Dec 1, 2021 - Food and Drink

The state of food in Illinois' biggest dining hall

Two plates of food.

Lunch plates from UIUC's newest dining hall. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

👋 Howdy, it's Monica.

  • Earlier this week I drove my daughter back to school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and checked out the massive new Illinois Street Residence (ISR) dining hall.

Why it matters: Eating in Illinois' biggest dining hall at the state's largest university serves up an illuminating taste of today's college food scene.

By the numbers: The full $77 million ISR dining hall renovation opened this year as the biggest non-military dining hall in the nation.

Big dining hall.
The new Illinois Street Residence dining hall can seat more than 1,300 diners. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

The sunny, airy facility feeds 4,000 people a day from 9 micro-restaurants, including stations catering to vegans and those with food allergies.

  • Visitors pay $9.90 at breakfast and $12.57 at lunch for all-access entry — kind of like a younger version of Old Country Buffet.

Breakfast notes: I loved the bold coffee, vegan sausage, well-seasoned tofu scramble and hash with caramelized onions and red peppers.

  • The bland scrambled eggs and zucchini, however, needed a lot of Sriracha, which is in abundant supply here.

Lunch notes: The avocado, spring greens, tzatziki, feta, roasted cauliflower and quinoa salad made me feel like I was dining at a fancy spa. And I actually liked the plant-based veatballs in marinara.

  • But the "Illinois-grown" brown rice and boiled northern beans had zero flavor.
Composting box.
Students at UIUC dump their food scraps in a bin that feeds an anaerobic methane digester to make energy. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Some neat things that UIUC dining halls do for sustainability:

  • Source local food and dairy.
  • Compost and use anaerobic digesters to turn food waste into energy.
  • Offer rentable takeout boxes to encourage re-use.

International observation du jour: My daughter's India-born roommate was shocked to hear that American college students often gain weight their freshman year, noting the trend is just the opposite in India.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Chicago.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Chicago stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Chicago.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more