Cafe? On Aisle One.

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.

At Rice, I sampled a fried boneless chicken breast that was tender and juicy and spicy, though not very crunchy, and a crisp green bean salad with red onion and red and yellow peppers. A friend, whom I took along because one is the loneliest number, had a no-fat tuna salad sandwich that she claimed was a tad dry (which probably had something to do with its being a no-fat tuna salad) and some asparagus marinated in a raspberry vinaigrette that was so good I stole half. We shared a soggy crab cake (heated to little avail in an available microwave) and bought See's caramel suckers for dessert. Seven of the eight tables around us were occupied, maybe half with coffee-breaking employees, and the zoomy black and gray decor made me want to leave.

Randall's Flagship made me want to set up camp and live there, and not for the flagship of the Flagship's dining facilities, either. The full-service restaurant in the eastern end of the store serves one hell of a hearty French onion soup, and they didn't bat an eye when I asked that they leave the cheese off. The grilled chicken Caesar salad I had was about ten times too garlicky, which is how I like it, and my companion -- again, an anti-loneliness device -- found her ham and cheese croissant well-packed and non-greasy. We'd missed the lunch rush, when, a waitress assured us, there was no seat un-sat upon, but, as it stood, we were the only people in a room of stagnant place settings. With an in-store bank just around the corner, it felt unpleasantly like we were eating in a mall or an airport bar.

But, at Randall's, the real treat is on the western side of the store, where eight round tables, each graced with carnations, are nestled in a breezy oasis that's surrounded by the bakery, produce department, a coffee shop, deli and a food counter. It's only a short walk to the soup and salad bar. The food choices are a little overwhelming -- steamy rotisserie chickens compete with sushi that looks like it might not be that bad, which competes with fat fresh-sliced sandwiches from the deli block that compete with white frosted cupcakes -- and on a first visit, my companion and I both took the advice of a lunch sign and had the Chinese Lunch Platter: a big portion of mildly spiced Kung Pao chicken with big chunks of white meat chicken, a pile of fried rice and a juicy shrimp and pork egg roll, all for $3.99. I found a small shard of bone in my last bite, but it didn't kill me. On my second trip, however, I let the sidewalk-cafe-in-a-biosphere environment take over and dropped $4.99 on the fried chicken special -- eight pieces, pint tubs of potato salad and cole slaw, six rolls and iced tea (for an extra charge) -- and with my dining partner, made like we were on a picnic while shoppers immersed in waves of classical music browsed and steered their carts around our periphery. It was some of the best food, and the most relaxed eating environment I'd encountered, even if the crossworders and coffee slurpers at the neighboring tables glanced at us like we weren't from around there, which we weren't.

Such eyeing by the locals wasn't a problem at Kroger, where everyone I saw on my two visits slumped in the booths, seeming refugees of one stripe or other, from work or from light. Again, I took a friend, and I needed one.

The breadth of selection and the appeal of the dine-in food tends to drop with the price of produce when you step down from the ritzier Rice and Randall's to Kroger, though there was nothing particularly wrong with the chicken fajita plate I sampled one day. It was fatter and juicier than what you'd pay more for at Taco Cabana, and a friend's barbecue chopped beef sandwich didn't do anything to make it seem not worth its 99 cent price tag. Kroger has flowers on its tables, but they're fake, and they play music, too, but here more often than at Randall's the instruments are interrupted by static blasts of the intercom calling someone to the service counter. The room is lit, of course, but, tucked away in its corner, it seems almost cavelike. The price is right, and when it's convenient, it's convenient. It's just not, I'm afraid, a very pleasant place to dine. Only my lunch companion saved the experience from depressiveness.  

And I didn't have even that when I stopped in at Fiesta. You didn't ask, but here's the story, okay? I took my girlfriend to the airport that morning and watched her leavin' on a jet plane / don't know when she'll be back again. It was a bad morning, and it made me hungry, so I stopped off at Fiesta, which has two groupings of eat-in tables, one by the coffee bar and the other on the opposite end of the store close to a prepared-food counter that had all the usual stuff, including some suspicious looking "40 percent off" sushi. There were roasted chickens, fajita meat, fried fish, fried chicken, burritos, egg rolls, corn dogs, some chunky greasy-looking beef things, sweet and sour chicken, corn, assorted veggies, beans and rice. There was also a menu heavy on the Mexican selections, with enchiladas, gorditas, flautas, quesadillas, tamales, caldo de res, pozole, menudo, barbacoa, carnitas, chicharron and Joya and Jarritos sodas. The decor is red and white tile with hanging paper hats, and the glass cooler sparkled with gelatins and puddings and clear plastic tubs of salsa.

It should have been festive as hell, but all I wanted was comfort food. One of the three platters offered on special was fish, two pieces with two sides -- I picked the kernel corn and a vegetable mix of steamed cauliflower, carrots and broccoli. The corn was hot and little more, the vegetable mix too tough for my plastic fork and the fish was stale. Later, I thought to ask what kind of fish I'd eaten, but the woman who'd served me, unlike Wendell Berry, had no earthly idea what was on the plate.

It hardly mattered. I barely put a dint in my heaping helping, so distraught was I over the loss of a favorite dining companion. Maybe I would have enjoyed my solitary meal more had I been more chipper, had a stiffer upper lip about the whole departure thing. After all, grocery stores have traditionally been, and for all I know may still be recommended as, suitable pickup joints for singles cruising the aisles. But like all pickup joints, from President and First Lady to Emo's, they can be incredibly sad and lonely places.

So if you eat in a grocery store, choose your food carefully (and go before the steam trays have crusted their contents). And for Heaven's sake, take a friend.

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