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Patch of honor

Briar Patch has much working in its favor: A primo location on Park Avenue that guarantees a steady influx of old fans and curious newcomers, and a menu that's meant to be enjoyed rather than comprehended. That is, if you can get your foot in the door.

Just try to snag a table around noon on busy weekends, on Saturdays in particular. As countless others have found over the 10 years since it opened, you'll be cooling your heels by the ice-cream counter or out on the sidewalk for 20, 30, even 40 minutes.

But that doesn't seem to stop most people from coming back for more.

There's a front-porch coziness that pervades the restaurant, all the way back to the deepest recesses. Althought the seating is packed in as comfortably as possible, you're still likely to be elbow-to-elbow with the diners at the next table.

The menu rarely overreaches: salad nicoise with albacore tuna ($7.95), two-fisted guacamole and Swiss burgers nestled in piles of potato chips ($7.50), omelets perfumed with pears and Gorgonzola cheese ($6.75), and bow-tie "picnic pasta" with ham, pecans and cheese ($8.95). Many items are tried-and-true favorites that have been on the menu since the beginning.

Soups of the day are usually pleasing, as we found with the creamy, pungent cheddar-bacon chowder ($3.25). A yummy Gorgonzola and walnut salad was studded with apples and poached chicken ($8.95), proof that the heart-healthy offerings are as tempting as the rest of the menu.

Among the entrees, eggplant Florentine was worth diving into, with its spinach and mushroom stuffing. The marinara sauce added balance, with the light scent of garden fresh tomatoes.

By comparison, the "chicken Briar Patch" ($10.95) was inexplicably slim on meat, so that the accompanying cream sauce disappeared into a mountain of angel-hair pasta. Artichokes and mushrooms were tossed generously into the mix, but that was scant reward.

In the unlikely event that all else fails to please, the Briar Patch has one sure saving grace: awe-inspiring desserts. The ice-cream parlor at the front of the restaurant offers everything from milk shakes and malts, to old-fashioned egg creams, to the infamous "New Orleans Gold Brick Sundae" ($5.95). But we opted for an eye-popping, 10-inch-tall wedge of chocolate layer cake ($5.25) that was worthy of a Bon Appetit cover photo.

Briar Patch sports the patina of a well-worn gathering place. Despite the occasional menu misses and service that inevitably slows down during peak periods, it remains a favorite dining spot for one really good reason: You can relax over breakfast, lunch or dinner, rather than think about it.

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