What more do you need to clinch a romantic evening than dining in a garden bower, under the stars, in relative seclusion? The following quartet, in addition to indoor seating, offer garden dining in the warmer months.
Descriptions are excerpted from previous dining guides. Credit card abbreviations are as follows: AE, American Express; C, Choice; CB, Carte Blanche; DC, Diners' Club; MC, Master Charge; V, VISA. CAFE DE ARTISTAS -- 3065 M Street NW. 338-417. L & D $7.50-$12.50. Sunday brunch. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar. Dining on rea patio in warm weather.Cafe de Artistas is a Lation American cafe that is well placed -- in an art gallery -- well decorated and well populated with a Georgetown bar crowd. The room is done is shades of gray and black, with tile floor and skylit ceiling, the walls a gallery of black-and-white contemporary art. And a touch of brilliance catches your eye, a row of megenta stools lining the wall-long bar. It is a most stylish room, its potential severity softened by indoor trees and the flow of space toward an outdoor paatio for warm-weather dining. Experience suggests you opt for the light meals -- grilled beefsteak, marinated kingfish steak -- because the menu oversells the kitchen's work. You can eat with pleasure if you carefully cull the verbiage. IRON GATE INN -- 1734 N Street NW. 737-1370. L $3.50-$9, D $5.95-$9.50. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar. There is a tranquil garden her for outdoor dinging, but eating indoors at the Iron Gate is no hardship either. The restaurant, a converted 19th century stable, is handsome, the prices moderate and the Middle Eastern food generally very good -- in fact, it seems to have improved over the past several years. Stuffed vegetables (eggplant, squash or cabbage) are particularly well prepared, commendably firm and with plenty of ground meat and pine nuts in the filling. Another winner is the kibbe, ground lamb mixed with cracked wheat and baked. Unlike some versions, it has a high ratio of lamb to wheat, and it's neither greasy nor dry. The kibbe has a bonus: stuffed grapge leaves on the side, excellent in their own right (and available separately). For a sampler of several entrees, there's a combination platter. Or try the couscous, a bed of steamed cracked wheat in an aromatic sauce on which tender lamb chunks rest. Deserts are fine: a buttery, not-too-sweet baklava, a honeyed walnut cake and a smooth, creamy cornstarch pudding. L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANCOIS -- 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Virginia. 759-3800. D $15.50-$18. AE, MC, V. Reservations required for indoor dining. Full bar. If Washingtonians could design their own restaurant, for many it would be an overgrown cottage in the contry with fires buring in the winter, fresh air wafting in on summer days. It would serve Frence food of city sophistication but serve seasonal fruits for the pastries, hearty winter stews and light summer seafoods. Service would reflect personality without overbearing friendliness. Prices would be moderate. And the wine list would include whatever one felt like drinking at the moment, from a fruity vouvray to a burgundy off celebrated vintage. That is L'Auberge Chez Francois, and that is why it is so difficult to get a reservation. (If you wish to eat in the airy garden area, get there early; no reservations are taken, and it's stricktly first come, first served.) You might find a silky salmon under a 2-inch souffle, a savory steak au poivre, sweetbreads in puff pastry with a dark sauce of speical depth. And the handwritten menu always has surprises. Pastries are a speciality. From the basket of breads (including good garlic bread) to the coffee, the fixed-price meal is one of quality. TAVERNA CRETEKOU -- 818 King Street, Alexandria. 548-8688. L $4-$7.25, D $8.50-14.50. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar service. Taverna Cretekou is the kind of restaurant you might visit even if the food were mediocre, because it looks and feels so much like a never-on Sunday fantasy of Greece. In warm weather, patrons can dine in the rear courtyard under a grape trellis. Inside, whitewashed walls create a sunny effect even in the evening (and more so at Sunday brunch), fresh flowers adorn blue and white tablecloths, rounded arches frame attractive waiters in black shirts and pants who can pronounce =spanakotiropitakia" and serve it unsmilingly but graciously. One of the best buys on the menu is satyrikon, a combination of cold appetizers that serves two generously, three well -- four might become aggressive. Arranged on the platter are a creamy, well-flavored taramasalata, both a spinach and cheese pie, greek olives, feta cheese, tomato wedges, stuffed grape leaves and a superb eggplant salad. Be sure to order the restaurant's almost custardy avgolemono (egg, lemon and rice) soup, and if a tear comes to your eye as you scrape the bottom of the bowl, follow that with dolmades avgolemono-stuffed grape leaves topped with the same yummy sauce. The roast leg of lamb, seasoned with garlic and lemon and served medium rare, is superb. Main courses lean heavily to lamb but include several seafood dishes as well as chicken and veal. Deserts are worth saving room for -- honey-dripping baklava and creamy rice pudding.