The Monastery Too
There's something exciting about watching a professional chef at work. The skill, the flair, the panache of a trained restaurant talent. We've never quite mastered the art, but with the Monastery, we can pretend we have. Here, at these casual, artsy restaurants, we get to be the chef ourselves. We like the original Indian School location the best, taken as we are with the rickety 80-year-old home tucked away under weeping willows, but the other two shops are endearingly similar. While our buddies play volleyball, horseshoes, Ping-Pong and shuffleboard, we man a barbecue and grill burgers, chicken, steaks, pork chops, Polish sausage or a vegetarian garden burger (if we need assistance, one of the staffers -- dressed in brown monk robes -- will help us manage the flames). We sip some beer or wine, select some sides (potato salad, salad, chips and salsa, bread and cheese board). This is one restaurant meal we'll never be sending back.

Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe
Jamie Peachey
Ever wonder how you can be so busy, yet so broke? So when your long hours and lean wallet get to you, treat yourself to a meal at Cherryblossom.

There's nothing more expensive than $10 on this lengthy menu of big, tasty noodle dishes, and most ring in at $5 to $8. The variety is constantly interesting -- Japanese, Thai, Korean, Italian, and even some offbeat Japanese-Italian fusion recipes. The setting is soothing -- the place is fast service, but instead of a cheapie snack shack, it's a real sit-down affair.

You'll love the yakisoba, sautéed with fresh vegetables, plus chicken or seafood (shrimp, scallop, squid and octopus). Korean spicy beef is sizzling, over clear, egg white or potato noodles. For a lighter nosh, try the pasta primavera, loaded with eggplant, tricolor bell pepper and sweet onion under marinara sauce.

You know where to get fast food, cheap and delicious. Just use your noodle -- Cherryblossom's noodle, that is.

My Florist Café & Bar
Okay, we confess: We eat more than just lunch at My Florist Cafe. We have breakfast there every Friday, because we can't get enough of their yummy baked oatmeal. And you'll find us there several nights a week, digging into the superlative pear salad and grooving to the impossibly swell stylings of pianist Nicole. But most of the time we're there midday, elbow-to-elbow with folks who know that this is the chic place to break bread. Even if we're craving lunch at 11 p.m. we get what we came for, because all of My Florist's lunchtime specialties are available all the time. Day or night, sandwich or salad, My Florist is our all-the-time favorite lunch hangout.

Readers' Choice: Durant's

J.P. Pancake
Courtesy of J.P. Pancakes
Our brain is pounding. Our stomach is churning. Our eyes hurt, our mouth tastes like old eggs, and we've got that heavy, guilty misery that can only mean one thing: We drank too much again last night.

Perhaps we should punish ourselves for our indiscretion with the evil spirits, but aren't we already suffering enough? Darn right we are, so now it's time to treat ourselves to the only thing that'll make us feel better -- a huge, fattening, filling breakfast to soak up all that alcohol.

JP is our little cocoon for mornings like these. It's always genteel quiet in the tiny shop, no matter how busy it gets. It's dark, decorated in lots of black and slender mirrors, with soothing jazz music that makes us feel classier than our escapes of the evening before would suggest. The food is fresh and fantastic, with amenities we can't find elsewhere: hot-dog-size Hormel sausage links, thick-cut Hormel bacon and dry-cured ham, golden biscuits with chunky sausage gravy, billowy oven-baked apple pancakes, Belgian waffles and tasty daily specials like quiche or tomato-fresh-herb-goat-cheese omelets.

Coffee is strong, hot and bottomless. Boy, we feel almost good enough to go out tonight and get drunk all over again.

BEST SOLUTION FOR IT'S THE MIDDLE OF THE WEEK AND I'M TOO POOPED TO COOK

Elie's Deli

Elie's Deli
After slaving over a hot desk all day long, who really wants to face an hour or more working in the kitchen for dinner?

Still, we'd like our families to enjoy a healthful, tasty, home-cooked meal, even if it isn't cooked in our own home. So it's Elie's takeout to the rescue! We love this tiny, family-run quick-stop casual shop where pretty much everything on the Mediterranean and American menu is homemade. Our family members with the simplest tastes love the straight stuff -- hot and cold subs fashioned from Boar's Head meats, a fine BLT and grilled cheese, and burgers. More adventurous types lust after the Greek specialties, like magical grape leaves stuffed with rice, tomatoes and garbanzo beans, dipped in silky-tart yogurt spiked with cucumber, garlic and mint. And we've been known to make an entire meal out of tabbouleh, a refreshing salad of chopped parsley, tomato, cracked wheat, lemon juice and olive oil, with some hot pita bread on the side. All food is prepared to order, but it's done with speed -- we never wait more than a few minutes before we're tramping our treasures out the door.

Lon's at the Hermosa
Jackie Mercandetti
How the architect managed to figure out how to dig a wine cellar under the historic converted home that is Lon's, we'll never know. All we can say is that he did it, and beautifully. This brand-new room is hidden back behind the bar, behind a scrolled gate, and down a steep, winding flight of rock stairs. The temperature drops up to 30 degrees as we make the descent, and as we round the bend, we're presented with one of the most gorgeous private dining rooms we've ever seen. If there's no romance in the air in this room, lined with racks of wine bottles, crafted out of stone and centered with a heavy wood table dressed with candles, then this couple has no chance. There's no room charge, either, with menu and wine selections from Lon's seasonal offerings (adore that cow "q" Kobe beef, or the Peruvian seafood grill). It can be just us, or, if we want to shout our love out to the rooftops, we can invite up to six other couples. The manager tells us his servers often feel the need to announce when they're approaching the room -- after all, mood lighting, mood food, mood ambiance, and, well, it sure puts us in the mood.

Readers' Choice: The Melting Pot

Roaring Fork
Courtesy of Roaring Fork
When we're worn out, the only thing we want to do for dinner is eat over the kitchen sink at home. Unfortunately, it's hard to find friends who want to do that with us. So on those nights, we ask them to meet us at Roaring Fork, where it's almost as comfortable, casual and homey. These people understand the need to feed at a low-key bar. It's still pretty, in one of the most bustling, beautiful people spots in the Valley. And it's still got some of the most interesting, delicious, well-priced nibbles to be found anywhere. The "saloon" menu is available in the bar only, from 7 to 10 p.m. It includes thrills like green chile pork stew with jack cheese and buttered flour tortillas; a half chicken rotisserie-roasted over pecan wood with queso anejo and charred tomato salsa; or smoke-roasted barbecued pork ribs braised in Dr Pepper and chiles. Best of all, the plates run less than $10 each, and we don't even have to do the dishes.

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