The dishes at Riccardo's Restaurant and Bar, which replaced John Barleycorn's in the Annadel Shopping Center on Yulupa Avenue in Santa Rosa, just kept getting better, one after the other.

The first dish, Crab Cakes ($12.50 *), set a low bar. The two cakes tasted like pre-packaged sage stuffing and were mostly bready filler, with just a little crab. The surfaces of the cakes had been cooked to a hard crunch and they'd been drizzled with a lemon aioli.

The second dish, Macaroni and Cheese ($9 **) carried hope along with it. The macaroni were short C-shaped hollow tubes and the sauce was made with sharp cheddar and cream — a child's delight and, truth be told, often still beloved even after the child grows to adulthood.

Grilled cheese sandwiches are having a vogue right now. It's all the rage to make them with asiago or fontina cheese, with tomato slices, prosciutto, basil, sage, and more. But at Riccardo's, history is respected with a Grilled Cheese Sandwich ($7.50 **-1/2) that the menu says is made with sharp cheddar and parmesan crusted sourdough. When the bread soaks up hot butter in the pan and turns to toast, and when the cheese melts inside its blankets of bread, we're all kids again.

The sandwich was accompanied by a large portion of good coleslaw that showed the desired balance between sweet and sour that brings a slaw to life. Both red and green cabbage were used.

One of the chief features of the old John Barleycorn's was its long full bar. As Riccardo's, the full bar is still there and packed with lively Bennett Valley patrons. It seemed to be beer for the guys and wine for the women at the bar, but food patrons at the tables were enjoying wine, including some bottles not on the wine list, because the list declares, "No corkage ever!" There are 19 wines by the glass or bottle, and 13 by the bottle only. Prices are modest, too. Among wines by the glass, the Matanzas Creek Merlot for $9 stood out, along with Ferrari-Carano Fum?Blanc for $8 and the Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon for $9.

The walls are covered with owner Rick Miron's collection of historic Sonoma County photos and cultural artifacts. A prominent place on the wall leading to the kitchen is given to the front page of the Santa Rosa Daily Democrat of Aug. 18, 1875, which must have been a slow news day as the lead story was headlined, "Wrestling in Albania."

Service was excellent. The food came up quickly and was brought immediately to the table.

One of the nightly specials — all were sandwiches, including a Reuben — was a Garden Burger ($11.95 ***). Really good vegetarian burgers are hard to find because lots can go wrong when making them, both texturally and flavor wise. This one was especially good on all counts. First, it was generously proportioned, a good six inches in diameter and an inch thick. Second, it had textural integrity and didn't try to fall apart, which too many vegetable mash-ups do. Third, it was laced with herbs and condiments that gave it a swift flavor kick. Fourth, it came with alfalfa sprouts, a big slice of fresh tomato, and a half an avocado's worth of oh-so-healthy, creamy smooth avocado flesh. And fifth, the bun was a big, sesame-seeded hamburger bun to hold all this goodness. All it needed to make the finished burger was a shake of black pepper and a squirt of ketchup, and the thing was big enough to be a whole meal. The only ding was the limp French fries that came with the sandwich.

Yes, there are entrees. Rib-eye ($22.50 **-1/2) was 12 ounces of pan-seared Black Angus beef, laced with fat and served with mashed potatoes and saut?d carrots and snap beans. Even better was Brick Chicken ($16.50 ***): breast, drumette, leg, and thigh marinated in herbs and oven-roasted under a heavy weight. It was superb — juicy, full of flavor, tender, and came with the same sides as the steak.

Desserts are store-bought.

To sum up: Riccardo's is a Bennett Valley watering hole with good American grub.

(Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.)