Dick's Hideaway
Patricia Escarcega
To say that this private party room is a little hole in the wall is entirely accurate. It's hidden, in fact, behind a door set inconspicuously into the paneled wood wall of the tiny bar called Dick's Hideaway. There's no sign anywhere -- not even outside, for the bar itself. You've just got to know where to look.

The search is worth the effort, unveiling a completely charming, comfortable room seating up to 25 people around a grand, copper-topped table and at comfy booth tables lining the wine-bottle-lined walls. Our favorite spot is curled up in front of the kiva fireplace.

As pretty as the place is, the experience is low-key. Dick's Hideaway is brought to us by the folks at Richardson's, and that's the same menu from which we select. That means creative New Mexican dishes like chimayo chicken (stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomato, poblano chile and asiago cheese); pork tenderloin (marinated and pecan grilled with red and green chile jelly); and even posole (hominy and pork in red chile broth).

Best of all, Dick's Hideaway doesn't stick guests with a fixed menu, like most private rooms do. Everything's flexible -- individual meals, custom requests, open or hosted bar service, even birthday cake.

Now that's casual with class.

Hearty Hen Cafe boasts that it serves home-cooked meals. Perhaps, if your home includes a huge brick oven, speared by gleaming steel rotisserie wands stacked with a dozen twirling chickens over a roaring, gas-fed fire.

The birds are lightly rubbed with paprika and spices, then roasted in their glass-fronted coffin for up to three and a half hours. The fat drips through the skin, touching the chicken with its rich flavors, then drips harmlessly into a metal pan below.

The result? A tender, juicy fowl so near-greaseless (and Heart Smart Restaurant endorsed) that we may never eat chicken out of a bucket again.

Being an Israeli restaurant, this exceedingly cool little place features, logically enough, a variety of European dishes rethought in Middle Eastern terms. It's very likely the only place in town where you can find schnitzel and falafel on the same menu. You can also find our favorite riff on the picnic lunch staple: Russian-style, fresh and zingy, loaded with carrots, green peas, eggs, mayonnaise and pickles. As good as are Sabuddy's other sides, which include baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, labne and a Greek-ish eggplant purée, the spud salad is the best.

Like all other salads, it can be ordered in small or large portions ($2.45 and $3.45, respectively), or by the pound ($5.95) as carry-out.

Tuber or not tuber? At Sabuddy, that is not the question.

It's so hard to get good help. Sometimes the serfs at our castle revolt against us, and refuse to cater the elaborate dinner parties we like to throw. How gauche.

No matter, we've got a back-up with the ultra-luxe private dining room we can reserve at the Phoenician resort. Happily, it looks just like a castle, replete with Renaissance-era decor, barrel-vaulted ceilings, brick archways, European antiques and a full wall of wines. It's just spacious enough -- we can park up to 16 of our friends' premier posteriors on tapestry-upholstered chairs.

Adjacent to the resort's fabulous Terrace Dining Room, it also serves as the Terrace's working wine cellar. And when it's time to eat, we can have anything we want from the resort's flagship restaurant, Mary Elaine's. The magnificent modern French cuisine and highly polished service are just what we need to take our minds off our employment troubles at home.

It makes for such a peasant -- uh, pleasant -- evening out.

One of our favorite Lost in Space episodes of all time is when Dr. Smith is turned into a stalk of celery by an unfriendly planet dweller. When his space shipmates come to his rescue, he demurs, waxing on how lovely it is to be a vegetable -- "so cool, so green."

After tasting the produce of Quiessence chef-farmer Hallie Harron, we're right there in the dirt with him.

These are veggies of uncompromising virtue, grown under Harron's own hand in pretty little beds scattered across a 12-acre farm. The focus of her family-style meals, they're selected based on what the garden offers each day.

The only thing better than being a stalk of celery would be to exist as Harron's fennel, braised al dente and glossed with a thin red pepper marmalade. Or as her albino beets, roasted shallots, gloriously sweet and sour roasted onions, rich flavored grape tomatoes, or a curl of earthy daikon radish.

Finish our vegetables? Just try to stop us.

Don & Charlie's
Courtesy of Don & Charlie's
Let others worry about cholesterol and such: We want rich, satisfying foods. We want to line our gullets with the good stuff. The higher the fat, the better.

That makes Don & Charlie's pté a winner in our world. The fact that it's served free as a prelude to a gut-busting steak dinner including salad, potatoes and all the bread we can handle doesn't hurt, either.

The appetizer is pure beef liver, smooth but studded here and there with little liver chunks for interesting texture. It's served in the classic way, crumbled with hard-boiled egg, cozied up with lots of chopped white onion, and plopped in a big scoop on romaine. Sides of roasted red pepper and hot pepper tomatoes cut the richness when we need it. The pté's almost a meal in itself, spread on crisp lahvosh, rye bread and toast crisps.

At Don & Charlie's, we liver for the moment.

We almost broke down in tears when, at a recent food show, we saw vendors hawking the "newest trend in spaghetti for upscale restaurants seeking convenience" -- premade, precooked gourmet pasta that's vacuum-packed and ready to serve after two minutes in the microwave.

It's reassuring to know that any salesman trying to push these pseudo-pasta products on the folks at Il Pescatore would likely find a horse's head in his bed. That's because this charming, almost Victorian-looking restaurant is dedicated to excellence in the kitchen. All pastas are made fresh, from traditional family recipes.

Knowing that variety is the spice of life, Il Pescatore offers plenty of choices, too. Our favorite (fresh, of course) sauces, vegetables, meats and seafood can be paired with our heart's desire of cappellini, farfalle, fettuccini, gnocchi, linguini, penne, ravioli, rigatoni or tortellini.

We don't want pasta fasta. We want Il Pescatore, where they take the time to care.

A hero may be nothing but a sandwich, but at D'Atri's Cinema Paradiso, a sandwich is nothing short of a feast.

With her compact menu of eight hot sandwiches, bubbly owner/TV personality Jan D'Atri has elevated a simple meal to an art form. How else to describe massive monuments of D'Atri's own Italian sausage, roasted chicken breast, marinated steak and more, all of it served in focaccia made from an old family restaurant? Our personal favorite is a two-fisted monster groaning with salami, ham, pastrami, mozzarella and provolone.

And while some pseudo-sandwicheries may try to sneak by, heating with a pan or cooktop, D'Atri dedicates two panini-style griddles to her bundles, grilling breads, meats and fresh veggies before closing the sandwiches into the hot presses.

An added bonus? When the mood strikes, D'Atri's been known to serenade diners with an accordion. Tasty!

Readers' Choice: Subway

Best Place to Tell Mom and Dad You're Having a Love Child

Romano's Macaroni Grill

This category reminds us of an old schoolyard gag:

Q: Are you in favor of matrimony?

A: Only with cheese.

But seriously, ladies, when it comes time to tell the folks you're in the family way without the benefit of wedlock, we can't think of a better place to bite the bullet than this clamorous pasta palace.

With dishes clanking, an opera singer wailing and other customers shouting to be heard above the convivial din, your parents will soon be lulled into a state of idyllic catatonia. And when you do break the news, chances are the only reaction will be, "I'm sorry, dear. What did you say?"

And the food isn't bad, either. Dig in -- you're eating for two.

Miracle Mile Deli
Where's the brisket?

In the Valley, at Miracle Mile Deli.

A Valley tradition since 1949, Miracle Mile understands the importance of slow cooking for optimum flavor -- and of lightning-fast service when the crowds arrive.

By the time the doors open for lunch in this '60s-style deli, the brisket meat has been simmering for hours in its own juices. It's been sliced just thin enough for texture and piled in huge mounds in warming trays at the cafeteria-style counter, waiting for us as it bubbles to tender perfection in additional juices.

A server grabs the best pieces with his tongs, plops it on our plate and sends it down the line. And mere minutes after we arrive, we're smacking our lips over the beautiful brisket, tucked into a fresh, sweet onion roll. We sop up the juices with our French fries, alternating bites of mild beef with the tang of a sharp, crisp pickle.

Brisket, served this good, and this fast? It can only be a Miracle.

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