Campuses cater to foodie movement by turning cafeterias into upscale eateries

There is very little parking at 251 North, one of the hottest new eateries in the region. Most patrons walk.

This pleases the proprietors — walking is healthy, environmentally conscious and in harmony with the planned rooftop garden and the restaurant’s LEED Certified Silver status.

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).

The gourmet generation

How students wound up eating so well is as much a cultural story as it is gastronomical.

Today’s college kids grew up in a foodie culture. Chefs are celebrities. The Food Network has even gone after the MTV demographic, with Emeril Lagasse showing viewers how to cook dorm-room Western frittatas (an upgraded omelette). The environmental consciousness on campuses has evolved into calls for sustainable, organic food.

“These students are more educated about food than any other students before them,” said Ted Faulkner, senior associate director of dining services at Virginia Tech. “It is a challenge to keep up with them. They know what they want in food, and they expect that it will be offered to them in interesting ways.”

In 1989, food service giant Sodexho surveyed students about what delighted their taste buds. Top menu trends: chicken nuggets, fruit and cottage cheese plates, half sandwiches and cups of soup, chicken chop suey and chili. In a similar survey this year, the answers were unmistakably different: fattoush and sumac, couscous chicken stew, orecchiette with broccoli and garbanzo beans, and wild mushroom risotto balls with pesto aioli.

“When I was in college, which was a long time ago, we had one cafeteria and we had one line,” said Mary Soto, the chef at American University. “I’d go to eat and I’d remember saying, ‘What kind of critter did that come off of?’ You couldn’t identify what kind of meat you were eating. Everything was frozen.”

Today’s entrees are often cooked to order, right in front of students. This helps keep costs down; the only food prepared is food that is ordered. At 251 North, there are options for Italian, Asian, American and other cuisines, with professional cooks and students grilling beef, mixing noodles and slicing artisan pizzas in front of the patrons.

“I think students enjoy watching and knowing the food is cooking fresh in front of them,” Mullineaux said. He showed off 251 North’s replacement for a standard roll at the salad bar: a mini-panino with boursin cheese and prosciutto.

A selling point for schools

Campus officials say that while the more highfalutin dining entrees can sometimes drive higher revenue, they are more interested in food as a recruiting tool. At Virginia Tech, the school’s football coaches take potential recruits to eat at West End Market, which has a steakhouse, a sports bar, an Italian bistro and a deli. Another large nouveau-dining hall is planned for next year and will feature wood-burning grills.

Alexa Lewis, a junior from Philadelphia, became smitten with Virginia Tech while still in high school when she visited a friend on campus. Her friend promptly took her to eat the West End Market’s piece de resistance: London broil at J.P.’s Chophouse.

“I’m not going to say it’s the only reason I came here, but food is important, it really is,” Lewis said, in between bites of salad at J.P.’s. “My mom always makes fun of me. She says, ‘You picked your college by the food.’ ”

The increased focus on the junior gourmands does not mean they have completely lost their appetites for chicken fingers and tacos.

Virginia Tech still has Chick-fil-a, Pizza Hut and Cinnabon. Maryland still offers heaping portions of fried food and hamburgers. Snack shops have not abandoned Doritos for edamame.

At Gallaudet, where the cafeteria lists the source of ingredients and the distance they traveled to get there, some students are pining for fast food options to be served alongside their chili-lime-chipotle carved pork loin.

“McDonald’s,” freshman Casey Hicks said, standing in the cafeteria line. “Or Burger King.”

Read more stories on PostLocal.com.

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post?s local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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