Willowcreek Grill + Java 

Inconspicuously located in a strip mall on Vista Avenue, Willowcreek Grill + Java is the sort of location you can drive by day after day and not notice. But if you want unique food in a comfortable, casual setting, it's worth taking a closer look.

The decor can be best described as woodsy, with a half-dozen long-branched trees scattered throughout the interior and a large fireplace in the back of the restaurant to complete the homespun feel. This homey motif is carried over onto the menu as well, with menu selections like "Winston's Cheeseburger" or "Ivy's Peanut Butter and Jelly" named after employee's children. In such a casual, relaxed setting, it came as some surprise to me just how seriously they treat the food. In addition to the typical choices like burgers, salads and assorted appetizers, the featured entrees offer an eclectic mix, including Cedar Fried Salmon, Jamaican Chicken Penne and Thai Chicken Pasta. Portions are quite large, with the specialty salads so big that you can order a half portion for yourself, or share the full salad with a partner.

In addition to the soup of the day, Willowcreek offers specialty theme days. Tuesdays, for example, are billed as Fat Tuesday, with a Crawfish Etouffee as the special. Baja Taco Wednesdays feature Cajun-style fish tacos for $2.50 a piece. And Friday evenings are the most interesting, with what executive chef Mark Ballen calls "Creative Friday," meaning you never know what you might find as the featured appetizer or entree. Recent Creative Friday fare has included mango-curry shrimp wontons and stuffed crab ravioli as appetizers, and macadamia-crusted red snapper, 10-ounce stuffed ribeye or fresh dover sole as entrees. Some of the unique specialties offered on Fridays are so popular there is even a calling list, so regular patrons will be called and notified if their favorite dish is featured that particular week. Of course, to top it all off, you need some dessert, and again, Willowcreek offers a variety of changing selections, as well as their daily fresh-baked pastries.

The Willowcreek Grill is an excellent place for a nice, quiet and somewhat different meal, the sort of place where it is not uncommon to see both the executive chef and the owner chatting with the diners, ascertaining exactly what their reaction is to the food. It's this sort of care and love for food that makes it easy for me to highly recommend Willowcreek.

As owner Brian McGill says, "We offer downtown food somewhere other than downtown." So if you're in the mood for the kind of unique eating experience downtown offers, but don't feel like fighting for a parking space, check out Willowcreek Grill.

—Shannon Grisso is a registered voter in five counties.

Willowcreek Grill + Java, 2273 S. Vista Ave., 343-5544. Grill: Mon.-Sat.: 11 a.m.-close. Java: Mon.-Fri.: 6 a.m.-close, Sat.: 8 a.m.-close. Close Sunday.

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