When I came to UGA in 1996, I’d never eaten in a cafeteria on a regular basis. My hippie private school didn’t have one, and my French mother packed my lunch for me every day, nestling beautiful leftovers by pieces of nice cheese. I know—I was very fancy. I should have known from the “Let the Big Dawg Eat” short they played us during orientation, but I believed the accolades from my fellow students and in the awards UGA Food Services had won.
Setting foot in the three UGA dining commons that existed at the time (Bolton, Snelling and Oglethorpe House) was some kind of awakening. Cheese did not come pre-sliced in my world. I made it through one quarter living on rolls, pizza and ice cream before I paid the fee to get out of my contract and started cooking for myself. Better a homemade peanut-butter sandwich made with natural, unsweetened peanut butter on firm, whole-grain bread than a slew of other options, even if they did come with unlimited access to the pizza counter.
Twenty years later, I’ve learned to eat a lot more things and realized that the problem was at least as much mine as it was the food on offer. I’m more of a relativist than an absolutist, and I’ve recognized that Kraft Singles aren’t the devil. At the same time, UGA Food Services has also changed, and so have the expectations of UGA students. Bolton has been built anew, a glittering, giant ski-lodge of a building at the corner of Baxter and Lumpkin. East Campus has expanded tremendously and obtained its own dining hall (Village Summit), and the Health Sciences campus even has one (The Niche).
The Tate Center, meanwhile, spent the summer renovating the café in its old section, adding some options that are a significant upgrade, especially when compared to the pre-made foil-wrapped grilled-cheese sandwiches sitting under a heat lamp that they used to have back in the day. In addition to an expanded Chick-fil-A, it now boasts a Panda Express and, more interesting, a Your Pie clone, The Niche Pizza Co., which has its original location on the Health Sciences campus and does made-to-order personal-size pizzas baked in an oven right in front of you.
Like Your Pie, Niche also offers gelato and gluten-free crust, and the pizza is of comparable quality. Unlike Your Pie, obvi, it doesn’t serve beer, but it does make fairly artisanal natural sodas to order, muddling thyme and fresh ginger in the bottom of a glass before adding blueberry and grape syrup and then carbonated water to transform it all into something pretty fancy.
Next door, in the new section of Tate, is a similar à la carte food court, with Barberitos, Red Clay @ Tate (hot and cold sandwiches and salads; an expansion of Red Clay Café on East Campus) and the new Bulldog Burger, offering both veggie burgers and burgers made of grass-fed beef on a bun supplied by the local Luna Bakery. The fried eggs you can get as a topping are cage-free, and the tater tots can come with sriracha-honey ketchup on the side. It’s both weird and nice.
There’s no question that there’s still some over-promising in the dining halls. “Peruvian rotisserie chicken” on offer one day was closer to plain old rotisserie, and the vegetable sides are often pretty bland.
On the other hand, abundance is well and truly observable. The new Bolton spreads out over two floors, with desserts, salad bar and classic hot entrees on the ground floor (more than enough to keep one happy) and, upstairs, several made-to-order stations, a taco bar, an all-day breakfast counter, hand-spun milkshakes, a build-your-own pasta station and more.
Vegetarians have significantly more choices than in the past, and it’s clear that food made on demand has increased its foothold, for good reason. Who wouldn’t enjoy a pretty good Reuben cooked to order by a pleasant young man who amicably discusses his initial decision to major in philosophy as he rolls the bread across a sharp-toothed implement designed to coat it with a butter-ish substance? Certainly better that than a sad casserole, although there are some of those on offer still. If you time your visit right, to just before things really get hopping, you may snag a hot cake donut that’s just been cooked or the first spoonful out of a pan of cobbler still crisp on top.
The dining halls have moved to a trayless system, which cuts down on food and water waste by encouraging folks to take only what they can carry. You do not have to be a student or a faculty or staff employee of UGA to eat in the dining halls or elsewhere on campus, although you get a bit of a discount if you are and you show your ID. If you consider the all-you-can-eat price of $11.25 for lunch (a bit less for breakfast; a bit more for dinner), the deal is a pretty good one, and the quality is at least as good as anything comparable, if not considerably better.
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