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The Joys of Dining Alfresco : A number of restaurants take advantage of the weather by serving outdoors in a variety of settings.

July 16, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life.

Dining alfresco is one of life's great pleasures, especially when the air is balmy, the breeze mild and the company pleasant.

We in the San Fernando Valley have got it lucky. The climate is suitable for alfresco dining nearly all year, and there are a wide range of restaurants serving outdoors. I've spent the last few weeks dining in surroundings ranging from sculptured terraces with leafy trees and delightful views to shopping mall patios furnished in home discount plastic, and have had one major revelation while doing this. When the chemistry's right, almost everything tastes better out here.

The only problem--if you're planning to do this any time soon--is that summer heat. The Valley gets steamy during summer afternoons, and since these restaurants serve outdoors during the day, it might be a good idea to keep that in mind. So for those of you who require SPF 50 (30, says one comedian, is a flannel shirt), the evening might be a better bet, when the afternoon heat has faded and the Ray-Bans and parasols aren't quite necessary.

Saddle Peak Lodge

The elegant, swank Saddle Peak Lodge, located about halfway up Cold Canyon in a remote part of Calabasas, is one restaurant where the weekend brunch crowd is definitely heat-seeking. Many of them come looking for a hot, secluded getaway that is still relatively close to the big city. That's exactly what they find.

The restaurant is housed in a refurbished hunting lodge, a maze of little dining rooms on different levels. The 20-odd outdoor patio tables are among the area's toughest to get even on hot days, thanks to a great view of the Santa Monica Mountains, brightly colored umbrellas and the good cooking of chef Bruce Boyer.

The menu here is rustic Americana, lots of game, fresh fish and '40s-style Continental specialties. Lots of my friends come to enjoy light lunchtime salads such as the one made from endive, watercress, goat cheese and walnuts, or the delicate, cooling fruit soups, ideal, low calorie antidotes to the occasional blast of heat you feel in these hills.

Game such as roast venison is served with a tangy sauce made from juniper berries; there is rack of lamb, pheasant, fresh trout and a variety of North American fish, often culled from lakes and streams. Everything rates to be perfect from the appetizer to the dessert, but know in advance that the experience doesn't come cheap. This is easily the area's best alfresco dining and, not coincidentally, the priciest.

419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas. (818) 222-3888.

Rubin's Red Hot

We go from the sublime to the ridiculous when we visit this simple hot dog stand strategically placed under the San Diego Freeway at Ventura Boulevard. What could be more romantic than dining outside under an actual freeway, at little tables that afford a view of onrushing traffic. De gustibus, one supposes.

I like the place, anyway. This is, for my money, the best hot dog stand in Los Angeles, even if it isn't the ideal first date restaurant. It is easy to find, too, a 17-foot span of authentic railway track from owner Norm Rubin's beloved El in Chicago. Chicagoans are proud of their hot dogs, the majority of which are supplied by a company called Best's Kosher Meats. Rubin's specializes in authentic Chicago dogs, steamed, not grilled. They, too, are supplied by Best's and they taste terrific.

Sit outside at one of the fire engine red patio tables and chow down on a Big Red, a poppy seed and onion bun splotched with dill pickle, red onion, relish, mustard, a chili pepper, celery salt and a large, meaty frank. If you prefer it spicy, try one of these Polish sausages, too, the perfect foil for deli-style brown mustard and sauerkraut. Great French fries as well, hand-cut potatoes cooked in pure peanut oil. It's almost enough to make you into a Cubs fan.

15322 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 905-6515.

Lautrec-Piacere

The restaurant known until recently as Lautrec, now Piacere, gets my vote for having the Valley's most beautiful patio.

This is perhaps the most European-looking of all local restaurants. The outdoor patio is a brick-floored courtyard dominated by a huge pepper tree, with an atmosphere rounded out by a burbling fountain, lots of wildflowers and leaves falling constantly onto your table. Even on hot, smoggy days, it feels cool and pleasant back here, shaded by the trees and umbrellas. Just take care not to sit too close to the patio's wrought-iron gate should you come for lunch. It heats up mercilessly.

The cuisine up to now has been California/French/northern Italian, but owner Jay Regan intends to live up to the new name by putting more pizzas and pastas on the large, eclectic menu. I've had everything from blue corn chile rellenos to Oriental-style pot stickers to a chopped salad with smoked chicken and provolone cheese back here, as well as pastas and mesquite grilled items.

Try the delicious roasted Thuel Farm boneless duck or dishes like swordfish, salmon or chicken from the grill.

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