Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Food for Thought: Lure of the Cafeteria

Last night my friends Megan, Brian and I met for dinner at the Piccadilly on Cobb Pkwy in Marietta. On the drive there after work I found myself getting anxious, even excited about eating at Piccadilly, an old, predictable chain, something I would normally only begrudgingly patronize. I wondered to myself, what exactly about Piccadilly inspires my heart to skip happily?

It’s that Piccadilly is a cafeteria. That’s right, one of those things that you dreaded when you were in school, complete with a line of diners, plastic trays and workers in aprons and hairnets. What makes little children, the elderly and me want to go there?

For starters, it’s the multitude of choices. Cafeterias offer fish, red meat and chicken, lots of veggies, salads ranging from fruit cocktail to Caesar. Last night at Piccadilly I saw thick slices of apple and cherry pies, red velvet cake and small pots of vanilla custard. Lots of choices are comfort foods, like carrot soufflĂ© (which is sweet and luscious at Piccadilly), fried chicken, or chopped (Salisbury) steak, which I’ve adored since childhood but rarely encounter outside a cafeteria.

Yes, menus at regular sit-down restaurants across the nation have lengthy and varied menus. Some of them even have pictures of the items listed. Still, it’s not the same. At a cafeteria you’re within a foot of each item in your future meal, nothing between you and your intended than the clear Plexiglas barrier. You can smell the garlic bread, see the Jello jiggle. You can easily determine if the steak is well done or rare, or if the biscuits have been burned.

Another great thing about cafeterias is that they are usually a bargain. You can get a complete meal of meat, 2 vegetables and a dessert for under $8 in most cases. The portions aren’t too large or too small, and you’ll get your food immediately. No waiting hungrily for your waiter to bring you your meal, but you’ll still have someone (who should be tipped a couple of bucks) clean up your mess after you’re finished. It’s a great setup, and super kid-friendly. While children often hate their school cafeterias, they love the commercial versions. There’s something for even the pickiest kid, and there’s always multi-colored Jello cut up into perfect cubes, the way most moms never have time to arrange it.

It also helps that the Piccadilly workers are a little more upbeat than most of the poor cafeteria ladies I encountered in public schools, probably because since you are choosing to eat there you, the customer, are happier about being there.

No, it’s not the best food in the world. I’ll readily admit the quality of any dish is rarely above average. However, a dining experience is exactly that – an experience. It’s not comprised simply of great food, and discerning diners aren’t impressed with just an awesome meal without some extras like good service and ambiance. If we were, we’d all flock to France or NYC and eat nothing but classic French cooking without a care in the world when their waiters sneered at us or stuck us in a dark corner without a full set of silverware. At least at a cafeteria you know what you’re getting yourself into.

And maybe the cafeteria experience reminds the adults who dine there of something intrinsically simple and good in their childhoods. Jello will do that to you.

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