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Cafe? On Aisle One.

At some supermarkets the question is, why wait to get home before you eat?

I was raised to understand that people don't eat in grocery stores for roughly the same reason that they try not to belch in elevators. The respective bodily functions on display are perfectly normal, even laudable in some instances, but in both cases, it's just not the time, and it's not the place. I can think of some exceptions to that rule -- the childish pilfering of grapes, for example -- but they're marginal to the actual business of eating a meal, and generally enshrouded in vigilant secrecy.

Real eating, as of a meal, is at root a social event, and one that carries fine gradations of significance depending upon, among other things, how many are seated to dine. Two can be a passion play or a comedy; three can be a meeting; ten can be a party; 20 a feast. But people rarely shop in 20s and tens and threes. For that matter, they don't often shop in twos. Most people shop alone, with the result that, if they dine at the grocery store, they eat alone as well. And one, it's been suggested, is the loneliest number.

Nonetheless, in recent years, as more supermarkets have tried to become all things to all people, they've decided to become cafes as well. Or semi-cafes, anyway. In a real cafe, not only is a specific spot to dine provided, but the food is made specifically to eat in that place. Sure, there's takeout, but the takeout is the sideline; the eat-in is the business. In the supermarket semi-cafes, the eat-in is the sideline; the food available is, in the vast majority of cases, the same prepared food other shoppers are placing in their carts to take home. (That does raise the interesting question of what the grocers would do if you bought a loaf of bread, a jar of mustard, a pack of luncheon meat and then sat down at a table and began fixing yourself a sandwich. But I've never tried that, and I've never seen anyone try that.)

All of which leads to the question of who would go to a supermarket to sup rather than shop, and why. Since four is not a particularly lonely number, I sampled four grocery stores, all owned by corporate chains. Rice Epicurean on San Felipe, Randall's Flagship at Shepherd and Westheimer, Kroger on Montrose and Fiesta on I-10 West at the Blalock exit were my chomping grounds. All offer prepared food packaged to eat in or to go, and each provides an on-premise dining area for on-site consumption; alone among the quartet, Randall's Flagship also offers full restaurant-style table service. Food quality varies wildly from store to store, and from late morning to evening, but each store's lunch tables carry a distinct ambiance attached to their presence, some of which are more pleasant than others.

Writer/farmer/naturalist Wendell Berry has written several essays that advocate a closing of the gap between the food consumer and food consumed; his idea is that this would help realign a natural order that he, with some justification, considers to be out of alignment. His idea, basically, is this: grow your own vegetables and raise your own meat animals. Such action, he argues, has positive moral consequence.

I don't know how many grocery store managers have read Berry, but if they did, they only understood halfway. The cafes and in-store dining tables and prepared food service counters inside supermarkets don't carry the moral consequences of Berry's vision, though they have indeed brought the food consumer closer to the food consumed.

At Rice Epicurean, however, nobody I saw seemed to be thinking of Berry's know-your-meal philosophy. People dress up to eat alone at Rice Epicurean, even if dressing up does include expensive spandex workout suits (but only, at Rice Epicurean, if you have the body for it). The workout suit isn't actually inappropriate if you intend to chew your food over the black granite tabletops that Rice has located more or less equidistant from its coffee bar, bakery and deli/luncheon counter/salad bar. At Rice, you can do a lot of walking for a well-balanced meal. But the food is quality merchandise, the selection is broad and what's available is certainly better-prepared than I (or, I suspect, most of you) will ever make at home. Like most upscale groceries, Rice has huge bowls of ready-to-eat table fixings under glass, yard after yard of potato salads and bean salads and green salads and pasta salads and baked boneless chicken breasts and couscous and ribs and slaws and such, all ready to be measured into plastic tubs, priced and sent on their way to some waiting table. Another portion of Rice's long counter is latticed with steam trays that are filled with the daily specials -- a rotating du jour menu of hot foods that run to themes such as "Mexican" (fajitas, et al.) and "Cajun" (catfish, et al.) and "Chinese" (stir fry, et al.).

From whatever portion of the counter, cold or hot, the dine-in diner can buy a batch of whatever looks good, carry it over to the tables at the front of the store and tear into it, with religious programming blaring on a TV mounted in a high corner. They'll even give you little packets of salt and pepper, fancy black plastic utensils-in-a-bag, flowers on the table and free coffee in thimble-sized cups, if you're willing to walk over to where the coffee beans are sold for it. There's a wall of glass bricks on one side, and on the other, a low black wall that separates eaters from the flow of customers moving through the checkout aisles.

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