The East Side Hy-Vee has been open for four years already, and while it is a beautiful store, its restaurant is the poor cousin of the one in the bigger, more upscale West Side grocery store that helped revitalize Westgate shopping center when it opened in May.
The biggest differences are that the dining room in Westgate’s “Market Cafe” offers booths, waitstaff, beer and wine.
Unlike the East Washington location, customers can order off a menu available at the tables. The other option is to pick out food immediately from behind glass cases — mostly Italian and Asian — and self-service from a well-stocked, gorgeous-looking salad bar.
Instead of paying before eating like you do on the East Side, your server gives you a bill that is handled tableside.
Hy-Vee’s politely named “all-you-care-to-eat” salad bar has a price tag of $7.99. One-trip and to-go portions are less expensive.
Most impressive is the huge amount of fresh, pristine fruit, all cut and ready to eat. On a recent visit, it included bright red strawberries, watermelon chunks, mango slices, pineapple, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, pink grapefruit, green and red grapes, kiwi, honeydew melon and cantaloupe. I’m probably leaving something out.
A friend mentioned that they stocked papaya the first week but may have discontinued it because of a lack of interest.
The weekday we stopped in for lunch, the watermelon wasn’t ripe and the raspberries were nearly tasteless. And the mango was preserved in something acidic. But it all looked tantalizing.
It’s also encouraging that Hy-Vee offers a variety of lettuce options as well as kale salad with red onions and pepitas in a light oil and vinegar dressing.
Kale, by the way, is a wonder food with more iron than beef, more calcium than milk, and 10 times more vitamin C than spinach. That’s according to a University of New Hampshire publication. Prepare it the right way and it can taste amazing.
At Hy-Vee, I perked up a plate of kale with blue cheese, strips of crisp yellow bell peppers, mushrooms and real crumbled up bacon instead of bacon bits.
The best pre-made salad on the salad bar was the cavatapi pasta salad with a liberal amount of pesto. The pre-made salads change all the time, which is probably appreciated by regular customers.
Also worthwhile were the sweet pickled beets with onion, and the creamy cucumber salad with thinly sliced cukes.
A dining companion went with the Chinese menu and had chicken with broccoli ($5.49). He was impressed with the amount of food for the price, but the mound of fried rice had little flavor. The two main ingredients were fine, but Hy-Vee isn’t the first place I’d go if I were in the mood for Chinese food. The meal came complete with a decent-tasting chicken egg roll and a wrapped-up fortune cookie.
Speaking of desserts, there were a number of mousses or whips on the salad bar, with the cookies-and-cream one scoring big at our table.
My daughter, who has taken a number of excellent Hy-Vee cooking classes on the East Side and has always enjoyed the grocery’s pizza, had a slice of cheese pizza ($1.99) and was more than happy. Kids drinks are free, and customers can choose their soft drink from one of those fancy new, all-in-one soda fountains.
Service was surprisingly friendly and helpful. One server brought us water glasses with lemon, and another checked on us regularly and cleared away all plates.
The restaurant with its sliding glass entryway has comfortable booths, but on our visit it was overly air-conditioned.
I recently took some out-of-town visitors to dinner at the East Side location and they never let me forget we were eating in a grocery store. At the new West Side “Market Cafe,” once you are seated, the grocery part slips away.