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Sauce

Exit Armani, enter Cafeteria Boston

Email|Print| Text size + By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / January 12, 2008

For months now, men who wear neck scarves and women who carry purses worth the sum of a sizeable car payment, have mourned the loss of Armani Cafe, the restaurant on Newbury Street that until last August was a prime spot for summer lunches on the patio and people-watching.

Those stylish shoppers now have reason to rejoice; the brains behind Armani Cafe (including its general manager and sous chef) have opened a new operation on Newbury Street called Cafeteria Boston. Up and running for a month now, the two-floor space on the corner of Gloucester Street is a lot like Armani Cafe - without as much of the Armani.

The most notable thing about Cafeteria is its cork decor. The seats are cork upholstery. The backboards behind tables are the same fitted cork material. It's stylish, but at less-crowded times, the restaurant looks as if it's one giant bulletin board waiting to be poked with thumbtacks. The downstairs lounge is well-lit with a pick-up-friendly bar. There's also a more intimate dining room with tables for two and four upstairs, but it's not always open.

We found Cafeteria to be hard on the ears. The music isn't overpowering, and ranged from light techno to Garbage (the band), but the acoustics on the first floor amplify just about everything. Within minutes, we were speaking in rock club shouts. So much for cork absorbing sound.

The bar seemed to be the best place for a date. There were couples and groups of friends enjoying a meal while watching the Celtics on a flat-screen. Those patrons fared better sitting side-by-side instead of having to yell across a table.

Our group of four started with the tuna tartar, a perfect cat-food-shaped circle of the fish garnished with wontons. It was delicious, but the eggplant Napoleon, a sizeable stack of breaded circles topped with tomato sauce and cheese, was better for sharing.

For entrees, we sampled the big and the small. Two of us had sandwiches - the vegetable and the chicken panini. The veggie was well worth $9, thanks to unexpected greens like asparagus and a hearty coating of goat cheese. The chicken, on the other hand, was dry, salty, and could have come from the fridge at Au Bon Pain.

The shrimp scampi didn't rival what you might find in the North End, but the pan-roasted sea bass was fresh and came with the highlight of the dinner: lobster mashed potatoes that knocked our collective socks off.

But this place is more interested in its vibe than pleasing foodies, and for the most part, Cafeteria has already established a desirable scene. The two tables that surrounded us were occupied by young professionals with good hair. Both groups looked comfortable when we arrived and showed no signs of leaving as we paid our check.

And unlike Armani Cafe, Cafeteria Boston seemed willing to accept a few unfashionable outsiders. On the night we dined, I didn't have time to change after work and wound up wearing a casual-Friday cotton top and old jeans that I'm embarrassed to say are both high-waisted and possibly tapered (I bought them at an outlet mall).

That ensemble would have earned me glares on the Armani patio, but at Cafeteria, I was greeted with smiles. Maybe it's because Cafeteria Boston is new and people feel compelled to be nice. Maybe it's because the Armani kids have matured. Or maybe it's because couture means less at a restaurant named not for a famous Italian designer, but for a room where everyone eats together.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.

Cafeteria Boston, 279a Newbury St., Boston. 617-536-2233. cafeteriaboston.com Hours: daily 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner: Sunday-Wednesday until 10:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday until 11:30 p.m. Cocktails: $10-$12. Wines by the glass: $7-$13. Wines by the bottle: $28-$165. Sandwiches: $9-$12. Entrees: $16-$29.

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