Let's not

"Let's do lunch." This placebo promise usually replaces a real meal engagement--no one expects to actually eat lunch in the foreseeable future with anyone who suggests, "Let's do lunch."

Modern lunch is a problematic meal, at best. For a white-collar working person, it's an artificial respite--you're just moving from desk to table. If you really lunch well, really "do" lunch, then that's it--the day is done, too, because lunch will be the end of it. A good lunch renders you unfit for anything to follow, unless you're in love. But if you dutifully try to fit the meal into the so-called "lunch hour," you usually end up having a rushed, unpleasant, and undigestible experience. Nevertheless, there are places that only do lunch, or mostly lunch. There are restaurants, in fact, that survive on lunch--people can't do that. This week, I tried.

Lunch business is usually based on volume--lunch customers are in a hurry, so the tables turn faster, so the restaurant can sell more food. At lunch, slow service does not give the restaurant the dinnertime advantage of allowing the customer more time to run up his bar tab--it just means his iced tea glass will be refilled more often. At the restaurant's mild expense. That means a successful lunch depends, even more than other restaurant meals, on streamlined service. Slow lunchtime service not only frustrates the customers who have to get back to their desks, it impedes the cash flow.

So our first lunch at the unfortunately named Loaf & Ladle was particularly mysterious. Loaf & Ladle has replaced the straightforward-sounding Fairmount Street Bakery with the same concept, less well done.

Open a month now, Loaf & Ladle ostensibly serves breakfast and lunch, but when you ask about it, the staff tends to downplay the breakfast opportunity. Only a row of single-sized cereal boxes gives the morning menu away.

No wonder, if the lunches we ate were any indication of the restaurant's efficiency. We arrived at 11:30 one day, a little early for lunch, but not outrageously so, and we were not the first customers there. Two women were already waiting in vain for their meal before we placed our order with the friendly, if inept, young man behind the quaint, meaning non-functional, cafeteria line. The women had ordered pesto chicken, one of the two specials listed on the blackboard, and had been told the kitchen was still preparing it. Of course, they hadn't been told it was a hot entree--they were under the impression it was a salad and would fill out the trio plate they wanted, since only four of the eight listed salads were available. We ordered the same as-yet-unavailable entree, willing to wait a few minutes, and decided to order the other one, salmon, as well, only to be told that it wasn't ready yet, either. In fact, the same young man confessed, under the pressure of being told we were willing to wait for salmon too, that not only was it not exactly ready, the fish had not yet been delivered. Perhaps it was the look on our faces that prompted him to turn around and erase "salmon" off the blackboard.

We decided to have the tortilla soup (with all the garnishes) instead, and a spinach salad with raspberry vinaigrette, to go with the pesto chicken, which was finally brought out triumphantly from the kitchen. Of course, the "pesto" part of the dish wasn't ready yet--it was still technically just "chicken"--but, whatever. We picked out some rolls (baked on the premises) for a dollar apiece, skipped dessert, since none was available, and carried our scantily laden tray to a table, passing the women who were still mired in a hot-cold dispute with the server. There was a side table loaded with complimentary baskets of (stale) chips, salsa, croutons, bread, pickles, and rolls, a nice touch, but it did make you wonder why you'd just been charged a buck for a seemingly identical roll.

At this point, we were hardly surprised when the tortilla soup turned out to be unpleasantly viscous, like a cornstarch-thickened Chinese broth, or when the raspberry vinaigrette was sweet enough to top a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

What do you do? As we left the charming (really, it is) little house on Fairmount, the owner, obviously just arriving in his apron (From picking up the fish? One hopes.) paused to greet us effusively. "Hello, hello!" he exclaimed, instead of the perhaps more appropriate "Goodbye, goodbye!" "Please come back--wait! I have a rose for the lady!" And he rushed in and out to present me with a lovely pink long-stemmed rose--the perfect peace offering, no matter what the offense, hard for me to resist, but then, not to hold a grudge--stale potato chips, two out of two entrees unavailable...

We returned and the next lunch was slightly better--both blackboard hot entrees were available, though the one we tried, penne with chicken, was not, technically speaking, hot. The tomato basil soup was a puree of fresh tomatoes, a watery sludge with a salty flavor. Mixed greens with balsamic vinegar were exactly that, and the individual margherita pizza garnished with a sprig of mint was delivered to the table after everything else I just mentioned (plus a piece of carrot cake and a chocolate eclair, strangely flecked with something green, both made in house) had been eaten.

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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