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Paradise Found

Thirty years ago, when the 134 freeway became the main artery between Glendale and Pasadena, it bypassed the small foothill community of Eagle Rock, which became a town time forgot. To this day, the main commercial corridor is virtually devoid of chains and franchises, and boasts mostly merchants and local businesses in modest storefronts. Meanwhile, the quiet Old California appeal of the residential neighborhoods -- with their wood-frame bungalows, Craftsman cottages and wide streets -- has caused property values to ascend like virtuous souls. And if the business district is still sleepy and a little sad, there are some telltale signs of a demographic shift to the hip.

One such sign is the Beaujolais Boulan-gerie on Colorado Boulevard. This charming new bakery and lunch spot is the offspring of Cafe Beaujolais, a small French restaurant that opened several years ago on the south side of the street. The cafe never caught my fancy; after several murky if inexpensive meals there, I gave up on it, and was slow to try the new boulangerie precisely because the two were affiliated. But the bright, cheerful Beaujolais Boulangerie is delightful -- or, as one friend happily sighed, paradise.

There are a few tables outside on the sidewalk, where you can sit in the shade of small trees, watch the traffic and catch a whiff of the tomato sauce simmering across the street at Casa Bianca -- whose pizza is an excellent reason to drive to Eagle Rock. Inside is a pretty room with tables, counters, green wood beams, and rubbed terra-cotta walls hung with framed posters for French liqueurs, chocolate, biscuits. A central display case of desserts lures you in with jewel-toned fruit tarts, miniature cheesecakes and glassy-topped creme brulee. In another case are baskets of pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins and croissants. The service is French and good-natured -- so good-natured that the waiters let me practice my rudimentary Berlitz French on them. When the place fills up, which it‘s doing regularly, the room gets very noisy indeed.

Breakfast is a continental affair: coffee, baked goods, juice. But the lunch menu, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., offers an appealing selection of soups, quiches, sandwiches and meal-size salads. The cult favorite appears to be the croque monsieur; we watched any number of these open-face toasted cheese sandwiches sail past, and finally asked the man at the next table, “How is the croque monsieur?”

He closed his eyes and smiled gently, the very image of bliss. “Wonderful,” he murmured, adding incongruously, “a kind of French version of chipped beef on toast.”

A dubious recommendation. But he was absolutely right. A thick, square slab of bread is topped with thin slices of ham, drenched in a rich, fluffy bechamel and finished with Gruyere cheese, then toasted until blistered. This is comfort food deluxe, exactly what you’d want to eat after a good long cry. The accompanying salad -- your choice of mixed greens with a vinaigrette, or the excellent house caesar, or pasta salad -- provides necessary color and roughage.

The rich and luscious quiches seem almost dietetic in comparison to M. Croque, but the individual egg pies are exceptionally good in their own right, the crusts buttery, the fillings cooked soft-to-trembling. Try the spinach quiche with its touch of nutmeg or, my favorite, the classic quiche Lorraine with that sharp Gruyere. These come with a choice of salad.

It‘s hard to find really good meal-size salads in a restaurant, and this little bakery has three. The caesar is bold with garlic and anchovy and bright with lemon. The mountainous nicoise is topped with a hefty tuna steak and anchovies; tossed with the greens are haricots verts, boiled potatoes, hard-boiled egg, delicious pitted olives. The warm goat-cheese salad has strips of grilled eggplant tossed in among the greens -- a truly inspired touch.

Since the aforementioned items are such attention grabbers, it took me several visits to get around to the more basic sandwiches -- all of which are made with the house-baked baguette. The Brie with tomato, red onions and cornichons is exceptional. The soup du jour seems to be an ongoing puree, usually in some shade of orange, whose name more or less reflects the day’s most prominent ingredient -- celery root, tomato, carrot.

What‘s the glitch? Well, remember that display case of desserts? Pretty as they are, they’re just not very good. The tiramisu is dull and coats the mouth oddly; the fruit tarts have tough shells, too much pastry cream, flavorless fruit and too much gelatinous glaze. The best is an individual white-chocolate cheesecake, which is sweet with a nice hint of salt, and creamy with a nice bit of crunch in the crust.

I enjoyed eating at the Beaujolais Boulangerie so much, I went back to Cafe Beaujolais for dinner -- and found it decidedly better than before. In Eagle Rock, it would seem, more than the property values are improving.

1661 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock; (323) 255-5133. Open Tues.--Sun. for breakfast and lunch. Nothing over $7.50. No alcohol. No credit cards.

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Le Petit Beaujolais
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1661 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock, CA 90041

323-255-5133