Feb. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Dining halls serve distinctive cuisine



Don’t expect a rectangular slab of greasy pizza or a ladle-full of slop from a hair-netted lunch lady in the residence hall dining areas at Michigan State University. The days of “mystery meat surprise” for lunch are over, for students, faculty, staff and even the general public.

Bruce Haskell, associate director of dining services, helped spearhead the re imagination of food service throughout the campus. Ongoing renovations have been necessary, Haskell said, for MSU to both retain students on campus and attract packs of new frosh as well. Residence hall dining areas had become overrun and changes needed to be made.

“We’re changing the face of campus dining based on what our customers want and expect,” Haskell said. What customers expect, Haskell explains is restaurant quality dining at affordable prices.

Faculty, staff and students — both on campus and off — can purchase meal plans or simply pay as they go. Anyone, in fact, can. Haskell says some families even come to eat on the weekends when the bustle of campus life ebbs. You’ll pay $5.50 for breakfast or $8.75 for lunch, dinner or late night meals at any residence hall or at the larger “marketplaces” for “all you care to eat,” Haskel says.

In McDonel Hall, on Shaw Lane near Hagadorn, renovations repurposed an anachronistic layout. Decades ago, when the practice of coed education and socialization was being integrated at MSU, ladies did not mingle with gentlemen in the mornings when attire might still include nightwear. Now, where male and female entrances to dining areas used to be, stands Bamboo, with made-to-order Asian cuisine, and Publisher, where you can grab a freshly grilled sandwich. Or, in the center of the large dining area, buffet-style tables offer a multitude of choices. Nearby, over a dozen full-size boxes of name brand breakfast cereals wait to be raided.

The Gallery, a “marketplace” located in Snyder/Phillips Hall in MSU’s arts corridor, feels something like an upscale mall food court. You pay at the door and enter an expansive dining room with seating for a few hundred (6,000 served daily.) In the center is a salad bar, named The Berg, but not like something you’d find at a fast-food restaurant. All the fixings are there for the taking, plus a couple of cooks work a prep area, scooping bleu cheese onto fresh leaves and grilling chicken or beef to order.

On Tuesday last week, The Gallery had few tables unoccupied at 2 p.m. Aside from the salad bar, five additional “storefronts” are staffed with a team of cooks. At New Traditions, where chefs get creative by tweaking traditional favorites, you might order chicken tenders or veggie nuggets with onion rings for lunch and Cajun meatloaf with spicy garlic mashed potatoes for dinner. Later on, you might hit Ciao!, for a slice of pizza: Six different pies are served throughout the day. The Chicago spinach pizza, with a chewy, buttery crust, is dressed with mushrooms and chunks of deliciously salty feta cheese.

Or you could stop at Latitudes for jambalaya rotini pasta, cornmeal-crusted catfish or beef tips with three-cheese sauce. Large, tender beef tips are served in a bed of parsley linguine with portabella mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and red onions. The creamy three-cheese sauce combines gorgonzola, parmesan and asiago.

A massive dining space at Brody Hall, on the northwest end of campus, is under renovation.

Haskell, a Spartan alum, takes pride in the efficiency and size of MSU’s culinary services. The division is fiscally independent and even contributes money to the university. On the low end, 30,000 meals are served on campus each day throughout the semester.

But even at such volume, attention to detail is Haskell’s top priority. He is the “Food Dude” diners can e-mail with questions. On a tour of dining facilities, Haskell speaks to a cook about toppings too far from the edge of a pizza. And there isn’t enough pepperoni on it either, he notes.

“It kills me when we get a survey back and someone is unsatisfied,” Haskell says. “It hurts every time.”

Michigan State University culinary services 43 W. McDonel Hall, East Lansing.  (517) 884-0660 SF, $