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College dorm cafeteria food -- which ones are the best?

For parents who have been touring college campuses, have you been able to sample the food served by the college dorm cafeterias?

About 15-20 years ago, I always thought that Cornell had pretty good dorm food. Not sure if that's still the case, and I hear they no longer serve lunch? Anyone know, or can comment on Cornell's food offerings?

UCLA, unfortunately, has not improved much in the past 2 decades or so, and now I understand that all dorm cafeterias will stop serving beef (though not dairy products).

That said, USC is probably worse.

Both Cal and Stanford are extraordinary in my opinion, although I may get stoned by this from Golden Bear alums, but Stanford is probably better.

Any recent experiences at college dorms? And have any of you, or your Chow pups, made (or will make) a decision in part based on the campus food?

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  1. My son is a junior at Emory University in Atlanta. As their website says

    "dining hall menus emphasize organic, local, natural and sustainable choices.

    The university is moving toward a goal of using local or sustainable sources for three-quarters of the food served on campus by 2015. "

    My son finds plenty of choices at the main dining hall. They have a huge salad bar, several serving stations including international, vegetarian, pizza and deli. In the morning, they have an omelet station where they custom make your omelet while you wait.
    He didn't go to Emory for the food, but it has been a nice benefit.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jmcarthur8

      Yeah, I had a friend who got her MPH at Emory and she raved about their salad bar.

    2. Not sure if this helps, but I know there are quite a few lists online for "Best College Meals/Meal Plans" along these lines:


      1. Not a parent, but I graduated UCLA in 2007 and I have to say that the dorm food was pretty darn good, especially when compared to the other UC system schools I visited. Although I will admit that while food quality hasn't improved, the options have over the years. Just looking at the online menus seems to indicate they've expanded their vegetarian and vegan offerings and the various dorms have more diversity in their menus.

        3 Replies
        1. re: taiwanesesmalleats

          Which dining hall did you find the best? I thougt Covel was very nice. Not there when I was a student, unfortunately.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            At it's height, Hedrick was very good but went downhill as construction sprang up and hours/services changed. Covel was definitely the most consistent during my four years although the Mediterranean theme can get tired rather quickly.

          2. re: taiwanesesmalleats

            I graduated the same year and I agree, it may not have been restaurant-quality but for dorm food, I thought it was pretty great. I honestly didn't see much distinction between any of the dorms, they mostly served the same stuff with a little variation (Covel had more pasta as I recall? And Hedrick had sushi on certain days). The desserts were pretty lacking, but as far as the other options went, well, let's just say I would kill to be able to have easy access to any of those cafeterias now.

            I remember visiting UC Santa Barbara and it was absolute dreck. I was actually astonished that their food could be so much worse than ours. I literally only ate ice cream for like three days.

          3. Washington University in St. Louis uses a company called Bon Appetit, which also services other schools like MIT. They've installed a tandoori oven, for example, do lots of local foods and are very green-conscious. They also have consulting chefs like Jim Dodge and Raghavan Iyer. As much money as they charge for tuition, they ought to be serving good food, and in this case, they are, at least what I've tried at on-campus functions.

            1. ipsedixit, could you please post what you know about Stanford's dorm food? (I see it's on the dailybeast's list.) We recently visited a freshman dorm and peeked in at its cafeteria, but didn't see, let alone taste, the food.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Glencora

                We only visited Ricker, but from what I see it was very impressive. Completely renovated (back in 2007 or 2008), huge salad bar, made-to-order chef's station, and a rather initimidating dessert bar. Biggest complaint we heard about the dining halls was that they were too repetitive, but I suppose that would go for just about any on-capmis facility.

                By the way, lots of seasonal fruits and veggies; also many vegan and vegetarian options in/around campus from what I could see.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  I'm not surprised that Stanford's dorm food is good. As I understand it, there's really not off-campus housing so the undergrads will be eating it for at least four years.

                  1. re: c oliver

                    That's my understanding, too, but there are co-ops where students do their own cooking and also houses with chefs (!) -- and apparently they cost the same. I'm not sure when students are able to move from the dorms into the houses, though. Sophomore year? Junior? I should have paid more attention during that tour.

              2. Harvard's food sucks, especially at Annenberg.

                1. As someone who used to work in campus dining (7 long years in the catering division), I can note that around 75% or more now, of college campuses are represented by either Aramark or Marriott. Both operate at the Lowest Common Denominator level. Food is okay, edible and it is possible to eat decently with some effort.

                  6 Replies
                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      Ah yes, didn't see as many of them around us, but true. God love em, good ol corporate feeding tubes. Fast food line, hot food line, pasta line, salad bar, cereal dispensers...

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Every good NPR listener knows that Sodexho = Mariott. (They merged in 1998.)

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          I thought that was the case. Where I previously worked, our big office in Portland had a big cafeteria catered by what was then called Sodexo Marriot. I looked at Sodexo's website, however, and it makes no mention of Marriot, so they must have dropped that part of the name in the last decade.

                          1. re: tracylee

                            You are correct... They also dropped the "h" in Sodexo because it could be offensive. I know because I'm an employee - campus services.

                      2. re: Nocturnalbill

                        I was astounded when I discovered how good Aramark food could be when they catered some formal seminars and meals for speakers, etc that I attended at Wake Forest. Aramark food was normally lowest common denominator, but I remember a couple of small events that had extrodinary food. I particularly remember a campus leaders dinner catered by them that had a prime rib that rivals some of the best I've had at steakhouses.

                      3. Highlander had so many health food violations, they closed the place down, and made something vegetarian instead.... I think they closed that down too, actually...
                        The Original Hot dog shop served decent food at CMU for a while.

                        1. Due to my job, I'm on many college campuses often, and eat in the dining halls. In the past 5-10 years there has been a big push for more healthier, local, organic options, especially at private and bigger schools. Made-to-order is very common. UCLA actually has very good food. Alice Waters even revamped Yale's menu at one point (he daughter went there).

                          1. I was on the meal plan at the University of Florida during my freshman and sophomore years (1996-98), when I lived in the dorms and didn't own a car. The all-you-can-eat cafeteria carried Aramark food, and it was HORRIBLE. Bland, boring, and probably unhealthy to boot. It was only after those two years of bad "Gator dining," when I had my own car and my own apartment kitchen, that I swore I would learn how to cook and get adept at it.

                            Now granted, the on-campus food may be better by now, but I'm skeptical.

                            1. Just something to remember - a meal or even a couple days worth isn't the same as that being what you eat for every meal every day. I thought the food was fine during an overnight campus visit (3 meals), but after a few weeks of bland, mass produced crap or salad I was starving for something, anything else. Actually, I became a lot more adventurous because of this.

                              Basically, just remember that if it seems pretty good during a visit, just think about what 2-3 meals a day, 7 days a week would be like. I think it is hard bill to fill.

                              1. I don't know how much I would trust normal, everyday food to be compared to what is served at visiting days and parent's weekends, homecomings, etc. Parents weekend was one of the few times I would try to eat at our cafeteria for several meals because the food was usually very good. I remember one parents weekend breakfast where there must have been at least 20 different kinds of fresh fruit on the salad bar and really good pastries made fresh that morning, and breakfast meats that weren't just thrown in the deep fryer. Our everyday food was a lot different.

                                1. Columbia's food was not that bad.
                                  Northwestern was ranked #1 by PETA--it has tons of vegan options at each meal.
                                  University of Chicago's food was wretched: really odd concoctions.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: GraceW

                                    Another Columbia alumnus here, I didn't live at dorms (was a transfer) so didn't have much exposure to the cafeteria food but I don't remember being particularly impressed by anything, honestly.

                                    Funnily enough my two choices for transfer were Columbia and UChicago. I chose the former - I guess it was a good choice, Chow-wise!

                                  2. I graduated from UNC (Carolina, not Colorado) in 2004, lived on campus from 2000-2003. Marriott ran campus dining my first year, then Aramark took over, but I didn't notice much change. The food was generally good, and there were enough different options to keep it from being too repetitive. I did find myself falling into a pattern of about 8 meals that I rotated through for dinner, plus huge salads for lunch. I kept breakfast food in my room, so I only ate breakfast in the dining hall on weekends. My favorite option was the made to order stir fry bar - load up a plate with vegetables, and the cook would stir fry, adding your meat and sauce of choice. I had that at least twice a week. The dessert bar was also really good. One of the dining halls had hand scooped ice cream with a full toppings bar.

                                    1. I went to NYU, and they contracted with Aramark, at least up until 2009. For the most part, the food was really boring, and often it was the same thing every day. Granted, I have food allergies, so I probably didn't get the whole experience, but the only good meal was Sunday brunch at a few of the dining halls, and that was because of the omelet station. Also, if you advertise that you have a "vegetarian option" and it's rice and beans every. single. day, the (large) vegetarian population is going to boycott. It happens.

                                      Aside from NYU, I've only eaten at a few other schools. I was decidedly unimpressed with the dining hall at Indiana University. They weren't that allergy friendly, so I didn't get to try much, but my sister said I wasn't really missing anything. She's very health-conscious, and was having trouble finding a lot of options. Cornell on the other hand, was great, at least as of 2005. I never minded eating in the dining hall when I went to visit, and used to request that we go to their Sunday brunch instead of sleeping in.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: whitneybee

                                        upenn also used aramark. i think they may have switched recently? agree with your comments- food was boring at best. i spent most of my freshman year eating frozen yogurt. dont go to upenn for the food (altho philly has such an awesome dining scene!)

                                        1. re: whitneybee

                                          As one with unusual food allergies, I found that having kitchen access and cooking for myself something to die for. I have yet to find a college or university who knows how to make Tofu taste good. Gluten free largely does not exist. Most University and Colleges that I've heard of are allergy unaware and think that if they offer a wide enough selection that we should be able to find somethng we can eat. They also assume that all vegetarians/vegans can eat onions and garlic and the entire mustard/cabbage family. And, that none of us are gluten free.

                                          Lastly, they are not trained on cross-contamination issues nor are they trained on what makes a complete nutritious diet for a Vegan/Vegetarian. This isn't even mentioning someone with allergies on these diets.

                                          Personally, I would avoid living on campus and avoid any place that requires freshman to live on campus. Studying is usually quieter and your grades will usually improve immensely.

                                          1. re: alergkvegtarian

                                            Actually, I think you're generalizing a bit here. At the college where I teach (a mid-sized private school where dining services are operated by Sodexo), all of our dining halls offer vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals. The GF meals must be ordered 24 hours in advance since they're only made to order. At the most centrally-located dining hall on campus, there's also a small store that sells GF foods and provides a separate microwave and toaster that can only be used for items purchased there to prevent cross-contamination.

                                            Students who have concerns about food-related allergies are urged to contact dining services if they have any questions or concerns. I also found out that if a student has medically-verified food allergies so severe that he or she cannot safely eat what the dining hall regularly prepares, it's possible to get a special meal plan. I'm not sure what that entails exactly, but I was pleased to see it's an option, apparently at no additional cost.

                                            Our campus also emphasizes healthy food choices for omnivores and vegetarians/vegans alike and has some programs involving a nutritionist. These services are almost always free of charge to students; the bigger problem seems to me that students often don't seek them out. I teach in a program that helps first-year students adjust to college during their first semester, and I always make sure they know what's available in the different dining halls and at the retail food carts and food court so they can find something they can live with.

                                            Is the food on our campus gourmet? Hardly. I occasionally have to buy lunch from one of the food carts if I haven't had time to pack, and it's okay but not something I look forward to. Students can't wait to go home and get home cooking. But it's certainly safe, as long as students speak up.

                                            I'll also disagree with you that freshmen shouldn't be required to live off campus, for many reasons, but that's not a discussion for Chow.

                                        2. Our son is now a junior at UCLA. He's in an apartment this year, but spent the previous two years in a dorm. He was very happy with the food in general, and rotated among the various dining commons to take advantage of each one's specialties. He also occasionally visited the various fast food places on "the hill" that were included in the dining plan, eating Mexican, Asian, and Italian offerings. I ate in the commons several times and was impressed with the many healthy choices that were available, though one could certainly put on the famous "freshman 15" by making the wrong choices. UCLA seems to compare quite favorably with other schools that I've heard about.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: jjw

                                            During my senior year, I often ate at the take-out "fast food" style restaurants at UCLA much more than the dining halls because it was quicker and the hours were more flexible. It's my understanding that UCLA is moving towards having more of these options rather than the full-blown dining halls because they're cheaper to run and it's easier to provide differentiating styles of cuisines to provide the image of increased choices.

                                          2. I attended a tiny little college in PA called Elizabethtown that was known for its good cafeteria. STudents from other colleges would envy me. You did eventually grow tired of it. Things were usually decently prepared, but there was never much variety. The campus did have its own bakery though so the cakes, cookies, brownies, pies and many of the breads were made right on campus.

                                            Someone new took over the cafeteria a few years after I graduated though, so I don't know what it's like now. I'd be curious.

                                            1. Dominican college in San Rafael Ca. has some of the most outstanding college food I have been ever privileged to taste. One of the best organic kitchens in the country. The breakfast buffet is split between unusual tastes and basic foods, but it's all good, well-prepared and delicious. They were kind enough to give me a recipe for Barley Risotto that works every single time; one of my alltime favorite side-dishes. Oh, and International House up at Berkeley is doing organic, mostly-local and seasonal food 3 times a day, for a very fair sum. They have an awesome barbeque during the springs and summers, and i've never been charged more than 10 bucks a meal.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: mamachef

                                                Could you post the barley risotto recipe on home cooking? Or just email it to me? thanks!!

                                                1. re: mollyomormon

                                                  Sure, I'll be happy to post it on the home cooking thread. recipes; meant to be shared!

                                              2. UMD (College Park, MD) has pretty awful dining hall food. The only saving grace was the salad bar ... and the non-food service (and not covered by the meal plans) vegetarian co-op in the student union.

                                                UCSD had much better food then UMD, still nothing wonderful, but better.

                                                1. I would go to my alma mater, Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, where we had dishes such as chicken Marsala on an ordinary weeknight and were treated to prime rib and crab legs at Christmas!

                                                  1. Boston University west campus and warren towers dining halls are the best!

                                                    1. Boston University was pretty good - they had a wide range of options every day and also posted which items were healthier choices.

                                                      there were a lot of "make-your-own" options, including sandwiches, omelets, salads, omelets, stir fry, pasta,and even oatmeal.

                                                      the sweet potato fries were great too, and they did a lobster dinner each semester!

                                                      1. When I was at Penn there was no meal plan- just the Quad Grill with a cash register, freshman year. The food sucked. It was cafeteria style and closed at 11:00. Everyone caught on early that it was mobbed by 10:45 for last call, and one could easily eat everything on one's plate before getting through the log jam to the cash register.

                                                        1. I occasionally lunch at UC Berkeley's International House and Crossroads dining halls. They have buffet spreads that are reminiscent of Home Town Buffet (which I do like), with the addition of many ethnic options. Lots of food, some tasty, low price. I can't say that I recall any particular dish, but I definitely left satisfied. I do recall going to a Mardi Gras night at the I House with my project team, shortly after returning from New Orleans. It wasn't Brigtsen's, but we all had a good time.