To illustrate just how much Valley restaurants have improved in one short year, consider this: Last year, I could only come up with about 15 restaurants that I really deemed worthy of inclusion in a list of the top 20. This year, I spent a good deal of energy mulling over the deserving places I would have to exclude.
I'm not sure about the reasons for this sudden improvement, but I'll gladly speculate. Perhaps the realization that San Fernando Valley diners would pay Westside prices to dine in such restaurants as Pinot, Posto and Terrazzo Toscana has raised the standard on this side of the hill. But I'm happier with the idea that people's palates are simply getting more discriminating, and that a bad restaurant cannot survive in today's market.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the intrepid L.A. restaurateurs who have opened branches in the Valley, among them East India Grill, Talesai and Daily Grill, all Top 20 inclusions. But we shouldn't let ourselves get too puffed up, because there are still areas where we don't have it all that good. We don't have a single first-rate Chinese restaurant, for instance, or a modern, upscale restaurant in which to eat regional Mexican cuisine, such as Santa Monica's Border Grill.
Again this year, the designated price categories reflect the price of a dinner for one person, and are as follows: inexpensive, less than $15; moderate, $15 to $30; expensive, more than $30.
Owner Joachim Splichal and executive chef Octavio Becerra have created an upscale bistro to rival the best in Paris. Their menu resembles what you would find in chic Paris today: endive salad with Roquefort and walnuts, sumptuous duck \o7 confit\f7 , elegant fish preparations, beef tongue, indulgent home-style desserts. Prices are up-market, but more than reasonable for cooking at this level. The two dining rooms offer a choice between old comfort and terminally hip. At the suave mahogany bar, you can sip some of the best Armagnacs this side of Gascony.
\o7 12969 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 990-0500. Expensive.\f7
Posto has evolved into a destination. Chef Luciano Pellegrini's calling card is plentiful, rustic Italian comfort foods, a delightful departure for elegant owner Piero Selvaggio, the man responsible for high-end Italian dining in this city. Begin with \o7 frico\f7 and \o7 arancini\f7 -crisp chips made from Parmesan cheese and tender little rice balls with a golden outside crust. Terrific homemade sausages, wonderful beef \o7 brasato\f7 (stew) \o7 al Barolo\f7 and great, chewy risottos complement Pellegrini's toothsome pastas and delicately sauced shellfish. The wine list is packed with patrician Italian reds at plebeian prices.
\o7 14928 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 784-4400. Expensive.\f7
The creative and well-traveled Andre Guerrero has revamped the former Shaker Mountain Inn and turned it into a glorious place to dine. The main dining room is a breezy atrium paneled in blond wood, revealing an open kitchen where near-miracles occur. The appetizers are as delicious as they sound; fried chicken salad with barbecued pecans, griddled corn cakes with spicy grilled shrimp and risotto with king salmon. Main courses are eclectic and satisfying, everything from chicken \o7 adobo\f7 , the pride of Guerrero's native Philippines, to Chinese-style sea scallops and a terrific hunk of grilled Colorado prime rib.
\o7 900 N. Central Ave., Glendale. (818) 240-0808. Expensive.\f7
4. Saddle Peak Lodge
The latter-day version of Renoir's "A Day in the Country" would be a two-income couple driving out to this rustic retreat for cocktails and dinner. The restaurant is a refurbished hunting lodge, a maze of little dining rooms on different levels. Chef Bruce Boyer's attractive menu features game, fresh fish and '40s-style Continental specialties. Try roast venison served with a tangy sauce made from juniper berries; rack of lamb; pheasant; fresh trout, and a wide variety of other North American fish. The best tables for the evening meal are in the upstairs library room. Weekends at brunch, outside tables fill up with a vengeance. Reservations, especially on weekends, are essential.
\o7 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas. (818) 222-3888\f7 .\o7 Expensive.\f7
California food with an Oriental flair is how proprietor Alvin Simon describes chef Hisashi Yoshiara's food. I call it superb. It's not the Franco-Japanese food we've been conditioned to; Yoshiara uses no butter or cream in any of his reductions. Among his more appealing offerings are potato ravioli soup with mint, yellowtail \o7 millefeuille\f7 and baby lamb chops marinated with basil and garlic. There is a brand-new wine list, and half-portions are available. The clean, spare dining room is offset by the original bar from Chinatown's Yee Mee Loo restaurant.
\o7 933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 551-1155. Moderate to expensive.\f7
6. Cha Cha Cha