Also on 1st is the newly opened modernistic Pates Fraiches restaurant, which specializes in handmade artisan pasta using sustainable organic ingredients.

A full day on the trains can leave you as exhausted as a wandering Dust Bowl folk singer. So wherever you’re coming from, treat yourself to a nightcap at the cheapest, most inviting bar in the city: the one in your own home.

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There’s no reason to go hungry near Metrolink’s stops

The Metro may be fine for living it up in L.A. County proper, but what about Orange and Ventura counties? The Metrolink system (metrolinktrains.com) serves all three, plus San Bernardino and Riverside. Below is a sampler of dining options at Metrolink stops.

ORANGE COUNTY

FULLERTON: At the outdoor Slidebar Rock and Roll Cafe (122 E. Commonwealth Ave.), be a groupie and order the popular mac and cheese, a burger, salad or full entree. It’s located in a commuter’s heaven of quick eats and sit-down restaurants. You can also go for fine Italian at Spadra’s (136 E. Commonwealth Ave.), get your beef on at Stubrik’s Steakhouse (118 E. Commonwealth Ave.), or martini it up at Commonwealth Lounge and Grill (112 E. Commonwealth Ave.).

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ORANGE: The Cask ‘n Cleaver Steakhouse is literally attached to the historic station. From the platform, you can see the sign above the restaurant’s back door (186 N. Atchison St.). Or you can walk toward the clock tower to Chapman Avenue. Within two blocks westbound, find casual Mexican food at Ostioneria 7 Mares (540 W. Chapman Ave.) and Panaderia La Poblana (604 W. Chapman Ave.). Go east toward Glassell Street for the Omega burger stand (309 W. Chapman Ave.) or bar fare at the District Lounge (223 W. Chapman Ave.).

SAN CLEMENTE: Given that the station lies on the sand, beach-scene eateries rule. Get your fave iced blended beverage and/or a pastry at laid-back Kaylani Coffee Co. coffeehouse (1844 N. El Camino Real). Round the corner from Kaylani and go up El Camino Real to the right for Japanese food at Ichibiri (1814 N. El Camino Real).

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: Catty-corner from the station a few steps up the street on the left, the new Blendz cafe serves salads, sandwiches, smoothies and fresh squeezed juices (26755 Verdugo Ave.). For a sit-down meal, Sarducci’s Capistrano Depot is right beside the station with a train-view patio (26701 Verdugo St.). A few more steps to the north is the elegant Rendezvous, serving modern American cuisine in an original 1927 Pullman train car (26701-B Verdugo St.).

VENTURA COUNTY

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MOORPARK: Eat inside or on the patio at the Hub, a mellow sandwich shop that makes its own potato chips. It involves a walk through the station parking lot and across the main street to the corner of Magnolia Street (313 E. High St.).

CAMARILLO: The spacious pub J.J. Brewsky’s serves bar food and American entrees -- a trek up a moderate hill from the station’s Lewis Road side to Old Town (2433 Ventura Blvd.). Verona Trattoria is next door (2485 Ventura Blvd.) and Element Coffee (2364 Ventura Blvd.) is a block farther on the other side of the street. If the walk is too daunting, Tony’s Pizza is on the flatlands (31 N. Lewis Road).

OXNARD: At Ruby’s Cafe, choose from Mexican classics or all-American steaks, seafood, pastas, sandwiches, burgers and salads (348 S. Oxnard Blvd.). Also, the south side of the station is lined with no-frills Mexican places along East 5th Street. Even Jacaranda’s Juice Bar is more Mex than Jamba (115 E. 5th St.).

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METRO RAIL DINING

PRICE: $1.25 per ride or $5 for a day pass

INFO: www.metro.net

ON THE WEB: For an interactive map of dining options at Metro stops, plus street addresses and phone numbers, go to theguide.latimes.com.

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