Innovative dining hall designs are helping to transform the culinary and social experience of college students. Many students now consider it standard for dining halls to have an environmentally conscious food service, local fresh foods, chef "entertainers," multiple cooking platforms and dining spaces that encourage a variety of social interactions.

Administrators are augmenting students’ dining experience for three reasons: recruitment, retention and meeting student expectations. Architects are creating facility plans and designs to help education institutions reach these goals.

Food of the future

Many important trends are emerging in higher-education food service:

-Fresh food/custom orders. Food in today’s dining halls must be fresh, varied and, if possible, local. These underlying requirements drive design, but the freshness test is central and applies across all food platforms— the soup and salad bar, the meat and vegetable open grill, the deli counters, classic hot meal serving stations, and the pizza and pasta stations.

-Chefs on stage as entertainers. Whatever food platform students gravitate to, they want to customize their order and watch it be prepared, preferably with a bit of fanfare by the chef. The more flair in a chef’s presentation, the better.

Chefs or chef managers are being hired not only for their culinary dexterity, but also for their outgoing personalities. Interaction with students in open kitchens is key to creating an atmosphere of informal theater. A 6-foot-diameter grill at one college has up to five chefs cooking customized orders of chicken, steaks and grilled vegetables all at once. It is a culinary "theater in the round," with students surrounding the circular stage of the central grill as they wait for their orders.

-Dining in the marketplace: a social event. Today’s campuses eschew large, uniform cafeteria spaces in favor of smaller, more intimate seating areas that adjoin each other. Each dining niche has its own design personality, ensuring that every student can find a comfortable nook, a "home away from home." In fact, these dining areas either mimic or reimagine the dining room, living room, kitchen, den and media room in a student’s home.

At one university, a small cafeteria-style space adjoins a den-like nook with armchairs, coffee tables and a fireplace, which in turn adjoins an area with barroom stools set up along a counter, as if at a sushi bar, with a server preparing fresh food behind. The interior spaces can be set off from each other by physical enclosures or defined simply by choosing different flooring types and ceiling features.

-Beyond Marché—new building types. Although the marketplace has become popular as a dining environment, some universities are experimenting with broader design concepts. A new building at a university in Pennsylvania, for example, has a dining hall emporium and lounge as its core, and the periphery is ringed with high-tech lecture halls, fitted with airtight double doors that lock out food odors and noise.

Another university in Pennsylvania has a new building concept: a 240,000-square-foot Information Commons. The building blends a dining hall, bookstore, student center, lounge area, academic hotel/restaurant/tourism management program and the campus library. The multiple functions in the building overlap to save space, and to bring vibrancy and efficiency. The management classes, for example, use the dining hall’s kitchen for instruction. The lounge space serves the library and student center.

-New designs increase student traffic to dining halls. At one university in Michigan, a new marketplace concept has resulted in student meals served per day jumping from 2,000 to 5,000 immediately after the hall opened—with the same number of students. New dining halls can become destination points for students.

-Disappearing faculty dining areas. The "faculty-only" dining hall, separate from students, is becoming a thing of the past. With improved cuisine and multiple dining nooks where each professor can find a comfortable spot, most faculty are embracing the Marché concept heartily. The more democratic dining hall also fosters more faculty-student interaction.

-Environmentally conscious dining. Although sustainable design now is woven into the fabric of most architectural thinking, dining halls have their own peculiarities.

Waste management is one, in which disposed-of food is not carted off to landfills; rather it is placed in compost heaps on campus. Many dining environments now are tray-less so that students don’t overload their trays and then throw half the food away; instead, some college dining halls are going retro, using individual china plates to limit portions.

Chefs also are buying locally grown produce. This ensures fresh food, but also reduces the carbon footprint produced by shipping food from afar.

-Location at traffic nexus. New buildings that include dining facilities and other social gathering venues are situated strategically near the highest pedestrian traffic areas and, when possible, near public transportation.

-Technology and media. New dining halls incorporate TVs, monitors, sound systems, wireless outlets for smart phones, kiosks with computers to check e-mail and other technology to embrace the anywhere-anytime communications society in which we live today.