Sea Shanty

4135 University Way NE (U-District), 632-6822. Mon-Sat 11 am-9 pm, Sun 4-8 pm. $

"Sea Shanty" is a poetic name, conjuring up gulls against a salty sky and squat, battered boats glistening with fish while large, bushy-bearded men contemplate the roiling ocean in their wet, black boots. The restaurant stands out among the throngs of greasy and unmemorable places on the Ave in the University District, with its whimsical sign illustrating said sea shanty. Like the decor, the food is straightforward and deceptively simple. The Shanty's transformational vision of fish and chips is the genius of Paul and Kitty Lam--originally from Hong Kong--who challenge the British doctrine of heavy beer batter. Their brilliant Asian interpretation of this neglected art form puts the fish back into "fish and chips." That is why it's okay to indulge in the all-you-can-eat special ($4.95 lunch, $6.95 dinner). Cod, halibut, prawns, scallops, and even oysters are available grilled or poached. Appetizers, such as the fresh steamed mussels with lemon and butter ($5.95), or scallops with bacon ($6.95), emphasize fresh, flavorful seafood: that which can stand boldly on its own, without a lot of spice or fancy treatment. My only disappointment resulted from the absence of beer. RACHEL KESSLER


El Greco

219 Broadway (Capitol Hill), 328-4604. Tues-Fri 11 am-9:30 pm (Fri until 10 pm), Sat 9 am-10 pm, Sun brunch 9 am-2:30 pm. $$

El Greco serves some of the best-prepared food in one of the least comfortable rooms on Capitol Hill. The room is narrow; an L-shaped corridor with a hard tile floor. That said, I have loafed there many nights and loved it. The food and wine are that good. The wine is excellent and affordable. The menu is largely Mediterranean: pastas, panini, hummus, tatziki, and baba ghanoush share space with lamb, pork, chicken, and fresh fish. Basil, oregano, garlic, and tarragon are favored. Pork and lamb are invariably tender and moist, threaded with spicy marinades. El Greco also has some terrific vegetarian fare, especially their Crispy Penne ($10), tossed with eggplant, tomato, kalamata olives, and capers, then grilled; it's every bit as complex as the richly marinated pork loin ($13). MATTHEW STADLER


Inay's Kitchen

3201 Beacon Ave S (Beacon Hill), 322-9433. Mon-Fri 10 am-9 pm, Sat 9 am-9 pm, closed Sun. $.

New owner Jun Vicencio took over Inay's in February, but he's kept the emphasis on "Filipino Home Cooking" in this popular Beacon Hill joint, with food laid out cafeteria-style in a bewildering array of colors and smells. Jun is happy to give you a "tour" of the offerings and provide tastes of any dish you want to try. Inay's features cuisine from the "gourmet province" of the Philippines, Pampanga, which has a strong Spanish influence and is definitely NOT for vegetarians: Large slabs of fish, beef, chicken, and pork abound, along with a variety of meat combo dishes. Menudo ($4.25) for example (an entrée, not the Puerto Rican boy band) is a delectable stew of pork, beef liver, raisins, potatoes, and carrots in tomato sauce. The offerings change daily, and with nearly all of the entrées priced under $5, you can afford to keep coming back to try something new. You'll probably need to make a separate trip for the gut-bomb splendor of the Halo Halo dessert ($2.50)--shaved ice, tapioca, beans, Jell-O, ice cream, and various brightly colored fruits, all mixed up like a milkshake. MELODY MOSS


Malay Satay Hut

212 12th Ave S (International District), 324-4091. Daily 11 am-11 pm. $$

Nestled in a small strip mall, sitting between a dry-cleaning business and a seafood market, a restaurant sits beneath a sign that reads simply, "Malay Satay House." Perhaps anticipating the wariness of the less adventurous, the menu includes color pictures of the dishes. Everything looks beautiful and hearty, but I don't make it past page seven, because a dish called Buddhist Yam Pot ($9.95) captures my imagination and stretches it. Yam Pot turns out to be impossibly rich and too much to finish, particularly when accompanied by the Belachan String Beans, stir-fried in shrimp paste and glittering with scarlet crushed red pepper. The lychee ice drink comes in a large pint glass, full of respite and encouragement to travel to this world again... and again. RIZ ROLLINS


Nitelite

Second Ave & Virginia St (Belltown), 448-4852. Mon-Fri 12 noon-2 am; Sat-Sun 10-2 am; happy hours Mon-Fri 4-8 pm. Cash only! $

With a bare linoleum floor and fake stone paneling, this no-fuss joint appeals to a full spectrum of liquor lovers--from the young 'n' attractive to the dusty 'n' pickled. But the best part isn't even the booze, the food (deeply satisfying hot dogs, piles of fries, chicken strips, etc.), or even the kitschy look. The highlight of the Nitelite? Those endearing bartenders--friendly grandmas with soft sweaters, lots of eye shadow, and kind smiles--who pour quickly and know when to leave you alone. (Helpful hint: Don't be an ass. Avoid ordering cosmos, caipirinhas, or chocolate martinis.) Sure, weekends can be annoying; this place is no secret. But for quiet bliss at the end of a long mid-week night, head down here to nurse one last drink with no ice before you head back out into the cold wet streets, Tammy Wynette still ringing in your ears. MIN LIAO


Les Tamales Restaurant & Tequila Bar

3247 California Ave SW (West Seattle), 923-3538. Tues-Thurs 5-9 pm, Fri-Sat 5-9:30 pm, closed Sun-Mon. Cash and checks only. $$

Mexican-French might seem like an odd cuisine combination, but what makes this concept work at Les Tamales is the use of fresh ingredients, with everything made daily, in-house. The Tamales de la Casa ($5/$11.50), the restaurant's signature dish, boasts hand-rolled steamed corn husks and delectable fillings with both green tomatillo and rojo sauce. Other good bets include the Flanko Pepito ($13), a flank steak with a roasted pumpkin-seed sauce, and Huachinango Gratiné ($13.50), a snapper fillet baked with creamy cilantro sauce.

For true nirvana, order the exquisite Tequito margarita ($7) or try one of the "Tequila Flights" ($11-$20): three or four half-shots of the best stuff. Once you've tried the ambrosia of good tequila (Les Tamales offers up to 30 different kinds), there's no going back. Suddenly, ordinary Cuervo will have all the appeal of Budweiser. MELODY MOSS


Il Capo Italian Restaurant

17171 Bothell Way NE, Third Place Mall (Lake Forest Park), 364-6001. Daily 11 am-7 pm. $.

I understand why people make it a rule to never, ever eat inside a mall, since the din, the nauseating scent of popcorn (present even when no stores sell popcorn), and the undercurrents of despair at such suburban dens can induce panic attacks or aggression-displacement behavior in even the most balanced people. That said, I must point out this Italian counter in the Third Place Books mall, which isn't so horrible as shopping arenas go. Il Capo's inexpensive entrées are its strongest point. The Tuscan red sauce is full of fiery, garlicky character, and chef Francisco spoons it thoroughly, with the stern attention of a mother wolf, over his lasagna ($5.95), rigatoni ($6.95), and spinach/ricotta-stuffed manicotti ($3.95). The results are satisfying, but not heavy. Il Capo's thick pizza crust is strangely puffy, but with its smooth blanket of mozzarella and ubiquitous garlic, the stuff slides right down. Francisco will prepare requests that aren't on the modest menu. Soups are well made, but the salads looked wilted on the day we went. There's a stage near the food court, and on most evenings, literary readings happen. STACEY LEVINE


Serafina

2043 Eastlake Ave E (Eastlake), 323-0807. Lunch Mon--Fri 11 am--2 pm; dinner Sun--Thurs 5:30--10 pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-11 pm; bar open later. $$.

Peopled by wealthy young standard-jazz aficionados dressed in stretch cotton, Serafina offers "rough" Italian country fare, which seems to mean that the bread is chewy and the dishes are covered with lots of cheese. The signature New Zealand pork chop ($21.95) is very popular, along with a spicy Penne à la Cubana, with tomato, cream, prosciutto, and arugula ($13.95). Stick to the standards--the specials tend to be iffy. The Serafina Melanzane (eggplant) is a standout--rich and complex, though awkwardly presented over a bed of capellini ($14.95). Serafina offers seven house-made desserts, and the real reason to stop by this darkly lit Eastlake haunt may be to knuckle up to the bar, get yourself a juicy drink, and dip into the tiramisu. TRACI VOGEL


Paseo

4225 Fremont Ave N (Fremont), 545-7440. Tues-Thurs 11:30 am-9 pm; Fri-Sat 11:30 am-9 pm; Sun noon-9 pm. $

Paseo is the tiny storefront restaurant that has all of Fremont at its knees. Walking down the street, you can smell the marinade blocks away: robust, mysterious, garlicky, and intense, it's a scent that takes no prisoners. There is almost always a "help wanted" sign in the window at this Caribbean restaurant, and though cooks may come and go, the food remains consistently delicious. This is due to the "secret marinade" that's created every day at Paseo, which makes everything taste so good. The menu is small but varied, and the side dishes cheap and filling. The much-loved pork sandwich ($8.25) is an overflowing mixture of sweet sautéed onions, marinated pork tenderloin, mayo, and cilantro; and the Scallops in Red Sauce ($8.75) is a big hit with the supper crowd. There is a tiny counter in Paseo, but it's much more fun to sit outside and watch the bikers down at the Buckeroo. MEGAN HAAS


Dom Polski Zaprasza

(Polish Home Association)

1714 18th Ave (Capitol Hill), 322-3020. Open Fri 7-11 pm ONLY! $$.

Dom Polski is not so much a restaurant as a happening. Once a week, all these friends and acquaintances gather to socialize, eat, and drink Polish beer at the most beautiful bar on Capitol Hill. Ordering the Special Polish Platter generally results in almost instantaneous service of cabbage roll (stuffed with spiced beef and smothered in delicious, um, red sauce), pierogis (dumplings stuffed with meat or potato and cheese; the very best are stuffed with sauerkraut and mushrooms), whipped potatoes with dill, and kielbasa (hallelujah!), all for the low, low price of $9.50. Beefsteak Tartar ($5.50) arrived on a paper plate. It is raw and red and beautiful. Perfectly crisped deep-brown on the outside, nice and grated-potato-melt-in-your-mouth on the inside, Potato Pancakes ($6.50) come with sour cream and are served piping hot. My only regret was sighting a fine specimen of Ham Hocks ($9.50), rising at least ONE FOOT IN HEIGHT from its plate, after eating all the aforementioned dishes. But I believe the Breaded Pork Chops with the exquisite sauerkraut of the Polish Home ($9.50) to be well worth the wait, and I intend to order them again and again. RACHEL KESSLER


Il Gambero

2132 First Ave (Belltown), 448-8597. Open Mon-Sat 5-10:30 pm (reservations recommended on weekends). $$

You could walk past this place a hundred times before noticing it. It's probably the only restaurant in Belltown that doesn't call attention to itself. But Italians don't need to be flashy to get respect, and Il Gambero will eventually muscle anyone into submission because they serve the best chicken Marsala in the city. Period. The chicken ($15.95) swims in perfectly formed red wine sauce and mushrooms, looking as good as a bodyguard in leather, and you can get a side of pasta (served with just the right amount of sauce) for a little extra. Il Gambero isn't as "romantic" as it would like to think--the wine does more than the atmosphere--but if you arrive early, you can have a cocktail in "the Volare Room," Gambero's slender, low-lit side-bar with a wonderfully kitschy name. TRACI VOGEL


Bandoleone

2241 Eastlake Ave E (Eastlake), 329-7559. Dinner Sun-Thurs 5:30-10:30 pm, Fri-Sat 5: 30-11 pm; brunch Sat-Sun 9 am-2:30 pm; Monday nights are "Havana nights," with cigar smoking permitted. $$

I call Bandoleone humble only because of its size. Smallish, a tad bit larger than intimate, its size makes it appear as little more than a neighborhood bar. But the gifted mixologists can serve ample and mature cocktails, the bar boasts a cigar menu and wine tastings, and the dining room is cozy. Bandoleone offers nouvelle Mediterranean Spanish cuisine, tinged with flavors of Portugal, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Such a wide berth of influences can sometimes lead to palate confusion, which is the case with some of the more elaborate, "busy" tapas items. But my companion and I fought over the Estrella de Cordero Asado ($21), a rack of lamb served amid a complex of flavors, and the Pato Rojo ($17), a breast of duck with rhubarb glaze and a lovely cornbread pudding speckled with red onion. My compañero wanted to try the Pesca Tarifa (seared tuna), but I checked him with the hunkahunka Chuleta Ahumada ($16)--a smoked and grilled pork loin wading in a veal/sage demi-glace, confronted with pineapple-mustard salsa and accompanied with signature honey-chipotle whipped potatoes. This dish best exemplified the aim of Bandoleone: to quietly but firmly gloat in its Latin authenticity. RIZ ROLLINS


Catfish Corner

2726 E Cherry St (Central District), 323-4330. Mon-Fri 11 am-10 pm, Sat noon-10 pm, closed Sun. (Cash only.) $

Even with a worn-out facility and slightly dim feel, Catfish Corner continues to dish out dependable and satisfying Southern cooking. With Southern farm-raised catfish as the showcase item, the food's quality remains consistently high while prices hover at bargain levels. The mild Catfish Fillet dinner ($8.25) shows off a generous portion of fish jacketed by a crunchy cornmeal coating, free of greasiness and dry without being burnt. The usual Southern sides dot the menu: A nice serving of fries runs 75¢; cornbread muffins are a steal for a mere quarter; and the tasty collard greens ($1.99) are far less buttery and salty than on previous visits, marking CC's ability to adapt to customers' changing expectations. Dinner items allow a choice between potato salad (yay!) or cole slaw (boo!), and come with slow-cooked beans of which legends are made. I wish the Corner would experiment with more grilling and less frying, but there's still no denying their kitchen's talent. JIM ANDERSON

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up.