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.