Consider that a restaurant critic is equal parts anthropologist and spy: a Margaret Mead and Mata Hari combined. Restaurants are observed and analyzed. These, then, are field notes on matters raw and cooked, on the salad bars at three Sizzler restaurants.

1. Chains and franchise restaurants are popular in the United States. Is there something comforting about standardization in the midst of cultural change? But what about the touted American need for independence and free will? (Is the food any good? Don't fence me in.)

2. Large menus on the wall upon entering give prices. Regular, senior citizen's and children's menus: all inexpensive. Highest price (for lobster and steak combination) is $9.99. Salad bar is $4.49 for all you can eat, or $2.39 if ordered with an entree. Lots of plants. (On close inspection, they turn out to be artificial.)

3. Place order with first person behind counter. He or she asks what you want to drink. And, if ordering a meal, do you want French fries, baked potatoes or rice? All these decisions! (I want to stare at the plastic models of dessert in the case but the line needs to move on toward the cashier. Conflict of system and individual desire?)

4. Salad bar comes with a drink and with Sizzler toast. I don't want toast or beverage. "But it comes with it," I am told by someone trained to think in terms of form. (I think in terms of Jack Nicholson and the waitress in "Five Easy Pieces.") Young staff here is very eager to please!

5. Walk with tray (with silverware, plate and drink). Find a table. Establish territory. Head over to free-standing salad bar. Attractive at first glance. Cornucopia includes iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, dark spinach leaves, garbanzo beans, sunflower seeds, grated cheddar, grated parmesan, cottage cheese, Italian peppers, cole slaw, pasta salads, alfalfa and mung bean sprouts, julienned ham, some sort of pink and white salad (rice noodles?), raw mushrooms, raw broccoli and cauliflower flowerets, hot potato skins under "sun lamp," bacon bits, egg salad, chips, big hunks of cucumber with rind on, raw onion rings, choice of dressings, raisins, marshmallow salad, red seedless grapes, fresh cantaloupes and pineapple, apples, plums, tangerines, canned cling peaches. Serving personnel remind you "eat all you want." Ah, free choice.

6. Rice noodle salad wrongly identified. It's "crab salad." Actually, it's faux crab salad, made of rather generic-tasting pollack. If in mood for faux food, not bad. Think about faux motif: faux pink flower on each table in milk glass vase, faux leather Formica table top and faux desserts-- chocolate pudding, strawberry cheese and carrot cake models in front case.

7. Servers on every occasion charming, helpful. ("Would you like more water? Another napkin? A clean plate?")

8. My reaction is quizzical yet curiously content. The fresh produce is crisp and ripe. Really sweet pineapple and melons, excellent plums. Salad bar is like going to a party, an "affair." By second trip to a Sizzler it feels "personal" because I know the ropes, even though I am now in another location, 75 miles away. Tables large enough. Undeniably cheerful lighting. Comfortable chairs.

9. Bravo: cold rice salad with spinach; L.A. Mousse desserts; particularly crunchy potato skins; zippy fresh-tasting cilantro and green onion salsa; bottled rice vinegar and coarse ground pepper accoutrements; roomy, private booths (all at Sizzler Diamond Bar).

10. Some other notes: beef patty (substantial, arrived medium rare, as ordered, but chewy, too greasy); salmon filet and steak (steak juicy, chewy; salmon overcooked. Remember regional expression: How can you go wrong for $6.99?) Fresh trout and fresh yellowtail, glossed with something called "whirl" (soybean oil, citrus juice and paprika) are indeed fresh and pleasant enough. Baked potatoes drowning in margarine, remember to ask for it on the side. Hibachi chicken--airline food.

11. Unbridgeable culture differences: hot cheese for chips, tastes like spiced glue; assorted pasta salads with pedestrian "glazes" or cloyingly sweet mayonnaise; homogenized salad dressings; canned yellow wax beans.

12. If in I-know-it's-bad-for-me-but-it-tastes-so-good-when-it's-hot-junk-food mood: aforementioned potato skins, cottony orange-colored margarine-soaked white Sizzler toast.

13. The Sizzler is clean, comfortable, courteous, cheap. A standardized bargain: you're on your own to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The Sizzler, numerous location s , including:

23525 Palomino Road, Diamond Bar, (714) 861-2382 , Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

1242 University Avenue, Riverside, (714) 682-9210, Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

2025 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 453-3250, Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sun. 11 a.m.-midnight.

MC, VISA, AMEX. Salad bar: $4.49 a la carte, $2.39 with dinner entree. $1.70 with luncheon specials. Dinner for two: (food only): $10-$25.

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