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.
Bryn Mawr College – Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Bryn Mawr, just northwest of Philadelphia, is a small women’s college. Its dining menus are a massive exercise in variety.
Grab berry pancakes and turkey bacon for breakfast. Refuel with a lunch of bleu cheese and caramelized pear pizza. Finish off the day with vinaigrette-drizzled cod, and then the next day have three completely different meals.
Washington University – St. Louis, Missouri
Like Stanford, Washington University showed its commitment to student health when it teamed with the Partnership for a Healthier America’s Healthier Campus Initiative (in fact, you can click on any single item on the school’s online dining menus and get thorough nutritional info).
And like St. Olaf, Wash U teamed up with Bon Appetit to ensure deliciousness. Students can make their own stir fry, choose from a variety of soups, craft custom sandwiches, and (yes, still) indulge in some decadent dessert. Cool sustainability fact: Washington’s dining halls use leftover fryer oil as biofuel.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst – Amherst, Massachusetts
UMass bases its dining program around four concepts: Health, world flavors, sustainability, and community. The school’s dining program, which has racked up plenty of awards, sources from campus gardens, puts on frequent events, employs top regional chefs, and even sends a burger and taco truck out on campus. And some of the facilities offer so much variety you feel like you’re at a Whole Foods.
Vanderbilt University – Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville has a thriving food scene, but Vanderbilt students hardly need to leave campus for great dining. Diners can create their own pho dishes or grain bowls, and a typical lunch menu might include mahi-mahi with mango salsa and steamed haricots verts. Dinnertime could mean ramen, sirloin steak with mushroom jus, or teriyaki-glazed salmon.
Delicious stuff, though we do amend our earlier statement and encourage Vandy students to venture out for some Nashville barbecue every once in a while.
Middlebury College – Middlebury, Vermont
Middlebury offers eaters that sweet spot of good food in a beautiful setting. Ross Dining Hall offers sunset views over the Adirondacks, while Atwater offers a glimpse of the nearby town of Middlebury. But it’s the food that counts.
While the daily options aren’t as numerous as, say, Bryn Mawr, the offerings are superb. Start the day in style with a potato, leek, and thyme mini-frittata. Lunch on vegan butternut squash linguine or baked mushroom over seasoned millet. Grab some Chinese or quinoa-stuffed peppers for dinner. Middlebury also is devoted to its composting program.
University of California, Los Angeles – Los Angeles, California
UCLA has it down. The school has won awards for vegan-friendliness, purchases cage-free eggs and Fair Trade coffee, and offers a slew of nutrition resources—all while feeding many thousands of students.
And the food is innovative. Why have a tired breakfast sandwich when you can start the day with steamed barley and ground chicken sautéed with sliced mushrooms, Swiss chard, and caramelized onions, topped with fresh avocado?
Why eat PB&J for lunch when UCLA serves prosciutto Caprese sandwiches? And no need to order pizza for dinner when walnut herb-crusted salmon is there for the taking.
This article originally appeared in Travel & Leisure.