In the pantheon of culinary prejudices, the fare served at hospital cafeterias rates a step above prison and orphanage gruel. This is a well-established yet surprising rep, given that the very mission of hospitals is to enhance the health of those who enter their doors (although some Group Health regulars might take issue with this notion). If anything, hospital cafeterias should tend toward the cutting edge of ultra-nutritious cuisine. However, this simply isn't the case—at least not yet, anyway.
Four Seasons Cafe Virginia Mason Hospital, 1100 Ninth Ave., FIRST HILL
Dockside Cafe Swedish Medical Center, 5300 Tallman Ave. N.W., BALLARD
The Dining Room Swedish Medical Center (Cherry Hill campus), 500 17th Ave., SQUIRE PARK
As for fitness-forward Seattle, you'd think such items as pizza and burgers would be contraband at places like Virginia Mason's Four Seasons Cafe, but they're not. That said, easy, breezy lunch-line slop isn't exactly the rule, either. Two Tuesdays ago, the chef's special was a jerk pork loin. Where the "jerk" was on our two thin, bland strips of pork is anyone's guess, but the chicken chili that came alongside them hit the spot—and was probably pretty harmless as chili goes.
The environs at Virginia Mason are what you might expect from a hospital: sterile. The clientele, meanwhile, was short on actual patients and long on the scrubs-and-stethoscope set, who eschew more adventurous eat-out options for quick on-site wolf sessions between procedures. At the Dockside Cafe on Swedish's mellow Ballard campus, there were more actual clients occupying the dining room, which had a nursing-home vibe. Give me your sick, your working-class weary, and your rich doctors: The great Northwestern kingdom's various strata intersect here, shoulder to shoulder, fork to spoon. Fittingly, as its name reveals, the Dockside focuses on fish, serving a very respectable salmon fillet (diminished, ever so slightly, by virtually tasteless brown rice). But the standout dish was the steak special, which featured extremely tender beef and adroitly seasoned new potatoes.
Like the Four Seasons, the Dockside features two elements that are fairly unique to hospital cafeterias: a conveyor belt upon which used trays are placed for semiautomated bussing, and a pay-by-the-ounce salad bar. Why salad bars fell out of favor like so many '80s fads is bewildering, but at the hospital cafeteria, they've never gone out of style. Garbanzo beans, bacon bits, croutons, sunflower seeds—the gang's all here, as if it never broke up in the first place.
It is in this leafy realm that the Dining Room on Swedish's Cherry Hill campus (formerly Providence Medical Center) drops its first hint that it's a cut above its brethren. Rather than offering mere iceberg lettuce, the Dining Room features actual spinach. And the special of the day, bow tie pasta in red cream sauce with sides of steamed broccoli and focaccia, sounded downright gourmet. That it fell short of such a standard in taste is beside the point; the Dining Room's aspirations to transcend its genre's mediocrity are enough to bring a nurse to tears.