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Critics' Choices : Our reviewers cook up a short list of their favorite area restaurants


When out-of-town friends visit my Ventura home, their first question is: Where will we dine? When people on my street stop by and chat, invariably they'll ask: Eaten anywhere special lately?

Few things, it seems, stir such across-the-board passion as dining out. This is often proved in regionally specific ways.

Try telling a hard-nosed New Yorker that Ray's Greenwich Village Pizza is overrated, and you'll get The Look. Try telling a Key West local that the Half Shell Raw Bar's conch fritters are a doughy bore, and you'll politely receive directions to the Hyatt--a once-and-for-all dispatch to the bastion of uptight out-of-towners.

It's no different in Ventura County.

People in these parts (I'm among them) would rather fight than switch from Buster's tri-tip or Rosarito Beach Cafe's tortillas or Fabrizio's shrimp or--lest we omit an epic pleasure--the Shoals' banana reef dessert.

Food, after all, is that personal.

Still, the reviewer is asked almost daily: What's new and good? Indeed, there seem to be few things more mysterious or glamorous to most people than the job of reviewing restaurants.

While the job often is marked by vein-clogging meals and hapless service followed by a long ride home with TUMS, it does have as its reward the discovery of enduring quality. That's what makes it fun. For a meal well-conceived and well-presented is much more than food: It is, as food historian John F. Mariani so aptly puts it, "One of the highest traditions of culture."

At The Times' Ventura Edition, I am joined by reviewers David Goldman and Norm Chandler Fox. We sat down recently to collect our thoughts about dining in Ventura County.

We sought to appraise all the places we'd been and come up with a very few that we, as critics, feel do their jobs especially well--so well that they separate themselves from the pack. We sought to arrive at a short list of critics' favorites--that is, the restaurants we enjoy the most.

This, of course, is where things get tricky. We do not pronounce the following restaurants to be unequivocally The Best, because such gross oversimplification misrepresents. The delightful and venerable old Pierpont Inn, for example, failed to make the list, yet the Pierpont is peerless when it comes to the perfectly roasted rack of lamb. Ditto for other old-line favorites such as the sumptuous Ranch House in Meiners Oaks, stylish Tuscany in Thousand Oaks and, for that matter, the ever-popular Shoals at the Cliff House in Ventura.

Neither did we categorize. Who, for example, would argue that Nona's Cafe, tucked in the courtyard behind the Bella Maggiore Inn in Ventura, isn't one of the prettiest al fresco spots in which to take a satisfying lunch? Or that Old Vienna, also in Ventura, isn't the best place to seek German fare? But neither makes the list.

We kept it simple. The following restaurants are, simply, Critic's Choices. If you haven't even heard of the restaurants named, don't be surprised.

The criteria for choosing were narrow: What restaurant, we asked ourselves, comes closest to delivering on its promise? That is, which restaurant does what it does so well--from freshness of raw ingredients to impeccable delivery at the table--that it shows the elusive thing called Quality?

The toughest part was in leaving out some very close contenders. In such cases, there was no better guide than to step out of the professional reviewer's shoes and make believe that the unexpected relative dropped by or the unannounced neighbor appeared at the front door asking the urgent question: Where do we dine tonight?

It's funny how the same answers kept coming up.

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