by Mike Corrigan

Choosing a restaurant to patronize? Well, my friend, there are issues to consider. Paramount, of course, are those relating to food and service. After you've decided on what you're going to slide down your gullet, the food variable is nearly satisfied. And service is so unpredictable that it's difficult to factor with any degree of certainty. Which brings us to that secondary consideration, often little more than the sum of a bunch of parts that don't seem to actually add up. Call it atmosphere, call it charm, call it that certain je ne sais quoi.

There are dining establishments in this region whose charms are hard to name. Yet I find myself constantly being drawn to them. They've become a habit. Like a narcotic. Family and friends are sometimes perplexed. "Why do you go there?" they ask. And "What's so great about it, anyway?" These inquiries are frequently difficult to answer satisfactorily.

Obviously, something about these places just feels good. But trying to explain it away to someone who has never ventured into that shadowy intersection of old and new, less and more, crass and class would be like a stamp collector attempting to describe his obsession to a big game hunter. There is no clear and generally acceptable rationale. They just are what they are. But I will attempt to describe a few of my favorite guilty dining pleasures.

Casey's Bar & amp; Grille

Helen Calloway has been cheerfully serving Casey's regulars for the last 26 years. When asked about what has kept her here so long, she laughs and says, "You should ask Rosie. She's been here for 40 years."

It's that kind of place.

Casey's feels haunted by the ghosts of generations past. Vestiges of more swinging times are everywhere you look but are especially concentrated in the hall that separates the restaurant from the lounge where you can divine the history of this Spokane landmark through framed newspaper clippings and odd bits of memorabilia. It's been a part of this North Side neighborhood since 1946. Your parents used to hang out here. Hell, their parents probably hung out here. They probably still do because it remains a great spot to burn a morning, afternoon or evening over home-style cooking, hot coffee and conversation.

The look of the main dining room is hard to describe (a shotgun marriage of classic '40s diner and the Love Boat?). The private dining room, with its ruddy paneling and ubiquitous locomotive art, is definitely swankier. Casey's is showing its age a bit these days, but the tables and cutlery are clean, the service is generally friendly and efficient and the food is quite good -- and inexpensive. So irresistibly inexpensive, in fact, that your final tab typically looks like something that should be behind glass in a diner museum rather than something you'd be presented with in the 21st century.

The Bob's Special (named for Casey's owner, Bob Lipe) consists of two eggs cooked to order with a side of biscuits and gravy and a sausage patty for (I'm not kidding) $3.49. The rest of the menu items are priced accordingly. There's the full breakfast with two eggs, hash browns, toast and bacon, ham or sausage for $4.75, and the meatloaf dinner (with all the trimmings) comes in at $5.49. The most expensive thing on the menu is the prime rib dinner (Casey's large cut version) for $12.95.

And waitresses like Helen and Rosie and Linda (with her five years' experience, a relative rookie) are something to behold. Like Casey's itself, they reinforce the rule of "what you see is what you get." In this case, that means old-time hospitality and an institutional knowledge that comes with experience. Like waitresses the world over, they have to deal with all types -- and all sorts of crap -- so when you stop in, be respectful, order with precision and don't forget your manners.

Donut Parade

The Donut Parade's charms are actually pretty obvious and they start with that goofy, nondescript vertical sign out front spelling out the word "Donuts." The same wonderful people have run this well-loved Mecca for fluffy, sugary, fried dough on the corner of Hamilton and Indiana for more than 30 years. It's a great, unpretentious neighborhood spot for coffee and gossip, too. The donuts themselves are so uncommonly good that they defy classification. They possess the power to transform skeptics into true believers instantly.

Here you can sit at the orange, white and chrome bar and eavesdrop on the donut-making process while you simultaneously ponder a rapturous cake donut with chocolate and nuts. Or you can grab your friends and secure a sunny window seat in the smoking section and blissfully add to the nicotine build-up in the walls. Or, if you're feeling sinister, you can just slink into a dark corner somewhere and observe the full spectrum of humanity -- and donuts -- on parade.

Suki Yaki Inn

Sometimes, you wanna go where no one knows your name, to a place where you can figuratively, if not literally, disappear. You can do that in the Suki Yaki lounge, where no one would ever find you -- not your boss, not your spouse, not your clients.

The Suki Yaki is divided into three dimly lit sections. Straight ahead (as you enter) is the sushi bar. To your right is the main dining room (with its very private booths). And to your left is the lounge. If the dining room is a little too cloistered for your tastes and the sushi bar is full (as it often is during peak dining hours), your best bet is the lounge, where you can order anything from the main or sushi menu while you have direct access to the restaurant's infamously strong drinks and colorful bar regulars. There's an element of intrigue here -- if not danger. And though cigarette smoking is a favorite pastime here, the excellent ventilation and air scrubbers make the normal breathing remarkably easy.

The Suki Yaki has existed for 56 years, making it the oldest Japanese restaurant in the Inland Northwest. The crew serves a vast array of Japanese delicacies, from tempura and teriyaki dishes to some of the best sushi anywhere (try the $15.95 Chef's Choice Combo with a beautiful and tasty variety of Nigiri and rolled Maki pieces). Owner Emiko Collett has been working here for the last 28 years and has been the proprietor for the last decade.

"This is my world," she says, gesturing around the room with an outstretched arm. "Everyone calls me mamasan. And everybody knows not to make mamasan mad. So they behave themselves pretty good."

It's true. For all of its rough edges, lounge customers are very friendly and accepting. It doesn't matter if you're a suit, an artist or a bum. If you're here, it's because you know. What do you know? Well, it's hard to say, because no one really pries.

"It is very friendly and comfortable," says Collett. "We never have fights. It's all good kids."

At 10 pm, she says, it's time for the restaurant to wind down and the bar to heat up.

"They like the stiff drinks and the loud music. We keep it simple."

Publication date: 04/15/04

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