Starbucking the cafeteria

Is a cafeteria by any other name just a cafeteria? It’s a question for the ages. Consider Plaza Hof Brau, reviewed several weeks ago: Comfortable, cozy, unmistakably old-style in its feel, the food is good and cheap, and you can get wine or beer with dinner. Now consider Pluto’s Fresh Food for a Hungry Universe, a cafeteria-style eatery, where the food is good, cheap, and you can also get wine or beer with dinner. Both offer carved meats, a variety of vegetable sides and salad options. Both offer a feeling of sated bliss for under $10, and bloated bliss for under $15.

But that’s where their similarities end. If Plaza occupies one end of the universe (Watt Avenue), Pluto surely lives at the other end (Davis Commons). In fact, it would be reasonable to say, while they inhabit the same cafeteria universe, one is the polar opposite, the bizarro version, of the other. The “bizarro” designation unmistakably goes to Pluto’s.

Here’s why: You walk in to a room of orange and yellow, with lots of splashes of cherry wood. Funky orb lights with similar color schemes hang from the ceiling. A constant whirring buzz can be heard in the background; 20-somethings stand around with their GQ haircuts, Dockers and cell phones.

Welcome to the “new urbanism,” or whatever developers such as Fulcrum Management Group are calling it these days. Davis Commons, located at one end of downtown on the south side of First Street, is home to Borders, Ben & Jerry’s, Jamba Juice, Bath & Body Works and, of course, Pluto’s, among others. It’s no secret that these tenants attract and cater to a specific demographic: young, educated, health-conscious, politically correct consumers of ice cream, who want to look and smell their best. Subtext? Fifty-year-old generic pants-wearing men and women with bad haircuts and no mobile phones need not apply for membership in the new urbanism.

Are things really that different, that much better? Let’s consider: In the new urbanism, white bread becomes focaccia, iceberg lettuce becomes field greens, Bud and Coors become Pale Ale and Hefeweizen. Wines are not ordered by color but by birthplace (Napa, of course). Cheese becomes gorgonzola or herbed pepper jack, mushrooms become portobello, and chile peppers become chipotle. Even things that are the same aren’t the same: mashed potatoes are now known as “smashed spuds,” while curly French fries become “garlic potato rings.”

And it’s not just that things are different; they are self-consciously different. The mayonnaise is not just mayonnaise, but light garlic mayonnaise. The mustard is not just mustard, but Sierra Nevada honey mustard. The carved turkey is herb roasted from Sonoma. The grilled onions are “caramelized onions” and the tomatoes are all plum. And, oh, the milk? It’s listed as “ ‘GOT’ 2% milk.”

Heavens to Murgatroid, do we really need all this information? Well, that depends on whether you’re a foodie or not. I’ll admit I’m a reluctant sucker for this kind of food—the roasted pepper, the gorgonzola cheese. And by any standard, Pluto’s does an admirable job of producing good, fresh food that is reasonably priced and varied. You can go healthy with salads and veggies or go hard on everything bad for you—sausage, steak, fries, desserts. Best of all, you can opt for a little of both, with a glass or wine or beer.

A giant main course salad of mixed field greens, with a healthy serving of grilled flank steak and several toppings—from grilled fennel to sweet walnuts—set me back $5.80. The salad was delicious with no complaints save one: It wasn’t my salad. Through no fault of the salad maker, who prepared the salad as I called out toppings, my salad was stolen after it left the grill station, where it had picked up a serving of flank steak. A similar looking salad, with all but two ingredients the same, appeared just as quickly as mine disappeared. I ate that one instead.

The “crater of orbital soup” of the day was roasted chipotle chile and corn chowder. That and a side of “orbital onion rings” came in under $6. The generous bowl of soup was fittingly spicy hot and sweet, while the onion rings—the size of Saturn’s rings—were memorably crisp and tasty, complemented by the perfect BBQ sauce—sweet with heat. A grilled portobello mushroom on focaccia with pepper jack turned up no surprises—tender, tasty, with all ingredients fresh and filling. But the garlic potato rings fell short of being fabulous.

All in all, Pluto’s version of the new urbanism, cafeteria-style, is highly likable. So likable, that they—co-founders Louis Kimball and Jerry Bugas—are on their fifth store, since 1995. The most recent one—the Galleria at Roseville—is attracting an older demographic, says Kimball, which supports the theory that all cheap good food has universal appeal. In Kimball’s eyes, Pluto’s is doing to cafeterias what Starbucks has done for coffee—remaking something that’s been around forever into something new. If that’s the case, beware the Pluto’s coming to a corner near you.