Here's where you want to eat: a restaurant that's friendly and unpretentious, casual but nice enough to make dinner feel a little special. You'd love to walk over, but don't mind a drive if the streets are familiar and it won't take forever to find a parking space. You can just show up at the door and know you'll get a table before too long. Value is important, especially these days, and so is knowing where the food on the plate comes from. You're willing to try something a little different, but at the same time want the comforting reassurance of the familiar.

All this describes Lauro Kitchen, Willamette Week's 2004 Restaurant of the Year, which keeps earning praise thanks to one additional, important attribute: The food is exceptional.

Chef-owner David Machado describes his restaurant as a Mediterranean kitchen, which he defines in simple terms. "If a country's an olive-oil producer," he says, "we'll take their recipes." The result is a menu that covers the familiar culinary territories of Italy, Greece and Spain but also extends to Turkey, Tunisia, Portugal and other lesser-known cuisines from around the middle sea's olive belt.

A handful of ingredients-olive

oil, garlic, peppers and tomatoes-

provide the menu's unifying theme. Cultural differences offer a new twist to the close cousins of old standards. New, that is, to our all-American tastes. For example, instead of Italian-style mussels with marinara, Lauro offers a Portuguese version, with tomatoes, peppers, smoky pimenton and garlic chouriço, all steamed in a cataplana, the copper clamshell cooker used in southern Portugal.

The classic flavor combination of melon and prosciutto is evoked by a salad blending the sweetness of honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon with the rich and tangy flavors of feta, pine nuts and olives. Fresh mint adds sparkle, lemon juice an acidic counterpoint, and extra-virgin olive oil holds everything together.

Tagines from North Africa feature almond couscous ($14). Tzatziki, the garlicky yogurt condiment, punctuates Greek lamb kebabs ($18). Old World quince flavors a Spanish sauce for chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese ($15). A pistou-flavored seafood soup with a red-pepper rouille represents southern France ($7), while thin, crisp-crusted pizzas ($10) and simple, perfectly cooked pastas ($11) complete the circle back to Italy. Then there's the cheeseburger ($9), which, of course, is universal.

Seafood figures prominently in the nightly specials ($17-$19). Halibut cheeks, almost like scallops in their meaty consistency, are served with the Tuscan kale, cavolo nero, over penne and spiked with chili oil. Grilled sturgeon comes with white beans and a dollop of salsa verde. Fresh sardines, relatively rare on Portland menus despite an abundant catch from Oregon waters, are butterflied, grilled, and drizzled with piri piri sauce. (Piri is actually Swahili for chili pepper, an etymological relic of the Portuguese trading empire that stretched from the New World, source of all things capsicum, to Africa.)

Even dessert ($6) provides a cross-cultural experience. You might find an Italian zabaione with fresh fruit and Spanish Marcona almonds in a dense and chocolaty sauce. Pudim flan, Portuguese-style custard flavored with port, offers a satisfying and slightly less sweet alternative.

Yet Lauro, for all the international flavors on its menu, is firmly rooted in its Southeast Portland neighborhood. Most nights, the staff knows a majority of the customers. Or as Machado brags: "In our first year, we achieved the most important thing, neighborhood loyalty."

This stretch of Southeast Division Street might seem an unlikely location for a new restaurant that's more upscale than the half-dozen or so nearby eateries, and Machado admits it wasn't his first choice. He looked for property downtown, in the Pearl, and then along other busy eastside arterials, until his wife, Julie, no stranger to the restaurant world (she spent several years working with Jeremiah Tower, the self-proclaimed inventor of California Cuisine), looked at the former plumbing-supply warehouse and proclaimed, "This is the place."

Transformed by Portland architect Lee Winn, Lauro glows from the street, while on the inside the high-ceilinged room, with a long, open kitchen complete with counter seating, offers a welcoming feel. Everybody in the place seems to be feeling good and eating well, and you want to be part of it.

Machado moved to Portland from San Francisco in 1991 as executive chef for Pazzo. He moved up the corporate ladder to become the "opener" for the Kimpton Group's restaurants in Seattle (Tulio, Sazerac, the Painted Table) and came back south to launch Red Star Tavern. Recruited by the Heathman group, he opened Hudson's at the Heathman Lodge in Vancouver, then Southpark Seafood Grill.

Machado credits much of Lauro's success to David Anderson, his chef de cuisine. "He was the best cook at Southpark," Machado says, while also nodding to the skills of others on the staff he's assembled, like Ignacio Poot, who's a fixture at the pizza station. For those who like to watch professionals in action, the tall stools at the counter provide a comfortable perch.

Now in its second year, the 54-seat restaurant remains popular enough that its no-reservation policy has sparked a plateful of complaints. Yet Machado defends the policy as a business decision that's aimed at fostering the restaurant's relationship with the neighborhood. Loyal customers know they can decide to go out on a whim, head over to the restaurant, and eventually get a table-no advance commitments needed. It might mean waiting for 15 minutes or even a half-hour, but Daren Hamilton, who owns a share of Lauro, runs the dining room and makes any wait pass by quickly.

Hamilton worked with Machado at Pazzo, and he oversees a crew of servers who are attentive but not fawning, familiar but discreet. They know the food and wine, and while the pommes frites come with a nice, garlicky aioli, your server will offer ketchup before you can ask for Heinz.

Hamilton and "Guy du Vin" David Holstrom developed Lauro's wine list, a recent winner at the Monterey Wine Festival competition for restaurants. For the most part, the wines come from the same olive belt as the food, and they pair up nicely. Close to a double handful are offered by the glass, pitcher or half-pitcher, so you can try something different with each course.

Lauro is going to be busier than usual for a while. The folks from the neighborhood probably won't be too happy that word about the restaurant is spreading, as the wait for a table might stretch even a little longer. But that won't change the way things are done here.

For David Machado, Daren Hamilton and staff, the plan is to run their restaurant as a "quality of life" business. And it's Lauro Kitchen's attention to quality, in its creative way with both fresh ingredients and Mediterranean flavor, that makes this a distinctive Portland restaurant. This is where you'll want to eat.

Olive-oil lover and writer Jim Dixon has been reviewing Portland restaurants for WW for more than 20 years. He moonlights selling the good stuff, but he doesn't pitch or sell his wares to local restaurants he writes about for the newspaper.

Lauro Kitchen

3377 SE Division St., 239-7000. Dinner Tuesday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.

Individual plates range in price from $6 to $18, with desserts for $6. Expect to spend up to $100 for food and wine for two people.