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RED ALERT : Real Food for Real People. It's as Basic as the Cafe's Namesake Color.

June 04, 1995|S. Irene Virbila

"Be red & be happy," advises the check one day at red, a new cafe on Beverly Boulevard. It's almost 3 in the afternoon and I'm sitting at a sidewalk table devouring a slice of buttermilk lemon pound cake. It's as thick as a phone book, and each bite is packed with shreds of fragrant lemon peel. Next to me, a 20-something waif flips through a magazine from the news rack inside while her puppy snoozes. A brisk breeze whips around the corner, setting palms swaying along the street. Sipping the last of my iced tea, I am sleepily content.

Lunch is uncomplicated and good. There's a perky house salad showered with chives and black pepper and a convincing homemade veggie burger--not something I'd usually order, but my friend Antonia has an interest in such things. And having sampled half a dozen with her all over town, I can vouch that this one is eminently edible. Fried to a crunch on the outside, instead of the gray monotony of most such burgers, this one is a riot of color--orange, red, gray-green--and tastes like something to boot. Even better is the juicy, herb-flecked turkey burger. With lacy red oak lettuce, thin-cut red onion and good lemon-chive mayonnaise, it's as satisfying as a burger, but leaves you feeling lighter. Both "burgers" come with skinny fries or roasted red potato salad. You want the fries. There's a very good grilled chicken sandwich, too, and sometimes a BLTTA (that's bacon, lettuce and two tomatoes--golden and red--with avocado on toasted sourdough bread).

The food at red is as basic as the color. (The curved facade is painted the deep glossy red of nail polish with "red" stenciled in black.) And though manager David Reiss is a veteran of the hyper-hip Olive, the plates don't look like art projects. This is a surprise, considering that, in general, the hipper the place, the more the food is all style. Here, you don't need the waiter to translate the short menu. When you order meatloaf, that's what you get, a thick slice of fine-textured loaf, along with potatoes that taste as if they've been just mashed. Chicken for two? Out sails a whole roast chicken with thyme- and apple cider-flavored juices, a big helping of sauteed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes. Dinner for two, three, even four. (The kitchen could go easier on the salt, though.)

Mary Cleary, a former caterer, turns out simple, soulful soups such as a thick puree of potato with spinach, chicken chile with a healthy dose of capsicum or a faintly sweet roasted eggplant with garlic. She sears Chilean sea bass, a special, and sets it down on a pureed parsnip pillow scattered with cubes of violet potatoes. Grilled salmon is translucent at the center, napped in a deeply colored Cabernet sauce. Even the pasta is decent, penne tossed with fleshy shiitake and tomatoes. Calling this homey, delicious fare supper, rather than dinner, seems right.

Desserts are huge, destined to be shared: slabs of classic, chewy brownies to eat plain or stacked with ice cream and topped with fudge sauce; big, overblown cookies, and that lemon pound cake. One day, a massive apple pie sits cooling on the counter.

When red is taken too literally, it can get silly, as in the chopped (and overdressed) "red" salad of red peppers, red onions, red tomatoes and cukes. The cafe can be unbearably noisy; the service can come with an attitude. Breakfast is the restaurant's weak point: leathery waffles, messy neo-hippy scrambled eggs with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in, giant retro muffins and meatball-shaped latkes so doughy and dense, they're virtually impossible to eat.

Yet, it's companionable here, with raucous birthday parties, people from the neighborhood wandering in for a bite, mothers dining out with daughters. Real food for real people.

red, 7450 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 937-0331. Valet parking ($1!) at night only. Dinner for two, food only, $31-$56. Corkage, $7.

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