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RESTAURANT REVIEW ARNOLDI'S CAFE : That's Not Italian : Order meat, not spaghetti. And those in the know choose the bar or huddle in the booths nearby.

March 07, 1991|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jennie would chuckle if you told her that Arnoldi's Cafe was a restaurant with an A room and a B room. Jennie has been coming to this easy-to-miss lower eastside location in Santa Barbara since the 1950s, and her authority in such matters is fairly well established.

Jennie is just one of the regulars who have been coming to this untouristed, rock-veneered eating spot for the last 51 years.

Although they would all chuckle at the concept of A and B rooms, the regulars all do most of their eating (and drinking) at the bar, which is in the front room, or at one of the adjoining tables. Next to the tables are three of those old-fashioned wooden booths, which are where they sit when they want some privacy--at least relative privacy. The large room in the back, which has a few more gee-gaws, is the room where past exalted rulers of the Elks Club meet on the first Monday night of each month.

Arnoldi's name may lead you to believe that this is an Italian restaurant, but let me hasten to correct you. Although spaghetti is the most common side dish, and ravioli is a common appetizer, neither of these is worth ordering. The deep-fried ravioli is usually dried out and the spaghetti with its meat sauce is as average as they come.

This is a major meat house, where all the steaks and chops are both large and good. The quality of the meat may be due to the fact that the place is owned by Helen and Jim Romp; Helen's son, Jerry Shalhoob, runs Santa Barbara's largest meat distributor, the Shalhoob Meat Co.

Arnoldi's special steak is a rib-eye, which I recommend. Still, the T-bone and the New York will do an even better job of covering your platter. But don't miss the lamb chops and the pork chops: hefty and cooked just the way you order them, these are among the best in town.

Those concerned with cholesterol--although if you're concerned with cholesterol you would be crazy to come here in the first place--can try the Greek chicken, which is not breaded, but broiled in olive oil and seasonings, and flavored with lemon. It is not crisp. It is very moist.

The drinks are well-poured and the house red wine, which comes in an unlabeled bottle, is a surprisingly satisfying potation from Petri. Dessert is just as well ignored.

Service can be a bit uneven. Usually, you'll be waited on by a solidly professional waitress who has been doing the job for years and really knows her business. But the last time I ate at Arnoldi's my waitress was a woman who should be counseled to give up dealing with the public. A person like that cannot only ruin a meal--but also the reputation which Arnoldi's has spent a long time building.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Arnoldi's Cafe, 600 Olive St., Santa Barbara, (805) 962-5394. Open every day except Wednesday 5-11 p.m., bar opens at 4 p.m. Full bar. No credit cards, reservations accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$36. Recommended dishes: Arnoldi's special steak, $9.95; Lamb chops, $12.95.

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