Coronado Cafe, 2201 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 258-5149. Hours: Lunch and early dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

What's the highlight of your workday? For most working stiffs, it's the lunch break. When that noon bell rings, we reclaim our autonomy--for a little while, at least, our time is our own.

I've always hated brown-bagging my weekday lunch. It's so depressing, reaching into the sack and digging out the same dreary sandwich and piece of fruit I'd packed earlier. It's hard to go through the morning with nothing to look forward to.

It's a lot more fun eating lunch out, even (or especially) when you can't really afford to. Sitting in a restaurant, part of the noontime bustle, you get the sense that you are somehow reconnecting with humanity, even if you're lunching alone. I believe lunch out is therapeutic, money well spent.

Of course, the working classes don't get to do the two-hour, two-martini executive lunch, where some big shot makes a grand show of picking up the check, even though everyone in the group knows that it's going to be expensed. Most nine-to-fivers I know can't send their lunch tabs to accounting.

So if you're going to dispose of what limited disposable income you have on an occasional restaurant lunch, you want to make sure that you're getting your money's worth. That means three things: good food at reasonable cost in pleasant surroundings. And that's just what you'll find at two delightful new lunch spots, Coronado Cafe and French Ambiance.

Just north of downtown, Coronado Cafe operates out of a charming old house that used to be an antiques store before it turned into a cafe last April. The place is divided into several cozy dining nooks, and there's a porch set up for outdoor eating that should be popular once the weather cools off. Jazzy Billie Holiday tunes and the tranquil hits of the 1930s and 1940s furnish soothing midday auditory relief. The gleaming hardwood floor, fireplace, cupboard and old-fashioned pull shades may make you feel as if you've wandered into Granny's. But Granny didn't take Mastercard and Visa. And, to be honest, her home cooking wasn't nearly as good, either.

Just about everything here gives the impression that this kitchen takes its culinary mission seriously. There's an unmistakable "homemade" quality to the fare, from the made-from-scratch soups to the fresh-baked cookies.

If Granny had made soups like Coronado Cafe's, I probably would have visited her more frequently. It's not easy to get excited over soup in the middle of a Phoenix summer. But my enthusiasm level reached wintertime heights.

Chicken corn chowder is a menu staple. It's thickly stocked with white meat poultry, potato and corn, and it tastes as if someone watched over the pot for hours. If anything, the daily soup specials are even more compelling. One day it was a creamy, twice-baked potato broth, laden with cheese and touched up with a bit of bacon. And on another visit, I was lucky to run into the fabulous curried pumpkin, a refreshing cold soup drizzled with yogurt, studded with walnuts and zinged up by a mild curry bite.

Coronado Cafe's soups have more than taste going for them. No dainty portions here--the bowl will see you through until the five o'clock whistle, while the cup is as big as the bowl at most other places. A garlic asiago cheese crostini accompanying the soups also helps fill in the appetite cracks.

Sandwiches, salads and a daily special make up the rest of the menu. They've all got just a little something extra going for them. Take the tuna sandwich. This one is enlivened by adding hard-boiled eggs, water chestnuts and sprouts to the basic celery-and-onion mix, all moistened with a poppyseed dressing. Served on toasted sourdough, this is tuna for the '90s.

The chicken salad sandwich, on a fresh baguette, features big hunks of white meat teamed with roasted poblanos, fresh greens and a tasty balsamic vinaigrette. The ham sandwich is in the same league, slices of honey-tinged ham with caramelized onion on marble rye, slathered with an attention-getting horseradish cream cheese.

Vegetarians will appreciate the roasted vegetable sandwich, zucchini, yellow squash, red pepper, tomato and the same horseradish cream cheese crammed into fresh focaccia. And even the plain-Jane turkey sandwich gets a boost from a nifty cranberry-serrano chile chutney and smoked Gouda cheese.

The kitchen pays attention to the sides, too. Sandwiches come with a choice of terrific baked beans, done up with bacon; homemade potato salad, made with sliced red potatoes and not too much mayo; or rainbow slaw, a combination of jicama, squash, peppers, cabbage and scallions.

Don't like sandwiches? You can get the tuna and chicken salad scooped onto greens instead of piled into bread. Lettuce fans will also appreciate the Southwestern caesar salad, lots of juicy, pepper-crusted chicken breast meat on a mound of cheese-sprinkled romaine.  

The daily specials also make a very favorable impression. One day it was lusty barbecued beef, served with an out-of-this-world rice-and-barley salad freshened with cilantro, cucumber and onions. Another time I oohed and aahed over beef stroganoff, beef, mushrooms and egg noodles in a rich sour cream sauce.

Stay for homemade dessert or rush back to the office? Frankly, it's an easy choice. Two people can share the cornbread cobbler, loaded with peaches and pear. Peanut amaretto cookies make for lighter nibbling. And if you can swing an afternoon nap, by all means consider the caramel and walnut chocolate chip brownie, a sweet, heavy confection.

Coronado Cafe doesn't necessarily make work any easier to take. But it sure makes lunch easier to swallow.

French Ambiance, 4422 East Camelback, Phoenix, 667-9660. Hours: Breakfast and lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

What can you say about a nation that on the one hand rails against American culture, and on the other hand gives Jerry Lewis a medal?

Logical consistency may not be a French strong point. But cooking is. That's certainly the case at French Ambiance.

It's run by a team of seasoned French professionals. She worked at her family's hotel and restaurant in the south of France. He's a Parisian pastry chef, by way of Cameroon. According to their menu notes, they "fell in love" with Phoenix after vacationing here. (I wonder what they think now, after going through June, July and August.)

The cafe, located in the walkway along the western side of ABCO, is bright and cheery. Old-fashioned posters, a Rue de la Boheme street sign and a colorful, cafe-scene mural decorate the walls. A straw hat, cane and beret hang from pegs. The glass-topped tables are lined with sunny Provencal prints. Home-country music is gently piped in. You can also flip through French travel magazines.

The menu features a continental assortment of sandwiches, salads, meat pies and quiches. But what give French Ambiance its real distinction are the crepes.

These are crepes de sarrasin, light, delicate and very thin buckwheat pancakes. They come filled with a variety of tasty ingredients, and they'll make you want to light up a Gitane, pour a pastis and discuss the World Cup.

Hearty appetites should check out the Picardie crepe, served in a chafing dish, filled with ham and mushrooms and topped with a rich bechamel sauce. The Countryside model is just about as substantial, stuffed with pepper-crusted grilled chicken breast, new potatoes and red onion, all smoothed in a cream sauce.

The most flavorful model is the Saint-Tropez, a vegetarian delight crammed with tomatoes and zucchini, vigorously seasoned with the scents of southern France.

The Parisian crepe (ham and cheese) and French Alps crepe (spinach, cheese and cream sauce) are perfectly satisfactory. But they would have been even better had the kitchen used genuine Gruyere, instead of a less-expensive, generic "Swiss" cheese. (That same cheesy corner-cutting also affects other cheese dishes.)

The best part of the sandwiches is the bread. French Ambiance makes its own "brioche baguette," an intriguingly different loaf with a distinctive taste and texture. (You can buy a whole one for $3.99.) The sandwich stuffings, however, aren't quite as interesting: turkey, chicken, and ham and cheese. If you must have something between two pieces of bread, opt for the croque-monsieur, a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with bechamel sauce. Or, for 80 cents more, you can have a croque-madame, a croque-monsieur topped with a fried egg.

The quiches, tarts and meat pies have real Gallic flair. I'm partial to the Provencal tart, which has the same ingredients and flavors found in the Saint-Tropez crepe. The traditional quiche Lorraine, and three-cheese quiche made with Roquefort, Brie and Cheddar, both sport the creamy richness we associate with French food. And don't overlook the Paris friand, a superb sausage pie aromatically tinged with white wine and herbs.

Salads, however, are weak. The salade Nicoise seems to have lost something on its way to Arizona. Instead of green beans, potatoes, anchovies and capers, this version is heaped with lettuce. And the watery Dijon vinaigrette didn't help. And don't let the servers talk you into the tiny $2.45 side salad, which barely has three bites of greenery.

You won't have to be talked into dessert, though--one look at the pastry case will overcome even the most principled resistance. The outstanding Napoleon, alternating layers of puff pastry and cream, has a real patisserie touch. The Diplomate, a brioche cake glazed with kirsch, and the intense chocolate mousse cake are also right on target.  

But good as these pastries are, the dessert crepes are hard to pass up. Try one drizzled with maple syrup or chocolate sauce, or the version layered with warm sliced apples and coated with caramel.

There's no rolling the dice when you lunch at French Ambiance. This is one place you won't crepe out.

Coronado Cafe:
Curried pumpkin soup (cup)
Roasted vegetable sandwich
Beef stroganoff
Chocolate chip brownie

French Ambiance:
Provencal tart
Saint-Tropez crepe
Chocolate crepe

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Coronado Café - Closed

2201 N. 7th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85006


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