10.06.09

The Best College Food

From celebrity chefs to lobster bakes to chocolate fountains, The Daily Beast tracks down the 15 best college meal plans in the country. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

Here’s just a taste of what college students across the country are having for dinner tonight: fresh-caught lobster, Brazilian churrascaria, summer squash apple bisque, and for dessert, handmade Belgian chocolates.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of the 15 Best Colleges to Eat At

Once upon a time, colleges served boiled veggies and mystery meat, assembly-line style. Then, in the ‘90s, campus food courts began upgrading to brand-name fast food and fancy salad bars. But to impress today’s prospective students, who were weaned on organic produce, Michael Pollan, and the Food Network, schools are rolling out dining options fit for a visiting head of state. Sushi chefs, gourmet coffee, and organic food are standard now, and large cafeterias are being traded for smaller, more intimate restaurant-style dining. But some schools have upped the ante beyond even that, flying their chefs to far-flung regions where they’re taught to cook authentic international haute cuisine, infusing their campus tap water with hints of cucumber and lemon, and hiring celebrity architects to build dining halls that resemble exclusive Manhattan brasseries—plunked down in the middle of verdant Iowan campuses.

“Curriculums and majors can all be the same from school to school,” says Rich Turnbull, Oregon State University’s head of dining services. “Food and customer service are where you can provide both parents and applicants that ‘wow’ factor.”

“They want to know where their food was grown, who grew it and what technique was used,” adds Beth Gentry, general manager for dining services at Colorado College, of today’s aspiring-foodie college students. “Then they want to come into the kitchen and see how it is prepared.”

Just consider the uproar this fall when Harvard students arrived to find the university had done away with hot breakfast at all but one dining hall. Or Cornell’s decision to cut lunchtime options. Or  the University of Massachusetts’ choice to go trayless this year. “Students have come to expect that we will go out of our way to meet whatever their needs are,” says Ken Toong, UMass’s head of dining services. “So, if change inconveniences them, they’re going to feel comfortable resisting it.”

In a world where Thai tom yum gai and steak tartare are essential to any menu, The Daily Beast examined 15 of the country’s award-winning college dining services and what they do to stand out.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.