DINERS GAZE OUT from the water-level windows of BluWater Bistro on Queen Anne Hill, which rises like a stallion from the fog. It's nearly as good as being out in a sailboat on the lake itself -- and you don't have to wear white-soled shoes and a striped shirt. Rather than hoisting a sail with one hand and a beer with the other, you've got both hands free to dig into BluWater's luscious and good-looking food.

The small room reeks of neighborhood, with an inclusive "everyone's welcome" feel. A fireplace and the warm atmosphere stokes even the chilliest of customers. Frankly, the service here might be the friendliest and least mannered in town. And you needn't fret about the potential parking headaches in this crowded area (south end of Lake Union) -- full valet service is offered here. Not only do they take your car away, but they also actually bring it back to you when you're ready to leave.

BluWater has captured the true spirit of what a bistro is supposed to be: a small and cozy cafe, centered around its busy bar, serving simple and down-to-earth food.

Only a small railing separates the bar from the encircling dining area, resulting in a somewhat smoky ambience. Some might find this an irritant, but others may relish the chance to sit in a bistro bar where you won't get thrown in the pokey for having a cigarette. There is still no smoking in the dining area until 10:00, but nicotine-starved individuals should be able to get a moderate dose by nosing through their clothes when they get home. The smoky feel adds a distinctly non-Seattle vibe, conjuring up more of a Philadelphia or Cincinnati experience.

Following another bistro tradition, BluWater showcases a well-conceived booze selection, featuring ports, single-malts, and bourbons. The top-notch wine list highlights mid-range values, with selected menu items paired with suggested wine accompaniment. The Silver Lake Merlot ($5.50) comes on like a load of oak, then finishes like a little bag of candy.

Chef Peter Levine's former tenure at Islabelle, the precursor of Fremont's Paseo, is evoked by some creative Caribbean touches, especially on the menu's copious seafood items.

A salad of seasonal greens, with tomatoes and red onions topped with the house vinaigrette ($5), starts things off. The Blu New York ($15) follows, a grilled New York-cut steak with little blue cheese glops riding up top like cargo in a luggage rack, served with artistically chunky mashed potatoes. New York steaks typically aren't the most flavorful of cuts, but this one could kick the ass of most rib eyes.

For the less beef-minded eater, a crisp, oven-roasted, free-range half chicken ($14) fits the bill nicely. Accompanied by the same mashers and green beans that literally snap with freshness, the chicken lacks pretense while delivering heartfelt quality and value. Simple preparation is BluWater's spine. In this era of multi-page, full-color menus that take 10 minutes to read, BluWater's menu is short, user-friendly, and functions as an easy-to-follow map.

Did we mention the good service? It's worth mentioning again. Food is delivered to the table within seconds of being completed by the cook, as servers practically (yet discreetly) sprint to your table. Everything is the right temperature; bread is replenished without a special request; and the check is there when you want it. All tables are equally well placed, large, and comfortable. And even when all tables are filled, it seems as though each diner is getting special attention. When you know you're going to be taken care of, you can turn your attention to the matter at hand, instead of spending your time trying to catch a server's eye.

BluWater, open till 2:00 a.m., tends to transform into a singles' joint with the arrival of lusty young 'uns after 10:00. Savvy diners who are more interested in the food than getting laid are advised to be done dining by 9:00, which is when the sweet-smelling dudes show up. Conversely, those who could care less about a meal and want to stand really close to strangers in a sensual and smoky atmosphere should show up after 10:00. Either way, customers can savor a friendly hangout with imaginative but simple food, prepared well and served fast.

BluWater Bistro

1001 Fairview Ave N, 447-0769. Daily 11:30 am to 2 am. Full bar. $$.

Price Scale (per entrée)

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

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