Campus 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.

Oregon State University

When a student wrote a newspaper column last year raving about Oregon State’s cafeteria, he had just one complaint: no spicy chicken. Within hours of the article being published, Dining Services called the student personally to let him know that a Buffalo Chicken Wrap had been added to the menu at all of the public university’s dining facilities—and an ad purchased in the school paper let the rest of OSU’s campus know, too. It’s a story Rich Turnbull, head of dining services, likes to tell to illustrate his staff’s commitment to customer service. His staff also regularly monitors comments on Facebook and other social media to ensure students are satisfied. But OSU goes even further than that. To craft the menu at its Serrano Grill, the school flew its chefs to Monterrey, Mexico, a city renowned for its food, to study authentic Mexican cuisine. For its Southeast Asian café, it imported an Indonesian chef to liven up new dishes. And on a recent trip to Chicago, Turnbull took his chefs to eat at celebrated chef Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill. “I’ve learned over the years that you can only know true excellence if you see it up-close and firsthand,” Turnbull says.

Virginia Tech

Every day at Virginia Tech’s West End Market, you can enjoy Maine lobster plucked live from its tank and cooked right before your eyes. (Or as your steak filet is carved.) At the coffee shop, the green coffee beans are roasted on site to a dark mahogany. Or perhaps you’re in the mood for a home-cooked meal. At the beginning of each school year, the school collects recipes from parents to add to its menus, and students select their favorites. Past winners included blueberry French toast casserole, Yucatan lime soup, and cookie dough-topped brownies. Traditional cafeteria serving lines are long gone from Virginia Tech, traded up for diverse restaurants spread across campus. And while all of this may sound quite opulent, Virginia Tech has the least expensive meal plans in the state. It’s so affordable that more than 10,000 off-campus people signed up last year. “That means we’re pulling in folks from all over the nearby community,” says Robert Coffey, senior associate director for dining services. “And our parking is not great.”

Courtesy of St. Olaf College

St. Olaf College

As one of Minnesota’s most expensive schools, St. Olaf’s has for years tried to give students their money’s worth when it comes to food. “Our students are definitely exposed to good cuisine and know a lot about food,” says general manager Peter Abrahamson. “They’re not going to be the type to turn up their nose and say they’d rather have chicken fingers and fries.” As such, Abrahamson buys all its fruits, vegetables, and herbs from STOGROW, the student-run organic farm. He sources his meat and poultry from neighboring farms to ensure that it’s been raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. Apples are grown at an orchard just minutes from campus, and milk supplied by Hastings Creamery, a cooperative of family-owned dairy farms in Hastings, MN, about 20 miles from St. Olaf. “We work hard to make sure we have the right fit,” Abrahamson says of his kitchen. “By relying on local farmers, I can ask face-to-face about how they grow their vegetables or feed their cattle and pigs.” Plus, after meals, all the waste goes into St. Olaf’s industrial composter and the compost is cycled back into STOGROW.

Courtesy of University of Massachusetts at Amherst

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Once a week, the head of UMass’s dining services, Ken Toong, checks in with his “mystery diners”—students hired specifically to ensure quality control at the school’s myriad campus eateries. As Toong’s eyes and ears, they report on whether the newly added Moroccan kefta kabobs are a hit. Or if stealth efforts to rein in portion sizes are working. What’s more is the initiative appears to be paying off: Revenue has been growing 10 percent per year and reached $55 million in 2008. UMass now serves over five million meals annually. That’s thanks, at least in part, to the school’s 12 executive chefs, most of whom have been trained at premier institutions, such as Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute of America. But Toong also instituted a visiting-chef series to offer weekly specials, bringing in prominent chefs from more than a dozen other colleges and universities nationwide, and from world-class restaurants. “At our ‘Taste of the World’ event, we brought in another 250 chefs from all over the globe to participate,” Toong says. “We’re always trying to tempt students with something new.”

Courtesy of Bowdoin College

Bowdoin College

Like many on this list, Bowdoin’s staff bakes its own bread, butchers its own meats, and uses herbs straight from campus gardens. In fact, all of Bowdoin’s dishes are made from scratch daily with mostly locally sourced fare. Of course, when it comes to local ingredients, the Maine school does have one clear competitive advantage: lobster. And early last month students and guests were treated to Bowdoin’s first 100 percent compostable lobster bake. Some 1,256 lobsters, 78 gallons of Maine fish chowder, and 1,280 ears of corn on the cob were served at the event.

David Kilper / WUSTL

Washington University in St. Louis

Up this week at Wash. U’s dining commons: groundbreaking chef Mollie Katzen, author of the bestselling Moosewood Cookbook. Katzen’s visit is the latest in an ongoing effort by the school to teach students about healthier eating and using more local ingredients. Today, general manager Nadeem Siddiqqi says, Wash U.’s kitchens source about 25 percent of their food from 21 nearby farms, including the school’s own student-run garden. “We want that percentage to continue to grow,” Siddiqqi says. “Ideally, we would have vegetable crops from our partners year round.” But Wash U. has taken its community garden, The Burning Kumquat, one step further. This past summer the student gardeners decided to host a five-day free urban farm camp for local St. Louis city kids. The children, ages 10 to 12, spent their days learning to work the land through games, special guests, and documentaries. Then the school donated lunch so that the youngsters could eat the very food they’d just been tending.

Courtesy of Grinnell College

Grinnell College

Grinnell’s cuisine is top-notch: It won grand prize this year from the National Association of College and University Food Services. But doesn’t any food taste better when served in a beautiful setting? Architect Cesar Pelli, an Argentine best known for constructing Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, once the world’s tallest buildings, designed Grinnell’s student union, which includes its dining hall. Commissioned to be the “living room” of Grinnell’s Iowa campus, Pelli’s renovation in 2006 combined the two existing dining facilities into one large, open dining area with panoramic views. At the same time, the 16,000-square-foot, $42 million center was also one of the school’s first sustainable initiatives and is completely LEED-certified. The project was especially challenging because Grinnell’s class schedule reflects the importance the college places on food: The entire campus shuts down for lunch, and everyone eats at the same time.

Courtesy of Mills College

Mills College

When Mills was founded in 1852, an on-campus farm supplied all of the food at the Northern California women’s college. Two years ago, the school returned to that tradition, requisitioning a corner of its renowned botanical gardens for a new community garden. Last spring students visited local recycling centers to collect used lumber, red roof tiles, and milk cartons to build planting boxes. The harvest this fall includes pumpkins, Meyer lemons, heirloom tomatoes, and strawberries. “Students learn right away how hard it really is to put food on the table,” says full-time garden coordinator Christina McWhorter. “It pulls together the entire community.” Afterward, students no doubt idle the afternoon away at nearby Café Suzie, where they can enjoy a glass of wine and made-to-order crepes. At the dining commons, the executive chef walks around at each meal with students who are gluten-free or have food allergies to note what dishes they can and can’t eat.

Stanford University

Stanford Dining’s executive chefs train in Paris and collaborate with the nation’s top chefs. Still, it’s the little touches that make this school stand out. Among the most luxe? Stanford’s “spa water,” which flows from the campus taps and is infused with fresh cut produce, such as watermelon, cucumber, and lemon. Stanford also has the first peanut-free dining hall for undergrads with allergies.

Boston College

Two words: Chocolate Bar. When BC revamped its dining commons in 2006, administrators and students worked together to come up with what some called “Wonka-ville,” a café fit to meet the needs of any chocoholic. Besides gourmet coffees, there’s a chocolate fountain for fondue, chocolate-covered nuts and fruits, fudge, chocolate pastries, and even chocolate-themed games.

Colorado College

At Colorado College, the emphasis is on returning to the land. This summer, for instance, the school’s dining services provided a $3,500 loan so the student garden— a third of an acre located in the college president’s backyard—could be staffed in exchange for fresh kale, broccoli, radishes, and other produce this fall. Plus, during student orientation, many freshmen sign up for field trips to visit local farms where they see the very food they’ll eat in the dining hall later that year. “We try to provide signs telling where all of our food is coming from,” says general manager Beth Gentry. That way, for example, “Students can see Mesa Farms and know that they saw those very peaches still on the tree.”

Courtesy of Wheaton College

Wheaton College

This Christian liberal arts college west of Chicago topped Princeton Review’s 2009 list for best campus food. That’s due to its former general manager, Klaus Mandl, an Austrian chef who’d previously overseen food at Boston’s Ritz-Carlton. Some of this week’s tasty menu items: handmade Belgian truffles, sweet chili chicken, pork loin with dulce picanta salsa, and wheatberry pilaf.

Stephen Salpukas

The College of William & Mary

Even with options like made-to-order sushi and Brazilian roast pork, student Alexandre Pouille and his pals were bored with William and Mary’s menus. “The food is so repetitive and stale,” complains Pouille, a junior accounting major. So they took a cue from the Food Network and created “Everyday Gourmet,” a weekly student-run cooking show designed to teach its audience how to dish out a three-course meal for less than $20. Each episode has a theme—Date Night, Ballpark Food, Sunday Brunch, to name a few—and airs on the campus TV network and the Internet. The show has been so popular that the school’s WMTV was able to buy $15,000 worth of new equipment last year. “All the new dorms had these great kitchens,” station manager Pouille says. “So why not teach kids to do it themselves?”

Keith Stevenson / Cal Dining

University of California—Berkeley

A 2004 study at Berkeley showed that 2,850 pounds of food and 357 gallons of soda were thrown away every day at the school’s dining facilities, a waste that students blamed on the poor quality and variety of foods served. "This ran like a middle-of-the-country state college, not like a university in a food Mecca," Cal Dining director Shawn LaPean has said. But things have changed. Soon after, Berkeley became the first school nationwide to have a certified organic kitchen and a 100 percent organic salad bar. All of the food served is also trans-fat free. LePean’s staff pioneered many of healthy initiatives that other schools on this list now tout, and today one of the most popular Web sites on campus is the dinner menu.

Courtesy of Illinois Institute of Technology

Illinois Institute of Technology

The Illinois Institute of Technology’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center may be one of the coolest buildings on the planet in which to grab lunch between classes. Designed by Dutch architect and Harvard professor Rem Koolhaas, this hub caters to the urban Chicago campus’ crowd with its food court and café. The building itself features a noise-absorbing steel tube wrapping the El train that runs directly over it, and also houses IIT’s bookstore, auditorium, and meeting spaces. Plus, Koolhaas was in good company—much of IIT’s other architecture was the work of influential peer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. "Rem Koolhaas hasn't just brought IIT new architecture–he is also bringing it new architecture students,” wrote the Architect’s Newspaper when the $35 million dining facility was built in 2003. “[His building] has resulted in a doubling in the size of the freshman class.”