Anyway, that's the premise that Jonathan Kaplan, co-founder of the company that brought you the Flip Video camcorder, brings to the fast-food table. Give the people what they want: five varieties of one much-beloved American comfort food. Start with three stores in San Francisco. Multiply.
The main ingredients of the Melt are technological:
1. You can order and pay on the Web or the Melt mobile app, scan the QR code when you arrive at the restaurant so the sandwich is cooked right then (in a minute or so), and pick it up without waiting in line.
2. If you order in person, the counterperson asks for your initials, which seems a little weird. But then your initials show up on a screen showing where you are in the queue of orders: Working, working ... order up!
Kaplan had Electrolux, the vacuum-cleaner people, design non-stick sandwich presses that require very little butter and don't squish the bread. The sandwiches emerge hot and soft.
Which is great if you're very old or very young. But for anyone between, say, 7 and 85, a little crunch would be nice, to remind yourself that you're eating and not just swallowing. Just about every food item at the Melt is soft, almost drinkable.
All the soups are pureed. You can watch them being aerated in tureens, also thanks to Electrolux.
Within minutes my dining companion and I downed a boatload of calories and fat — and, with a grilled s'more for dessert, a bit of sugar. We felt uneasy when we left the Melt. Full, yes, but like we'd had dinner at a day-care center.
It isn't cheap, especially when you consider the ingredients and lack of labor involved. A small sandwich is $5.95. (The Classic, sharp cheddar on potato bread, packs 590 calories and 35 grams of fat.) A cup of soup is $3.95. (Tomato basil is just 110 calories, 6 grams of fat.) Buy them together on the combo, $8.75, and they throw in a Barbie-size bag of potato chips. (Unstated calories and fat.) Grilled dessert sandwiches are $3.95.
We tried the tomato basil soup and the creamy wild mushroom soup. Both were smooth and warm and tasted like their ingredients.
Similarly, though, both sandwiches were soft and bland. Bread varieties are: potato, sourdough, eight-grain, garlic, whole wheat and gluten-free. But the two we tried, potato and garlic, didn't taste or feel all that different. You can add, for free, bits of bacon and/or tomato. This helped beef up the Classic, but on the Italian Job, fontina and provolone cheese merged into indistinctness.
But that's always been the idea behind the grilled cheese sandwich. Thanks to the Food Timeline, we learn that ancient Roman cookbooks offer the earliest recipes for cooked bread and cheese, and that the American version owes its birth in the 1920s to the inventions of inexpensive sliced bread and American cheese. World War II sailors enjoyed "American cheese filling sandwiches" and soon so did school and company cafeterias, often including a side of tomato soup. Grilled cheese sandwiches were open-faced until the 1960s.
The Melt, located where Smith & Hawken used to sell garden tools, is very pleasant, with high ceilings and comfortable blond-finished plywood booths. It's fun, with '50s-style globe lamps, subway-style white-tiled walls, splashes of bright orange signage, and metal cafeteria-style trays. All the cups, spoons and napkins are bio-compostable.
Naturally, many of the drinks are organic (milk) or natural (Izze sparkling juice and soda). Beer runs $3.50 for the Anderson Valley's Boont Amber Ale and $2.75 for the urban hipsters' Pabst Blue Ribbon. Also popular are mini-cans of Francis Coppola Winery's Sofia sparkling wine.
We didn't spring for drinks, but because of that unfinished feeling we did split a grilled s'more sandwich. This involves milk chocolate melted into a smidgen of marshmallow — or marshmallow sauce, it was hard to tell — between finger-sandwich slices of indistinct bread. A graham cracker would have been nice.
Stanford Shopping Center
180 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
(Sand Hill Road side, near Pottery Barn)
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun. 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: Stanford Shopping Center
Alcohol: beer and sparkling wine
Outdoor dining: yes
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Noise level: medium-high
Bathroom cleanliness: very good