Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - October 22, 2010

Mission accomplished

Pluto's keeps food and prices down-to-earth

by Dale F. Bentson

A few years ago, the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from a major planet to a dwarf planet, to the chagrin of many. Pluto will get more positive attention in 2015, when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is expected to make its closest approach to the body.

In the meantime, dining at Pluto's in Palo Alto isn't much of a problem.

The restaurant chain started in San Francisco in 1995, and Louis Kimball and Gerry Bugas opened their Pluto's on University Avenue in 1997. There are now eight Plutos orbiting Northern California.

"It's true: We named the business after the planet," Kimball said. "Since we are Gerry and Louis we could have gone that route, but resisted. We wanted something with two syllables, something that was easy to pronounce and remember."

Both Kimball and Bugas have degrees from Cornell University in hotel administration, and previously worked at the Stanford Court Nob Hill Hotel in San Francisco. At Pluto's, they decided to focus on simple and fresh items. "Our menu today is pretty much the same menu we started with," Kimball said, adding, "We positioned ourselves between fast-food and a full-blown restaurant."

For the first-time diner, Pluto's might be a tad confusing. There is a salad station, a grill station, a pay station. Patrons grab paper menus, place their orders at the appropriate station, have the menu punched to signify what was ordered, wait for that portion of the order to be made, then continue to the next station or cash register.

There are discreet signs directing traffic flow — and, trust me, plenty of fellow diners to help you out should confusion reign. What looks rather cosmically chaotic is organized and orderly after all.

Elbow to elbow, cooks toss salads, grill meats, assemble plates and fill beverage orders behind a glass partition. During busy hours, the staff works at warp speed.

Occasionally, there is a bottleneck at the pay station. That part of the crew is responsible for filling beverage orders; plucking brownies, bars and cookies from glass containers; dishing out side orders; and other tasks. But even at the busiest of times, the backup doesn't take long to clear. Best of all, there isn't that distressing Styrofoam cup soliciting tips at the cash station, or anywhere else on the premises. Hooray for Pluto's.

With food in hand, diners eating in parties of larger than one might take a moment to find a place to sit, especially during the midday crush. Seating is first come, first served. The unadorned, sturdy wood tables are bussed instantly and the dishes and flatware used are restaurant-grade, which adds a detail of quality to the topnotch food ingredients.

While the menu revolves around salads, meats, sandwiches and sides, the potential combinations are astronomical. There are 18 possible salad components, a half-dozen meat options, and numerous side dishes.

Salads are $5.15-$6.95, and meats and sandwiches $4.40-$5.90, with extra meat or cheese added for a nominal fee. Side dishes generally hover around two dollars. There is a good-sized Little Astronauts kids menu as well.

On a recent visit, the chicken Caesar salad ($6.95) I ordered was large and tossed before my very eyes. The lettuce was spring-green, the croutons crunchy, the chicken a tad on the salty side. The dressing was tame but not flat and in the right proportion, coating all the lettuce. Pricewise and freshness-wise, it was a good deal.

One warm day, I decided to have an early Thanksgiving dinner. I ordered the carved turkey ($4.40) and was given the choice of white or dark meat or a combination of both, as well as mashed potatoes ($2), stuffing ($2) and a thimble of cranberries ($.50). Total: $8.90 for one terrific plate of pre-autumnal bliss.

Another time, I opted for a grilled tri-tip steak sandwich on focaccia ($5.90). The beef was thin-sliced, tender and flavorful. The side of Orbital Onion Rings ($2) came with a tangy barbeque sauce for dipping.

The Celestial Sandwich special one week was a grilled chicken breast with cheese, peppers and lettuce ($5.90). It was a delicious lunch especially when coupled with the Crater of Orbital Soup ($4), which happened to be a hearty, flavor-packed, Tuscan bean potage with chunks of chicken.

The only dish I wasn't enthralled with was the macaroni and cheese side ($2.50). It wasn't bad, just too plain. Even browned bread crumbs on top would have added another dimension. In all, a minor complaint.

For beverages, there are coffees, teas, juices, sodas and waters. Pluto's has beer, including a house ale on tap made by Pyramid Breweries. Wine labels rotate among Estancia, Mondavi and Ravenswood labels, $4.25-$5.25 per glass.

Pluto's is exactly as Louis Kimball described it to me: a restaurant positioned between fast-food and fine dining that utilizes nutritious ingredients and attractive pricing. Sometimes the simplest foods can be out of this world.

Pluto's

482 University Ave., Palo Alto

650-853-1556

plutosfreshfood.com

Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Reservations: no

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street

Alcohol: beer and wine

Children: yes

Catering: yes

Takeout: yes

Outdoor dining: no

Party facilities: no

Noise level: moderate to loud

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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