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Sheltering Sky

Aristotle said that men are hotter than women. Men are so hot, he said, that sometimes they burn off their hair. Want proof? Just look at the dearth of bald women. (Not surprisingly, in the likenesses of Aristotle I've seen he's bald as an egg.) I prefer to think that Aristotle was wrong-headed and politically reprehensible in his assessment of the sexes, but after all the time I've spent in restaurants, I'm beginning to see his point. All year long, I freeze.

In the winter, I go out to eat, my purse bulging with extra sweater and socks. For the actual weather and elements, I've dressed appropriately, but once inside, I start shivering like a Chihuahua. That's me, huddled at the table guzzling hot soup and steaming tea, with my coat over my legs like a lap robe.

You'd think that when the weather warms up - which it has been very slow to do this year - I might put my sweaters in mothballs and my socks in storage. Not on your life, for next comes air conditioning.

The problem is this: Those in control of the thermostat - waiters, waitresses, managers - are often engaged in far more aerobic and calorie-burning activity than the sedentary, calorie-consuming diners. I've also learned not to sit near an open kitchen: Where people are slaving over hot stoves, the air conditioners really roar. Yet even in a cozy-looking booth, I too often am assaulted by a chill wind billowing down from a ceiling vent. In no time I feel like a head of lettuce in a crisper, a frosted martini glass.

And I am not alone. Looking around at other women, I see that those who are less than 20 pounds overweight are often clutching their upper arms, sprouting visible gooseflesh and discreetly trying to use their napkins as comforters. Skinny women can look downright racked. Even some men - though maybe not the bald ones - are often cold. (On the other hand, the overweight mother of a friend used to seek refuge in air-conditioned restaurants and rated a restaurant according to its frost power.)

All of which is a long way of saying that the best thing about summer is eating outside on patios, where the great thermostat in the sky is in the hands of a power greater than the maitre d's. (Most Southern California patios are heated during the winter, but again, it's hard to hit the proper note; usually, one feels like a frozen cutlet in a frying pan, crisping on one side, solid ice on the other.) On a true summer evening in Los Angeles, however, the air can be so warm and smooth and deep blue that it's enchanting, exhilarating and downright buoyant.

I have happily been eating on great patios all over town lately, albeit sometimes still armed with sweaters and toting a wide scarf that can double as a throw. Here are some of my favorites. (Prices given are for dinner entrees.)

Enchanted Gardens

SPAGO: The patio is the heart of this vast, beautiful restaurant; its sunlight and foliage inform and enhance every seat, inside and out. Tables sit among small, graceful elms. Orchids bloom around a trickling, tall stone a fountain that's inscribed with the word passion in 30 languages. We may not need such a broad clue as to the nature of this restaurant, however: Passion is obvious in the exuberant decor, in the calm, friendly, professional service and, most of all, on the plate. Lee Hefter, Wolfgang Puck and Sherry Yard are cooking their hearts out here, bringing us into summer with the best fresh ingredients to be found. Try agnolotti stuffed with rich, sweet corn puree and topped with morel or chantarelle mushrooms, or the fresh pea soup, or a beet salad with goat cheese and hazelnuts. There's always stunning fresh fish - line-caught wild French loup de mer, or rosy-skinned rouget, or black bass prepared Hong Kong-style. The duck breast is served with Chinese-style green beans; lamb chops come with couscous. Calves' liver is the most tender and tasty in town, and an orange-inflected osso bucco is transcendent - I'd like a whole bowl of that marrow, thanks. For dessert there are Adriatic figs with hot mulberries and a ginger cream - and don't ever pass up Yard's passionfruit sorbet. An early dinner at 5:30 or 6 has you dining during twilight, surely some of the most bewitching hours in this garden. 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0880. Main courses $13.50-$32.

MICHAEL'S: Outside, on the patio at Michael's, the sea air is sweet and cool, the afternoon light pale and rarefied. Water trickles over stones into a shallow pool; hummingbirds hover. The greenery is well-established, lush; impatiens bloom with vigor. A huge spoked "leaning" arch of rusted steel, by Loren Madsen, rises from one flower bed; four bronze panels titled Four Seasons, by sculptor Robert Graham, span the back wall. This patio is nothing if not a paean to the beneficial effects of art, sunshine and affluence. Nineteen years ago, Michael's introduced us to the idea of relaxed formality, pedigreed ingredients - and, briefly, to $12 ice cream. Michael's was also one of the great seminal restaurants of California cooking; the kitchen launched a thousand chefs - or at least a couple dozen, including Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Ken Frank and Kazuto Matsusaka. In the intervening years, the restaurant has shed much of its snob appeal and drifted into a slightly more reasonable price range. The cooking is no longer cutting-edge, but the kitchen still uses only superb ingredients, and handles them with skill and respect. The wait staff, all in khakis and green chambray shirts, are knowledgeable and congenial. For lunch, I recommend the tiger-prawn pizza and/or the composed salads, especially the nicoise with seared tuna and the chicken-and-goat-cheese. At dinner, try the endive-and-bacon salad and fresh fish, or live dangerously and eat the truly delicious "Grandma Moses" barbecued pork tenderloin. Desserts are still too expensive and ordinary - but you might have one as an excuse to linger a bit longer. 1147 Third St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-0843. Entrees $19.50-$29.50.

 

LES DEUX CAFES: Former fashion designer Michele Lamy is responsible for an atmospheric coup - the most enchanting secret garden in the city. Nothing but a battered storefront and a blank door in a rather grim stretch of Hollywood marks the restaurant's address. You have to pull into the parking lot and enter around back. Once inside, except for searchlights crisscrossing overhead, it's hard to believe you're not in some dreamy Arcadia. Shaggy oleander blocks out city noise. Votive candles flicker on the tables. Scented geraniums loose their sharp, spicy scent. Great ivory blooms glow on the magnolia tree. Lily pads drift in a long, rectangular reflecting pool. A white Craftsman house presides over all this like a grand old ship. The crowd is largely young, decked in black - and still oblivious to mortality, as evidenced by absolutely prodigious cigarette smoking. The food is as tasty, though nowhere near as sophisticated or masterly as competitively priced restaurants Spago, Patina and Campanile. Still, the beet salad and quail risotto, and particularly the sauteed skate in brown butter with caraway-seeded potatoes and a chervil-rich salad, are worth a visit. Service can be stretched and minimal; servers are hip, attractive and barely able to handle all the tables they're assigned. The volume and beat of the music crescendoes as the night progresses. We are thrilled to arrive, charmed for the first hour or so, then impatient first for dessert, then for the bill. Leaving is accompanied with relief bordering on bliss. Well - that's one kind of dining experience. 1638 N. Las Palmas Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 465-0509. Entrees $16-$32.

NICK'S: This new South Pasadena restaurant is entirely patio - no inside dining. Out front, it's a shady sidewalk cafe, but thanks to city ordinances, wine can't be served there before 5 p.m. At lunch if you want to a take advantage of the well-chosen wine list, on which everything is also available by the glass, sit on the back patio - it's a lovely space, still exuding newness. The mostly California native plantings someday will be lush, the furry young sycamores will be tall and shady. Presently, the garden is full of sunlight - it has the air and tone of a beautifully designed back yard. There's a whispering central fountain, green umbrellas, and, soon to be, a canvas awning and misters (not the balding, hot variety, but those little valves that spray a soft, cooling mist over diners). In the few short months Nick's has been open, there has been a steady improvement in the food and service. Portions, once scant, are now satisfying. Try a starter of asparagus and prosciutto, or a tomato tart with pesto and a side salad of watercress-dressed, basil-scented oil - truly the tastes of summer. I also loved the simple, supple papardelle with butter, Parmesan, pine nuts and fresh basil - not a pesto. Flattened chicken is the entree not to miss. The clafoutis is an odd hybrid of tart and creme brulee. The strawberry shortcake is good, but the proportions are off: too much scone and whipped cream, and not enough juicy berries to even things out. 1009 El Centro St., South Pasadena; (626) 441-7910. Main courses $13.50-$17.50.

CHEZ MIMI: For years, a woman named Mimi owned and operated Chez Helene in Beverly Hills. Helene was the long-gone partner in the business, but people naturally thought that Mimi must be Helene. Now, finally, Mimi has her own eponymous restaurant, in the former digs of Camelions on 26th Street. It's a predictable, perfect match - from one lovely, landmark patio garden spot to another. Stepping off the busy street and into Chez Mimi's patio is like walking off North America and onto Europe, specifically the French countryside. The various rambling buildings seem to be of another century. The dining rooms are low-ceilinged and close, and if you want to have a conversation, it's truly best to insist on patio seating, away from the street, near the vine-covered walls. And you may have to insist. The hostess is willful - when you tell her you want a patio table, she'll likely as not take you straight inside. Most people are too timid to cross someone as bold as all that, but not you. Chez Mimi's food is an improvement over both Chez Helene and Camelions. I recommend simple salads (endive, walnuts and Gorgonzola), simply prepared fresh fish (tuna, say, with a fresh tomato-caper sauce), excellent calves' liver - and, of course, the terrific chicken Chez Helene, which is golden-crisp, scented with rosemary and served with an irresistible individual corn souffle. 246 26th St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-0558. Entrees $12.50-$23.50.

 

Urban Secrets

The BUFFALO CLUB has an impeccably set-dressed patio, but again, you'd never guess it from the street, as the restaurant's exterior resembles one more abandoned warehouse on an industrial strip of Olympic. The patio only gilds the lily, however, as the true treat here is Patrick Healy's American cooking. Hot wings, oyster shooters, Maine lobster on corn mashed potatoes, a complete upgrade of the Eskimo pie, a vast blue sky overhead, ocean breezes - how much better does life get? 1520 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 450-8600. Main courses $20-$30.

An entirely different outdoor urban epiphany can be had at the Hotel Peninsula's BELVEDERE. It holds two patio dining areas: one downstairs off the main dining room, and the other up on the rooftop terrace, near the pool. Neither patio has even remotely the garden or the allure of, say, the Bel Air hotel, but the upstairs terrace places you up high among the skyscrapers in what is truly one of the more breathtaking outdoor settings in the city. The upstairs menu is limited, but that's okay because the one thing you really want to eat at the Belvedere is on it: Chef Bill Bracken makes just about the best hamburger in town, and serves it with perfect French fries. Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel, 9882 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 788-2306. Entrees $23.50-$28.

BARNEY GREENGRASS' rooftop patio has a similar airiness - or maybe we're just hyperventilating over the price of the smoked fish and bagels, however sublime they may be. Barney's New York, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 777-5877. Smoked fish $6-$150 for caviar.

In the same town, and just down the street, is BISTRO K. Formerly Chez Helene and briefly the address of Chez Gilles, this restaurant came equipped with one of the best patios in town. Bistro K opened with promise: Here, finally, we thought, was a respectable, unpretentious, homey, moderately priced French bistro. The food, the atmosphere and the prices seemed balanced for once. But the balance didn't hold, and prices inexorably crept upward, until now they've outdistanced the chef's skills, and almost don't justify the ambiance. Too bad. 267 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 276-1558. Main courses $11-$17.95.

Many establishments have outside dining just off the front sidewalk. There's MIMOSA's patio, with its green awning and flowers, which never quite transcends its proximity to Beverly Boulevard, but is certainly endurable if you have the onglet (hangar) steak frite. 8009 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 655-8895. Entrees $11-$20. a TAHITI, a new restaurant serving "world cuisine" (potstickers, pizza and chops), has a pleasant, small patio just inside its high taupe walls. 7910 W. Third St.; (323) 651-1213. Main courses $13-$17.

Bookish souls - not to mention downtown office workers - might want to schedule their trips to the L.A. Central Library to coincide with lunch or dinner, or at least drinks and an appetizer, at CAFE PINOT. Located in pretty downtown Maguire Square, the cafe is a series of stylish dining areas inside and outside, separated by plate glass. Eat rotisserie chicken and bistro fare - barley risotto with oxtails is always delicious. Cafe Pinot is one of the few places in Los Angeles where you feel as if you are in the downtown of a big, important city. 700 W. Fifth St. (at Flower); (213) 239-6500. Entrees $15-$23.

Hidden Gardens

More alluring than sidewalk patios are concealed gardens like that of Les Deux Cafes, cool refuges from the wear and tear of city life; fascinating places you'd never know were there unless you unexpectedly stumbled into them.

Despite the fact that it serves sushi and caters to studio personnel, the HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN's patio, with its banana palms and old Airstream trailer, has the air of a back yard of the '40s. Try the famous swordfish sandwich - if you're not observing the boycott on swordfish. 1006 N. Seward St., Hollywood; (323) 465-0961. Main courses $7-$18.

 

Joe Miller at JOE'S cooks some of the cleanest, clearest Cal-French cuisine in town, and the best place to eat it is on the back patio, which has the dimensions and charm of some family's small suburban back yard: lots of bougainvillea and greenery, and a lot less boomeranging noise than inside Joe's proper. Eat slabs of ripe tomato with foume d'Ambert blue cheese, and crab risotto, and roast lamb - or whatever's showing up on Miller's fresh, seasonal prix fixe menus. 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 399-5811. Prix fixe $30-$40, entrees $15-$20.

ORSO has the most famous power garden in Los Angeles. Stop in for pasta or, better yet, grilled trout with radicchio and tiny, chewy cockles. Stay for arborio rice pudding. 8706 W. Third St.; (310) 274-7144. Main courses $17-$21.

IL MORO offers another great urban refuge. Who knew that, nestled in the crook of some very corporate-looking office buildings in West L.A., there'd be this haunting, lovely patio with a pretty, still pool, thriving palms and plants, all of it effectively cut off from traffic on Olympic (and other urban roars) by a tall, gushing fountain? Good fresh fish, terrific pastas, and the best lemony-tart artichoke-and-arugula salad. 11400 W. Olympic Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 575-3530. Entrees $8.50-$16.95.

THE LITTLE DOOR, with its Middle Eastern- and African-inflected French cuisine, has finally made good use of a lovely high-walled patio and dining space which, up until a couple of years ago, flummoxed every restaurant that tried to inhabit it. Who knew sheer hipness was a survival skill? The patio at night - full of candles, and the song of running water, and rosy faces, and fragrant smells from the wood oven - is one of the most romantic spots in town. 8164 W. Third St.; (323) 951-1210. Main courses $16-$28.

RIX, in Santa Monica, is yet another hidden surprise. When you step into the sedate dining room downstairs, there's no clue that there's a packed nightclub with a gorgeous large patio upstairs. Here's the perfect place to spend a summer night sitting and drinking and listening to live music and observing the latest scant hot-weather fashions. Neal Fraser, formerly of Boxer, took over the kitchen some months back, and the food is improving. 1413 Fifth St., Santa Monica; (310) 656-9688. Main courses $18-$30.

Ken Frank and his opulent French cooking are gone, but FENIX at the Argyle Hotel still has its patio with a great city view in the background, the swimming pool and a row of concrete palm trees in the foreground - surely, this is one of the more astute and compact images of Southern California. The new chef is New Orleans-born Brandon Boudet, and he's cooking eclectic American with a Deep South flair - linguine with crayfish; marinated pork loin with basmati dirty rice; flattened poussin baked under a brick; and crab-stuffed monkfish. Argyle Hotel, 8358 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 848-6677. Entrees $12-$23.

For sheer funk, I have a soft spot for FIDDLER'S BISTRO poolside patio, tables scattered around on a cement-paved pool area, with the blue pool winking - it's straight out of a noir thriller, and all the more amusing because this modest coffee shop has some delicious Mediterranean dishes, including grape leaves, oven roasted chicken and a Greek salad. Plaza Hotel, 6009 W. Third St.; (323) 931-8167. Meals about $11.

I have left out far more patios than I've included. There's Granita, of course, in Malibu, and Sofi on Third Street, and Ca' del Sole in North Hollywood, and Clearwater Cafe, and Twin Palms, and Merida in Pasadena, and . . . and . . . and . . . and many more, clearly, so that, for the next few months, until the inclement weather returns, there will be plenty of patios where the weather is God-given - as warm as summer's meant to be.

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Spago Beverly Hills
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Michael's

1147 Third St.
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310-451-0843

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Les Deux Cafes - Closed

1638 N. Las Palmas Ave.
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Chez Mimi - Closed

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The Buffalo Club

1520 Olympic Blvd.
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The Belvedere

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310-788-2306

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Barney Greengrass Restaurant - Closed

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310-777-5877

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Cafe Pinot

700 W. 5th St.
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213-239-6500

www.patinagroup.comcafePinot

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Hollywood Canteen

1006 Seward St.
Los Angeles, CA 90038

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Il Moro

11400 W. Olympic Blvd.
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The Little Door

8164 W. Third St.
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323-951-1210

www.thelittledoor.com


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