students eating in dining hall
Category: Georgetown Magazine, Spring 2018

Title:We Are Where We Eat

Author: by Jeffrey Donahoe
Date Published: April 19, 2018

From Jackets and Ties to Pajamas

With the exception of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Potomac, New South lacked glamour. (Explaining the need for a 1971 remodel, a university administrator compared the cafeteria’s atmosphere to “eating in a barn.”) Nonetheless, through the 1970s, Georgetown men had to wear the jacket and tie required for classes and chapel services to meals, as well.

Women who attended Georgetown before 1969, when the College became co-educational, were housed on the far edge of campus in St. Mary’s and Darnall; Darnall was home to the women’s dining hall. For reasons no one can remember, New South and Darnall had different menus. New South had a salad bar, but Darnall did not. Men were not allowed to eat at Darnall, and New South was off limits to women.

There was not a dress code to eat in Darnall, but “women dressed up more for classes then, wearing sweaters and skirts or pants,” says Torsney- Durkin, who was part of the first influx of women graduating from the College in 1973. “Upperclass women were braver, and sometimes wore jeans.”

Over time, dress codes relaxed, then disappeared. Eventually, students felt comfortable headed to the dining hall wearing pajamas.

More Choices, Less Structure

Until a few years ago, students followed a dining drill that was largely unchanged since the 1960s: they waited in often-long lines to scan their Ids and enter, grabbed a tray, chose from a few entrees in steamer pans, and ate at regimented meal times.

It’s drastically different now.

“Today’s students want dining halls to look and feel like retail operations,” says Joelle Wiese, Georgetown’s associate vice president for auxiliary services, which includes 11 food venues on Main Campus . “Students want to get what they want, when they want it,” she says. They also want to take food with them to eat elsewhere. Portability and bolder flavors are high on students’ lists.

“Students are much more food savvy and aware of ingredients now,” Wiese says. “They want healthy choices and a more global menu.”

A year ago, the university renovated Leo’s to better meet today’s demands. Eliminating ID scanning did more than reduce lines—it got rid of a “sense of a barrier and a closed-off space,” says Adam Ramadan (F’14, G’17), business manager for auxiliary services. “Students now can come in to study or meet friends without eating or even being on a meal plan,” he says. “Faculty can bring students for an informal class.”

The new space changed how food is stored and served, allowing chefs to be more creative. Nutritionists can better tailor meals for vegans, students with food allergies, and athletes.

Wiese shows off the open marketplace style of LEO|MKT, the upper floor of Leo’s—a food hall with multiple restaurants, including one that changes concepts each week. Food choices reflect the diverse worlds that Georgetown students come from and will live in. Some of the most popular items are drunken noodles, crab cakes, pho-beef, lobster rolls, pupusas, and empanadas. Meal plans and an “‘all you can eat” buffet model still exist but they’ve been joined by flexible plans that allow students to chat over a latte or a cappuccino using their meal plan, and also grab nitro cold brew coffee, Einstein Bros. Bagels, or a Hoya Burger from Bulldog Tavern.

One of the Finest Georgetown Traditions

Complaining about dining hall food is one thing that seems immune to the passage of time. In 1812, Georgetown founder Archbishop John Carroll himself wrote to President John Grassi urging him to pay strict attention to the students’ diet and warned of the current state of food: “I know it is good in substance, but I fear your cook is deficient.”

Complaints ranged from generic unhappiness to issues as specific as how many glasses of milk could be carried away at one time from the serving line.

In November 1965, William Clinton (F’68), president of East Campus, introduced a resolution to the student council threatening immediate action by the council if university food service policies were not changed. The resolution stated: “Despite its oft-declared intentions and statements…Food Service has not consistently sold good food at prices comparable to most of the surrounding business establishments.”

Clinton told The Hoya, “Some students just cannot afford the service the way it is now.” He added: “The students are being done an injustice.”

But one campus dish has developed a cult following: Chicken Finger Thursday, which a recent alumna described as “one of the finest Georgetown traditions.”

It’s just chicken fingers: small, pieces of fresh chicken, breaded, fried until crisp, and served on a bed of French fries, served only on Thursdays. That it became a craze indicates once again the power of food to create community. “It’s like ‘appointment TV,’” says student affairs’ Cohen- Derr. “Students organize floor mates and groups of friends. Some have standing plans to eat with fellow members of a club or organization.”

It has even inspired a fan T-shirt, which says, “I Love Thursday” on the front and “Chicken Finger Thursday” on the back.

Nourishing a Community

Chicken Finger Thursday is a 21st-century tradition served in a 21st century dining hall: Leo’s. When Leo J. Donovan, S.J., (C’56) retired as president of the university in 2001, the university’s Board of Directors surprised him by naming the new dining hall in the Southwest Quadrangle in his honor.

How does O’Donovan feel that the dining hall immediately became known as “Leo’s”?

“The name is certainly an easier length,” he says with a chuckle. “By the time you finished asking, ‘Do you want to get lunch in the Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., Dining Hall?’ it would be time for dinner.”

The flavors of O’Donovan’s own experiences in Ryan Hall were much different than those in the dining hall that bears his name. Like other alumni, he says it wasn’t about the food. “I enjoyed the company of my classmates so much that I didn’t focus on the food,” he says. Except for Sunday steak dinners, with 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. seatings.

“I came for the first seating and stayed for the second,” O’Donovan admits. “I had a voracious appetite. I was so skinny then.”

No matter what changes may come, eating together will continue to play a large role in uniting Georgetown students into a community.

“Sharing a meal is a small sacrament,” reflects O’Donovan. “It is a social combination of necessary nourishment and shared community that is vital to human life.”

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