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Diners redo hits the bill

Holden's scores as a bistro, but patrons pay for it

Last August, Holden's souped up its menu and image, venturing a tricky transition from rough-hewn breakfast and lunch counter to nighttime bar and bistro.

It was the restaurant's second change since it surfaced in 1998 as a minigrocery and quick-fix deli offshoot of adjacent Bima restaurant. When owners Margot Leonard and Chris Hollern closed Bima, Leonard focused her attention on Holden's, ditching most of the groceries and adding panini.

For the restaurant's latest incarnation, the business partners have again teamed up, with Leonard manning the kitchen and Hollern leading the charge to position Holden's as a purveyor of saucy cocktails, sophisticated bistro fare and considerable swank.

So many make-overs in so few years have the potential to hurt a restaurant. But for the most part, Holden's has come out on top, retaining much of its diverse lunch clientele while attracting a stylish new crowd when the moon rises.

By day, light cascades through the storefront's glass garage door, penetrating its moss and black interior. Pastries crowd the counter Ñ which doubles as a bar after dark Ñ and bagels and coffee still are available in the morning.

Holden's lunch menu has remained largely the same. You can still get the economical 24/7, a turkey sandwich, for $4.25 and Margot's Chicken Salad in a pita for $6.50. Additions include delicious panini and the highly addictive Stealth Fries, a holdover from Bima days.

Holden's revamped mien shines at night, when a sea of candles shimmer on the back wall and black-clad waiters serve up mixed drinks with names such as Lady MacBeth.

The cuisine Ñ Asian, homegrown and a little bit continental Ñoffers an interesting range of well-articulated flavors and textures. One taste of the velvety lamb ragout, for example, and you'll be craving it for weeks to come.

This is a sleek, comfortable place where you can tip back a few Bud bottles or order a classy three-course meal. But Holden's by night is not flawless:

In the first five months of its new life, it already has raised dinner prices.

The magnificent chopped Cobb salad (romaine, avocado, grilled chicken, shredded bacon, tomato and bleu cheese) has jumped to $9 from $6.50. The Bima Burger, a yummy, hearty half-pounder accompanied by those fries, weighs in at $11, and a simple dish, spicy garlic pasta goes for $12.

These prices don't always accurately reflect the bistro. This isn't fine dining, after all: Service can be off the mark, meals don't begin with bread and dessert is limited to two options.

Holden's strengths are tasty food, exciting cocktails and chic atmosphere. The only problem is that you might leave wondering why the cost of a new paint job, floor and furniture was tacked on to your bill.