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Nov 9, 2009 04:33 PM

Most memorable cafeteria food

We've all had bad memories of cafeterias (as this topic was inspired by entries on the "We are so spoiled" post), but entering an establishment, picking up a bakelite tray and sliding it along three parallel stainless steel pipes while selecting our fare has not always been a dismal experience. Yes, let's dispense with any mention of the school lunchroom. That was dismal.

From early childhood, I recall the ubiquitous Horn and Hardart (known only to the New York/ Philadelphia crowd) had quality fare that is sorely missed to this day. It was fresh, unembellished and embodied the simplicity of a grandmotherly kitchen. Great stuff!

More recently, I had the pleasure of being invited by a former ambassador friend of mine to lunch with him at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. YIKES! A cafeteria like I've never seen. With the same tray-on-rails format, the array of appetizers, soups, salads, main courses, grilled-to-order items, fresh vegetarian and vegan dishes and serving areas for dozens of warm, room temp and chilled desserts blew me away. Every imaginable beverage followed - teas, fresh juices, coffees, you name it. It was all-encompassing. And all was delectable. I guess with the influx of highbrow intellects from a gazillion cultures, you have to be good. And it is.

Are any others worth mentioning here?


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  1. BOTH of the cafeterias at Hong Kong Baptist University when I was there in 2002 had GREAT food. BBQ pork and rice, roasted chicken and rice. Sweet iced lemon tea. Noodle bowls with every imaginable combination of add-ins, for pennies. Set lunches (app, main, dessert) for under $4. Real dishes and flatware. Yum. Western specialities too, and pastries...

    I think it operated on the same principle as the Princeton caf you mention, Chefpaulo -- their international program was large and well-established, and when you add the ubiquity of cheap good eats in Hong Kong... the cafeterias had to be great, just from a competition standpoint!

    I've heard tales (of Eldorado-myth proportions) of the mind-blowingly great cafeterias at the Google headquarters but have never gotten an inside perspective.

    2 Replies
    1. re: LauraGrace

      I have heard this as well. And its free and unlimited to their stock-rich employees.

      I've also been to the touted employee restaurant on the 47th floor of the Comcast Center in Philadelphia. Supposedly the culinary sky icon of Philly, it is not. I'll take Princeton any day.


      1. re: Chefpaulo

        The employee cafeteria at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach fed about 1000 people a day. The food was fabulous. Roasted meats and fish, fresh produce and salads. The desserts and baked good were exquisite. Most of the food was the same served to the hotel guests. I put on 15 pounds over a 2 month period while doing some restoration work there in the early 90's. At the time, employees ate free and contractors were charged $4.00.

    2. The AutoStrada grills in Italy, who says roadfood has to be HoJo bad?

      1. This is a bad, not good memory... I was a freshman at Mt. Holyoke College in the fall of 1976, there was no central cafeteria, each dorm had its own cooks and dining room. I can eat almost anything - a lot of the food was inedible... I'm talking REAL green eggs and ham. Ramen noodles became a staple. At the usual all-college welcome-back meeting at the beginning of my second year the college president announced, very uncomfortably, that the food-service manager had been found guilty of embezzlement and had been fired. Followed by the most enthusiastic standing ovation I've ever seen.

        And yes, the food improved drastically.

        1. When I was in college, back in the Jurassic era, there was a lunch item folks liked to make fun of, but many of us secretly liked it. We called it "dog biscuit". It was a biscuit-dough pinwheel containing a filling of mystery meat. It came covered with brown gravy. It NEEDED that gravy.

          One of my prize possessions is a 1950's cookbook from Sunset Magazine - a real time capsule - and there is a recipe for a similar thing. It has a fancy name, and they do not call it "dog biscuit".

          1. The Forum cafeteria in Kansas City back in the late 40's and early 50's was awesome! All of us kids remember our grandmothers taking us shopping or to a show downtown and then lunch at the Forum. The desserts were special. There was seating on the main floor and also up a flight of stairs. They even had waitresses that would carry your tray if you had to eat on the upper level! Real class.

            6 Replies
            1. re: SonyBob

              Wow! I remember the Forum too. In fact one of the best dishes I still remember today and tried to duplicate was their creamy coleslaw. Do you remember it? It was fabulous. Thanks for writing your article.

              1. re: Chiefers

                The Forum was in St. Louis, too, with the upstairs and the tray-carriers. I learned to bone fish there, eating their jack salmon (which is actually whiting). Great biscuit shortcakes, too.

                1. re: lemons

                  I remember The Forum in downtown St. Louis. I ate chop suey there. I also remember the seeming infinity of appetizing choices. I was really quite young! I ate there a couple of times in the very early '70s and I don't remember it well at all.

                  1. re: sueatmo

                    Oh, the Forum in downtown Oklahoma City. Like Bob, I went with my grandmother. I loved it so much, and she let us get anything we wanted. I seem to recall great salads and desserts. Like any child, I loved the mashed potatoes and brown gravy.

              2. re: SonyBob

                KC was a great Cafeteria town. We were Myron Green fans because we lived in Roeland Park,and would hit the Mission one, but my mom loved them all, Forum included.
                Putch's and The Carousel at about 62nd and Troost stand out 40 some years later. :)

                1. re: bbqboy

                  One of my earliest jobs was at the Putsch's cafeteria at 83rd and Mission. I have many fond memories of my time there - and some are even about the food! I also worked for EBT, which had its roots with Myron Green. Gosh, that was a long time ago...