What makes a great college dining hall? Sure, a beautiful facility with stunning architecture can enhance the experience, as can convenience and location. But let’s call a spade a spade: it’s the food that matters most. And today’s college campuses are upping their game.
Food culture has changed quite a bit in the past decade, as a renewed focus on health (think: more good fats, less sugar), variety (colorful veggies, fish), and sustainability (composting, local sourcing) has spurred overhauls of university food programs across the country. Schools are placing more and more emphasis on whole foods, they offer kosher and halal options, and they provide detailed nutritional information online.
In all, the trend among the best college dining halls is to maintain taste, flavor, and variety while cutting back on “freshman 15” classics like french fries, burgers, and cookies. Those options still exist, but the modern campus dining experience leans more toward healthy plates and sit-down dining. Some schools offer restaurant-like experiences you’d be hard-pressed to find in some cities: lobster bakes, Japanese steakhouses, farm-to-table produce, and more.
Here, based on quality, variety, and food practices, are some of the best college dining programs in America.
Stanford University – Stanford, California
Perhaps the clearest example of colleges’ recent focus on nutrition is Stanford. In 2012 the university joined with the Culinary Institute of America to develop the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative.
The results? Campus menus revolving around a plant-first diet, sustainable ingredients, reduced sugar, menu transparency, and more. Among the nine dining facilities are Branner Dining, an estate-style kitchen with bright natural light, and the new Arrillaga Family Dining Commons. They serve up fare like spanakopita and Greek chickpea salad, and even offer a “performance dining” program designed to get the body into tip-top shape.
Bowdoin College – Brunswick, Maine
Bowdoin’s dining program made headlines last summer when author Malcolm Gladwell targeted them for having food that’s too good. On his “Revisionist History” podcast, Gladwell compared the fine-dining-caliber food at Bowdoin to the mediocre offerings at Vassar—then argued that colleges like Bowdoin spend too much money on dining services and not enough on financial aid for low-income students.
Whether you agree with Gladwell or not, it’s tough to argue against the food that the Maine college puts on the table: organic produce from the school’s own farm, locally sourced meat, fresh lobster, and more—all prepared from scratch. On a recent Wednesday, for example, one of Thorne Hall’s main course options was Maine Blue Hill mussels steamed in garlic and white wine.
Virginia Tech – Blacksburg, Virginia
Count former First Lady Michelle Obama among the fans of Virginia Tech cuisine: She called it “the best campus food you’ll ever eat” in her 2012 commencement address.
In addition to brand names like Qdoba and Au Bon Pain, the university’s dining halls offer their own restaurant-esque experiences: Grab sushi at Japanese steakhouse Origami in Turner Place at Lavery Hall or wood-fired pizza at Atomic Pizzeria. In addition to a wide variety of quality choices, the dining program offers nutritional guidance on its website.
St. Olaf College – Northfield, Minnesota
Tucked about 40 miles south of Minneapolis, St. Olaf is a small, liberal arts college with big dining service ambition. The college uses Bon Appetit, one of the world’s highest-rated college food services (Emory in Atlanta is another client), to locally source and prepare restaurant-style meals for its students. The menus offer hearty, local fare, and students can find wellness ideas and sourcing information online.
Combine consistently delicious food, a beautiful setting, and a handful of annual events like the Farm to Fork Dinner, and you have one of the best college dining experiences in the country.