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Latest College Reading Lists: Menus With Pho and Lobster - New York Times

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Dining & Wine

Latest College Reading Lists: Menus With Pho and Lobster

Stephanie Klein-Davis for The New York Times

LIKE MOM'S? Pizza is baked in a wood-fired oven at Virginia Tech. More Photos >

By MICHAEL S. SANDERS Published: April 9, 2008

Brunswick, Me.

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So Long, Mystery Meat

THE smell of a curried butternut squash soup wafts through the air as you walk into the dining room. At long tables of dark wood, beneath windows soaring 20 feet overhead, customers dine on vegetable ragout over polenta, spicy orange beef, Dijon-crusted chicken, cheese quesadillas, vegetarian pho —Vietnamese noodle soup — and spinach sautéed with garlic and olive oil.

If it weren’t for the trays, and the fact that most diners are under 25, you’d think it was a restaurant. But this is Thorne dining hall at Bowdoin College here.

As recently as 10 years ago, a typical campus dining experience was a cafeteria offering overcooked meat, canned vegetables and instant mashed potatoes.

But as palates grow more sophisticated and admissions become more competitive, many top colleges are paying attention to dining rooms as well as classrooms.

For students who are now hearing from the top-tier colleges, picking a destination can be partly a matter of taste.

“I didn’t apply to Bates, because, well, I ate there, the meal was not very good,” said Lucas Braun, a 17-year-old senior at Westtown School, outside of Philadelphia, who has been accepted at several colleges in the Northeast. “There’s something subliminal from the food you see in the dining hall and the meal they give you that influences your decision.”

Food was definitely on Jenna Gruer’s agenda last fall as she visited colleges coast to coast. Jenna, an 18-year-old vegetarian from St. Louis, Mo., was particularly impressed by Wesleyan University.

“I heard a lot about organic food co-ops and the little organic store where you can use your dining card, and those things are important to me,” she said of its offerings.

Food alone might not be a reason to apply, she said, but it might eliminate colleges with lesser dining halls.

“Those aren’t going to be my top schools, considering the full package of what I’m going to be having for the next four years of my life,” she said.

Colleges nationwide have been innovating. Stanford offers “spa waters,” mineral water with cucumber, watermelon, mint and other flavors. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst shares guest chefs with eight colleges. Yale has an organic cafe. Brown has a farmers’ market. At Wheaton College in Illinois, low-carbon meals use local and organic food; students can choose Thursday dinners illuminated only by the lights outside.

“The food is part of meeting the expectations of those enrolled and those who are going to choose you,” said Steve Thomas, director of admissions at Colby College in Waterville, Me. “We budget $15,000 a year just for meal tickets for prospective visiting families and students.”

“Students are quite knowledgeable about how a college’s food ranks in the Princeton Review,” Mr. Thomas added, referring to “The Best 366 Colleges,” a guide. “We hear it all the time, and we pay attention to it because they pay attention to it.”

For several years, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and Bowdoin have been trading the top spots in the guide’s “Best Campus Food” list, derived from 120,000 student surveys.

Virginia Tech, with 26,000 students, serves 160,000 meals a week, both through regular meal plans and with à la carte selections paid for with a discount swipe card.

The West End Market dining hall, 1 of 13 (including some outside franchises), has 8 separate areas, each with its own design scheme and food. At J.P.’s Chop House at the West End, with dark wood paneling and brass fixtures, “You can order a whole Maine lobster, New York strip and rib-eye steaks cooked how you want them, grilled sesame-crusted tuna with wasabi mayo,” Rick Johnson, Virginia Tech’s director of housing and dining, said of some of the à la carte selections. “You can get fresh steamed asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes on the side, grilled tomatoes. But right next door, you step into a sports bar, with sports décor and two different projection screens with ESPN or a game and where kids can eat 100 percent different than J.P.’s: cheese fries, gourmet hamburgers and chicken wings.”

Ashley McLain, a sophomore, said her favorite was the London broil at J.P.’s.

“Yeah, the line can be long,” she said, “but you get a steak dinner cooked to order, with lots of vegetables and different kinds of potatoes or rice, and all for about five bucks.”

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