The words "school cafeteria" conjure a vision of uniformly cut vegetables -- at my high school, I believe they arrived on trucks in very large cans with generic white labels -- and large quantities of things you don't especially want in large quantities. You could always get seconds of the green peas with unnaturally square carrot pieces, but the orange macaroni and cheese was rationed.
Technically, the 20/20 Diner is a school cafeteria -- it's on the fourth floor of the Southern College of Optometry in Midtown -- but as soon as you set down your tray and start to eat your meal, you'll forget that connection.
And the folks in the kitchen at 20/20 Diner certainly don't think of themselves as purveyors of cafeteria food. If you go to the Memphis Farmer's Market Downtown on Saturdays, you've probably seen the stand 20/20 has there: It's the one with the string of glowing eyeballs decorating the table, and a menu of interesting soups. I go to the market for raw vegetables and fruit, not prepared food, but I also go to buy the rosemary and olive oil bread made by Sheri McKelvie, who does business as Cucina Breads. Sheri's other day job is in the kitchen at 20/20, and she introduced me to Kathy Katz, the owner, which reminded me to stop in.
The school on Madison, between Cleveland and Bellevue, has a fortress-like faade, and it's somewhat forbidding to have to check in with a security guard to get a badge before you get to the elevator.
The inconvenience is easily forgotten once you get to the fourth floor. The lunchroom glows with natural light from the ocular window on the south-facing wall of the school. I saw Sheri behind the counter and asked her what to order. She said without hesitating, "Turkey Cucumber."
And this is the sandwich to get. Layers of thinly sliced smoked turkey are stacked with cucumbers and tomatoes, Swiss cheese, and a homemade mayonnaise that has fresh cilantro and lemon juice.
The "Turkey Tarragon" sandwich is another inspired combination. It's smoked turkey with thin slices of cheddar and apple, and a dressing of mayonnaise, tarragon and Worcestershire sauce. Both sandwiches are $6.50.
We also tried the chicken salad sandwich ($5.25), which was creamy rather than chunky, with an infusion of mustard.
Katz says her diner roasts 40 to 80 pounds of chicken each week to use in the salads, grills and wraps, and for tenders. She gets most of her produce from the Farmer's Market during the six months a year it is open.
The vegetables we tried included a delicious Italian spinach -- you could really taste the spinach over the garlic, unlike the common variety -- and roasted potato salad with a pleasing smoky flavor. The Mediterranean pasta -- with basil, oregano, Parmesan cheese and olive oil -- is excellent.
Katz's diner has been at the optometry school for 21 years. The name was the result of a student contest held 10 years ago. (The winner got to have free lunch once a week the rest of his school days.)
And naturally, there's a story behind that location. Katz once worked as a consultant to vision-impaired food vendors at places such as the federal and state office buildings, helping with menus, inventory and stock rotation. She went to the optometry college on such a mission, and they persuaded her to stay, a decision surely no one at that institution regrets.
--Peggy Burch: 529-2392
Address: 1245 Madison
Telephone: (901) 722-3289
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Reviewers' choice: Turkey Cucumber sandwich; Turkey Tarragon sandwich; Mediterranean pasta.