ARE YOU BEING SERVED?
Nobody goes to a hospital for the food. Or to a university. Some campus cafeterias are trying to change that. Our reviewers rate their efforts.
NORTH SHORE CAMPUS CAFETERIA
You might think the dining area at Capilano College’s main campus, nestled in the forested hills of North Vancouver, would offer a feast of first-class views. But while towering windows let in plenty of light, the scenery outside is pure parking lot. The building, heavy on exposed concrete, has all the charm of a hospital cafeteria, with food to match. There’s no mistaking what you’re here for: to stuff your face and get out as quickly as possible.
At peak feeding times, you’ll need sturdy elbows to fight your way through the crowded serving area. That is, except for the salad bar, which was suspiciously wide open. We loaded up, but were soon disappointed. The lettuce was wilted, while the pickled beet root was barely pickled. Drenched in vinaigrette, it was passable.
Not so the vegetarian pizza. Frankly, anytime toppings include zucchini, artichoke hearts and brittle spinach leaves you’re ask-
ing for trouble, but this slice was particularly unpleasant and was quickly discarded.
The Cap College chefs must have got a big order of spinach in, because there were long strands of it in the meat lasagna. It was hard to tell where the pasta ended and the cheese began, but the portion was large and accompanied by garlic bread.
Another featured entree was perogies and sausage. At least that’s how it was billed. The kielbasa turned out to be a grilled hot dog, while the perogies had developed a hard outer shell in the deep fryer. In a food fight, these puppies would be lethal.
Equally sturdy was the football-sized Italian panini. Lots of bread, lots of meat, lots of vegetables and tomato sauce. Pound for dollar, a good deal.
The stir fry, which incidentally drew the longest line of hungry students, was by far the best dish on offer, with a full selection of u-pick veggies, meat, sauces and noodles or rice. We sampled the Thai chili with chicken, which was quite spicy. The noodles were rubbery, but the flavour overcame the texture.
Conclusion: starving students on a budget can stuff themselves if they pick the right dishes. Look for the longest line.-Jason Kirby
NEW RESIDENCE HALL ★★★
The cafeteria serving McGill’s New Res, a former upscale hotel, has to compete with the bevy of student grub spots surrounding the downtown complex. It does so relatively well, largely avoiding the cafeteria cliche of warmedover gruel and meats of debatable origin and vintage. Visitors first encounter a well-stocked salad bar complete with clementines, crispy noodles, dried red peppers, four different salad dressings and a nice lady who will prepare it all for you with pieces of shaved chicken breast for just under $6.
The cafeteria offers three sorts of sandwiches, all of which are prepared daily— though students can’t choose their own toppings. “Humans have been eating bread for 6,000 years” reads a sign on the counter; the sandwiches thankfully aren’t quite that old. The vegetarian selection, stuffed with cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes and veggie pâté, came together nicely once grilled between two thick slabs of 12-grain baguette in the panini machine.
The pizza at New Res is of the thicker crust variety, slathered with mozzarella and baked in a brick oven. It isn’t quite take-out quality, but close: a few more topping choices would be good. The adjacent pasta bar, meanwhile, prepares each order from scratch. The result is a choice of two pastas al dente in a tomato, meat or cream sauce. The accompanying salad is remarkably crisp. The roast beef suffers under an over-eager heat lampgood luck getting anything but well done— and the rice, beans and sides are a bit limp. Anointed with a tangy red pepper sauce, the potato dumplings were as firm and chewy as they should be.
The grill offers cheeseburgers, steak sandwiches and fries, along with other student staples, ostensibly prepared on order. But the chefs probably shouldn’t be piling leftover cooked meat on the side of the grill:
apart from being unsightly, whoever forks over the five dollars for a cheeseburger might not be pleased to get a warmed-over patty that might have first been cooked an hour before.
Desserts are numerous and some are healthy, but you’ll pay for freshness: a small bowl of fruit runs upward of $5 after tax. You wouldn’t come off the street to eat at New Res—you can’t anyway, limited as it is to residents—but being able to dine in your slippers, and dine relatively well, is a matchless advantage when it’s -20° outside. —Martin Patriquin
THE STUDENT CENTRE ★★
Located in the outer reaches of Toronto—seriously, Pioneer Village is next door—the York campus feels sprawling, unwieldy and isolated. So with several dining options from which to choose, we go with the first one we can find (and the one that looks the busiest)—the food court within the Student Centre. Students tell us York Lanes is another good choice, which at first confuses us because we think they’re inviting us bowling. (It is, in fact, the York Lanes Retail Centre Food Court, a United Nations of North American fastfood outlets including Falafel Hut Village, Indian Flavours, Popeye’s Chicken, Taco Villa, Mangia Mangia, and Blueberry Hill.)
Inside the sunlit atrium of the Student Centre Food Court, there are two levels for dining, yet more people seem to be clacking away on laptops than are eating, which is perhaps a good thing when faced with options like RFC (even though the chicken is thoughtfully halal) and Taco Bell.
Though we try to keep things on the healthier side, this is basically a fast-food review: the baked potato from Wendy’s is like a trial by tuber, the cheese sauce more like cheese soup; the broccoli soft and sulfuric. The potato itself is lovely—best to go plain next time. The vegetarian special from Pagoda Tree ($3-95) is silken tofu stirred into a thick “Asian flavoured” sauce, which is rather tasty if you like silken tofu (which I do), but horrid if you don’t. It’s sided with pea and carrot-flecked fried rice that’s none too flavourful. A guilty-pleasure spring roll is heavier on the guilt than pleasure. But Jimmy the Greek is Jimmy “the Man”: for just $3-45 the small salad is more big than small, and generous of iceberg, kalamatas, tomato, a touch of feta and good creamy vinaigrette, and Jimmy’s wallet-sized spanakopita is jammed with spinach and feta.
Finishing off at Treat’s, the Swiss chocolate
chunk cookie tastes like 1986 all over again.
Bonus: you can add a RFC drumstick to your Taco Bell combo for cheap —Amy Rosen
HUB CAFETERIA ★★★
The Hub strikes a nice balance between offering students what they should be eating, and what they want to be eating. For instance, I bought a banana. I smacked down my 89 cents, and wham-o, that banana was mine. But I also bought a butter tart. See how that works?
Aptly named, located as it is in the core of the downtown campus, right across from the boulder-spiked skating rink and George’s hot dog cart, the Hub’s food court is sunchallenged but sparked up with cheery signage, clean lines and a smooth flow. It houses the usual suspects: Manchu Wok, Pizza Pizza, Extreme Pita, but also newbies like Pan Geos—a mamma-mia twist on Made in Japan where you choose “Italian pasta” or “Asian noodles,” then have them tossed to order with your choice of sauce, veg and protein for $5.99.
Montague’s Deli rolls out generous wraps like our veggie on whole wheat with hummus, cheddar, and your standard sub and wrap toppings ($5.19—not cheap). Pre-fab sushi at World’s Fare looks inedible. Our slice from Pizza Pizza tastes two hours old. There’s a big lineup at the coffee spot.
The Grille Works is a real boon, with sixounce all-beef patties grilled to order. I’m not sure how they handle this à-la-minute flamebroiling during peak hours, because I wait a good while until my cheeseburger ($4.59—not cheap) is ready. But it’s worth it all the same (a good burger always is). Nice char, cooked through but still juicy, fresh toppings and an appealing foil wrapper. The fries ($1.79) are that idiotic battered variety, the type with the sticky, salty veneer. (What is that?)
There’s a cereal bar area at the court’s core, and fresh fruit, too. Another wall boasts a dozen varieties of herbal teas, and just about every outlet offers healthier mains at a fair price—should the students decide to choose them.
Bonus: they sell chocolate bars. And every (non-alcoholic) beverage known to man.—AR.
CAFETERIA CHEZ VALÈRE ★★V
Located in Pavilion Jean-Brilliant, a monolithic slab of a building at the base of Mount Royal near Côte-des-Neiges, Chez Valère looks a little like a feeding hall for the Borg: dull, unadorned and utilitarian. Though it was renovated five years ago, Chez Valère remains a product of another time, when
cafeterias were replete with stainless steel fridges, metal counters and plastic trays that would come in handy in a jailhouse brawl. The attempts at modernization—primarily the salad bar and sushi options—are successful, if limited. The caf has two daily specials that are hit and miss: the cumin chicken was surprisingly tangy and flavourful given the pile it came from, while the beef bourguignon had an Alpo-grade texture and taste. Whoever made the pizza managed the dubious feat of making the cheese crustier than the crust itself, which was spongy and damp. Raccoons have likely passed up better pie in dumpsters out back.
Thankfully there’s always poutine. The dish is advertised loud and proud, clogged arteries and swollen guts be damned, and it lives up to its billing. The sauce is thinner without the chunks that doom lesser poutines, and the chefs use real fromage en grains, not the grated variety familiar to most Upper Canadians. Plus, Valère serves beer, which is stored next to the impressive selection of Jell-o. Not coincidentally, the desserts look like they haven’t changed since Duplessis, and are about as appetizing. The good news: everything, even the nasty pizza, is trans-fat free, and only equitable coffee is served.
Valère is university-run and non-profit, which makes it easy on the wallet: the daily special, complete with potatoes and steamed vegetables, goes for just over $5. A hearty helping from the salad bar, which is priced by weight, is about the same. The staff encourages recycling, and will charge you an extra 15 cents to use a paper plate, or five cents for a plastic fork. Considering it has 5,000 visitors a day, that’s a lot less landfill.—M.P.
PLACE VANIER DINING HALL^^^^
“Has it been a while since you’ve tried residence dining?” asks the website for the University of British Columbia. Don’t be scared off by bad memories, it implores, “residence dining has come a long way.” It’s never good to make a promise you can’t keep, but astonishingly, the dining hall in the Place Vanier residence delivers.
Right from the moment you walk into the spacious food service area, the recently renovated Vanier’s feels more like a restaurant at a ski lodge (complete with a cozy stone fireplace) than a greasy slop house exploiting captive first-years. There’s plenty on offer, from Asian and fusion to a grill and sandwich bar, and the prices are reasonable.
To see whether the food lived up to the decor, we started with an entree of meatballs in tomato sauce and cheese with a side of steamed vegetables, a dish that could easily have gone oh so wrong. The cheese was stringy and hot, the meatballs and sauce packed with flavour. Likewise, an order of chicken balls with spicy Thai sauce kept you wanting more.
Another nice touch was the pizza. We tried a vegetarian Hawaiian served on a thick, whole wheat crust—great for filling the gut when the meal plan money is running low. Possibly the most memorable dish was also the simplest to make. A good old ham and cheese grilled sandwich that was done to perfection, with slabs of real cheddar. There are breakfast joints in Vancouver that could take a cue from this place.
There were disappointments, though. The pasta bar offered a spaghetti dish with roasted vegetables and chicken that looked as good
as anything mom would make. While there was plenty of chicken served up, though, the pasta itself was too oily. An apple crumble dessert also failed to live up to its appearance, and was way too soggy.
But these were exceptions. Vanier’s lives up to its billing. This isn’t your father’s university dining hall.—/.K.
SAMMY’S STUDENT ★★★★*
We ask three different students where to eat and receive five different answers with 27 sets of directions. But we immediately trust the woman who points us toward Hart House and says: “Lots of fresh roasted chicken dishes and excellent vegetarian options.”
The menu at Sammy’s is heartening: it’s just great seeing a campus cafeteria serving food in tune with how students should be eating. Fresh food is colourful, and this cafeteria looks like a rainbow of sandwiches, salads, pizzas and smoothies. The “Chicken of the Worlds” section runs from tandoori to Cajun (five halal options daily)—the Thaimarinated and mysteriously deboned halfchicken is nicely spiced and juicy, the side
of potatoes generous and warming. The mostly iceberg side salad is crisp, though the gloopy Thai dressing accompanying it is an unfortunate misstep. A six-inch brie and pear sandwich on whole wheat comes pre-wrapped or made to order. Either way, the ingredients are impeccable even if the cheese is standard issue.
Line service is chatty and smiley, but the seating area looks a titch post “Restaurant Makeover” (read: modern but cheap). Then again, pretty nice digs for a cafeteria.
Head over to salad central, and there’s a two-option plate: the couscous sporting tricoloured peppers, tomatoes, kidney beans and chickpeas with a hint of cumin, and the broccoli salad maintaining its crunch along with a fistful of strawberry slices and a whisper of red onion.
A large mango-strawberry smoothie is as thick as War and Peace and feels like a vitamin blast. Dessert, a fudgy Dufflet cupcake, has absolutely no downside. They also offer fair trade coffee: and all this for about $10 a person.
When the sun’s shining there are tables for alfresco dining, yet the pigeons and sparrows prove to be a nuisance. Then again, those must be some mighty healthy birds. Bonus: there’s also a full-service bar,—A.R.
THE PEOPLE’S POTATO
The People’s Potato has decided to take a different approach to the standard model of the university cafeteria. Really different. The place, which bills itself as a vegan soup kitchen, is run by happy student revolutionaries, and is dedicated to such goals as “worker empowerment,” “creating a non-hierarchical, supportive work place” and “building alternatives to corporate-dominated capitalist methods of doing business.” All that, and hey, they also know how to cook. Really well. Communism might still be around if these people had been in the kitchen.
Located on the seventh floor of the oppressively massive Hall building on Concordia’s
downtown campus, the People’s Potato offers a strictly vegan menu that consists of a soup, a vegetable entree, grains and a salad. The cafeteria operates Monday to Friday, from 12:30-2:00 p.m., and works on the “pay-asyou-can” principle. How much does it cost? You decide. There is no set charge for the meals but patrons are encouraged to make a donation to help support this not-for-profit organization (which is also partly funded by fees paid by Concordia students). I paid $5. Others paid a loonie, a toonie or nothing.
Key advice: get there early. I climbed the multiple escalators up to the seventh floor of the Hall building and arrived at 12:15 to find about 40 people already patiently waiting in line for the soup kitchen to open. As time passed, the line grew exponentially behind me. The People’s Potato is not a well-kept secret. A little after 12:30, one of the workers came out and enthusiastically told us the day’s menu, explained the pay-as-you-can principle, and started serving.
Compared to the standard university cafeteria fare, it was impressive: a spicy spinach soup, a vegetable curry, couscous and seasoned asparagus, with orange wedges for dessert. The meal was delicious (particularly the asparagus) and the staff were exceptionally friendly. All in all, a great experience,
with the only detraction being the length of the wait. Reminiscing about my own university dining choices, way back in the late 1990s, I seem to remember the mealtime options being pretty simple: chicken ramen or beef ramen. Kids these days —Geoff Clifford
RESIDENCE DINING HALL ki
The first thing that catches your eye upon walking into the concrete and wood dining hall at Simon Fraser University is the banner, hung among others painted by students, that reads “Welcome to Paradise.” The artist must be majoring in sarcasm.
The dining hall is the closest cafeteria option for the 2,000 students living in SFU’s residences, and so it’s often the convenient, if not preferred, first choice for chow. The posted menu near the entrance seems to bear little resemblance to what’s actually on offer. No vegan pan-fried pot stickers, as promised—the guy behind the counter just shrugs when asked. So the only option is to muscle through the throng in the cramped serving area, where packed-in students uncomfortably bump trays while lining up, and see what else is available. It’s recommended to stroll, no, run, past the pizza, where a woman is chasing a slice of Hawaiian across a greasy heating tray. It was hard at the edges, with congealed pools of grease between the pineapple chunks.
The entree this evening was teriyaki chicken, served lukewarm, with a dollop of overly garlicy mash and steamed vegetables, which were admittedly decent. Alas, the chicken leg was left half uneaten after the discovery
of a firm, but fatty substance. (Brain tissue? A tumour?). We ordered a baked potato that was several minutes shy of done. A zingy salsa helped us muddle through. Meanwhile, the alleged winter garden and beef soup would have made for a great French onion soup were it covered in cheese—it was salty enough, and there was no beef to speak of. We tried to wash it all down with a sparkling raspberry drink that claimed to be 100 per cent juice—tasty, if you like pure tonic water sprinkled with sugar and food colouring.
This being the West Coast, an order of the pre-packaged California roll sushi was in order. The expiry date, three days hence, should have been warning enough. Instead of the usual avocado, sweaty cucumber was used. There were no discernible grains of rice among the mush. Thoroughly unappetizingly.
One highlight was the Black Forest ham wrap. The vegetables were fresh, and the Swiss cheese was a nice touch.
Across the board, food in the dining hall was too expensive for the quality on offer. The chicken dish was $8.54; a banana sells for 75 cents.
Overall, a disappointing experience.—/. K. M