There is a notion haunting University of Chicago dining. One that many people understand and express vehemently at the slightest opportunity. But the evidence is hard to put into exact terms so that the argument is irrefutable; thus the debate rages on. The idea: Arley D. Cathey Dining Commons is better than Bartlett Dining Commons.
Dining authorities will adamantly deny this, of course. When the question is put to them at Inter-House Council or Bartlett Dining Committee meetings, they dismiss it out of hand as the fiction of “grass is always greener”-minded students. Some people I talked to, and I didn’t want to believe it either, not wanting to denigrate our “home” dining hall. Still the idea spreads, whispered, hidden, but widely believed, nurtured by the incontrovertible evidence.
There are, of course, superficial differences between the two dining commons that everybody seizes on immediately—the frozen yogurt machine at Cathey strangely absent at Bartlett, or the difference in seating organization. Cathey has a couple of separated smaller dining areas, while Bartlett puts everyone in one giant, undivided old gym.
What you may not detect are the small discrepancies, things that I didn’t even realize until I started asking around. Cathey has better carrot sticks, one person told me; and a panini press; and deep dish pizza; Chex instead of Cheerios for gluten-free cereal; more sauce options for pasta; a better flow around the salad bar; cleaner silverware. Two people separately told me that Bartlett is dimly lit, which makes the cave-like dining experience miserable.
Some of these differences, like the layout of the building, obviously can’t be ameliorated without expenditures and from closing the dining commons for a period of time. But if you eat at both locations often—as I do—you notice differences that seem to boggle the mind. You are eventually faced with a stupefying conclusion: food at Cathey is just cooked better.
Bartlett seems incapable of cooking meat to anything short of the texture of bark chips—be it pork loin, chicken breasts, or pot roast. Chicken in particular is a misadventure at Bartlett: not a day goes by without confronting some kind of dry chicken breast in a vague, menacing sauce. Brussel sprouts—a staple of both dining commons—are crispy and caramelized at Cathey yet mushy and tasteless at Bartlett. Squash is soggy at Bartlett and tender at South. I have had so many ladles of Bartlett “beef stew” that turned out to be just potatoes and carrots that I’ve given up on the stew genre all together. No such problem at Cathey.
Even employees of UChicago Dining seem to know the score. I asked a woman working at Bartlett which dining commons people prefer working at. While she herself only ever works at Bartlett, she replied flatly, “South. That’s just what everybody says.” She pointed me toward a “temp,” who had worked at both locations. He preferred to work at Bartlett because the “student–staff interactions are more friendly” and South is more “organized” and “serious.” However, he pointed out that the Bartlett salad bar was depleted and disorganized, explaining that Bartlett is more popular, so the staff is more likely to get behind schedule and rush. Nonetheless, he preferred Bartlett’s atmosphere to Cathey’s coldness.
One student had a different opinion about the atmosphere at Bartlett versus Cathey. “I think the employees are happier at South, which makes the food better.” I, for one, agree with this assessment. I doubt that employees of both dining commons are ever thrilled to see my greasy-haired, shambling mass coming over for more beef stroganoff, but Cathey employees certainly seem better at disguising it. And that improves the dining experience for me.
I don’t deny that there are certain things that Bartlett does better. The Kosher station is generally superior, and there is usually a wider selection of cookies, for instance. Still though, most of the Bartlett defenses that I heard were based in sentimentality for house tables and familiar faces rather than a particular affection for the food. This used to be my condition, when I was young and loved the camaraderie of my house. But after three-and-a-half years, my tolerance for Bartlett is slipping away bit by bit. I find myself neglecting my house table and looking for excuses to go to Cathey for lunch or dinner, and for reasons more substantial than just fro-yo.