MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 24TH, 2018

(4/5 stars)

Going to a Stanford campus dining hall wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a place to eat out. But nowhere else in the Bay Area will you get such an incredible variety of farm-to-table, freshly-prepared meals for such an amazing price.

The Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, a Stanford dining center located at 489 Arguello Way in Stanford  serves students, faculty and staff, but is also open to visitors and tourists. Opened in 2011, the 31,119 square foot, $20 million project was funded partly by John Arrillaga and designed for a casual campus dining experience.

The building is typical for the Stanford campus — a large two-story structure with a creamy, beige stucco outside and a Spanish-style, red-tiled roof with palm trees by the front door. There is little parking for cars, but a plethora of bike racks.

This setup is ideal for students, but the parking situation could be difficult for families with small children or those who need to park within a short walking distance.

A wide staircase lined with photos and news articles about Stanford leads up to the second floor. The second floor has a small landing that is roped off from the dining area, with an opening next to a cashier.

Students and faculty who have prepaid meal plans ($7.50 per lunch- served 10:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.) are able to swipe cards to enter, but anyone else must pay the $15 for a lunch meal with a credit card (no cash accepted).

The payment situation is a little unclear and I had a hard time figuring out how much I had to pay and how I could pay it. For Stanford-affiliates, $7.50 is a pretty unbeatable deal, and even for someone off the street, $15 isn’t too much for an amazing, all-you-can-eat meal.

After paying, the second floor opens up to a large array of self-serve/cafeteria style stations.

The choices for where to begin are almost overwhelming, and they are a vegan’s and vegetarian’s dream come true.

First off — a salad bar with the premade salad of the day, rows of lettuce, kale, tomatoes, croutons, carrots and dressing to build your own. The entrees of the day (vary from day to day) are couscous, pasta with heirloom tomatoes, bbq chicken thighs and vegan cauliflower with squash.

An inviting pasta station with plain pasta, butter, red sauce and creamy pesto is next to the soup of the day- vegetarian minestrone. Bread, bagels and peanut butter and jelly are next to a toaster along the wall, and three types of cereal can be dispensed from a large container.

I was overwhelmed by the choices, and found it hard not to fill my plate with some of every dish. From a picky eater to a vegan, there seemed to be something for everyone.

There is a gluten free/allergy-safe surface off to the side of the food area. Each dish is accompanied by a label with the name of the dish and any allergy information.

I grabbed a bowl and filled it with the salad of the day (lettuce with vinaigrette and tomatoes) and a plate with the heirloom tomato pasta and the cauliflower and squash dish.

I also served myself some milk, which is one many drink options that also include juice, chocolate milk, lactose free milk, coffee, sodas and carbonated water.

Again I found myself with too many options, wanting to get three or four cups of different beverages. The plethora of choices seems to provide something for anyone in any mood and is definitely not a bad thing.

I chose a table in one of the two dining areas that are to the right and left of the buffets. Both rooms are spacious and well-lit with 30 foot ceilings and large windows that really open up the space.

Each room has about 30 round and square tables that seat 5 to 10 each, in addition to an outdoor balcony that seats 50. The total seating capacity is 675, but it was no where near full. Not surprising considering I had gotten there at 11am on a Sunday- a time when most college students are still sleeping.

By the time I finished eating, it had filled up more and it could definitely become hectic or chaotic if it were to fill to capacity.

A large screen projects a football game and smaller TVs play various other shows. The room had a general background din, but most students sat in small groups or by themselves studying or reading. The atmosphere is very informal, and one group of students were all dressed in what was clearly their pjs.

For me, the student scene was great people-watching, but the noise and movement might be overwhelming if you’re looking for a serene meal.

My salad was fantastic; the lettuce and tomatoes were fresh and the dressing was tangy but not too vinegary. The pasta with heirloom tomatoes had a strong tomato flavor that reminded me of summer. I would have prefered the pasta to be slightly more al dente because it was a little too soft for my taste.

The cauliflower dish looked somewhat unappetizing but was well-seasoned and tasted almost like Thanksgiving stuffing. I wish that there had been more mushrooms in the dish; the texture and flavor of the squash were a little too bland.

After finishing what I had on my plate, I went back for more. For every “course” a new plate is needed, so I had to bus and sort my dishes onto a moving conveyor belt.
This is probably not ideal for families or couples who prefer to be waited on, but for my casual taste, it was nice not to have to track down a server for a refill of water or have to wait to pay the bill before leaving.

Next I grabbed a new plate and filled it with couscous and some broccoli.

The couscous was well-cooked, a little bland, but full of bell peppers and raisins which complemented the dish nicely. The broccoli was plain but cooked just enough to be crunchy and not hard.

At this point, I was pretty much full, but I couldn’t walk past the soft serve ice cream machine. As everyone knows, it plays a large role on college campuses in the notorious “freshman 15” (weight gain in the first year of college).  I grabbed a cone and filled it with the impressively-tasty vanilla and rich chocolate as I walked out. There was no bitter metallic aftertaste that’s common with soft serve.

According to Shirley Everett, Senior Associate Vice-Provost for R&DE, as quoted in an article by “Menus of Change,”  the goal for this dining center is “to create a design that focuses on academic enrichment by enhancing the student living-and-learning experience with an equally unique, innovative, educational and sustainable dining experience.”

Kind of a lofty goal for a dining center, but students seemed to be getting work down and enjoying themselves, and most of them made healthy-ish choices with their meals.

Personally, I think that this dining center goes above and beyond what it promises. It may not be the best place for a romantic night out, but it provides the perfect space for a meal with family and friends who want to talk and eat as much as their heart desires.

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