by Mike Corrigan

I've got this old Berlin song in my head. It pops in there every time I think about the Metro Caf & eacute;. Not that the Metro Caf & eacute; has anything at all to do with early-'80s synth-pop. It's just that... wait. Maybe there is a connection after all.

When I asked Metro Caf & eacute; owner -- known simply as Swanee -- how long he had been serving lunch-hungry downtowners at this location, he proudly replied, "19 years and one month."

Nineteen years? Where have I been all this time? Not in the Sherwood Mall in the 500 block of West Riverside, that's for sure. But I kind of wish I had. I mean, to be in business -- in this business in this town -- for almost two decades, well, you must have nailed the formula for success. Clearly, I had some catching up to do. (Incidentally, 19 years and one month ago is just about the time Berlin's "The Metro" was being played on the radio and MTV. Coincidence? I'm sure of it.)

Yeah, the Metro has been under my nose for some time, or more accurately, over my head. You can see it street level from the intersection of Riverside and Stevens, on the Northwest corner, one floor up.

"We've become the reference point," says Swanee. "People used to say, 'Oh they're over there by Sheer Madness.' Now people go, "Where's Action Mortgage? Well it's right by the Metro Caf & eacute;."

Inside, the black-and-white and forest green color scheme is accented by lots of shiny chrome. It sparkles. It's clean. And, judging from the constant tidying up we were noticing, it's kept that way. Around noon, a tide of business types and shoppers flow in dressed in everything from fitted suits to sweaters to sweats. We even spied two women, sitting across from each other, drinking Bud Lites and smoking like there was no tomorrow (this was at 11:40 am). There is, in fact, a smoking area here, one that miraculously does not interfere with the non-smoking section. This happy co-existence is achieved through the use of nothing so high tech as two whirring box fans strategically positioned and tirelessly sucking smoke out through an open window. Whatever works, right?

The colorful menu boards change daily and are filled with diverse and thoughtful options. There are specialty sandwiches of all kinds -- and you can make your own, too. Soothing warm dishes, like tuna casserole, mac & amp; cheese, chicken pot pie and lasagna (with salad and bread for $5.75) rotate in and out of the daily lineup. There are soups ($2.25/ $3) and salads ($3.50-$4.25 for a regular), of course, along with chips, baked goods and pretty much every beverage known to humanity, including bottled beer.

But the main attraction seems to be the fresh carve. Each day, the Metro roasts a different hunk of meat, slices it up and serves it until it's history. You can get turkey breast every day along with the alternating schedule of savory slabs that include meatloaf, ham, roast beef and smoked turkey.

Since the chow line is set up cafeteria-style, you not only see exactly what you are getting, you can also tweak your order as it is being filled.

"It's simple foods carefully prepared with no pretense," says Swanee. "And it's geared for working people."

The fresh roast of the day during our visit was pork tenderloin, a crew favorite. We love it so much in fact that each of us chose a lunch prominently featuring the pig. The "Perfect Trio" ($5.35) came with slices of the daily carve, potato du jour and choice of Caesar, spinach or house salad. Although one of our tasters was hankering for the Metro's potatoes Romanov (or au gratin, for that matter), she settled for that day's offering of a baked potato with butter and sour cream. The house salad is a crispy blend of romaine and other lettuces, mixed to order with the dressing of your choice and a variety of fixings. It was a fine match for the ever-so-slightly dry but nevertheless delicious pork roast. We also liked the shot glass-sized cup of applesauce that was neither too much nor not enough. A perfect little comfort lunch.

The carve and salad special ($5.35) consisted of a generous 1/3-pound pile of freshly sliced roast pork along with a choice of salad -- in this case, the spinach -- and a roll. The outstanding spinach salad (with bacon bits, mushrooms, mozzarella and zesty sweet and sour dressing) was complex in both taste and texture.

Our third bit of roast hog was in the form of a BBQ pork sandwich with a side of potato salad (we substituted the Caesar) for $5.25. The sandwich was tidy and filling but a tad bland. The Longhorn BBQ sauce was sweet but had no kick, nothing to set it off from the Wonder bread-like softness of the white bread bun. The Caesar side salad was flavorful though the lettuce was a bit limp.

Overall, it was a pleasure. And when we were finished eating, a worker cheerily cleared our table of trays and other refuse, encouraging us to take our time, while enjoying the many people-watching opportunities, the Metro's relaxed atmosphere and the terrific city views.

Publication date: 04/08/04

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