Mystery meat. Canned fruit. Mushy peas. Soggy fries. That's the fare traditionally thought to be served in college cafeterias, often as not in an atmosphere as unappealing as the food.
However, at Northwestern's dining facilities, which serve more than 7,000 students every day, such a picture is inaccurate. At today's warm and inviting University dining halls, students are likelier to be digging into such entrees as creole vegetable jambalaya, tandoori chicken stir-fry, fettucine carbonara or vegetable Thai fry over rice.
In 1997, when Sodexho Marriott Services took over the majority of Northwestern food services, the company also undertook the mission of raising gustatory standards. At many of the eateries on the Evanston campus, physical improvements were also made to render dining more enjoyable. A quick and decidedly unscientific poll of students at several spots indicates that they're happier with the chow they're getting and with the environment in which it's being dished out.
Although Sodexho attempts to maintain the same quality at every eating spot, some students report that different places have their specialties.
"The chicken patties at Willard Hall [on South Campus] are the best on campus," says junior Eric Singley knowledgeably. "Believe me, I've checked."
Foster-Walker Complex resident Stephen Bassman, a junior, would stake his gourmet reputation on the 'plex's chicken a la king. Whenever it's served, he fills out a complimentary card for the Sodexho employees.
Since students can't exactly raid the fridge for a midnight snack, F-W opens up from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m. for a rush of late-night marauders. "Late night is all about the chicken patties, french fries and tossed salad when you've had a busy day and missed dinner," Bassman comments.
Willard is sporting new tables and leather chairs this year that find favor in the eyes of Singley and others. "The atmosphere is better than when I used to eat here last year," he says. "It makes you want to stay and talk with friends a bit longer."
Allison Hall, where the cafeteria received a makeover in 1997, is a short walk down University Place from Willard. Wags may call Allison's eating area a space station or a biosphere, but the sleek, glass-enclosed facility gets high marks from most of its diners. Students like the tall ceilings, the openness of the place and the natural light from the skylit ceiling.
Another popular feature in Allison is a grill bar for ordering hamburgers, french fries, quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Often crowded especially on a Sunday night, when other dining halls are closed Allison has only one drawback: the acoustics. "I can't hear anything in here because people's voices echo," yells Jennifer Schuster, a sophomore. "But I love the salad bar."
Most students choose dining halls for convenience, and Sargent Hall, located on the North Campus, is a convenient place for many. Across from the Bobb and McCulloch Halls, this establishment serves more students than any other cafeteria. And with many athletes living on the north end, there's a whole lot of eating going on up here.
New restaurant-style tables at Sargent have replaced the traditional long wooden ones. Junior Brian Harahan, co-captain of the club soccer team, likes the change in décor. "I think having the new tables improves the atmosphere," he says.
Harahan took the opportunity provided by an interview to share his favorite dessert recipe, which includes a little coffee, vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of Chocolate Rice Krispies. This delicacy is not on Sodexho's official menu, but Harahan has been spreading the word.
Elder Hall's dining facility, on the northwest end of campus, gets few complaints, but the one thing that everyone praises is Al. Al Parcell (D39), a retiree for a number of years, has been swiping student cards through dining hall scanning machines since 1991, and he always has a friendly word for his young clients. "Having raised a big family, I realize how important mealtime is, so I've wanted to make the experience as friendly as possible," Parcell says.
Willie's Food Court, on the ground level of the Norris University Center, offers another meal option for the masses. Equipped with a grill, wok, salad bar and deli, among other features, Norris can be jampacked at any given lunch hour. Last year, 700,775 hungry individuals passed through the turnstiles.
"We try to keep a balanced menu," says Dave Sauers, director of Northwestern retail food services for Sodexho Marriott. "I don't think many people realize what a tough job that is."
Almost as tough is the students' effort to keep the calorie count down. The gourmet ice cream at the Cone Zone in Norris draws 'em from miles around, and for the caffeine-starved, there's the cleverly named Higher Grounds Coffeehouse.
Norris' location near the classrooms is important. Says senior Lauren Fletcher: "I live up north, so it's nice that I don't have to trek all the way back between classes. I just go to Norris and hang out." Fletcher likes the food, but she goes for the social aspect, too. "You can't go there without running into a lot of people you know."
For North Campus students who may be in need of sustenance and/or java, the University last year opened North Side Coffee Co. in the residence hall at 610 Lincoln St. Open from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, the spot affords its denizens an inviting place to study and chat in colorful booths or on cozy couches. Tech Express in the Technological Institute, of course also provides a pleasant place for north-end dining, with its long corridor of booths and tables. Rumored to have the best muffins and breakfast foods, Tech Express has helped many a researcher or engineer-to-be to get through long days of polishing off projects.
Along with all of this chow for undergraduates, Sodexho also provides campus catering services as well as food for faculty at the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Aramark Corp.'s campus dining services feed the hungry businessfolks at the Leverone Hall cafeteria and the Allen Center.
Although nothing compares to a home-cooked meal, Northwestern's hard-working food-service employees will keep trying to get as close as they can.
Alex Ortolani (WCAS01) is majoring in English/writing and American Studies. Although he's from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, he considers himself a citizen of the world, and his favorite campus meal is Mexican pizza.