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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The art of lunch at Macy's cafe
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A sandwich and salad at the Macy's cafe at Hilldale make for a simple shopping lunch.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

If you're shopping at Hilldale and find yourself in the mood for a civilized lunch or light supper, head downstairs to the housewares section of Macy's to the friendly and stylish cafe. There's a cafe in the basement of Macy's? Who knew?

I always thought it was just a place to buy Frango mints. But it's open all day, "pretty much any time the store is open," according to the friendly clerk behind the counter, and is a nice, restful place to visit with friends, regroup, or even read a chapter or two.

The atmosphere here (nestled between bedding and high-end cookware) is quite unlike the loud, airportish aspect of the food courts at East and West Townes. And the food is a cut above average.

The tradition of tea rooms in department stores goes back to the 1920s, when shopping ladies would dine on crustless egg- or chicken-salad sandwiches and tea. Macy's offerings hark back to those days, but with a contemporary kick. Three pre-made sandwiches follow the tea room tradition -- but the egg salad panini and the ham and cheese "panini" ($3) are on a tasty, substantial bun, while the tuna salad lite ($4) perches on whole wheat bread.

Four different types of salads are available by the pound, so you can order as much or as little as you wish -- on a recent visit the case held a pretty chop salad with white balsamic vinaigrette; a cavatappi and cheese salad with buttermilk dressing; a spaghetti-based pasta salad; and a traditional honey mustard chicken salad with poppy seeds ($5-$10/lb.). Ask for a taste of any of them. Large pre-made tossed salads were a harvest and an Asian ($6). Individual quiches and soup round out the menu. The soups, two a day, were chicken noodle and acorn squash ($3/cup, $4 bowl).

I was lunching with my Mom, who ordered what to me looked like a doll-sized portion of the honey mustard chicken salad and a roll on the side. The salad was sweet with a bit of onion, and no gristle (the most serious potential flaw of any chicken salad.)

I chose the egg salad panini and a cup of the squash soup. The egg salad was pleasantly chunky, made with mayo (not Miracle Whip, a horrible predilection in the Midwest that as far as I'm concerned should be illegal), celery, lettuce and a slice of tomato. The soup was rich and sweet, with just a little edge of spice, and although the cup it came in looked small, it turned out to be quite a satisfying portion. We also ordered two of the home-baked cookies ($1 each) -- one chocolate chip, one oatmeal walnut raisin -- which turned out to be super crunchy on the outside yet soft and chewy on the inside, a perfect combination.

While you could end up dropping quite a bit of money here because everything looks so tempting, pricing is not out of line, and the $3 panini sandwiches are even, dare I say it, a bargain.

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