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Laid-back Latitude 41n is about the journey and the destination

I have a weakness for maps. Road maps, weather maps, even Google maps — I love them all. Maps not only point the way to the destination, they can provide a pleasurable distraction during an otherwise tedious journey. What else is there to do between turns behind the wheel other than comb the atlas for funny town names and daydream about diversions not taken?

Kathy Brown must feel the same way. Rather than cover the tables at Latitude 41n with cloth, the owner shellacked them with all manner of world maps. Each table at this Detroit-Shoreway café offers a fresh new landscape to survey, making tabletop travel the obligatory appetizer. By the time our lunch arrived one afternoon, the wife and I had settled on a lush patch of Nicaragua's Pacific lowlands as our retirement home.

So, what the heck is Latitude 41n, anyway? "That's where we are," explains Brown, in navigational terms we all can understand.

In addition to being the parallel on which Cleveland sits, Latitude 41n is a homey neighborhood diner serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she opened the eatery about a year and a half ago, Brown told me that she wanted to create a simple place for folks to "eat, sit and watch the world go by." A comfortable lounge area offers guests soft seating and free Wi-Fi, and customers are welcome to camp out there as long as they wish. For the best view of the "world going by," folks can sit at a window-hugging counter that overlooks bustling Detroit Avenue.

A large counter serves as the café's center of operations. On it, a small chalkboard ticks off the day's specials, and menus flesh out the rest of the options. Diners place their orders at the counter, pay and sit wherever they like. Order a beer or a glass of wine from the small but adequate list, and it will be brought to your table while you wait.

Though Latitude has the mood of a diner, it has the food of a kicky little bistro. Rare is the corner diner that whips up such a summery gazpacho ($4), simultaneously smooth and chunky, with just the right balance of sweet and heat. Customers can and often do make entire meals of Latitude's bountiful salads. Even the half portion of the Twisted Cobb ($6) is ample enough for two to share as a healthy starter. Loaded with fresh greens, quality deli meat, crisp bacon, ripe avocado, hard-cooked eggs and shredded cheese, the dish covers all basic food groups. It even comes with a warm, butter-basted breadstick. Apart from the dressing, which is obnoxiously thick and sweet, the spinach salad ($6 half/$8.50 full) is everything one expects of a spinach salad. The pert greens are joined by red onion, bacon, blue cheese, mushrooms and egg.

Cheese lovers will doubtless dig the Pasta Bakes, a section of the menu filled with oven-baked pasta casseroles. The seafood festival ($13.95) arrives at the table crowned with a brown and bubbly cheese crust. Below, tender penne pasta, large shrimp and the occasional sliver of crab swim about in a mild cream sauce. A similar dish features macaroni with cheddar cheese sauce ($9.95).

Brown was the original owner of Snicker's Tavern when that restaurant opened some 25 years ago. And like that now-defunct eatery, Latitude wears its diversity on its sleeve. Some subtle and not-so-subtle clues as to the diner's gay-friendly status can be found both in the room and on the menu. Gay or straight, pizza fans can all support the Island of Lesbos pizza ($11.50/small), a thin-crusted pie that swaps zippy pesto for the usual tomato base. Toppings include sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and feta cheese.

You don't have to get here at the crack of dawn to enjoy breakfast; a number of the most popular brunch items are served all day. The massive Southwest quesadilla ($8.50) is a pair of nicely crisped flour tortillas loaded with scrambled eggs, chorizo, avocado, cheese and beans. A fresh-tasting salsa adds just the right zing. The Lost omelet ($8.50) is indeed stuffed as promised. Sadly, it is stuffed not only with spinach and feta, but also thick, raw mushrooms. Latitude's breakfast potatoes are fine in a pinch, but they would be vastly improved by a texture other than soft.

There are times here when laid-back can start to feel a wee bit sluggish, when that beloved "Latitude Attitude" veers off into "lunchroom lethargy." Fortunately, those spells appear to be limited to off-peak times. And to while away the downtime, diners can always map out their next daydream.

dining@clevescene.com

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