EL TORO — It's 11:30 a.m. and the lunch crowd is drifting in.
The regulars line up in the entryway under a simulated skylight and head for the dining area to pile their plates from the soup-and-salad bar or the pasta bar, featuring spaghetti and four different kinds of pizza. Some choose from entrees of broiled salmon, baked filet of sole or carved roast beef.
As the noon hour approaches, more people head for a fast-food line offering burgers, fries, milkshakes and fish sandwiches. For dessert, there are do-it-yourself ice cream sundaes, or a selection of home-baked cakes, pies and parfaits displayed in a rotating glass case.
Welcome to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station mess hall.
And please be seated in the carpeted dining area, where oak tables and captain-style chairs are arranged restaurant-style, set off by flower boxes full of artificial ivy. The booths are padded; plants hang from artificially lighted skylights in the atrium-style ceiling; framed pictures grace the walls, and terra-cotta brown, burgundy, aqua, dark blue and dark green are the predominant color schemes.
Gone are the days of military chow lines, where mysterious concoctions were plopped onto a metal tray and the mess hall was a long row of tables placed end-to-end in a stark, colorless room.
Reflecting a recent, nationwide trend to upgrade day-to-day life in the military, a $3.8-million renovation of the original 1948 mess hall at the El Toro base transformed a 260-foot-long, concrete-walled room into an elaborate eating facility for enlisted service personnel.
Capt. John D. Blake, food service director at the El Toro base, said the new mess hall was designed like a restaurant to keep troops on base for meals. An estimated 1,400 people eat at the mess hall daily, of 8,000 employed on the base, Blake said.
"We don't necessarily want to compete with McDonald's or Burger King," Blake said. "But we want to provide the same kind of service. Over the years, people have been drifting away from mess halls because of the idea of standing in line and then being dissatisfied with the food. But the atmosphere of this place brings in more people."
Indeed, the decor and setup of the 318-seat, main dining room resembles the self-service lines at buffet-style eateries, while a separate, fast-food area has a takeout service from a generic menu closely resembling the one under the legendary "golden arches."
And the new mess is popular.
Just ask Marines piling their plates with fresh fruit topped with soft-serve ice cream and going back for second helpings of pizza, pasta, pie and cookies.
"I thought they were going to serve potato buds all the time," said Sgt. Bernell Jones. His dining mate, Lance Cpl. Terry Leacock, assured a reporter that the mashed potatoes are indeed real.
"This is the best mess hall I've ever been in," said U.S. Army Maj. James Moore, who was visiting the base on a recent tour for the assistant secretary of defense.
Moore should know. His job is to review about 50 military facilities a year for the Department of Defense.
"I eat at least one meal in every mess hall," Moore said. "I get a chance to sample them from one coast to the other. And not only is the food good here, the selection is incredible. I'm staying at a nice hotel, but I'm eating my meals here."
Moore gave high marks to the salmon filet and also to the health-conscious signs posted over each entree in the buffet line, showing the amount of calories per serving.
The base employs a dietitian to help prepare a 28-day cycle of menus that include reduced-sodium entrees, low-fat and low-cholesterol options and the typical meat and potatoes fare that once gave military grub a bad name, Blake explained.
"And we're nonsmoking too, in the entire building," he added.
The cost of a meal is 85 cents for breakfast and $1.65 each for lunch and dinner. Meals are served at two-hour intervals between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., plus a midnight meal from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Mess hall manager Richard Holbrook oversees a permanent staff of 50 plus service personnel assigned rotating, 30-day kitchen duty. He spent 10 of his 18 years in the Marines in its kitchens and mess halls.
"It was in pretty bad shape before," Holbrook recalled of the El Toro mess hall, which had plain linoleum floors and concrete walls. "We didn't even have air conditioning, just window fans. Now it's one of the best."
Blake is quick to point out that a wall was built to soundproof the dish-washing area from the dining room. The spotless kitchen has been restocked with top-of-the-line, computerized equipment and floored with ceramic tiles.
In addition, the renovation provided more storage rooms, a bakery area and space for administrative offices. A false ceiling was installed to cover air ducts and pipes and to provide better acoustics in the 40-foot-high building, Blake said.
Construction took two years and was completed in April by RJW Construction of Yorba Linda. Holbrook said the enlisted club ballroom substituted as a mess hall during construction.
El Toro officials said the renovation may help them better compete with the nearby Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, which in 1987 won acclaim for the best mess in the corps. The Tustin base also hosts an annual, elaborate cook-off in conjunction with the Tustin Chamber of Commerce.
"I started out as a (Marine Corps) cook 21 years ago," Blake said. "Then, we had one entree, a starch, a vegetable and one dessert, and if you didn't like it, then you 'hit the door.' Now, it's like the dining room away from home."