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Revamped Networks still needs improvement

NETWORKS

Julius A. Stratton '23 Student Center.

By VIPUL BHUSHAN

NETWORKS, ARA'S NEWEST enterprise, opened with much fanfare last Tuesday. It is located on the ground floor of the Student Center, where its old seafood namesake used to be. Unfortunately, the experiences my companions and I had there varied widely from visit to visit.

The atmosphere is casual and relaxed. Most of the chairs are padded, unlike the plastic ones upstairs in Lobdell Court. The tables are comfortably spaced and stocked with Grey Poupon mustard, Heinz ketchup, and even custom-made Networks coasters. Chess and other games are also available for patrons to borrow.

There are televisions mounted on the walls which provide a little visual distraction, but they simply contributed to the overall noise pollution in the place. Without audible dialogue, the programs are meaningless, and most people simply ignored them. Mercifully, the televisions are turned off at lunchtime. They would probably be better used to display sports events or music videos.

Networks is set up somewhat like a diner, but with more of an emphasis on self-service. Customers can pick up Pizza Hut mini-pizzas (cheese, pepperoni and Supreme), salads and prepackaged sandwiches on the spot. For other orders, the cashier gave us numbered receipts and told us we would be called when our food was ready. This meant that on my first visit, my companion had almost finished his pizza and french fries before my entr'ee was ready.

Beverages are dispensed on a self-serve basis. The water glasses are ridiculously small, even though staff have started offering customers two of them. Nevertheless, the system feels more human than the treatment at Lobdell. It's a pleasant change from the various slow-moving assembly lines upstairs, with the big crowds and servers with limited command of the English language. Patrons are allowed free refills of their beverages (tea, coffee, iced tea and soft drinks), which is a convenient -- but unadvertised -- feature.

Service varied with our visits. The people preparing the food tried to be helpful, as did the management staff. One of them even made the rounds of the tables during dinner on their opening day, asking patrons how their food was. However, staff bussed the tables much too slowly during my weekend visit. Empty pizza boxes and dirty plates accumulated on tables for half an hour (and at least one customer complaint) before someone came out to clear them away. The wait for prepared food ranged from a few minutes for a sandwich (how long can it take to put chicken salad on a bun?) to over half an hour for some of the cooked entr'ees.

At lunchtime -- but not at dinnertime -- waitresses came by to record our orders at our tables and brought us our food when it was ready. Perhaps this lunchtime service is an effort to please secretaries and other staff members . . . but isn't this supposed to be the Student Center? Maybe this attempt to cater to MIT staff is also what motivated them to turn the televisions off at lunchtime.

In any case, the table service was a little erratic. Sometimes it took employees a while to notice customers. Sometimes they brought silverware to the tables; sometimes they didn't.

The quality of the food itself also varied widely. The broiled scallops ($5.95), a daily special I had with zucchini, was simple but reasonably well-executed. Neither the scallops nor the vegetables were overcooked or floating in grease, as many have come to expect from local ARA facilities. The teriyaki grilled chicken breast ($4.95) was definitely on the tough and dry side. It was a little overcooked and didn't have much flavor. The carrots which accompanied it, however, were fine. There are six other entrees featured on the menu, as well as daily specials. The Pizza Hut pizzas ($2.29 to $2.49) are standard Pizza Hut, which you may or may not like.

The menu lists twelve appetizers. The buffalo wings ($3.50) were respectably hot, but quite greasy. The spicy fries (regular $1, large $1.75) were well-flavored and neither too mushy and greasy nor too hard and crisp. The clam chowder ($2.25/cup, $2.75/bowl) was passable, no change from the old Networks.

Networks offers a selection of nine sandwiches. Their grilled lemon pepper chicken sandwich ($4.25) was unsophisticated, but good. The Hawaiian chicken (a chicken and pineapple salad, $3.50) was a little bland but otherwise okay.

Junior and senior sirloin burgers and four types of salad round out the menu. The junior burger ($3.25) was okay, though nothing special. Vegetarians will be justifiably disappointed that there are very few vegetarian items on the menu. Demand for them is probably high enough to warrant the existence of at least a few quality vegetarian entrees.

Thursday night is free appetizer night. Last week, Networks offered free Buffalo wings. I didn't expect too much for free, and that's exactly what I got. These wings were too oily and fatty, more so than the ones we got from the regular menu.

To sum up, Networks is a very medium-quality place. It is quite cheap -- the most expensive item cost $6.95. Prices in general were slightly higher than those upstairs in Lobdell. Students pay no meal tax, and can use their Validine cards.

The portions are enough to satisfy a moderate appetite, but don't expect to fill your belly there. Networks' food is far from gourmet, although it beats the McDonald's up the street. They seem eager to please and are trying to start off on the right foot, though they have already started to stumble. They may manage to pull their act together and smooth out the rough edges -- there are plenty of them to take care of.

How Networks will manage to hold up remains to be seen. Nevertheless, if you eat at Lobdell, or want a quick and convenient place to eat on the west side of campus, Networks is indeed worth checking out.