The Asteroid Cafe

1605 N 45th St (Wallingford), 547-2514. Open daily; lunch 10 am-3 pm; dinner 5-10 pm (Sat-Sun till 11 pm). $$

The Asteroid Cafe would like to dispel the rumor that they are merely a coffeehouse. This small storefront in Wallingford is a full-fledged, authentic Italian restaurant focusing on South, Central, and Northern Italy, where owner Marlin Hathaway has spent much of his time. The Asteroid is small, and you might feel crowded if you're in a romantic mood; but the food, beginning with a stunning, complimentary bruschetta, will make up for any lack of privacy. The pastas are a work of art, and the portions are immense; but you will keep eating. A few unusual dishes, like the Wild Boar ($15.95), have developed a following, and the daily dinner specials often feature unique seafood entrées. Hathaway is also proud of his wine list, which spans several regions of Italy but concentrates on Tuscan reds. MEGAN HAAS


Gourmando Cafe & Catering Co.

1518 Western Ave (Downtown), 587-0190. Mon-Fri 11:30 am-2:30 pm. $

Gourmando is truly the most elegant restaurant downtown. The fact that very few people seem to know about this tiny catering company/lunch-on-the-side spot is most likely due to the unerring lack of pretension on the part of its owners, Lisa Hall and Betsy Bergevin. Because they are comfortable and extremely good at what they do, their regulars, mostly downtown business people, feel right at home eating at one of the five small tables or ordering take-out. The food is French/Italian, with a modest but excellent seasonal menu, the favorites being the panini sandwiches -- especially the Prosciutto, Fresh Mozzarella, and Basil; and the Roast Chicken (both $4.95). Gourmando is cheap and friendly (no one must show up in a tie!), and a constant delight to those in the know. MEGAN HAAS


Hopscotch

332 15th Ave E (Capitol Hill), 322-4191. Tues-Thurs 3-10 pm, Fri 3-11 pm, Sat 2-11 pm (bar open later); closed Sun-Mon. $$

With 150 different brands of single malts, you could keep plenty busy just tippling at Hopscotch. But you'd be missing out on some great food -- steaks, chicken, seafood, pasta, burgers, and more. And there's no better way to soak up all that booze than with a dish like the Zillah Meatloaf ($9.95). Firm, juicy, and spiced just right, this meatloaf could easily stand alone -- but it really shines with the addition of petite peas, mashed potatoes, and the coup de grce -- golden wisps of sweet, crispy fried onions. The desserts here are also scrumptious, with the focus on whiskey-soaked favorites like bananas foster and bread pudding. Of course, you don't want to forget about drinking that scotch, but with a staff as courteous and knowledgeable as Hopscotch's, there's not much chance of that. MELODY MOSS


Longshoreman's Daughter

3510 Fremont Place N (Fremont), 633-5169. Sun-Thurs 7:30 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat 7:30 am-10:30 pm. $$

As Fremont's certified Hangover Helper, Longshoreman's Daughter has a number of ways to soothe "the morning after." First, there's the bed-headed help, who look both friendly and sketchy, much like your dealer last night. Then there's the fat, warm stack of buckwheat pancakes ($5.75) to kill the throbbing, and the real maple syrup to speed up the chemical detox. If that doesn't work, though, you can follow the yellow brick road back to sobriety with fresh-squeezed mimosas ($3.75). But this trendy Fremont spot is not at all your typical diner. Like a fat line of Friday night coke, the Longshoreman's Daughter manages to be all-natural and still have that brash, in-crowd appeal. NATHAN THORNBURGH


Maple Leaf Grill

8929 Roosevelt Way (Maple Leaf), 523-8449. Mon-Fri 11:30 am-10 pm; Sat 4-10 pm; Sun 4-9 pm. $$

The Maple Leaf Grill is in an actual house, and the menu offers Cajun, Italian, and Southwestern dishes. Dining there is like being on the set of Cheers -- the friendly waitstaff makes anyone feel like a neighborhood regular. On my last visit, I started off with Roasted Poblano Quesadillas ($5.95) that came with a tasty, garden-fresh salsa. For my main dish, I had a unique "Why Burger" ($6.50), made from sweet potato and quinoa, served with corn relish and chipotle mayonnaise (definitely one of the best veggie burgers in town). My boyfriend dared to try the Artichoke-Heart Sandwich ($7.50) with Roasted Pine Nuts, Melted Cheese, and Mustard Spread -- risky, I know, but the combo mixes surprisingly well. And the Warm Berry Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream ($3.50) was as good as one of my aunt's homemade pies. JEN CHAROWHAS


Market Street Wine & Cheese

5424 Ballard Ave NW (Ballard), 297-1460. Tues-Sat 10 am-10 pm; Sun 12-5 pm. $

Can't afford that trip to Paris? Spend your cash in Ballard instead, at Market Street Wine & Cheese, where owner Dianna Wyatt has created an elegant yet unpretentious atmosphere with deep sofas, wood floors, and hanging shelves of unusual wines. Wyatt doesn't want wine and cheese to scare people, and fear is the furthest thing on the brain when encountering her selections. Focusing mainly on small, slightly exclusive producers rather than the big guns, you'll find her personal tastes reflected everywhere. Wyatt sells mostly imported raw-milk cheeses, and there is a small but delicious menu for you to enjoy while you sip. Already famous are the unique organic salads, like the Roasted Butternut Squash ($6.50), with caramelized onions, candied walnuts, and bleu cheese. The baguettes are plentiful and soft; the desserts are made with the freshest butter, cream, and chocolate. Ooh-la-la. MEGAN HAAS


Ray's Boathouse Cafe

6049 Seaview NW (Ballard) 789-3770, Sun-Thurs 11:30 am-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat 11:30 am-10 pm. $$

Ray is blessed with a big fancy boathouse, and his upstairs "cafe" has a glistening bar, deck seating, and a Shilshole location that's the envy of Seattle's seafood restaurateurs (except for Anthony, whose place is next door). The key is the view -- an uninterrupted swatch of Puget Sound from Discovery Park to the Olympic range. Eating on the deck around sunset time, I barely noticed my food, I was so enthralled with the scenery. When I paid attention, though, the food quality was decent. The clam chowder ($3.99) was perfunctory, but the crab cakes with Dungeness crab and rock shrimp ($12.99) showed much more inventiveness. As for entrées, the top sirloin steak ($13.99) was not that great, but my date's grilled Alaskan King Salmon with Wild Mushrooms, Hazelnut, and Blackberry Purée ($14.99) was excellent. NATHAN THORNBURGH

"Where to Eat" Price Scale (per entrée)

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


Suck on This

My sin, my soul.... Pa-Le-Ta -- the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate. Pa-le-Ta: A Mexican popsicle as sweet as the ripest fruit. These sumptuous, frozen delicacies (available only at discriminating non-profits) are a traditional treat from Mexico, and come in an array of flavors inspired by no less than the gorgeous possibilities of life itself. Tamarind, with its tangy snicker and sweet, milk-smooth Caramel are my favorites, but I've heard equal raves about Guava, Rice (!), Mango, Creamy Carrot, Cantaloupe, Peach, Hibiscus, and Pumpkin Pie. Only the Spicy Cucumber, with its strange, salty coolness has managed to be off-putting -- but even that has its devotees. -- JAMIE HOOK

Available at the Grand Illusion, The Little Theatre, Habitat Espresso, and Four Angels Cafe, $1.50.

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