L.A. diners are running out of patience.

The 1999 Zagat Los Angeles/Southern California Restaurant Survey, which hits bookstores this week, finds that 68 percent of this year's respondents cite poor service as their biggest frustration, compared with 43 percent in the survey's New York edition.

"Service is more important to our people than food," said Karen Berk, who co-edits the guide with Merrill Shindler. "People are demanding more value for their money."

For the 1999 compilation, more than 5,200 volunteer diners surveyed 1,524 restaurants, rendering their reviews in a pocket-sized guidebook. The survey was founded by New York attorneys Tim and Nina Zagat, who turned their hobby of polling friends about their dining choices into a full-fledged publication in 1979. The Los Angeles version debuted in 1986.

Other tidbits reveal that Angelenos maintain a loyalty to their favorite restaurants, frequenting them 8.9 times a year, compared with 6.4 visits in San Francisco.

"Because of traffic and distances, people here in L.A. are not willing to venture out and try new places. They'd rather visit their neighborhood restaurant," said Berk, who is also the co-owner of The Seasonal Table Cooking School in Santa Monica.

The average cost of a meal in Los Angeles rose just 2 percent, to $24.86, compared to a 3.2 percent climb in New York ($31.68) and 9 percent in San Francisco ($28.49).

For the eighth consecutive year, Patina, the 9-year-old California-French bistro on Melrose Avenue, was the region's favorite dining spot. Patina also grabbed the No. 1 food ranking from last year's favorite, Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills.

When a restaurant is consistent, it's hard to be dethroned, said Shindler.

"We keep wanting a place to knock down Patina and Matsuhisa off the top spots, but it's not happening. It goes to show how the 'go-go '80s' influenced the opening of restaurants that continue to hold steady," he said.

For bargain hunters, Benita's Frites, the Belgian fries eatery in Santa Monica, jumped from No. 5 last year to the best value this year, with an average bill of $6, swapping spots with last year's No. 1, Tommy's hamburgers.

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