Ah, first-years. One of the most-asked questions during O-Week has to be, "Can I change my dining plan? I can't possibly use all of these meal points." Sorry, guys. You're stuck with this all year. But hey, dining halls have feelings too, so you shouldn't be too quick to judge them by their reputation, which frankly, isn't too good these days. Like it or not, your House table is located in one of the three dining commons on campus—Burton-Judson, Pierce, or Bartlett—so it's best to get to know your dining hall a bit before hunting around for other meal options.
Burton-Judson Dining Commons
Burton-Judson essentially looks like the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Rich wood furniture, high stained glass windows, and low, woodsy lighting give you the sense that you're eating in a church instead of a cafeteria. The food is served buffet style, with salad and soup stations, a grill (the omelets at breakfast are usually a good bet), and a "center stage" option that offers a different specialty entrée every night. Vegetarian and vegan entrées are also available at every meal. The downside to B-J is the long walk across the Midway, which can get tedious, especially during winter quarter when all you want is a warm meal—sans the forces of vicious Mother Nature.
Pierce Dining Commons
Pierce is the other buffet-style dining hall, but it's different from B-J in a couple of ways. For one, the ambience isn't as nice: Pierce resembles your average cafeteria. The usual meal options are all there, including vegetarian and vegan entrées, center stage, and the grill, but Pierce also has the Wok, where you can create your own stir-fry dish from an array of fresh vegetables and meat, rice, and noodles.
Bartlett Dining Commons
Attention, residents of Snell-Hitchcock and Max Palevsky: Know that you are the lucky ones. Bartlett is the newest of the three dining halls and arguably the best (The Wall Street Journal even gave it an award). Eleven dining stations offer a diverse range of fresh à la carte dishes that aren't available in either B-J or Pierce—think pasta, burritos, sushi, a kosher deli, the works. Because meals are served à la carte, the Bartlett plan operates on a pay-as-you-go basis, so if B-J or Pierce diners want to eat at Bartlett, they have to use their Flex dollars.
So in all fairness, dining hall food isn't as terrible as rumors would have you think. But sometimes it does get repetitive. If you're prepared to eat 14 meals per week in your dining hall and gain the freshman 15 by your third week, good for you. For others, the mandatory freshman meal plan probably isn't the ideal culinary experience. After all, there's nothing more off-putting than standing in a long lunch line after a grueling morning of classes and feeling like you've already eaten everything your dining hall has to offer this week—twice. Enter Flex dollars.
Those prepaid credits are good for use at any campus dining location (not including student-run cafes—for those you'll need cash). Hutchinson Dining Commons, located right inside the Reynolds Club, offers Subway, Connie's Pizza, and other on-the-go meals. A little farther inside the Reynolds Club is Einstein Brothers Bagels (aka the C-Shop). A dozen varieties of this round, chewy delicacy are offered every day along with an impressive assortment of spreads, ranging from a strong selection of shmears to homey PB & J to hummus. The C-Shop also sells decent sandwiches as well as gourmet salads. As for their drinks, a cup of chai is a good bet in the winter, and for those other seasons, there's Wednesday dollar shake days, which are definitely not to be missed.
If neither the dining halls nor other campus dining options sounds appealing, one of the many cafés and coffee shops littered around campus should do the trick. Each displays a unique atmosphere, despite offering a big overlap of meal choices. Most cafés and coffee shops on campus sell affordable entrées from Hyde Park restaurants, including favorites like the Snail, Cedars, Thai 55, Rajun Cajun, and the Nile.
Cobb Coffee Shop
Cobb Coffee Shop, located in the lower level of Cobb Hall, is a well lit, spacious place that sells the cheapest bagels and coffee on campus, which makes for a nice breakfast stop before your first class of the morning. Cobb employees are well known for their superb music tastes, and the newest indie rock outfit can usually be heard throbbing down there. Add to that atmosphere wireless Internet and their eclectic collection of foreign coins, and Cobb is easily one of the most popular student hangouts on campus.
For the more bookish types who prefer to spend their time in the Reg, Ex Libris offers snacks and meals to those who are busy studying or doing research. Connected to the shop is a large seating area perfect for meeting study partners and friends.
Providing a third dining option in the Reynolds Club is Hallowed Grounds, styled as a coffee bar and offering not only specialty coffee drinks and pastries, but also a spread-out study area as well as a pool lounge. The coffee shop boasts a cable television, and during happy hour (5:30 to 6:30 p.m. every weekday) sodas are 30 cents and coffee just 50 cents.
The Classics Café, on the second floor of the Classics building, features soups, salads, pastries, and a comfortable setting for those who want to do a little reading between classes. Visit in the afternoon, and the sun slanting through the windows bordered by wood-paneled walls creates a wonderfully academic atmosphere.
Grounds of Being
Ever wonder if there is a place where God drinks coffee? Well, the Div School coffee shop, Grounds of Being (located in the basement of Swift Hall), can boast that particular VIP customer. Usually crowded, it's best to make your purchase—the coffee shop provides a great selection of tea and many entrées—and head outside to eat on the quad, weather permitting, of course.
Law School Café
First-years with high aspirations and a sophisticated taste might want to trek over to the Law School Café, which offers panini and other made-to-order sandwiches. The Harper Center of the Graduate School of Business offers a similarly sumptuous array. (Some U of C students have been known to visit the building to stake out the attractive—and soon-to-be deep-pocketed—students.)
From dining halls to coffee shops, the U of C can hardly be found wanting of great—and some not-so-great—cuisine. As first-years, you'll probably spend the majority of your time socializing at your House table, but as upperclassmen we feel obligated to inform you of what your other dining options are, in case you develop a sudden allergy to that uninspiring pile of mashed potatoes on your plate.