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What the world needs now is love sweet love, but what Miami Beach needs is affordable restaurants. The recently opened Alton Road Café fits the inexpensive bill, though it's more diner, or coffee shop, than restaurant or café. The space was previously an IHOP (attached to the 41st Street Howard Johnson), the plush blue booths still intact, but syrup jars no longer on the tables. Like that pancake chain, Alton Road Café is most desirable at breakfast time, and its menu boasts an equally "international" flair: three thick wedges of challah "French" toast ($2.75), a fluffy "Belgian" waffle ($3.25), "Canadian" bacon, and omelets ($3.65 to $5.95) from the "Athens" (tomato and feta) to the "Italian" (sausage, tomato, and mozzarella). A good old American breakfast of two eggs any style, with moist home fries and toast, is eminently reasonable at $2.75; coffee refills come rapidly via affable waitresses.
Lunch is the second best time to stop at the café. Triple-decker sandwiches satisfy in their bacony, mayonnaisey way, and coffee shop standards like Reubens, tuna melts, and grilled cheese sandwiches are adeptly prepared. An eight-ounce burger, with coleslaw, crisp fries, and even crisper pickle spear is, at $4.25, emblematic of Alton's appeal: When it comes to eating foods such as eggs, sandwiches, or burgers, you pay much less and get the same product, minus atmosphere, that's available at many of the Beach's quite pricey "moderate" dining establishments.
The differences between those restaurants and Alton become more pronounced at dinnertime. Starting with the ambiance -- the dining room here, which has sunlight streaming in during the day, is more glum at night. And while $7.95 is an undeniably nice price for a roasted chicken dinner with soup or salad, linguine or potato, vegetable, and challah, the mashed potatoes tasted powdered and the corn and green bean combo was frozen.
Rule of thumb when dining in low-priced restaurants: The less preparation a dish requires, the more successful it is apt to be. Strip steak ($10.95), for instance, only has to be taken out of its plastic package, seasoned, and placed on a grill, while veal cutlet parmigiana ($9.75) contains numerous culinary processes that can, and inevitably will, be botched by low-priced cooks: Is the breading too salty? Is the frying oil too cold? How tasty is the tomato sauce? Stick with steak, burgers, roast chicken, and the like.
Desserts are those you'd expect -- Jell-O, rice pudding, and sugary, mass-produced cheesecakes and carrot cakes that are so omnipresent in this town we might as well declare them regional specialties. While we're at it, we can also declare Alton Road Café an affordable spot for breakfast or lunch, and at least be thankful for that.