The worst thing about last week’s dinner at the Garden Terrace in Ojai was not the food but the diners at the table next to ours. They spoke so loudly about their fascinating experience at Jesus camp that I thought they were promoters for a new evangelical Christian youth movement. Their obnoxious voices overwhelmed our toasts and conversations about gopher traps and avocado picking tips. At the end of the night, when I pulled my chair out to leave, I practically fell into the lap of the man seated inches from me. He rolled his eyes, but I walked out gracefully, channeling Japanese subway etiquette and trying not to feel ashamed for invading his personal space.

But the loud guests aside, the meal and service at Garden Terrace were fabulous. We took my mother to the restaurant for a mid-week birthday celebration, and the restaurant exceeded our expectations for a classy, special occasion meal.

So, why did we choose the Garden Terrace? Ostensibly, it was because the restaurant sent my mom a $20 gift certificate for her birthday. But it is also one of her favorite cafes, and the gift certificate had to be used on her special day. ($20 off dinner? Perfect mom, let’s go there.)

Although my parents are seasoned Garden Terrace fans, it was the first trip there for James and I. The plate of delicious, warm homemade rolls sprinkled with sea salt that arrived at our table, even before we placed our orders, was the first sign that we had made a good choice. We wolfed the bread down and studied the menu. My dad ordered the curry lentil soup and pork tenderloin. James chose the mushroom soup en croute (French for soup with a pastry crust on top) and the chicken stir fry. My mom and I shared the warm spinach salad and we both ordered the bistro steak.

In short, nothing disappointed. The stir-fried vegetables and chicken with rice were flavorful and light. The tenderloin was balanced by mashed potatoes. The spinach salad combined a perfect blend of light flavors (fresh basil and roasted pine nuts) with classic tastes (shaved parmesan cheese and fresh spinach). The highlights, however, were the mushroom soup (which James ate greedily to the very last drop) and the bistro steaks which arrived next to a stack of perfect homemade onion rings.

Mom knows steak. That’s why I followed her lead on my dinner order, and the petite cut of beef was the perfect dinner proportion for me. Many times, ordering a slab of meat at dinner means taking home half for the next day. At Garden Terrace, it was refreshing to eat the entire portion and still have room for dessert. Besides having the right size, the steak was tender and delicately seasoned. Truly, this was a woman’s steak: small but not too small, cooked well but not charred.

And finally, what is birthday without dessert? We narrowed our choices down to the gelato trio (with a choice of three flavors, served on a meringue round) and the creme brulee trio (three different varieties served in their own small containers). While both were tasty, the gelato trio definitely won our hearts. My dad chose two scoops of pecan praline and one scoop of chocolate hazelnut gelato. The creamy sweetness of the ice cream balanced with the crunchy pure sugar of the meringue was complemented well by a smooth custard sauce, drizzled on the plate.

Bellies full and hunger sated, we squeezed out of our table and called it a night.