Long lines of eager foodies often form outside, which wouldn’t be unusual for a trendy new dining spot except that 251 North is not in Adams Morgan or Georgetown. It’s at the University of Maryland in College Park, amid a cluster of towering dorms.
“This is the place you can come to if you are sick of chicken fingers,” said Matthew Popkin, a junior from Rockville, surveying the spread one recent evening.
His options — pho-style brisket, fire-grilled salmon, Pacific rim noodles, deconstructed cannoli — were indicative of a new era in campus dining. Maryland opened 251 North this semester to keep up with a trend that has taken hold across the region recently as campuses add more upscale and locally grown menu options and expand facilities to meet demand. Nationwide, colleges big and small are competing for the attention of tomorrow’s leaders by targeting their bellies with Food and Wine magazine-caliber food.
Out: taco bars. In: lobster tanks.
“Students have different expectations now when it comes to food,” said Joe Mullineaux, senior associate director for the University of Maryland’s dining services.
This summer, Gallaudet University repurposed an old volleyball court to grow some of the cafeteria’s herbs and vegetables, which are infused into entrees with other ingredients from local farms. American University features curried seitan and vegetable ragout with polenta. Virginia Tech offers prime beef and lobster by the ounce in a steakhouse setting, complete with dark wood and gaudy chandeliers.
At Virginia Tech, an early proponent of non-steam-table cuisine, the food is so delectable that a reverse migratory pattern has emerged, with more off-campus students on meal plans than those who live on campus. Seating is now being expanded in its popular West End Market.
That’s right: Given the option, students would rather return to campus to eat.
“Sometimes I’ll call my mom and say, ‘I just had the honey-glazed ahi tuna and it was great,’ ” said Isabel Shocket, a junior from Virginia Beach who lives off campus but dines on. Mom’s answer: “Oh, good for you, dear. I’m so glad you’re eating well.”
On balance, college officials say, the upscale dining options have not inflated already skyrocketing college costs.
Although 251 North cost about $13 million, Maryland officials said dining costs remain flat year-over-year because a new dorm opened, creating more on-campus meal plans to offset any price increases. Gallaudet said it has not raised cafeteria prices any higher than typical yearly increases of less than 5 percent. At Virginia Tech, patrons of its fancier a-la-carte restaurant pay a little more. They receive just a 50 percent discount off the cash price, versus 67 percent at the larger, all-you-can-eat dining halls (which also offer upgraded food).