Cheap Eats

Great, tray-chic dining.

Cheese whizzes: Blintzes at PSC Cafeteria.
Now that the Condé Nast cafeteria has made busing a tray at lunch downright stylish, we've been reliving our junior-high days -- without the Tater Tots and mystery meat -- at the new AQ Café at the Scandinavia House, a natty concession run by Aquavit. On the menu: textbook Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes ($9), a luscious herring plate ($6.50), even that old cafeteria warhorse lasagna. Though this one's a rich salmon version with béchamel and tomato-caper salsa ($9).

We also happily get on line at lunch with the UPS delivery men, the beefy double-beeper-belted garmentos, even strappy-sandaled, Pucci-clad blondes (no doubt Condé Nast-cafeteria fugitives bucking the Si Newhouse-imposed garlic ban) at Veronica Ristorante Italiano. The place mingles a shabby sixties-era garment-district charm -- brown plastic trays; orange Formica tables; pre-poured red or white wine -- with a few unexpected refinements like homemade herb-and-fennel bread and good espresso. Defying the laws of steam-table physics, the pasta, in most cases, is just a bite shy of al dente. Shells in a creamy Bolognese sauce ($8.50) and linguine with two mammoth but surprisingly light turkey meatballs ($6.50) are favorites. "It's better than Le Cirque," we overheard a fashionista crow on a recent visit. "Well, the portions are better," demurred her garmento friend.

The portions at the spotless, skylit PSC (Polish Slavic Center) Cafeteria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are so much better than Le Cirque's that even the burly working men who congregate here wobble like tentative tightrope walkers as they carry their pierogi-packed trays back to their tables. Satisfying slabs of meat loaf, chicken cutlets, and beef-and-pork-stuffed peppers are a few of the hearty entrées heaped high with mashed potatoes and gravy, red cabbage, coleslaw, rye bread, plus a glass of compot (the room-temp fruit drink) -- all for under five bucks. Throw in a measly extra dollar and you get a big bowl of the soup of the day. Or splurge on dessert: perhaps the best cheese blintzes in Greenpoint served with a dollop of vanilla-sweetened sour cream.

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· AQ CAFÉ,, 58 Park Ave., near 38th St., 212-847-9745
· VERONICA RISTORANTE ITALIANO, 240 W. 38th St., 212-764-4770
· PSC CAFETERIA, 177 Kent St., Brooklyn, 718-383-5290