Photo by Anne Fishbein

I'VE BEEN WATCHING DISH FOR FIVE MONTHS NOW, TO SEE IF IT WAS TAKING hold in a transient location where a number of restaurants (mostly boozy dinner houses) have come and gone. My accountant spent an evening at the restaurant located there some 20 years ago, and he has this story to tell: “I got so drunk,” he said, “I forgot all about having a wife and went home and went to sleep. Without her. Left her there. Apparently.” Many restaurants have filled the space since then — most as short-lived as my accountant's marriage.

With its spare logo and eucalyptus-green paint job, Dish promises something new. The look is contemporary, clearly professionally designed and maybe even a tad trendy — or at least what passes for trendy in this sleepy, affluent, Bush-lovin' foothill community. Also, Dish is more coffee shop than chop house — so bright and wide-open you couldn't lose a wife there, even if you tried.

The oddly round dining room has been whitewashed, giving it an old-fashioned, slightly rustic feel, like a farmhouse kitchen in an orange orchard, 1925. If the look is “California farmhouse,” the food is contemporary Americana: Dish has emerged from the California food revolution the way that the Salt Shaker and Hamburger Hamlet emerged from the midcentury love affair with Continental cuisine and the fern bar. The latter two restaurants made quiche and Monte Cristo sandwiches standard fare, while Dish's menu reflects California's now-established romance with fresh produce, fish, chicken and pasta — combined with good old-fashioned comfort food (steak, mac and cheese). One is not surprised to learn that the chef, Ron Dibona, was once the catering chef for the Border Grill. His challenge, especially at dinner, is to provide freshness and quality at reasonable prices — a challenge he meets, to a fair degree, through very careful shopping.

At breakfast, the room is as bright and sunny as a conservatory. (Not the place to come with a hangover!) We had beautifully poached eggs with excellent applewood-smoked bacon, and also fluffy jonnycakes, which are cornmeal pancakes full of sweet-corn kernels. Omelets are made in pans, not on the grill — the breakfast cook clearly didn't believe us when we asked for a soft omelet, but this is a near-universal problem. The juicy-to-bursting maple pork sausages are locally made at Schreiner's, the terrific German butcher in Montrose. Dish's orange juice is fresh, the service pleasant, the coffee free-flowing. Really, for quality, atmosphere and service, Dish is the best new breakfast spot going.

The linchpin, for both lunch and dinner, is the Dish Burger. Even cooked well-done (as opposed to my requested medium rare), it was a fat, juicy, meaty burger in a grilled-till-crispy La Brea Bakery sesame bun. Have it with your choice of cheese and that good bacon. (In fact, have anything that has that bacon: the fresh-spinach and classic cobb salads, the BLT . . .) Burgers and sandwiches come with a choice of green salad or French fries. I recommend the sweet-potato fries for their delicate crispness and dainty sweetness — worth a trip to La Cañada.

American cooking is largely based on our love of sugar, salt and crunch, and Dish can overdo the sugar. The pulled-pork sandwich is just shy of fabulous — because the barbecue sauce is too sweet. Ditto on the ginger chicken salad, which tastes as if it's been dressed in Karo.

At dinner, pan-seared halibut, perhaps too lightly cooked, is painted with a murky pesto sauce and served with herbed potatoes. Half a roasted chicken is moist and tasty, but also a bit too herb-y. The “Green Goddess” caesar salad is another mélange of herbs. Too many herbs! Succulent pork tenderloin comes with sautéed, pleasantly bitter greens and cold potato salad made with undercooked potatoes. The bone-in filet is tender and mild, but no match for Taylor's steak house up the road. I yearned to try the slow-roasted ham (with a gingersnap and brown-sugar crust) with macaroni and cheese but haven't had the sweet tooth or carbohydrate craving to order it — but, darn, it sounds good.

Except for shakes and root-beer floats, desserts can disappoint. The sugar problem all over again. The crisp of a fresh peach crisp — too sweet. And inconsistent: very good one night, undercooked the next. The apple pie is downright treacly. Bread pudding is closer to mince pie than the custardy comfort food we know and love — butter-drenched crusts baked in caramel sauce with raisins and nuts.

If Dish needs to perfect several dishes, its basic concept is sound: lots of light, lots of room, smart servers, good fresh food at reasonable prices. Go for breakfast — take your wife.

734 Foothill Blvd., La Cañada; (818) 790-5355. Open seven days for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Entrées $7.95­$15.95. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, D, MC, V.

LA Weekly