Downtown/Pike Place Market/ Pioneer Square Cutters Bayhouse—A recent remodeling hasn't changed the heart of this '80s ber-eatery. Nor has the menu undergone any revision; think of a florid novella with too many descriptors and not an editor in sight, and you'll understand Cutters' overdone dishes. Aside from simple, perfectly grilled fish, most of the items on the menu were hampered by too many elements, too, too much. But Cutters caters to tourists, not local food critics, and in this endeavor it succeeds tremendously. The fish (a visitor's prime interest in Seattle cuisine) is masterfully cooked, the view is beautiful, the service is first-rate, and there's always a table waiting. In the end, what we think doesn't really matter. 2001 Western, 448-04884. Gordon Biersch—If Gordon Biersch were a guy, he would have big shiny pecs and a Dudley Doright jaw. He'd like his beer cold and his meat by the pound. With a crowded, buzzing "scene," this manly eatery on the fourth floor of Pacific Place offers solid food in massive portions. Sometimes surprisingly interesting, and sometimes a few steps short of good, the food varies. With enormous (as in more waiters than customers) and yet somehow ineffectual service and a largely Y-chromosome clientele, a visit to Gordon Biersch feels a little like a frat house with a culinary student president. Pacific Place, Sixth and Pine, 405-4205. Icon Grill—The Icon Grill was the brainchild of an interior designer. Those who are still reading, having open-mindedly allowed that the stylish joint may also offer culinary substance, are alas too generous. Comfort food is the Icon Grill's stock-in-trade, from molasses-glazed meat loaf with blackstrap gravy to a merlot-braised lamb shank. Promising, but it's as if the modulations are off, leaving some of Icon's comforting dishes with too much flavor and others with too little. Icon undoubtedly creates some tasty treats, but its food lacks consistency. Dumb missteps of execution coupled with an emphasis on strong statements over subtlety in all arenas leave the Icon with a pretty concept . . . and not much else. 1933 Fifth, 441-6330. Il Fornaio—Pacific Place's Il Fornaio may be just another outpost of the (in)famous Californian chain, but it sure doesn't feel like one. Whether you visit the upscale restaurant, the casual storefront risotteria, the quickie atrium caff輯I>, or the panetteria (bakery), the simply classic cuisine and superb baked goods will have you believing what it already knows: that it's an Italian bakery, right down to the bones. The restaurant menu holds no surprises, but from a bright house salad to the signature rosemary-roasted chicken, Il Fornaio serves up an uncomplicated medley of Italian favorites with a surprising lack of chain-soullessness. The caff謠right in the middle of all the Pacific Place hubbub, features fresh, interesting sandwiches (good-quality meats and nice buttery breads). Enjoy casual, affordable meals of antipasti and risottos at the risotteria downstairs. Of course, the panetteria is the place for a quick pumpkin muffin to perk yourself up from a shopping daze. Pacific Place, Sixth and Olive, 264-0994. Koji Osakaya—There are literally hundreds of items on the menu at Koji Osakaya, but quality plays second fiddle to quantity at this Portland-based Japanese restaurant. The appetizers arrived mealy and barely warm; you can get worse chicken teriyaki than the dinner offered here, but you probably won't have to pay as much. The noodle and donburi dishes were attractively presented but unremarkable, and the sushi lacked character. A chain-restaurant mentality prevails: Offer as much food as you can at vaguely reasonable prices, and pray people won't notice how mediocre the food really is. 89 University, 583-0980. La Palina—Duke Moscrip's stamina as a restaurateur is incredible: Eleven restaurants opening in twice as many years is a feat unto itself—to have four currently operating is even more astonishing. Moving away from his standard formula (waterside restaurants with limited culinary pretensions), Moscrip hired Il Bistro chef Dino D'Aquila to open La Palina, an inland, upscale Italian eatery. The food is often good, with a noteworthy smoked duck ravioli and a delicious osso buco supporting the entr饠menu. Slow, neglectful service took away from the experience, but a romantic atmosphere and a fine location for pre- or post-theater dining should help Duke's latest venture stay on its feet. 236 First, 283-4400. Pampas Club—The tuxedoed boys of El Gaucho have put their distinguished heads together to come up with another dazzler, the elegant, subterranean, hidey-hole called the Pampas Club. Though the well-upholstered space was designed for cabaret and lounge acts, the food merits its own spotlight, especially the gloriously fanciful desserts (a pair of cookie-legs diving into a coconut cream shake!). One thing the folks here obviously understand well is that cabaret, like fine food and sex, goes down better with a drink. Only three pages in the 20-page menu list food: one page for caviar and oysters, one for the dozen appetizers and entr饳, and one for desserts, cheese, and port. The remaining 17 pages are an alcoholic's dream-stocked bar: 10 champagnes, beer, seven Scotch blends, 18 single malts, wines by the glass and bottle, two dozen specialty cocktails, various brandies, grappa, Irish whiskies, five bourbons, six kinds of gin, 13 kinds of vodka, two dozen liqueurs. 90 Wall, 728-1140. Rock Pasta—Tacoma's answer to East Coast wood-fired pizza is now being served up near the Kingdome. With names like "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Sgt. Pepper," pasta and pizza are served up cleverly and with the constant reminder that yes, you are in a place devoted to Rock—as in Roll, not Rolling, despite the brewpub atmosphere. Appetizers will please pre-game fans, especially the bruschetta and the rich, marinated mushrooms. (Best to skip the garlic-brown-sugar-mozzarella bread, though, unless you groove to Grandma's oatmeal and regularly add cheese to it.) The 11- and 15-inch pies come anywhere from simple to scary, loaded with treats like pepperoni ("Classic Rock"), and chicken, almonds, tomatoes, and pineapple ("Saturday Night Special"). 322 Occidental S, 682-ROCK. Denny Regrade/Seattle Center/ Eastlake/Westlake El Nino—Take El Camino; move it from Fremont to downtown; cut the room in half; add an obvious, topical name; and embrace Belltown hipsters and groovers. That should suffice as a basic introduction to El Ni�The potential for excellence lurks in this restaurant, but El Ni� refusal to decide what it actually is (a restaurant, a tequila bar, or a discotheque?) keeps it from achieving culinary greatness. Terrific tortilla soup and carne asada are balanced by equally horrible tacos de Cabo pescado and puero adobo, and El Ni� nightclub alter ego takes over early on the weekends. However successful it may be as a dance floor or a tequila bar, in its restaurant identity El Ni�alls decidedly short. 113 Virginia, 441-5454. Western Vine Caribbean Cafe—Yearning for something jerked? Find your way to Belltown's Western Vine for some savory Caribbean fare served with island hospitality. Proceed with caution, however; the colorful medley of spices adorning many dishes here can be overpowering when the chef's intense flavoring habits get the better of him. The jerked half-chicken is the house specialty, and rightly so. The meat saturated with all-spice, chile, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves is perfectly accented by the accompanying sweet yam pur饮 Served with most entr饳, the inspired mashed potatoes are made with black beans, chorizo, and garlic, and are the most reliable item on the menu. Intensely likable service offsets variable food quality, and the weekend crowds bring a relaxed tropical atmosphere that makes a visit worth the risk. 81 Vine, 728-1959. Capitol Hill/Madison Park/Leschi Cafe Starbucks—Cafe Starbucks is very much the cafe version of the coffeehouse, space-wise—democratic in its welcome, omnifarious in its functionality. Snagging a table is rarely a problem, thanks to food that's dependably mediocre. The few good dishes seem to have been an accident rather than a purposeful endeavor, and Starbucks roasts its meat the way it roasts its coffee beans—on the far side of long. It's cheap, which ought to mitigate some of the criticism. At $6.95, dinner doesn't have to be that good. But neither, alas, should it be this bad. 4000 E Madison, 329-3736. Harvest Vine—Come on, it's fun to say. Try it once: tapas. And even more fun to eat, especially at the crowded Harvest Vine. With master chef Joseph Jimenez de Jimenez at the helm, a meal at this tiny taverna is like a really good dinner party. Share advice with the other diners (all within speaking distance from one another) on which tapas and wine to sample from the tempting menu, then dig in. The entr饳 are fine, but true brilliance lies in the little platefuls of Basque cuisine; de Jimenez's showstopping creations are too numerous to mention, but every dish is equally delicious. Follow up the tapas and any recommended Spanish wine from its extraordinary list with a scrumptious dessert, and don't tell your friends: Snagging one of the three tables at Harvest Vine is hard enough already. If you can't get enough of the desserts, head on down the street to the newly opened Harvest Vine dessert shop. 2701 E Madison, 320-9771. Osteria La Spiga—Simple, solid food crafted with quality ingredients fills the menu of this Italian eatery. Piadinas, disks of unleavened bread topped with meats and cheeses, and cresciones, the same bread stuffed rather than topped with fixings, are welcome changes to the standard Italian sandwich fare. Unfortunately, they remain rather uninspired; the pastas and desserts are more promising. The butternut-squash-stuffed ravioli in sage-butter sauce shouldn't be missed, and the house-specialty soup passatelli is sensational. While the sandwiches can get tedious, the menu merits a try; the easy-on-the-wallet prices only strengthen the argument. 1401 Broadway, 323-8881. Rover's—Walking into the foyer of this tidy French restaurant will remind you of walking into someone's home in Madison Valley. Neat and crisply appointed, the somewhat staid setting serves as the perfect backdrop to the inspired Gallic creations of chef Thierry Rautureau. You might get warm rounds of sliced duck, a delicate slice of monkfish, beautifully carved venison, or a perfectly shelled lobster—all ready to be taken upon the fork. Due to customer demand, Rover's is now strictly prix fixe. Dinner Tue-Sat. 2808 E Madison, 325-7442. Sammie Sue's Diner—So' Cal (as in South Carolina) cooking is sending Capitol Hill denizens scrambling to 12th and Pike for made-on-the-premises-from-scratch foods that are big on taste and the Southern accents of chef Samantha Parrott's regional cuisine. To call this place a diner is perhaps inaccurate, and while it serves some of the meanest coffeecake and biscuits with gravy around, meals are served both at the diner-style counter and in the airy back room four nights a week. Dinner specials weren't as tempting as the daytime eats, though, when the grits are free-flowing and the omelettes come like the harmonious Miss Babs (mushrooms, spinach, chicken-apple sausage, and Swiss), with fresh, quality ingredients. The breakfast basics are really in a class by themselves, thanks in no small way to a biscuit that comes out perfectly every time. 1200 E Pike, 322-5177. Queen Anne/Magnolia Figaro Bistro—Ah, finally: a bistro the way it was meant to be. From the two French-born, thirtysomething chefs to the steak frites and coq au vin, Figaro knows how to blend the subtleties of the Brittany coast with the creamy, buttery sauces of Normandy and the pasta of Provence. Queen Anners have already found that they return regularly for the homemade p and the onion tart, and the straightforward comfort of the cream/blue interior. Desserts are done with the same similar, understated flair, and offer the Frenchiest of treats: profiteroles, cr譥 brl饬 and chocolate mousse. 11 Roy, 284-6465. Iron Gate Cafe—Vermont transplants Robert and Marsha Artig run this Queen Anne bistro, more notable for its hospitality than its very '80s fare. Appetizers and finishers are the most affordable, most reliable selections; until Artig utilizes her talent to create a menu more suitable to the Northwest's edgier palate, the entr饳 are strictly hit-and-miss. Risk the shrimp cakes and the grilled portobello burger; avoid the spaghettini; and keep an eye out for the giant crouton in otherwise crisp and inviting salads. 2220 Queen Anne Ave N, 285-7949. The Melting Pot—The Melting Pot chain has enjoyed national success (the Seattle location is no. 46), but exactly why remains largely a mystery after a visit to the Queen Anne restaurant. Perhaps it harks back to childhood days, when playing with your food was more fun than eating it. Or perhaps it's the undeniable draw of boiling oil. But with a menu that takes a table of advanced degrees to comprehend and enough variations to make even the most decisive diner cringe, eating here becomes less of a night out and more of an "Ultimate Dining Challenge." Variety is usually commended in restaurant reviews, but this menu proves there can be too much of a good thing. 14 Mercer, 378-1208. University District/Wallingford/ Green Lake/Northeast Boat Street Cafe—One runs aground in superlatives upon attempting to explain the magnificence that is the Boat Street Cafe. With its hearty interpretations of French classics, its unpretentiously beautiful rustic space, and its relatively wallet-happy prices, this little spot under University Bridge serves up near-perfection every day. Whether it takes shape in the inspired plate of pears with Gorgonzola and roasted walnuts, the melt-in-your-mouth fillet of salmon, the caramelized onion and goat cheese ravioli, or the blackberry cobbler, every item on the menu achieves unadulterated glory. A quick brunch bite, a midafternoon snack, or a dinner—you can't possibly misstep if you head firmly in the direction of Boat Street. 909 NE Boat, 632-4602. Hilbo's Alligator Soul—Close your eyes, take a big bite of the poussin over dirty rice (ripe and rangy), and you can almost hear the bayou bubbling. Just don't open your eyes; while the food may taste like Mardi Gras on a plate, the ambiance is more reminiscent of a junior high school production of Gone with the Wind. Of course, food with this much character doesn't really need a backdrop. Such formidable cuisine can be overwhelming, so be sure to eat it slowly and take a lot home; the matured leftovers let your mouth in on all the South's culinary secrets. 7104 Woodlawn NE, 985-2303. Wedgwood Broiler—A neighborhood institution in North Seattle for more than 30 years, the Wedgwood Broiler serves old-fashioned, mainstream American fare at budget prices. The smoked-glass mirrors, Cheez-Its-sprinkled salads, and a clientele made up almost exclusively of neighborhood retirees give the Broiler a comfortable and familiar air. Folks on a limited, fixed income enjoy choices aplenty; for less than $10 you can get an entr饬 spud, and super salad. The bargain rates encourage multigenerational meals—high chairs available—and a scattering of families with young kids take advantage of the bargains alongside the older regulars. Quality varies, and a few of the meat entr饳 (most notably the prime rib) require an especially sharp knife. Overall, though, the uncomplicated food and familial atmosphere will win you over, in a nostalgic "Oh Mom, not pork chops again!" kind of way. 8230 35th NE, 523-1115. Central District/International District/ Rainier Valley/Southeast Baker's Beach Cafe—The cafe that has kept Mount Bakerites in creamy lattes and grainy bran-fruit muffins for the better part of the decade has a big secret: Its dinners are delectable. This hippie neighborhood coffeehouse serves up crunchy, zingy salads, sinfully good fresh-baked breads, and tasty entr饳 like seafood-loaded paella and divine medallions of pork tenderloin served in a mushroomy Marsala sauce. Both the delights and pitfalls of a neighborhood restaurant are evident; service feels more like folks just being thoughtful than service, but inconsistency can mar an otherwise enjoyable dining experience. 3601 S McClellan, 725-3654. Championship BBQ by Koba—Brian Koba serves his delectable "East meets West" barbecue out of a tiny shack that's squeezed next to his salon for a few short hours every weekday. But limited business hours and no seating to speak of have done nothing to discourage the droves of Seattleites who visit Koba's shack for some of the best barbecue around. From the tender, smoky meat to the inspired, gratifying sauces, Koba truly is a barbecue champion. One taste of practically anything on the menu and you'll be a believer. 1217 S Angelo, 764-0699. La Medusa—An electric combination of affable service, effervescent ambiance, and (with few exceptions) exhilarating cuisine makes eating at La Medusa a truly heavenly experience. Chefs Sherri Serino and Lisa Becklund serve up authentic Sicilian soul food, borrowing a number of recipes from Serino's Sicilian grandmother. The standout starters (try the cod fritters for a uniquely divine take on traditional Iberian bacalao) seem at first to outshine the less varied entr饠menu. As long as pasta will satisfy, however, you're in good hands; from a buttery Northern Italian dish to an Arab-style penne, the attempts to capture Sicily's multicultural cuisine are largely successful. When in doubt, the specials are always a good bet. Aside from the occasional misfires, Serino and Becklund have succeeded: They have created a friendly neighborhood Italian joint with soul. 4857 Rainier S, 723-2192. Takohachi—This small, family-run Japanese diner in the International District has survived almost a decade in Seattle's quicksilver restaurant scene through the devoted patronage of Japanese students. And it serves food so simply good, at such affordable prices, that you will want to—and be able to—make it a weekly habit. Takohachi will remind diners bred in the West of the little noodle shop in the movie Tampopo. To Japanese students, Takohachi is just the cure for a homesick palate, because of its "American-style" Japanese cooking. Here, that means combination meals of "hamburg steak," potato croquettes, fried pork cutlets, tempura, or fish, served with rice, salad, miso soup, and a tiny platter of tsukemono. Daily specials are posted on the walls with hand-painted portraits: The popular bento box offers egg, grilled salmon, shrimp tempura, and a piece of fried chicken. Especially popular during lunch are the different ramen combinations, in soup or stir-fried form. The best meal here is the most traditionally Japanese: black cod kasuzuke, a slice of cod brushed with a special miso paste that is broiled until the skin crisps. 610 S Jackson, 682-1828. Top Gun Seafood Restaurant—While this place sports a great reputation for dim sum, what really makes this clean, new storefront stand out is the amazingly priced, swell seafood dinners. There are literally hundreds of items: Forgo the usual sweet-and-sour and try abalone with sea cucumber, deep-fried squab, or crab in black bean and chile sauce. You won't find your usual assortment of gwailo here: It's so authentic, you might as well be back on Lamma Island, Hong Kong. If you can't choose, opt for the combination dinners. 668 S King, 623-6606. Eastside Continental Restaurant and Lounge—The gaudy decor of this Eastside Russian eatery, complete with jade-and-gold paneling and four golden lion heads spitting water in the main dining room's center, may be off-putting; the bumbling service may have even the hardiest of patrons running for the door. But, aside from a few missteps, the authentic Russian fare is a tasty surprise. Traditional harcho (a tomato-rice-bean soup), well-appointed chicken stroganoff, juicy Chicken Kiev, and the Georgian chicken dish chakhokhbili may help the diner forget the repeatedly unavailable items, the bright lights, and the mistaken orders. Dinner only. 2241 148th NE, Bellevue, 425-644-7403. Golden Goat Italian Cafe—Way out in little ol' Woodinville sits a sleepy neighborhood cafe that ranks right up there with Seattle's finest. The Golden Goat boasts a superb wine list, cozy seating for 24, and we haven't even gotten to the food yet. But with roasted peppers and ricotta to start and a menu that includes fettuccine with saut饤 chicken breast and sweet red peppers, three-cheese ravioli, chanterelle risotto with grilled leg of lamb, and veal scaloppine, this is one trip out of the big city that will make your mileage count. 14471 Woodinville-Redmond Rd NE, Woodinville, 425-483-6791. Kohana Mongolian Grill—The novelty of this all-you-can-eat grill in downtown Bellevue lies in its organization: You select your own ingredients and invent your own dishes using a mix of provided sauces. If you don't enjoy the meal you've assembled, you have no one to blame but yourself. Until you get with the program, the whole experience can be a tad confusing; with little guidance from either the shorty menu or the servers and their varying communication skills, creating your meal can be an exceptionally difficult task. However, for those Eastside diners with patience and large appetites, Kohana may rate a try (but only for those willing to pay what seems like too high a tariff: $9.99/dinner, $6.99/lunch). 205 105th NE, Bellevue, 425-462-0850. Closed Monday evenings. Le Bistro d'a CotȠat Relais—For all of those who equate a French menu with stiff waiters, minuscule portions, and sizable dents in the bank account, there is Le Bistro. Located in the front rooms of Relais, a bastion of French cuisine and fine dining, the bistro offers patrons affordable, delicious meals without all the pomp and circumstance. The wild mushroom soup is a superb find in the otherwise lackluster appetizer selection, but the entr饳 are reminiscent of the bistro's fancier predecessor. Ranging from a remarkable bouillabaisse all the way to what could be translated as mac-and-cheese (although a superior one at that, flavored with smoked bacon flecks), the menu reflects a dedication to fine French cuisine—and a successful shift to casual dining. 17121 Bothell Wy NE, Bothell, 425-485-7600. Nicolino Ristorante Italiano—The story of this Gilman Village Italian joint is as near to a fairy tale as they come. Original owner and chef Nicolino Petruzelli served loyal customers a slice of the Mediterranean for seven years before moving on to greener pastures and, most importantly, selling his Ristorante Italiano to a couple who were, in fact, frequent patrons, Jessica Robertiello and Derek Gaston Schaubroeck. The bistro atmosphere remains intact, and the patio beckons from outside glass doors in warm weather. The food, despite the affable surroundings, is a mixed bag. The eggplant appetizer will set your taste buds aflutter, as will the pollo alla amarene (chicken breast in a caramelized onion and cream sauce with wild Italian cherries); the minestrone comes a bit bland, and the pepperoni appetizer drowns beneath too much oil and vinegar. Specials can be sumptuous, and there are options for vegetarians. 317 NW Gilman Blvd, Issaquah, 425-391-8077. The Pizza Place—The quest for a Chicago-style deep dish that lives up to its promises usually leaves Seattleites high and dry. But even purists will agree that the Pizza Place's pies are the real thing. Although a little out of the way for most, the stuffed pizza alone is enough to convince anyone to take a drive. The spinach salad and garlic bread only hint at the greatness to come; with the exception of the listless thin-crust pizza, any pie choice is a sure bet. WHen it comes right down to it, the deeper the dish, the bigger the smile. 540 E North Bend Wy, North Bend, 425-888-1800. Vidal's European Bistro—Visiting Vidal's is like going to the circus; a wild mixture of acts from around the world amazes and thrills—as long as you have a good seat. Excellent Greek/Italian/Japanese (!) fusion dishes that defy categorization mark chef extraordinaire Vidal Bitton's iconoclastic cuisine at the restaurant bearing his name. Appetizers ranging from Middle Eastern baba ganooj to smoked slices of duck breast are met by equally strong entr饳; even the desserts (Vidal bakes as well) are on par. The award-winning wine selection is an added bonus. Just make sure to insist on a lakeside or streetside table and Vidal's will be a surefire hit. 107 Lake St, Kirkland, 425-822-0977.