Higher Dining

With three recent university projects, a California firm remakes the humble school cafeteria.


If you’re anything like Jennifer Johanson, the cafeteria wasn’t your fondest memory of college. As an architecture student at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s, she often spent 16 hours a day on campus, where the dining options ranged from meatloaf to pizza and the healthiest food was iceberg-lettuce salad. “It definitely did not contribute to my health or well-being,” she says. Johanson, who now heads EDG, a Northern Californian architecture firm that designs restaurants for Wolfgang Puck and Four Seasons, kept that unhappy memory in her mind when she recently created new dining halls for three small private U.S. colleges. Instead of doing the tray-in-hand shuffle for gloppy potatoes under dismal lighting, students there now eat in dignified and downright stylish settings.

The old cafeteria at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, one of the three EDG renovations completed last fall, was typical of 1960s dining-hall architecture. “They were just relying on the latest, greatest techniques—a lot of poured concrete work and fluorescent lighting and kind of low-volume spaces,” Johanson says. EDG put in a glassy addition to bring in daylight and moved the food stations to the center of the room. Students can sit in banquettes or even picnic tables (which, like all the furniture, are made within a 500-mile radius), and a coffee bar and fireplace give them much-needed social space outside the dorms.

The idea was to make the cafeteria feel like less a cafeteria and more like a farmers’ market, with the hope that smarter design would encourage healthier eating habits. In that spirit, Bon Appétit Management Company, the three schools’ food service provider, offers an “all-you-care-to-eat” buffet, though there’s no one keeping hungry freshmen from gorging themselves. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that movie Animal House, where John Belushi eats everything in line before he gets to pay?” Johanson says. “They do that.”

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