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.

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