Clark Street between Belmont Avenue and Wrigley Field is distinguished by a motley assortment of ethnic eateries. You’ll find Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Ethiopian, and Philippine restaurants along that stretch. American food tends to be limited to hot dogs and hamburgers with one interesting exception–Joel’s Theatre Cafe.

For the past four years the Organic Theatre, just around the corner, has been the main source of patrons at Joel’s. One went there not so much to eat, but to be part of the theater crowd–to rub shoulders with the regulars. Recently, owner and chef Joel Ponchalek has enlarged his horizons, expanding the restaurant’s menu as well as its moniker. Joel’s Cafe is now Joel’s Theatre Cafe, underscoring its link to the stage and the stagestruck. The menu, though still not extensive, now offers several ambitious preparations that would not be out of place in more formal, and formidable, eating establishments.

The decor suggests a 1940s supper club. Dark gray predominates on walls, on the ceiling, and in the carpeting. Here and there purple neon tubes snake behind molding and brick glass, casting a dim violet glow over the main room, which contains the bar. Photos of some of Hollywood’s more prominent denizens, including a young Humphrey Bogart complete with slicked-down hair, adorn its walls. The small outer room, a few steps up and to your immediate left as you enter, sports posters of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, and looks out onto Clark Street through floor-to-ceiling windows. Dusky rose oilcloth covers the small tables, and squared-off tubular steel chairs provide comfortable, no-nonsense seating. When the weather is good, one can dine amid the shrubbery of a very pretty back patio.

The menu features five hot and five cold appetizers. A mini-baguette–split, toasted, and topped with rounds of goat cheese, fresh basil leaves, and slices of plum tomato ($4)–got one meal off to a refreshing beginning, marred only slightly by the bread’s cottony texture. Crispy sourdough would have made the dish splendid rather than just very good. A dozen chewy tortelloni, filled with Gorgonzola, bathed in a sweet tangy Asiago cream sauce, and sprinkled with chopped fresh basil ($4.50), made another commendable starter. So, too, did chicken and vegetable brochettes ($4.25), a pair of skewers laden with chunks of juicy, charbroiled chicken interspersed with slices of yellow squash and whole mushrooms, served on a lettuce leaf and garnished with lime wedges. Black bean soup with kielbasa ($4.50) came to the table in a small oval casserole dish. Loaded with smoky dark beans, sausage, and still-crunchy corn kernels, and crowned with a dollop of sour cream, the spicy dish was hearty, coarse, and enormously satisfying. Toasted garlic bread kept it company.

The soup and pasta dishes come with a house salad. Ours consisted of romaine lettuce, fresh mushroom slices, and strips of roasted red peppers doused in a soupy, sweetish, undistinguished vinaigrette. Sprinkled with overly roasted pine nuts, it was a nondescript version of the genre.

The list of entrees offers a choice between nine salads, five pastas, and four grilled dishes–one each of fish, pork, beef, and chicken. Our hands-down favorite is grilled boneless pork loin ($10.75), a meaty slab, virtually free of fat and gristle, stuffed with Asiago cheese, pine nuts, and roasted red peppers; it comes in a sweet and pungent cream sauce spiked with cumin and hot peppers. Barely steamed yellow squash, pepper rings, and broccoli spears balance the meat perfectly. Grilled fresh salmon ($11.50) would gladden the heart of any fish lover. Pristine and done just to the point of flaking, it arrived at the table festooned with leeks and resting in a pool of creamy, aromatic, leek-rich sauce.

Beef tenderloin ($11.75), two mini-steaks done rare, as requested, seemed to me to lack the rich tang that characterizes the best of the cuts, but not so for my dinner companion, who happily relieved me of one piece. We both agreed, however, that the accompanying brandy-infused green-peppercorn sauce was gilding the lily; its musty overtones were at variance with the clean taste of the meat. A side order of herb-fried potatoes was uneven–some slices were wonderfully crisp and dry, others greasy and overdone.

We agonized over the pastas, and finally settled on linguini with grilled shrimp ($10.50). The half-dozen crustaceans perched atop a heavy cream sauce of ginger and lime fell somewhat short of the “jumbo” promised by the menu, but were a decent size just the same. The pasta was cooked properly al dente, but the dish suffered from an overdose of citrus and ginger.

The desserts were mostly very good; they range in price from $2.75 to $3.50. Nuts and raisins add nice textural variations to sweet, moist carrot cake topped with a cream cheese icing. Marjolaine, alas, despite a better-than-average base of flourless walnut cake, had too much sugar in its butter-cream filling. Dense dark-chocolate mousse pie and agreeably tart and light mango cheesecake found a fit companion in smoky cappuccino ($2). Regular coffee ($1), though good, has lacked complexity and body on our visits. Service, though well-meaning, tends to be overly casual.

The pleasant house wine, Olarra Anares, comes from Spain and can be had by the glass ($2.75) or bottle ($11). A small wine list is available along with a small selection of beers.

Joel’s Theatre Cafe (871-0896), 3313 N. Clark, is open for dinner seven evenings a week, from 5 to 11 Sunday through Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturday. Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.