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Instant Picnic 

by Mike Corrigan

Not in the mood to pack your own lunch for that afternoon romp in Manito Park? Why not let the friendly staff at the Park Bench do it for you? The Park Bench is located in that low-slung, red-trimmed basalt structure just off the road that links Manito's duck pond to the rose gardens. It's only open during the summer -- roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day -- and isn't really the place that immediately springs to mind whenever lunch plans are drawn up. Not even the girl working the window knew of its existence -- until she got hired. Yet by the size of the crowd parked at numerous tables and benches around the joint on the day of our visit, you could safely assume that there are many -- from this South Side neighborhood and elsewhere -- who regularly take full advantage of the caf & eacute;'s serene location and wholesome food choices.

The Park Bench has this location, location, location thing nailed. The outdoor seating is plentiful and set along a beautiful stretch of the park. In the shade provided by a stand of stately horse chestnuts, you can quite easily escape not only the bustle of your harried existence but the murderous heat rays of sun as well. (Just ask the "Silhouette Man," who seems to be a regular fixture up here.) For al fresco dining in Spokane, it doesn't get much better than this.

The menu does a good job of covering the basics. The obligatory sandwiches (smoked turkey, roast beef and ham with pickle spear and chips: $5.75, whole; $4.35, half) are the kind you'd make for yourself. They're augmented by a quad of salads ($5.85-$6.35) and a soup of the day (for $3), each served with Bohemian rye bread and butter. But there are specialty sandwiches, too (at $6 and $4.85), like the Greenhouse, a veggie, with cheddar, sunflower seeds, tomato, sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, red onion, grated carrots and creamy horseradish on rye, and the Brady's Gourmet with roast beef, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, cream cheese, and horseradish. And for those with more proletarian tastes, there are the "Dogs in the Park" -- yes, hot dogs -- including a simple dog on a bun ($2) and the "puppy bag" ($2.75) which consists of a dog, a bag o' chips and a Tootsie Pop. While there are several soup and sandwich deals (soup + whole specialty sandwich, for instance, is just $7) there was no salad and sandwich deal, which we considered a strange omission, especially for a summertime lunch spot.

After ordering, our small group settled around a shady table and sipped iced teas. Service was quick, and our lunches were uniformly well made with fresh ingredients. They were nicely presented and tasty if not overly remarkable. The sandwiches came perched upon red and white checked paper in wicker baskets with a bag of Lay's potato chips and the promised pickle spear (the cold, crisp and sassy deli kind). Cara's Curried Egg Salad sandwich (all of our sandwiches were $6 each for a whole) had minced egg with olives and a hint of curry on lettuce and rye bread. The mixture's curry flavor was very light and not overpowering. There were also large olives tucked inside and the thick, soft dark rye to enjoy. Not a risky sandwich (as some might expect it to be) but instead quite pleasant. The Tropical that Leah ordered -- with ham, smoked turkey, Swiss, pineapple and lettuce on wheat bread -- was decent though rather pedestrian, with Swiss cheese that was a bit too chewy. She thought it would have been much better grilled.

Mirth ensued when she opened her Lay's chip bag -- and discovered no chips inside the bag.

We laughed. "Yeah, they never give you very many."

"No, really," she insisted. "There are no chips in this bag."

We all looked and, to our astonishment, discovered she was absolutely right. Her Lay's bag was utterly chip-less. Fortunately, the equally flabbergasted staff kindly provided her with an appropriately chip-full replacement.

My almond albacore tuna salad contained not only the title ingredients but also water chestnuts, celery, lettuce and tomato between thick slices of wheat bread. It was a treat -- the way fresh, cool tuna salad always is on a sweltering day -- but I think I was looking for a little more crunch in the mixture. Again, a good sandwich, but nothing mind-blowing. One nice break from the basics was the Oriental sesame chicken salad (chicken, almonds, and crunchy noodles on a bed of crisp greens with a light, gingery dressing), which was delicate but flavorful and even zingy -- the perfect hot weather nosh.

The Park Bench's primo setting among the trees provided us with the perfect atmosphere for a welcome summer respite -- in glorious, naturally air-conditioned comfort.

Publication date: 08/05/04

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