TRAYS OF OUR LIVES

Palm Grove Food Court, Dial Corporate Center, 1850 North Central, Phoenix, 207-7107. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Eating out hasn't always been my occupation. In my former life, in fact, eating out was how I escaped from the rigors of work. I always looked forward to letting somebody else make my meal. Especially at lunch. Even when I had trouble scraping two nickels together, I couldn't bear to bring a sack lunch to work. It was just too depressing. It was depressing to shop Sunday night, hunting barren supermarket shelves for a week's worth of lunch ingredients. It was depressing to make lunch in the morning before I left. It was depressing to think about lunch during the morning. It was depressing to actually eat it. And it was depressing to realize that I'd be repeating the same routine the next day. So I'd go to a cafeteria, about the cheapest lunchtime option around. The food may not have been particularly compelling, and I really couldn't spare the 20 bucks a week to support my habit. But the hour away from my desk restored my sanity, cheered me up and gave me the courage to go back to work in the afternoon. If you work in downtown Phoenix and resist packing a sack lunch, you could probably use some cheering up, too. Unless you have access to a company credit card, lunchtime is not apt to be the high point of your day. So I checked out some neighborhood cafeterias to see if something other than the 5 o'clock bell could give meaning to a Monday-to-Friday office existence. Lunch at Palm Grove certainly does. It gives hungry workers more than a noontime break. It's even good enough to make them enthusiastic about getting up and going to work in the first place. Without a doubt, this is the king of Valley cafeterias.

Forget your mental picture of a typical cafeteria: a bleak warehouse atmosphere, chairs that make your back ache and a food line staffed by women in hairnets, stirring scary-looking caldrons bubbling with who knows what. This is the first cafeteria in which I've ever felt underdressed. That's because the Dial Corporation proprietors have spent big bucks making it look better than 90 percent of this town's full-service restaurants. The experience starts the moment you step out of the elevator. You stroll down a marble-floored hallway, lined with thick wallpaper and gilt-framed art. The dining room features lots of dark wood and well-padded captain's chairs. (There's also a shaded outdoor pavilion, where the smokers congregate.) The employees are equally classy. They inform customers about daily specials, remind them to validate their parking ticket and unfailingly call everyone "Sir" or "Ma'am." I was so bewitched, I half-expected someone to refold my napkin when I went to the rest room. And the food casts the same kind of spell. Take the chicken gumbo soup. The kitchen obviously used more than a can opener to fashion this wonderful broth, thick with chicken, sausage and okra. Or check out the caesar salad. In most Valley restaurants, you're as likely to meet a genuine caesar salad as you are to meet Caesar himself. But Palm Grove's counter help is constantly whipping up fresh batches of the real thing, right down to the homemade croutons and anchovies. This is a cafeteria? You'd hardly know it from the first-rate tortellini, topped with a simple marinara sauce loaded with a robust tomato punch. Mostaccioli Bolognese is another substantial pasta option good enough to be brought to your table by a server. And it comes with freshly baked garlic-cheese toast that hasn't been sitting around under a tanning lamp since the midmorning break. Sandwiches exhibit similar quality. The turkey in the turkey- provolone hero is honest-to-God turkey breast, not some processed fowl. Even the basic tuna sandwich could lift your spirits. Like everything else, the pizza sports a right-out-of-the-oven freshness. The slices are huge, the crust chewy, and toppings like salami and banana peppers hit the target. There's nothing institutional about desserts, either. The cranapple pie here is the same one served in Gabriel's, the Dial Corporation's swanky restaurant down the corridor from the cafeteria. Chocolate mousse pie has a real chocolate bite, with none of that waxy texture that betrays other cafeteria versions. Sure, Palm Grove is just a cafeteria. But it's tray chic.

Plaza View, APS Building, 400 North Fifth Street, Phoenix, 250-3380. Hours: Breakfast, Monday through Friday, 6:45 to 8:30 a.m.; Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

If Palm Grove is king of cafeterias, Plaza View could be the crown prince. This APS facility is hardly what I expected. I've always thought that what APS does best is siphon unconscionable amounts of cash each month from my checking account. Now I'm not sure. Maybe the company ought to consider converting the Palo Verde nuclear plant to a lunch spot. I've even come up with a slogan: "Get it while it's hot." The company cafeteria is spiffy clean, in an institutional way. High ceilings and walls of windows on three sides make the place airy and light. There's a soothing view of a big, grassy lawn and the tops of palm trees in Arizona Center's garden complex. Comfortable, cushioned black-metal-frame chairs make lingering a plausible plan of inaction. Lunchers who enjoy controlling their own portions have plenty of opportunity. The serviceable, 18-cents-an-ounce salad bar with all the usual greenery suspects even contains one surprise: white asparagus. That means you could load up on a pound of this wonderful vegetable for $2.88. My advice: Take some home. The ladle-it-yourself soup-in-a-vat turned up another surprise--an excellent, thickly stocked, homemade-tasting three-bean soup. Plaza View's offerings don't match the variety of Palm Grove's, but you shouldn't have trouble taking what it dishes out. One entree special, priced under four bucks, is featured daily. My noontime visit coincided with a hearty Mongolian firepot, a big mound of noodles topped with bok choy, strips of red, green and yellow pepper, onions, celery, carrots and substantial chunks of grilled, white-meat chicken. There's a daily broiler special, too. Ours was a tasty chicken parmigiana, a grilled breast on toasted sourdough, gilded with bacon, cheese and marinara sauce. A 12-ounce soft drink comes along as part of a very reasonable $2.99 tag.

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