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Ghini's still packs 'em in

Although Ghini's could be considered one of my neighborhood restaurants, I don't get there very often. Part of the reason is that getting a table can take a while, especially on weekends. Not being a big breakfast person (and Ghini's specializes in breakfast), I just don't have the patience for the wait. But Ghini's has won Best French Restaurant in our Best of Tucson® competition the past four years running, so apparently others don't seem to mind.

Some of the reasons for the big crowds are the use of fresh, local ingredients, the unique menu choices and the relaxed feel of the place, which add up to a nice time sharing a meal with friends. Plus, Ghini's is dog friendly. Most days you'll see one or more canines lolling under tables on the patio while their owners dine.

To avoid the crowds, we opted for an early lunch and a late breakfast, both during the middle of the week. It was a seat-yourself situation and we decided to eat indoors. The servers noticed us but it was several minutes before anyone came to the table. Fortunately, the menus are on the table, allowing for a quick perusal of the offerings.

The appetizers and salads include lots of the usual stuff, but you'll also find pate maison on a bed of greens ($9.95) and scalloped potatoes ($4.50). Entrées include a long list of sandwiches, omelettes, pastas and Ghini's signature eggs Provençal ($8.95), which is almost a must-order.

This dish was delightful. The over-easy egg "had the right amount of slurp for swishing the bread through" according to my dining companion. She described the bread as uninspired, but that hardly mattered thanks to the tomatoes, which had been sautéed to softness in olive oil with garlic and thyme. It was aromatic as well as delicious.

Heads up to garlic lovers and haters: Ghini's uses lots of the stuff. But in a way that says "French," it's handled right. Even the salad dressing on the spinach salad ($7.95 half; $9.95 whole) sang with garlic, but it didn't overpower. That salad also had good-sized bits of bacon and thick slices of fresh mushrooms, but it was a bit disappointing overall because the fresh spinach was a bit wilted.

Another French specialty here is the croque madame: French bread, smooth Gruyere cheese, creamy béchamel sauce, a pile of thinly sliced ham and a sprinkling of Parmesan, all topped with an egg ($9.95). (A croque monsieur [$8.95] is the same sandwich without the egg.) Ghini's version came together nicely, with all the flavors and textures in balance, but it wasn't warm enough.

However, the French onion soup that came with the sandwich was piping hot. Topped with thick slices of bread and gooey melted cheese, the soup was rich and savory, with lots of soft, sweet onions. I grew up eating the best French onion soup in the world, and although this version didn't come close to that, it was most satisfying. I originally ordered the soup as an appetizer but the server suggested I substitute it for the side that comes with the sandwich (either chips or a bit of greens). As a stand-alone order, the soup is $5; as a side it was $3. Merci to the server.

Ghini's offers French toast with a variety of toppings, and we opted for the Nutella. The dish was quite delectable. The bread was fluffy but still had a golden crust. I would have preferred a bit more Nutella since the heat of the toast melted it to a point where it lost some of its rich flavor. But the whipping cream and powdered sugar were plentiful and added just the right amount of sweetness. The menu says the regular French toast comes with a side of either turkey sausage, pork sausage, bacon or Canadian ham and eggs. It wasn't clear whether that option is available with all the French toast variations.

Ghini's also has a DeLite menu and something called the Recovery Beverage Menu (no explanation needed).

The service is Ghini's weak point. It's unfocused and the servers are undertrained. We had to wait an exorbitantly long time for our food on the first visit. Getting our Redeye coffee (coffee with a shot of espresso) also took forever. We weren't the only ones with service issues, as evidenced by neighboring tables.

Plus, you have to pay for your meal at the counter after you eat, which I find a bit disconcerting (especially when your server doesn't inform you of the procedure, which was the case on both visits). It's awkward and detracts from the dining experience.

Ghini's also serves dinner on Friday evenings. The menu looks interesting, as does the wine list. I'd like to try it sometime.

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More by Rita Connelly

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