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TAKE IT OUTSIDE : If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Dining Room (and Onto the Patio)

August 20, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Factor in balmy air and a cool, refreshing breeze, and heaven hath no greater pleasure than a meal taken alfresco.

In our rush to secure the very best tables in favored restaurants, we often overlook the fact that many of them serve outside, in surroundings that vary from sculptured terraces with spectacular views to makeshift drywall patios furnished in discount-store plastic. No matter. When the chemistry is right, almost everything tastes better out here.

I've been dining alfresco at all hours of the day, in locations as diverse as a shopping mall, the end of a pier, the heart of an office complex and a quiet, tree-lined downtown. Summer won't last forever, so you'd better go out and start cracking the whip yourself. Here are a few favorites to start you off.

BREAKFAST

* Russell's: I've been a fan of this chain for several years now, but the two things I like best about these restaurants are its patios and breakfasts.

There are two Orange County eateries, one in Seal Beach, the other in Mission Viejo, and both have partially enclosed patios perfect for whiling away a lazy morning.

The Mission Viejo restaurant is newer. The patio looks like a giant flower box. You sit at olive green banquettes at picnic style tables made of beige tile, where most customers chow down on great omelets served with coarsely chopped homemade hash browns or baking powder-rich blueberry muffins, sides of double thick bacon, bowls of oatmeal or one of Russell's yeasty, sticky chocolate chip cinnamon rolls.

The restaurant uses all-natural ingredients exclusively--whole milk, cane sugar, pure whipped cream--and bakes all pies and cakes fresh daily. Should you stay for lunch, try one of the county's best (and sloppiest) burgers and the fresh pies, especially the peach (a glazed, golden yellow masterpiece), one of the "mile-high" meringues, or the absurdly rich sour cream raisin.

Russell's, 27755 Santa Margarita Parkway, Mission Viejo, (714) 588-9113, and 1198 Pacific Coast Highway (at Zoeter Place), Seal Beach, (310) 596-9556. Both restaurants are open daily, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Visa and MasterCard accepted.

LUNCH

* Ruby's Diner: This is a chain of '40s-style diners that is expanding faster than a hungry food writer, but one location has everything going for it: the one at the end of Balboa Pier.

Outside tables just happen to be on the roof, which allows you a majestic view of the Pacific and the chance to look down on yachts passing in and out of Newport Harbor. The last time I dined here, a gull flew off with half of my turkey sandwich.

For the record, breakfast is probably the best meal here, too, but since the management refuses to set up the roof before 11:30 a.m., you'll have to plan on coming up here for lunch.

Burgers are the lunch of choice at any Ruby's, and they come in four varieties; beef (one-third pound of ground chuck), turkey (lean), chicken (a tender, boneless filet from the breast) or rice, oats and wheat mulched together in a patty called a veggie burger. All are available in over a dozen incarnations, with toppings like bleu cheese, guacamole and bacon.

Salads such as Caesar and Cobb (chopped fresh greens with chicken, bacon, blue cheese and more) are generous and dependable here, but the fries and onion rings tend to be overcooked and dry. (It must be the sea air.) Ruby's deluxe shakes, such as Oreo cookie fantasy and peanut butter cup, are terrific, though. What's more, the sea birds don't fancy them one bit.

Ruby's Diner, No. 1 Balboa Pier, Newport Beach. (714) 675-7829. Open Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted.

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* Bistro 201: Some people think of this as just one more David Wilhelm extravaganza, a room that defines chichi with regard to Orange County restaurants. What a lot of people forget is that this restaurant is one of the best places around for open-air dining.

At Bistro 201, you dine in a courtyard framed by bamboo trees. Look through the glass doors, into the restaurant, and you have virtually the same effect as sitting indoors. Look up, and you stare into a maze of reality, the glass and steel edifices of a commercial development framed under a generally bright sky.

There are lots of exciting new dishes to eat here, thanks to a new chef, Alec Lester, hired away from Los Angeles' highly touted Patina. On an appetizer gala called American sampler plate, you can taste finger foods like prosciutto-wrapped mango, spicy ahi with asparagus, pan-roasted quail with pancetta and warm goat cheese souffle with mesclun salad. Lester is also big on inventive specials, like lamb tenderloin in a vegetable ragout with garlic mashed potatoes and duck confit with date and ginger sauce. Cappuccino is still great here, and so is the warm chocolate souffle.

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