Let's not

'Doing lunch' in Dallas can leave you holding the bag

Well, besides requiring lunch to be efficient, you want it to be cheap. It's the one meal most working people eat out three or four times a week, times 50 weeks a year, making it a hefty tab in proportion to the pleasure. So it's always good to know about lunch deals, the only caveat being, of course, that you do get what you pay for.

Catalano's, a new Mediterranean-ish cafe on the mezzanine of the Trammell Crow building on Ross, offers a quiet, pretty pleasant place to eat, with real waiters, and a real menu, so if it has all the personality of an EDS executive's wardrobe, who's going to complain? The food isn't stellar, either, but you don't expect it to be, because as soon as you were seated, you saw the table tent with the color photograph of a dessert on both sides. I mean, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes. Still, the portabello mushroom appetizer was fine, the strips of meaty cap somewhat over-soaked in a teriyaki-type marinade. The basil tortas turned out to be basil-flecked bolillos, Mexican rolls, in a strange, curry-colored, creamy dressing I'd rather not remember too clearly. Pasta primavera was as bland as pasta and unsalted vegetables could possibly be, so flavorless it's hard to recall it enough to be critical, and vegetable lasagna, the best of the lunch bunch we tried, was OK once you'd scraped off some of the marinara sludge that covered it--and most of the other pasta entrees listed--like a mudslide. Still, you do remember that none of this was tagged over $5.50, making lunch at Catalano's an acceptable option until you add on the cost of parking at the Trammell Crow building, a cost increased by the meter-ticking time it takes you to figure out how to get from the mezzanine to the ground floor, which elevators to take to the lower levels, and how to exit the most confusing parking garage in the city. (By the way, they do not take checks for parking charges. I guess if you can't cough up the five or six bucks cash, you just have to phone for friends to bail you out of lunch.)

Efficiency and charm are seldom found within the same restaurant ecosystem--somehow, they seem to be incompatible qualities which does explain the laminate, hose-it-down appearance of most chain restaurants, even upscale ones. Plaza Cafe used to be a Boxies, part of an upstart, wannabe chain of pretty-fast food franchises. Recently, it seceded from the chain, though not much has changed. It still retains the no-commitment atmosphere of a McDonald's, which--in a way--is OK at lunch when you don't mean to linger. Like Loaf and Ladle, Plaza Cafe is tray cuisine. You order from the line (and if you're putting your meal on a credit card, you'd better abandon your tray for a minute to peruse the dessert case so you can add your cookie to the total). The new owner, formerly Boxies' manager, is making a friendly effort to bring in the neighborhood--adding a children's menu, for instance, and wooing the business neighbors with cheap specials and special naming opportunities. Lots of lunchers are regulars, and the owner of the chic eyewear boutique, Occhiali, has had a sandwich named after him. He eats at Plaza Cafe all the time.

I doubt I will, although the "dark plate," a leg and thigh of rotisserie-roasted chicken served with Caesar salad and a baked potato, is probably the lunch deal of Dallas at $3.99. I ate the "Park Plaza Chicken" sandwich instead, and it was a pretty good value, too. Two huge, two-fisted halves of thick, airy foccacia bread held strips of chicken breast, undetectable pesto, tomatoes, and melted provolone. Chips were a nice mix of ruffled with assorted vegetable. Mr. Eye's Occhiali sandwich generously stacked ham, smoked turkey, and turkey pastrami (it was difficult to distinguish the three), with some onion, provolone, and mozzarella. The pot pie was a disaster, the ramekin filled with gluey gravy and topped with soft biscuit-like dough, but the twice-baked potatoes, unpeeled chunks pan-cooked with onions and topped with cheese and bacon bits, were pretty good.

In the end, my week or so of one-hour lunching only confirmed my original midday meal philosophy: Brown-bag it, or give in to the Diet Coke and candy bar diet and get your nourishment spiritually. That allows you to go for broke as often as possible and have a late, good lunch, served gracefully to you by someone else who knows how. Accompany the food with several glasses of wine, and end the day early. Everyone knows you don't get much done between 3 and 5 o'clock anyway. It's the daytime slump period, analogous to the morning hours when you invariably lie awake and worry about the work you haven't accomplished because you've been taking those long lunches.

The Loaf & Ladle, 2530 Fairmount, (214) 880-0300. Open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8 p.m.-5 p.m.

Catalano's Cafe and Grill, 2001 Ross Avenue, (214) 740-1600. Open Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m.-10 a.m.; 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

The Plaza Cafe, 4019 Villanova in Preston Center, (214) 361-7687. Open Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

The Loaf & Ladle:
Vegetarian Lasagna $5.95
Three-Salad Plate $3.95
Bowl of Soup $3.95
Carrot Cake $2.75

Basil Tortas $3.95
Grilled Portabello Mushroom $4.75
Vegetable Lasagna $5.50
Pasta Primavera $5.25

The Plaza Cafe:
Park Plaza Chicken $5.75
Occhiali $5.25
Chicken Pot Pie $4.99
Rotisserie Dark Plate $3.99

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