What matters to a high school student picking a college? Academics or sports teams, you'd think. Or might it be cafeteria food?
High-schoolers like me spend summers and spring breaks touring colleges to judge how well we'll be taught and how well we'll be fed. Lately, I've sampled food at five campuses: Pitt, Allegheny College, Case Western Reserve, Michigan and Slippery Rock. Here's my report card for each:
The University of Pittsburgh:
All the charm of a subway station, but the food's not bad.
That describes Market Central, the cavernous cafeteria beneath the Litchfield Towers, those distinctively ugly round dorms between Fifth and Forbes, right in the center of the Oakland campus. To get to Market Central, push your way through a lobby, shared by all three towers, that is jammed by seemingly half of Pitt's 17,000 undergrads rushing to class, along with shouting political activists and eager student-club recruiters proffering flyers. Take the stairs in front of the student laundromat and walk down a flight.
Once in the dining hall, it's quieter, though still not quiet, with scores of students passing from one buffet station to another as music videos play on huge TV screens hanging from the ceiling. It's dim but not depressing; on a gloomy day, I wouldn't mind spending hours here, studying and eating all I want -- which is possible, because students, with one swipe of their meal card, could come here for breakfast at 7 a.m. and stay until closing at 2 a.m. (shorter hours on weekends).
Each of the six stations offers something different: pizza and pasta, for instance, at the Bella Trattoria station; pancakes, french fries and hamburgers at Flying Star Diner; and teriyaki chicken over sticky rice at 360 Degrees. I sampled just about everything except the sushi, and I liked it all. The quality was decent, the variety excellent and the volume unlimited. That's pretty much all a teenaged guy needs or wants, and if the atmosphere is less than refined, who cares?
Case Western Reserve University:
Most campus tours conclude with the distribution of free meal tickets to a student dining hall. Not at Case Western.
So I had to find my own way to a campus eatery, and it was not the typical buffet-style cafeteria but a "Restaurant + Bar + Study Hall" -- the Jolly Scholar, located in the Thwing Center, the student union.
There was, in fact, a big bar there, with a big high table seating a dozen or so professor-types gabbing over their beer steins -- jolly scholars, indeed. The restaurant section had wooden booths and waitstaff service. Case students get a "meal swipe of the week" to eat here, and several of them were scattered about. But I didn't see anybody studying.
Luckily, this place had my favorites. A dozen boneless BBQ chicken wings, a pulled pork sandwich, a four-cheese pizza (above) and a chocolate milk shake were all delicious, and ably served by a recent Case graduate working off her college loans. Just as I thought I was full, a kitchen staffer began walking from booth to booth, offering samples of a new kind of pretzel bread the chef was trying out. That was tasty, too.
That's not the day-to-day dining experience of a Case student, and I wish I knew more about the regular dining halls. But it's an unusual meal plan that lets you eat, even occasionally, at a place reviewed favorably on Yelp.
The University of Michigan:
In Ann Arbor, the trademark block "M" shows up everywhere -- from the Big House to the waffles (at top).
Sure, I expected to see the University of Michigan's famous symbol emblazoned atop its football stadium (the nation's largest). But I was surprised, at the North Quad Dining Hall, to find an "M" embossed on top of my Belgian waffle.
School-spirited waffles are just one of the choices at North Quad, a 10-story residential and academic complex situated on the edge of central campus. On my visit, the menu included a choice of seitan (a chunk of wheat gluten) or a boneless chicken breast marinated in balsamic vinegar and oil, then grilled and sprinkled with fresh parsley (above). I tried both, but let's just say I'll stick with chicken. From a hot-foods station, I selected a grilled vegetable pita wrap, a grilled cheese sandwich and a dish of portabella mushroom ravioli, but passed on the cream of tomato soup. From a wall oven, heated to 460 degrees, emerged an array of crisp, flatbread, 12-inch-square pizzas topped with buffalo chicken, so I had one of those, too.
It was a big upgrade from the limp pasta and squishy vegetables that my mom, uncle and grandmother (all rabid Michigan alumni) endured in decades past. And it shows the university's commitment to fresh, healthy, locally-sourced food, said sous chef Paul Smith.
Besides the food, you can't beat the ambience. A Hogwarts look-alike, the North Quad dining hall is just that -- a hall, not a cafeteria -- that seats 188 under a soaring ceiling. In fact, student manager Chris Plampin was happy to show me photos of a recent Harry Potter-themed dinner there.
Don't miss the pulled-pork sandwich here. You wouldn't expect to find a Southern specialty this far North; then again, you could transport this picturesque small campus, with its red brick buildings, white pillars and big trees, to the heart of Dixie.
Allegheny College feeds its 2,100 students at two facilities: McKinley's Food Court, in the Campus Center, and Brooks Dining Hall, in the same building as an all-girls dorm. I ate at Brooks, a noisy, open room under a two-story-high ceiling, with plenty of natural light pouring in through big windows. Students clad in Greek-letter shirts gathered at long cafeteria-style tables after visiting any of several all-you-can-eat stations offering pizza, salad, burgers and various hot entrees.
There was nothing unusual on the day I visited -- no intriguing ethnic dishes, no exotic pizza toppings, no gotta-try-it chef's special. But the food was fresh, hot or cold as necessary and -- did I mention? -- limitless.
I can't give Allegheny high ratings for creative cuisine; but I could pack on the freshman 15 just with that pulled pork.
A family friend who is a professor at Slippery Rock told me once he never eats at Boozel Dining Center, one of the campus dining facilities. Is the food that bad? I asked him. No, he said, it's so good that if I go I can't stop eating.
I found out how right he was when I visited campus.
The food at Slippery Rock is so good I want to go back for my birthday. It's so good I wonder why restaurant critics don't review it. It's so good I'm tempted to enroll just so I can eat there every day.
On no other campus did I find such freshness (as in the salad above) and quality and variety. There were things I never tried before: roasted mango fettuccini, chickpea orzo salad, maple bacon cupcakes (below). And there were things I know and like, such as french fries fresh cut from local potatoes and tangy, house-made pizza and Alfredo sauces.
"Most of our food comes from within a 75-mile radius of the campus," said Bob Johnston, production manager for AVI Foodsystems Inc., the Ohio company that runs the dining hall.
AVI aims to encourage not only healthy but adventurous eating habits, Mr. Johnston said. In an all-you-can-eat setting, there's no risk to trying new cuisine, so students reared on meat and potatoes may find they like curried rice salad and North African vegetable soup. I sure did.
Last summer, that family friend's daughter got married in Slippery Rock, and the catered reception was right on campus. Now I'm sorry I couldn't go: I missed a chance to wish them joy and eat a heck of a wedding feast.
A word of caution: Summer is a popular time to tour campuses, but the worst time to sample the food. Many colleges and universities scale back or completely shut down their dining halls during the summer, since enrollment is so much lower. At Michigan, I had to talk my way into the North Quad dining hall, which was feeding summer campers and conventioneers though it was officially closed to touring high schoolers. When I visited Pitt a second time, in July, Market Central was busy not with students but with carpet installers, and even Slippery Rock had a much more limited, though still delicious, menu in June than in April. So don't judge a school by its summer chow; talk your parents into taking you again during the regular term.
David Navadeh photos