by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & was eager for the Little Garden Caf & eacute; in Spokane's Audubon Park neighborhood to open its doors last summer. One thing our neighborhood lacked was a place to hang out, where you can get a cup of something and talk. I was also hoping for a decent little restaurant where my wife and I could go after a long day at work and get an affordable meal, without having to hop in the car.

The caf & eacute; took over a vacant corner of a little strip mall on Northwest Boulevard, across from the park, a space that had previously been filled by an antique shop. Butcher paper covered the windows, and a little sign on the door announced that a new caf & eacute; would be opening soon. I was excited, anticipating a new place to eat within reasonable walking distance of our house.

Night after night I'd stroll past on my evening walk. Sometimes I'd see a bulb or two burning inside, and I could make out ladders and bodies. One day, a sign advertising the Little Garden Caf & eacute; appeared over the door. But the expected opening date came and went. Rumors flew about bureaucratic delays with permits. Finally, in August, the caf & eacute; opened its doors and my wife and I went in for lunch. We had panini sandwiches and a salad -- they were fine, but I felt vaguely disappointed after all the expectations.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & ecently we went back. It was a cloudy Saturday afternoon with a little drizzle, a good day to hang out inside. We ordered two sandwiches and a salad and headed off to sit down and wait for our lunch. We walked past a couple sitting in a corner, having a pleasant chat, into a side room that also serves as an art gallery. Framed photos from Debra Edwards hung on a brick wall. We sat down by the front window at a low marble table that was surrounded by a couch and two plush stools. We sipped a pomegranate-blueberry Jet Tea, asked each other trivia questions from a board game and watched people walk by.

Within a few minutes, a server came with a plate of Tuscan salad ($6.75) -- spring greens, black and Kalamata olives, chunks of chicken, artichoke hearts and feta cheese, topped with a vinaigrette and a bread stick. It was a variation of the Greek salad you find in many restaurants. The artichoke hearts -- not a favorite of mine -- were a highlight; they weren't pickled as artichoke hearts often are and they added a little bit of crunch. The Kalamatas, as usual, were delightful, although the black olives were tasteless in comparison. Overall, though, it was a nice way to start lunch.

Then came our sandwiches. My wife ordered a garlic chicken with basil pesto ($6.75): big chunks of chicken, cheese, a tomato slice and spring greens on wheat bread. It was a good basic sandwich that would have been better if you could taste the pesto. I had a beef and Swiss ($6.75) with tomato and spring greens and a tomato pesto on whole wheat bread. Again, it's a decent sandwich that would really shine if the cook weren't so stingy with the pesto.

Little Garden also serves scones and other desserts from the Sweetwater Bakery, along with a full menu of Waverly's coffees, teas and other cold sweet drinks. It's not the neighborhood dinner place I had hoped for; it's only open for breakfast and lunch, although it'll be open till 7 pm on Thursdays throughout the summer. But Little Garden's value is as a relaxing gathering place. I've seen mothers drop off their children in the morning at Finch School, on the other end of Audubon Park, then walk down -- often pushing strollers -- and meet other moms at the caf & eacute;. There's a fully equipped playroom in the back for children.

Even though I don't go there often, Little Garden is just what our neighborhood needed, a nice, little spot where people can meet without getting in their cars. Let's hope -- with gas at four bucks a gallon -- that more neighborhood gathering places will sprout up all over the city.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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