I've been watching the recent proliferation of "comfort food" menus with much interest and appetite. A recent ACNielsen survey of grocery purchases reveals that national instant mashed potato sales have increased by 13 percent. Urban gourmands go gaga for simple mac 'n' cheese. Gourmet magazine raves about lunch counters. Gravy does make everything better. Or at least it stuffs our anxious bellies so full we slip into food comas.

Now the folks who brought swanky El Gaucho to Seattle have launched Chez Gus, which they hope will be "Seattle's neighborhood cafe." Housed in the old MTV Real World Seattle location on the waterfront, this spacious and bright diner boasts lots of comfy black-and-red booths and a fireplace wedged between banks of floor-to-ceiling windows gazing out on Elliott Bay. After the place had been open for a month and a half, I dragged my sisters out of the suburbs to Chez Gus.

It was the perfect day for a large, long lunch. That said, our waiter was the strangest cocktail of attitude and fear and incompetence I have ever experienced. Right away, our waiter made his disdain for us quite clear when we failed to call out for a round of doubles at 11 a.m. By no means a cheap table (our bill clocked in at around $80), our requests were then treated with chilly silence.

"Be nice!" my sister Luv hissed at me when I noted how pissy our server was. "I'll bet the food is great, and that's all that matters!" And the crab cakes ($11.95) that appeared shortly after her admonition proved her correct. They were delicious, not soggy, not dense. Our table silently fork-wrestled over the last crumbs in the roasted pepper sauce, grunting approval. Accompanied by irresistibly appealing buttery, cheesy, garlic baguettes that my youngest sister, KayJay, totally hogged, our first taste of Chez Gus was a success.

Next up was our (not very) wild mushroom, caramelized onion, and goat cheese woodstone-oven pizza ($7.50). No complaints from my sisters, but I thought that maybe the pizza could have used a more subtle olive-oil base instead of heavy, predictable marinara.

We then happily crunched on the truly humongous panko-style, deep-fried jumbo onion rings ($4.95). KayJay chowed straight through her fire-roasted seafood Caesar ($13.50) before I could get in on the action (I had one bite of perfectly cooked calamari), and seemed to be pretty engaged. I, however, was disappointed with the Original El Gaucho Baby Back Ribs ($18.95); while the sauce was finger lickin', the ribs were dry and lacked depth. Similarly, the pork chops ($15.95) were kinda bland and dry. (Why not brine?) But the creamy and garlic-licious polenta enhanced the perfect green beans, and apple chutney did help.

Although the pork was a bit lackluster, chef Jack Armstrong's adept handling of all things beefy made up for it. The grilled tenderloin medallion sandwich ($8.95) was not only a good value, but a well-realized variation on that infamous comfort-food standby, the French dip--although Armstrong's au jus, while happily nodding at the familiar, instant, salty broth we grew up on, was infused with the brightness and complexity of barbecue-like sauce. The medallions were tender and toothsome and bountiful, anchored to their thick baguette by Luv's sheer will. Perhaps we all should have ordered red meat sandwiches.

I left feeling a little depressed. After all, an integral part of offering comfort food is the warmth and personality of the people serving it. A note to our waiter: Personality is not to be confused with attitude. I expect more from the folks who run El Gaucho, home of service extraordinaire. What is comforting about a condescending waiter who hurriedly drops the bill before three Saturday lunchers get to order dessert?

Chez Gus

2801 Alaskan Way, Pier 70, Suite 117, 267-0236. Open daily 7 am-1 am.

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