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September 21, 1986|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is a Times staff writer.

There are about 50 restaurants, of one description or another, within a couple of blocks of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. They include health fooderies, avant-garde spots, ethnic restaurants, bastions of continentalism and lots of quaint fast-food places, including at least five croissant emporiums. What follows is a selection of some of the best in each category. Also, for those who are hungry after the show, please note that quite a few places stay open respectably late. In business until 11 nightly are Copa de Oro and Gandhi; Red Robin on Friday and Saturday. The Upstart Crow turns out espresso until midnight on Saturday and Sunday, and T G I Friday's swings on until 1 a.m. daily. Here's our list and where you'll find them:

Mellowest Coffeehouse

Upstart Crow & Co., 3810 S. Plaza Drive, Santa Ana, (714) 662-0727. It may not have the best coffee locally--probably Amato's in South Coast Plaza does--but it's a great place to toss back a couple of espressos and feel bursting with thought (photos of great writers on the wall and a built-in bookstore help). Quiche-type dishes available. Espresso, 95 cents. Open Sunday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, 10:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight. MasterCard and Visa.

Spiciest Food

Gandhi, 3820-D S. Plaza Drive, Santa Ana, (714) 556-7273. "Spicy" in the sense of the greatest variety of spices, of course--Gandhi is a thoroughly nonviolent place and is inclined to subdue its peppers with yogurt. The result is Indian haute cuisine of a rich and stately sort. Many tandoori dishes and quite a few vegetarian items. Dinner for two, about $35. Open for lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday (brunch), 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 6 to 9 p.m. All major credit cards.

Most American Place

The Old American Court House, 2 Hutton Centre Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 545-1776. (Notice the patriotic phone number.) This place is built to resemble a 19th-Century American courthouse, and lunch always features some regional American cuisine; if there's any left, the dishes might join the dinner menu, where the emphasis is on a melting-pot cuisine. Dinner for two, about $45. There are three dining areas. The Library: lunch, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Sunday (brunch), 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30 to 10:45 p.m. Deli & Lounge: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. Supreme Court: lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (closed Saturday-Sunday); dinner, Tuesday-Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 6 to 10:45 p.m. (closed Sunday-Monday). All major credit cards.

Best Hamburger

Red Robin Burger & Spirits Emporium, 1307 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 432-1111. There are easily two dozen burgers, from classic to downright weird, on this wheezingly whimsical menu. The basic models, including the chili burger, are very good. A family place with both bar and video arcade. Snack for two, about $9. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight. American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

Best All-Day Breakfast

Belgian Waffle Inn, 3820 S. Plaza Drive, Santa Ana, (714) 557-5186. Belgian waffles are the best in the world (ask any Belgian), and these extremely light and high waffles come with a choice of about 10 toppings. There are burgers and sandwiches available at lunchtime, but the waffles are the reason to come. Breakfast for two, about $7.50. Open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Checks accepted; no credit cards.

Most Adventuresome Italian Food

Pronto Ristorante / Trattoria Pino, South Coast Plaza, (714) 540-8038. Stir-fried duck salad, fettuccine colored with Japanese mushrooms--this is definitely not just another pasta-and-veal joint (though you can get more conventional Italian dishes). You can eat in a mirror-walled Manhattanish room or in an informal trattoria and watch mama make the pasta. Dinner for two, about $30. Pronto is open for lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.(closed Sunday); dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.(closed Sunday). Trattoria is open Monday-Friday, 11:15 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 11:15 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. All major credit cards.

Best Hot-Brisket Sandwich

Kaplan's Deli & Restaurant, South Coast Plaza, (714) 540-9022. OK, so maybe it's the only hot-brisket sandwich around, but the meat is lean and thin-sliced, and the horseradish on the side could revive the dead against their will. This large, busy place serves the usual deli sandwiches plus New York Seltzer and Dr. Brown's sodas. Lunch for two, about $10. Open Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. MasterCard and Visa.

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