Higher ed has long meant low-quality dining—but some campus cafeterias are trying to change that. Our reviewers rate their efforts.

November 24 2008


Higher ed has long meant low-quality dining—but some campus cafeterias are trying to change that. Our reviewers rate their efforts.

November 24 2008


Higher ed has long meant low-quality dining—but some campus cafeterias are trying to change that. Our reviewers rate their efforts.

George Brown College

The Chefs’ House ★ ★★★★

Interest in George Brown College’s culinary program has soared in recent years, and if its sleek new downtown Toronto restaurant is an accurate reflection of the curriculum, it’s not hard to see why. There’s nothing even remotely scholastic about the setting—a bright, modern and minimalist space that gains warmth from the exposed brick and girders of the restored factory building, and as a centrepiece an open kitchen that offers no shelter at all for the team of student chefs. (Video cameras up the ante even further, broadcasting their work to flatscreen televisions.) And while it must be said that we took lunch at a mostly empty Chefs’ House before its official opening, and that the almost comically attentive staff obviously knew we were representatives of the media, the food was nothing short of terrific.

Cafeteria nosh this isn’t. Starters: a classic combination of citrus-cured salmon on a crispy potato pancake with honey mustard sauce, and grilled baby octopus—unexpectedly cold, but unmistakably fresh—atop a savoury white navy bean salad, vinegar and basil and red onion cutting through a healthy glug of olive oil, a dish that would have been a stunner even without the mollusc. For mains, one of us chose a boldly and com-

plexly spiced chicken biryani over perfectly al dente rice, served with hard-boiled egg to cool the palate. The other of us was shamelessly drawn to the confit of pork belly with sautéed shiitake mushrooms and Napa cabbage, and could not have been more pleased with it: sticky, not crispy, five-spiced crackling atop that melt-in-your-mouth meat only a slow-cooked pig can deliver. The taste lingers in the memory for days. Desserts—cold crepes with mascarpone and raspberry coulis, and a phyllo dough apple strudel—were also very good, though not quite as remarkable.

And the damage? $18 for a prix fixe lunch or $39 for dinner, all less than 10 minutes’ walk from Toronto’s financial district. Competing restaurateurs might ruefully wonder what bargains they could offer with a limitless, eager supply of free labour, but a buck’s a buck. If downtown expense accounts shrink

in time with the stock market, George Brown might just have a gold mine on its hands. Heck, the lunch bill isn’t much beyond a student’s splurge zone.—Chris Selley

Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Impressions Catering i

If I ever again find myself in the cafeteria at Kwantlen’s Surrey campus, I’ll try to remember to come armed with Canada’s Food Guide. I’ll also be sure to eat before arrival. The food— I use that term loosely—was horrendous.

We had a hard time choosing our meals since nothing looked particularly appetizing. Three pans of pizza had already sold out and were obviously not going to be replaced any time soon. Beside me, a student picked up a tray of plastic-encased nachos, stared, and warily put it back on the rack, like a man handling a bomb. Next to the industrial nacho cheese pump sat a clearfronted fridge pimping three colours of noxious energy beverage.

The broccoli and cheese soup might have once been great, but the vat was scraped clean. The only good thing one could say about the oily beef and barley stew is that it was hot. A veggie burger with Swiss cheese for $4.20 turned out to be nothing more than a vehicle

for white bread. The bottom of the veggie patty featured four bitter burnt stripes from the grill and the cheese was wafer-thin.

The same could be said for the glamoroussounding chicken BLT with pesto, which set expectations high at over $6. It turned out to be 80 per cent white bread, 10 per cent burnt chicken and 10 per cent BLT.

I thought I had taken a carrot muffin, but the tray was mislabelled and I got a dubious cinnamon roll muffin instead. The best part of the meal was the overpriced Jell-0 cup for $2.50. It was flavourful and familiar. Too bad Jell-0 isn’t a food group.—Karen Pinchin

University of Calgary

The Den ★★★

The Den, just downstairs from the Black Lounge—the other student union-run haunt— is in decor and atmosphere everything you’d ever want in a campus pub: a little rank (stale beer is my personal napalm in the morning!), a little dingy (cinder-block ceilings are big in Manhattan!), but it’s still cleaner than your dorm. Perfect, then, for a little booze-fuelled MIA action. And the food is some of the best, most reasonably priced stuff on campus.

The Den Reloaded, a classic half-pound burger featuring sautéed mushrooms, bacon and a good dollop of cheddar and mozzarella,

tasted authentically of the grill (though the bun had wilted by the time it arrived at table and was too soggy for our liking). A spinach salad with goat cheese and strawberries benefited from that potpourri effect of rich cheese and wonderfully fresh, sweet fruit—film majors, you will find it as ephemeral as happiness in an Ingmar Bergman flick—but was too stingy on the orange balsamic vinaigrette.

The chicken Kiev, a special on this day, was an unfortunate H-bomb of herbs and multiplex butter. The innards exploded across the plate like ooze from an Alberta tailings pond. It was accompanied by hardy, green broccoli and a delightful barley risotto that was the best dish of the day. Yet the Den did not fare well with its desserts. Mother taught us warm apple crumble should be crunchy, so lay off the microwave. New York cheesecake? Coated in a heavy treacle of fruity goo, it had the flavour and consistency of raw cookie dough. Sampling the chocolate chunk brownie, meanwhile, with its thin rivets of raspberry icing, was like eating the flesh of a diabetic. Sweet teeth stay clear!—Nicholas Köhler

University of British Columbia

The Delly ★★★★

With a university population as diverse as UBC’s, it’s probably difficult to run a cafe-

teria that caters to the tastes of every student. The Delly, a family-owned business that has been in the school’s student union building for 35 years, has decided to solve that problem by serving the culinary equivalent of the United Nations.

We started with the Thai chicken lemongrass soup, which had a surprising amount of heat, amazing flavour and, perhaps most importantly, was less than $3. This was followed by a selection of baked snacks, including a good but unremarkable chicken sarnosa, a cheap and delicious beef jerk patty and a huge vegetarian roti that was on the dry side but was a steal for under $4.

The halal lamb curry, which owner Nizar Rajan says he introduced in order to cater to the university’s Muslim population, had big chunks of fragrant, spicy meat and was served on fluffy white rice for under $7. For a dollar more, the butter chicken didn’t live up to expectations. Both a freshly made gyro with homemade tzatziki and a hearty chicken salad sandwich on pumpernickel bread were a great deal at under $5. The Delly’s secret weapon is its small bustling army of sandwich-preparing women.

Dessert was surprisingly delectable. We chose a triple-berry crumble square made with fresh fruit (including some juicy rhubarb) and crunchy topping along with a rich chocolate lava cake filled with melt-in-themouth bittersweet chocolate. Both could be confidently served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream at a fancy restaurant, and at the stunningly cheap price of $1.67, I’m already thinking of going back for a few more.—K.P.

Mount Royal College

Herb n Market ★★★

Mount Royal College is a food-court mecca. The school where former Alberta premier Ralph Klein sometimes teaches journalism, it is a place of Subways, Tim Hortons and Edo Japans—a fast-food chain that has as much business claiming its noodles bare a resemblance to the cuisine of the Chrysanthemum Throne as Klein probably has lecturing impressionable youth. But both Klein and the fast-food providers enjoy hostage audiences on this out-of-the-way campus. Still, the discerning eater can do well at the Herb n Market food court, a nicely varied selection of inexpensive meals cooked, for the most part, sur place, courtesy of foodservices giant Sodexho (whose appearance in Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me we’ll leave unmentioned).

Find real ham on the bone, carved to order, at Stacks, a sandwich station that also offers grilled paninis lathered in a beguiling, if salty,

red pepper-infused butter (we had ours with ham and asparagus). The crusts wilt quickly at Pandini’s, a pasta and pizza stop (learn from my errors and do not settle for what’s languished too long on the counter), though the marinara sauce is sufficiently zippy and the cheese provides a wholesome mouth sensation. We fared less well with the lasagna, a dish whose layers ought never to feel like cadaver skin.

At the unfortunately named Mein Bowl, the requisite experiment in Chinese food, real broccoli is available. The Kung Pao chicken boasted processed meat as tender as tofu—a turn-off, in our view—but earned points with its generous heaping of red peppers. Note to the kitchen staff: fried rice must be fried. For no discernible reason, the egg rolls were delicious, though freed of its fried skin the filling tasted not unlike Earl Grey tea.

Best of all, in that it did not leave us in an MSG-induced psychosis, was the Cyclone Salad station, a bar of fresh greens, proteins, bacon bits and dressings slapped together by a server according to taste. Ours, on a foundation of hardy romaine and sprinkled with sunflower seeds and a refreshing wasabi dressing, was the best part of our day,—N.K.

The University of Winnipeg

Riddell Hall ★★

Riddell Hall at the University of Winnipeg is a clean, spacious and comfortable place to eat. The room is carpeted, decorated with art, and the lighting is soft but not dim. The room is filled with round tables that, unlike the rectangular rows of the typical cafeteria, invite conversation with friends. And despite this pleasant welcome to the university’s main eatery, our experience was dismal.

Meal options at the grill were mostly limited to the usual burgers and chicken fingers, though they did offer a herb chicken special. Our rosemary seasoned entree consisted not of a tender chicken breast, but of a drumstick, wing and small thigh. It was lukewarm and tough. The potato wedges were soggy, and the vegetables were a faded mush vaguely resembling broccoli, peas and carrots. Two bites and we cried uncle.

The sandwich station held more promise. You could choose from grilled chicken, tuna, tofu, egg salad, turkey or chicken salad. It was offered on ciabatta or pita bread, or wrapped in a tortilla. The toppings looked bright, fresh and appetizing. But our appetites were quickly disappointed. The cook coughed into her arm only an inch or two from her hands. Hands that she subsequently used to massage our lunch. Kind of defeats the purpose of wearing gloves? No?

Also promising were fresh fruit smoothies made from scratch. We ordered ours raspberry, but it was not to be. The server explained that she had never prepared one before. From her expression it was clear that she wanted us to forget about it. We obliged.

The one upside to lunch at Riddell Hall was the Greek salad. The iceberg lettuce was crunchy and green. It was full of toppings and they weren’t stingy on the feta. A good offering, but not enough to absolve this cafeteria of its many faults.—Carson Jerema


The Cafeteria ★★★

Considering the entire serving section of this cafeteria could fit into some walk-in closets, UBC-Okanagan’s main dining hall offers a passable variety of chow. In addition to the expected burgers and fries, we had the choice of pizza, semi-made-to-order pasta or stir-fry, the featured entree (turkey dinner was on), pre-made sandwiches and sushi, or a small but fresh-looking salad bar complete with organic alternatives. The students crammed into the compact kitchen during the dinner hour seemed happy enough with the options— perhaps because the closest grub to the isolated campus is at the Kelowna airport.

We steered clear of the shining pre-made sushi after noting an Ontario address on the label and instead ordered small servings of pasta and turkey, which both turned out substantial. The gravy-smothered turkey ($6.99) was good enough, and came with nondescript steamed veggies and surprisingly palatable scalloped potatoes. The tasteless ground beef in my pasta—pre-boiled rotini with rosé sauce for $4.89—seemed like an odd choice in an otherwise acceptable dish. Extra points for real parmesan.

After waiting about 20 minutes while a cook slowly wiped dirty pans and refilled containers with pre-cooked chicken, we were finally presented with a shrimp stir-fry; halal chicken is also available. The red Thai sauce turned out to be the highlight of the dish ($6.99), with its rubbery shrimp and uncooked broccoli and cabbage.

Feasting on a slice of four-cheese pizza ($3-99), I was overcome with a sensation of

familiarity. The bready crust and greasy cheese evoked memories of cafeteria meals past. And looking around, I realized that we were all taking in an archetypal dining experience that is reproduced at schools across the continent, by cafeteria conglomerates such as Aramark. The sole selection that lent UBC-O’s offerings distinction was fresh fruit advertised as being from presumably local Gamble Farms, a shoutout to the campus’s Okanagan Valley locale. Uninspired—but does the job—Erin Millar

Trinity College at the University of Toronto

Strachan Hall cafeteria ★★★★

Two words: old school. This is the most scholarly place either of our Friday afternoon party had ever eaten lunch, and the oak-panelled walls, cathedral ceiling, chandeliers, long wooden tables and portraits of history’s provosts at U of T’s most prestigious college were enough to elicit flashbacks of McGill’s Douglas Hall cafeteria—home, in the mid-1990s, to what must have been the most godawful cafeteria food in Canada. But as it turns out, Trinity’s somewhat outdated facilities are in a totally different league.

From the make-your-own sandwich bar one of us put grilled chicken and grilled vegetables on marble rye and dispatched it to the panini grill. “Perfectly decent,” its creator pronounced. It really is amazing what two hot pieces of metal can do for the humble sandwich. The salad bar won’t set anyone’s world on fire but offered crisp veggies to go with mixed greens, a coleslaw that was creamy without being goopy and a primavera-style pasta salad with chickpeas that was downright delicious. The two soups on offer were a tasty and nutritious mixed vegetable and a clam chowder that, while bland, actually contained clams—no small thing in an institu-

tional setting. The only misstep was the most promising-looking offering: made-to-order falafel. Consuming the cold, crumbly patties was a little like chewing on a mouthful of birdshot. And while dessert pickings seemed a little slim—we hadn’t had applesauce in a while, that’s for darn sure—it became apparent as we left that we’d clumsily overlooked an ice cream station. Damn.

There was no hot food on this day, and nothing remotely fancy—just a traditional, conscientiously prepared lunch with a few deft touches, like those grilled vegetables and the panini press. Those who demand variety might be frustrated. But if you’ve enrolled at a college that still requires students to regularly wear academic gowns in 2008, perhaps you shouldn’t be expecting sushi in the dining hall.—C.S.

University of Ottawa

The Cafeteria ★V

It is both exactly like and entirely different from how I remember it: despite aggressive colonization by fast-food franchises, the University of Ottawa cafeteria still sprawls across the second floor of the main student building, surviving, somehow, despite the onslaught of raw capitalism. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t all too aware of the competition: unlike the grimly utilitarian service counters of old, you now choose from food stations emblazoned with slightly desperate monikers that almost, but not quite, sound like universally recognizable brand names. Missing in action—at least, as far as I could tell—was that staple of university days of old, the poutine. In fact, unless I managed to miss that counter, there were no french fries on the menu at all, even in their slightly less artery-clogging natural state.

Deprived, then, of what had seemed the perfect excuse to dig my way to the bottom of a plate of fries and gravy, I went to the other extreme: “Extreme Pita.” It was a decision I would soon come to regret. After placing my order—a chicken caesar, small, to go—I stepped back to watch the pita construction process.

It was at that point, however, that it became clear that, despite their professed extremism in pita-related matters, these wrappers had only the faintest appreciation for the adaptability of even the most unassuming pita: rather than rip it carefully down the seam, thus allowing it to be stuffed, then rewrapped, and optionally rolled in tinfoil for added portability, the woman making my sandwich simply tore a small hole in one end, and shovelled in the filling, until it resembled a half-inflated balloon, with bits of chicken protruding from the sides. After jamming it carelessly in a loose-fitting plastic bag, she handed it over.

ilCan you cut it in half?” I asked, a request that was met with blank confusion.

I end up forking out $5-97 total—definitely on the high end for what was, fundamentally, a tragically misguided wrap. Leaving aside the logistical challenges involved in actually eating the thing, the sandwich itself is passable—just—the chicken grilled sufficiently, and without distinguishing characteristics, bad or good; the bacon limp and

cold; the croutons too crunchy. The pita runs out before the innards, leaving me to consume the last bit of lettuce with my fork, and by the end, I’m no longer hungry, but not remotely satisfied. An educational experience? Perhaps.-Kady O’Malley M

For more reviews from campuses across the country, visit