WHEN YOU'RE A college student, the campus cafe plays a big part in your life. You hang out there. You meet people there. And you chow down on real food, fixed by experienced cooks.
Justin Thomas and Nathan Wagoner, sophomores at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, told me this the other day, as they ate salads spiked with grilled chicken and servings of roasted potatoes at the Center Cafe, the cafeteria in the renovated College Center on Mount Royal Avenue near the light-rail stop.
I spoke with them and other institute students about the role of lunch in their lives, and about other food issues. The students were starting a new school year with new midday fare.
The Maryland Institute, responding to a survey of about 1,000 of its students, transformed the previous dining spot from a traditional campus dive to a lighter, greener eatery. A pool table along with the greasy burgers and fries that were fixtures in prior years were replaced by fresh, crunchy fare served in two airy, artfully decorated eating spaces.
The Quick Bite, a grab-and-go affair on the first floor, dispenses tomato sandwiches, milked-up coffees like lattes and fruit shakes in vibrant hues that sometimes match the tinted hair of the student clientele.
Upstairs is the cafe, a sunny place serving salads, falafels, tortillas filled with beans, vegetable "wraps" and veggie burgers cooked on a grill reserved for vegetables, where meat never touches it.
The folks at Bon Appetit, a California-based food service company that runs the institute eatery as well as other college cafeterias around the nation, said they expect the cafe will appeal to members of the eating public, not just to institute students with meal cards.
"It is quite the improvement," said Thomas, who, like most of the students, generally approved of the change in campus cuisine. Thomas and Wagoner did complain, however, that they missed the old pool table.
The guys said that, unlike some of their fellow students, they were not zealous pro-vegetable types. They were able to find enough carnivore-friendly offerings on the new menu to please them, though. They also liked the fact that the midday offerings would vary. Too much pizza can make even artists dull boys, they implied.
Cooking their lunch was not really an alternative, they said. The kitchen in their residence hall, the Commons, sees limited action.
"We are not chefs," said Wagoner, a 19-year-old illustration major from Jacksonville, Fla.
"You're talking macaroni," added Thomas, his roommate, a 19-year-old illustration major from Columbia. "Followed by Sprite."
When student Aaron Kenny joined them at the table, he too talked about cooking, or the lack of it, in his life. Kenny, a sophomore photography major from Baltimore, shares a house in Hampden with two other students. He reported that not much creative cuisine has emerged from the shared kitchen.
So far, the menu consisted of pancakes at every meal, he confessed. Kenny did pass on a survival tip to his friends: If you have leftover spaghetti sauce, you can mix it with a can of tuna and, presto, you have a meal.
As for the new campus fare, Kenny said he missed his old cheeseburger and fries lunch from last year. It was $2 cheaper than this year's $6 lunch of grilled chicken and fresh vegetables, he said.
But, according to Randy DeMers, a supervisor for Bon Appetit, most of the institute students want lunch to be green, not greasy. DeMers said demand for vegetarian fare was 10 percent to 15 percent higher at the Baltimore cafe than at comparable facilities at such colleges as St. John's College in Annapolis and St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland.
Jen Selden is one of the avid vegetable eaters. A freshman from Huntington, N.Y., she was stuffing extra cubes of tofu into her large, leafy lunch. She follows a loose vegetarian lifestyle, she said, rather than a strict, no-cheese diet adhered to by some vegetarians. "Whatever is necessary, I eat it," she said, "except meat."
Several other freshmen, sitting with Sleden, offered a variety of perspectives on their college eating experiences.
Helena Elko, 18, of Pittsburgh provided a culinary overview of the first week of her college life. The turkey burger in the cafe was "decent," she said, as was the bean salad.
The sugar cookies were exceptional, she said -- super decent, I suppose. The tofu dogs were not good -- indecent, I guess.
Julia Taylor, 18, of New Haven, Conn., said she had a major food-and-beverage experience her first week in college. It occurred when her father, who was in Baltimore to help her get settled in school, visited the Mount Royal Tavern, a dark-and-storied bar next to the College Center.
Her dad made friends with the bartender and, reportedly, told the barkeeper, "If you ever see my daughter in here, throw her out," she said.
Max Gold, 18, of Oak Park, Ill., seemed to have a good feel for the transition many college students make from home cooking to campus eating.
"At home, dinner would always be ready, waiting for you," he said. But when you leave the homestead and venture onto a college campus, you learn to find new sources of sustenance, he said.
Gold then picked up a thick turkey sandwich, looked around the cafe, and announced, "This looks like a good place to come after class."