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SANTA BARBARA / WHERE WE ATE

January 13, 2008|Mary E. Forgione; Susan Spano; Christopher Reynolds; Chris Erskine; Vani Rangachar; Rosemary McClure; Jane Engle; Catharine Hamm

PIERRE LAFOND BISTRO

516 State St.; (805) 962-1455, www.pierrelafond.com.

This is an elegant spot linked to the nearby Lafond Winery and run by chef Joshua Keating. The glass-topped tables, open kitchen and soft-hued paintings make it a good place to linger and sip. Breakfast starts with organic coffee served in ceramic troughs and a variety of choices: chilaquiles ($7.50), smoked salmon platter ($12), pancakes ($4.50 to $7.75). Later in the day, try the mojito steak panini -- a tender, tangy bit of tri-tip. Dinner entrees $14.95 to $20.95. Sandwiches, panini and pizza $6.95 to $13.95. -- Mary E. Forgione and Susan Spano

THE HUNGRY CAT

1134 Chapala St.; (805) 884-4701, www.thehungrycat.com.

This small, loud, top-notch restaurant, younger sibling to the Hungry Cat in Hollywood, opened in April. It won't be cheap, and you may have to wait, and you might catch a whiff of attitude. But if your dinner is like mine, great-food glee will obliterate just about all else. The almost-all-seafood menu depends heavily on the local catch and changes often. On the weeknight of my visit, the place -- which opens only for dinner and weekend brunches and does not take reservations -- was so packed (and loud) with trendy Santa Barbarians at 6:45 that we were lucky to grab two seats at the copper-topped bar. (I also made room for one of their cocktails, which draw heavily on fresh-squeezed fruit.) Dinner entrees from $9. -- Chris Reynolds

BROPHY BROS. RESTAURANT AND CLAM BAR

119 Harbor Way; (805) 966-4418 (no reservations), www.brophybros.com.

Brophy Bros. is a blast. From the moment you walk in, you feel part of an impromptu party. Sidle up to the bar and have the barkeep open up a dozen sweet, cool oysters. For dinner, take a table outside overlooking the harbor or simply dine at the bar, where service is quick and fun. The grilled swordfish ($19.95) is a keeper. The seafood pasta ($18.85) is rich and generous. Dinner entrees from $18. -- Chris Erskine

FRESCO AT THE BEACH

901 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; (805) 963-0111, www.santabarbarainn.com/dining.

This is the beach branch of the well-regarded Fresco Cafe, and it opened last year on the second floor of the Santa Barbara Inn, with picture windows that look out on the Pacific Ocean. Go at sunset to ogle the view from this special-occasion restaurant that has an elegant Mediterranean style. Dinner entrees $14 to $32. -- Vani Rangachar

ENTERPRISE FISH CO.

225 State St.; (805) 962-3313, www.enterprisefishco.com.

This seafood house, sister to the one in Santa Monica, does a brisk lunch business and lines 'em up for dinner. It has a far more extensive menu than Brophy's (not always a good thing). Entrees are mesquite grilled and served by a fast-moving, friendly staff. Check out the crab-cake lunch combo ($6.95). Dinner entrees from $15.95.

-- C.E

SOJOURNER RESTAURANT & CAFE

134 E. Canon Perdido; (805) 965-7922, www.sojournercafe.com.

Sojourner, not far from State Street, has a tempting bakery case that dominates the entrance. (Those with a sweet tooth should order carefully because the entrees are big.) Lots of salads-as-entrees to choose from ($9.50 to $11) as well as "classic" main dishes such as chili tempeh tacos ($10) and golden Indian dal ($9.50). Sure, fish, turkey and chicken are on the menu, but the vibe is healthful vegetarian. Try a perfectly steamed artichoke ($6.50) and polenta royale ($9.50), homemade polenta cakes topped with marinara sauce and feta cheese, washed down with hibiscus iced tea.

-- M.E.F.

THE NATURAL CAFE

508 State St.; (805) 962-9494, www.thenaturalcafe.com.

Another restaurant touting healthful fare, this place focuses on greens, grains and vegetables with some chicken and fish menu items. It's great for kid-friendly fare that's not McDonald's or Burger King -- and every item on the kids' menu is $3.50. Choices include a grilled cheese sandwich, a quesadilla, a wrap with pinto beans and cheddar cheese and a chicken taco. Plenty of salad or entree picks for moms and dads too.

-- M.E.F.

CARLITO'S CAFE Y CANTINA

1324 State St.; (805) 962-7117, www.carlitos.com.

Outdoor patio dining is popular at this Mexican restaurant known for its blue agave margaritas and grilled specialties that borrow from the Pueblo, Mayan and Aztec cultures. The restaurant, a local favorite, is in a mini-mall across from the historic Arlington Theatre. Most diners sit outside and enjoy live music that can be heard nightly except Mondays. Try the grilled churrasco rib-eye steak ($20.95) or grilled fresh salmon with papaya salsa ($18.95). -- Rosemary McClure

ARTS & LETTERS CAFE

7 E. Anapamu St.; (805) 730-1463, www.sullivangoss.com/cafe.

Tucked behind the Sullivan Goss gallery, this lunch spot serves artfully prepared soups, salads, sandwiches and seafood in a charming, Spanish-style courtyard. (A room inside the De Forest Gallery next door also provides seating.) Entrees $13 to $18; wines $7 and up per glass. El Nino combo ($13) gives you a half-sandwich plus salad and soup; try a cup of the creamy pumpkin.

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