Shooting the breeze at Florida Hospital cafe

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For decades, the cafeteria at Florida Hospital Orlando has been a secret arsenal for vegetarians, vegans, the healthy-minded and the broke. The operation is wrapped in the traditions of the hospital system's founding Seventh-day Adventist Church ' a diet free of meat and caffeine being one of those traditions ' but the cafeteria is loaded with meaty and meatless options, most at cheap prices.

What's always been missing is atmosphere ' the room is pleasant but nothing fancy, though mounted TV screens and fresh tabletop flowers soften the institutional vibe. Still, the panoramic view at the hospital's new Lakeside Café blows away the competition. Sitting at an outdoor table on the terrace, looking out to the east across Lake Estelle, you can see the tree-filled back side of Loch Haven Park and bustling Mills Avenue off in the distance. There's plenty of climate-controlled space inside, as well.

Inside the café itself, there are a handful of stations where food is ordered and prepared before visitors head for the cashier. The smoothies (blended from scratch, not a mix) were worth the visit alone; my refreshing carrot concoction with ginger root and banana was not too sweet and served slightly chilled ($4.99). At the colorful salad station, the crunchy Thai version with peanut sauce (and more ginger) burst with flavor; a full plate ($4.99) could be a whole meal and the half-plate ($2.99) of any variety (Greek, house, make-your-own) is a steal.

Paninis ($4.99) seem to be favorites at the sandwich station, which had ample contemporary selections but didn't forget to include a simple chicken salad on an oatmeal bun ($3.99). There are more gourmet options at the flatbread station, and they cooked my choice of cheese and roasted garlic ($5.99) in minutes. Pesto, roasted red pepper and marinara sauces were stocked at the cooked-to-order pasta station. The chocolate cake ($1.89) at the bakery was a little dry, and though I wanted a latte, I passed on the Starbucks in canisters. But the small raspberry sherbet gelato ($2), one of a dozen or so flavors, was berry- rich in taste.

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