In this era of the $12 hamburger, lots of us are searching high and low for affordable dining options. Here's one that's hiding in plain sight — although it’s haunted by lingering memories of grim gray patties and the Freshman 15: university residence-hall buffets.
But hey, they've changed. Organic, vegetarian and vegan options are now ubiquitous at facilities such as UC Berkeley's Crossroads, which sources its ingredients from famously sustainable outfits including Niman Ranch, Hodo Soy, Bi-Rite, Wild Planet, Peet's Coffee, Peerless Coffee, Mary's Chickens, Wilcox Eggs, Alvarado Street Bakery, Numi and Silk. Augmenting a wide array of cooked entrées (think pizza, tagine, tofu steaks and pho) at any given meal, Crossroads also sports house-baked pastries, an organic salad bar — audited regularly by the California Certified Organic Farmers organization — and an extensive cold-cereal bar that's accessible morning, noon and night.
And what’s the price for as much of this and more as you care to eat? Ten dollars at dinner. Nine at lunch.
It's all prepared in a lively, organic, open kitchen under the direction of Crossroads' executive chef Marcos Hernandez, a young California Culinary Institute/Greystone alumnus whose previous gigs include Postino and Cliff House. It's served smilingly in an airy, sunny, certified-green building — one of Berkeley's first.
Looking — with its soaring ceiling, sweeping stainless-steel angularity, potted palms and glass-enclosed patio — like a tiny airport, this multi-award-winning Bay Area Green Business has one downside if you relish personal service: Yours will be one of some 3,500 meals prepared here today. Crossroads sometimes gets crowded. But hey, so does Comal.
Not that Crossroads rivals Comal for potential Michelin stars. But Crossroads has the edge when it comes to customizability: Its comprehensiveness lets you tweak, tailor and personalize your meal to a degree unimaginable at standard restaurants. Crave tacos and clam chowder, side by side? No problem. Want sliced pears and Sriracha sauce in your triple-decker ham sandwich? Beef teriyaki on naan? A baked potato stuffed with vegan sausage, marinated mushrooms and a whole mugful of pumpkin seeds? Done.
"A lot of people are prejudiced against buffets. And there's a general stigma against eating in a student dining hall," says Ida Shen, culinary and catering director for Cal Dining, the self-supporting, independent nonprofit that operates Crossroads and other open-to-the-public UC Berkeley student-dining facilities such as Café 3, whose sushi bar is wildly popular and whose pop-arty design evokes Mad Men meets The Jetsons in a psychedelic Tokyo disco.
"Some people didn't have good dining-hall experiences in their own college days," Shen sighs. "They remember gray mystery meat. They don't realize how much things have changed."
But change abounds. In 2006, the Crossroads' kitchen became the first in any college dining hall nationwide to be certified organic. That same year, the University of New Hampshire — which operates its own organic dairy farm and, like many schools, welcomes non-students into its dining halls — became the nation's first college to sign the International Slow Food Association's Agreement of Intention and Collaboration. Ever more universities are increasing their dining-hall sustainability; Yale, Bowdoin and Michigan State, for example, source produce from their own organic gardens.
This trend is transforming these institutions into attractive, under-the-radar options not just for students but for anyone seeking to dine out, dine well and dine affordably.
Other Bay Area student-dining facilities open to the public include the University of San Francisco's largely organic Market Café, outfitted with a fifteen-foot salad bar. Non-students can eat buffet-style at CD-operated Clark Kerr Campus, Foothill, Café 3, and Crossroads, as well as at Berkeley's mouthwatering International House dining hall, San Francisco State's City Eats Dining Center and several Stanford University dining halls for the price of a single sandwich at La Note, say, or Luka's Taproom.
You don't need a college degree to do that math.
"Everyone's working on making college dining more sustainable. We're on a path toward getting better at that every day," says Cal Dining's director Shawn LaPean, who hails Cal Dining's partnerships with the Marine Stewardship Council, the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign, the Real Food Challenge, the LeanPath Food Waste Prevention Project, Feeding Forward, Filta Environmental Kitchen Solutions, the Green Initiative Fund, and the Berkeley Environmentally Aware Consulting Network.
The bottom line, of course, is serving Cal Dining's target audience: students.
"What do students want? Flavor. Safety. Sustainability. Salmon. They want gourmet food at Walmart prices," LaPean laughs.
College dining programs can afford to offer affordable abundance because they buy ingredients in such quantities.
"It's all about economies of scale," LaPean explains.
Crossroads has tripled its meals-served volume over the last decade: the same span of time between the Wall Street Journal calling Cal Dining the nation's worst college-meals program in 2002 and TheDailyMeal.com deeming it, last year, one of the best.
"This tripling of volume has allowed us to have an organic salad bar stocked with all those nuts and seeds," LaPean adds.