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And if you're there to stuff yourself silly, Sweet Tomatoes is a super bargain; a dinner of salad, soup, and everything else at Sweet Tomatoes goes for $7.69 (not including beverages). There's plenty of heavier fare as well, including separate stations for hot breads, pasta, soups, baked potatoes, and a kid-magnet frozen-yogurt machine.
Unfortunately, when you venture away from the salad line the food gets iffy.
The cream of broccoli soup was watery and tasteless; the dull chili was loaded, on two occasions, with undercooked beans that tasted as if they had just been dumped out of a can; and the French onion soup had lots of onions in it but hadn't simmered for very long, so it was watery and bland. Dainty little baked potatoes, wrapped in foil, can be dappled with sour cream, cheese, and bacon (although I had to go back to my table, split open the potato with a knife, and return to the potato department to pile on the accessories). The breads range from moist and tasty (blueberry muffins, Indian grain bread) to practically inedible (rock-hard focaccia, a sugary and undercooked lemon muffin, something that looked like a chocolate brownie muffin but was so bad my friend Bob spit it out). The Pizza Focaccia was good -- but it's a traditional pizza compared to any true Italian, olive-oil-brushed focaccia I've ever seen.
A white-jacketed "chef" mans the pasta station, whipping around a trio of pans piled high with hot pasta choices that vary from day to day, including the mildly peppery Arizona Marinara and, inexplicably, something called Creamy Bruschetta Pasta. The Italian word "bruschetta" derives from "bruscare," meaning "to roast over coals." At any other restaurant, "bruschetta" describes slices of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil and sometimes includes fresh basil and tomatoes. At Sweet Tomatoes it's just a fancy name for an Alfredo pasta with chopped tomatoes. Not bad, but not bruschetta.
"This is a great place to take the kids," my friend Carol said as she nibbled on a tiny loaf of buttermilk cornbread, "and Grandma. It's filled with wholesome family values." But too many of those children were completely unsupervised, especially the ones congregating around the frozen-yogurt machine. I did run into a few unexpected faces during my visits, including the childless -- and grandmother-free -- radio psychic David Schneider ("You get a lot of bang for the buck here," he said, hauling a towering plate back to his table). He had no predictions for me but said, "You need to go on a diet." True enough. I also saw a former local TV personality who confessed that she would like the place more "if they would let you light up a cigarette" -- but Sweet Tomatoes is strictly nonsmoking.
After the crowd of monstrous kids around the frozen-yogurt machine had cleared, I was able to make myself a tidy little sundae, topped with chocolate syrup and crushed cookies. On another visit, not wanting to fight my way through that horde, I walked over to a different dessert area and settled for a bowl of orange Jell-O, which was surprisingly comforting and brought back memories of a cafeteria I would visit with my family during my childhood. On that cafeteria line, no decent salad display was without little bowls of jiggling Jell-O cubes and a molded gelatin salad of some kind, an old-lady concoction usually embedded with grated carrots or tiny bits of chopped canned pears.
But that was in the days before salad bars were countercultural. Though the hipness quotient of Sweet Tomatoes is nonexistent, there were a couple of Fellini-esque moments during my visits, including the view of a 70-ish lady with strawberry-colored hair, wearing capri pants and an ill-fitting tube top, who struggled with not one but two trays piled high with two plates of salad, two plastic crocks of hot soup, a bakery case of muffins and mini bread loaves, and a couple of plastic dishes overflowing with pasta. She wriggled into her booth, tossed a paper napkin into her lap, and pounced on her food like a starving jackal.