Crossroads, from outside. Photo: Anneli Rufus
Crossroads, from outside. Photo: Anneli Rufus

In this era of the $12 hamburger, lots of us are searching high and low for affordable dining options. Here’s one that’s hiding in plain sight — although it’s haunted by lingering memories of grim gray patties and the Freshman 15: university residence-hall buffets.

But hey, they’ve changed. Organic, vegetarian and vegan options are now ubiquitous at facilities such as UC Berkeley’s Crossroads, which sources its ingredients from famously sustainable outfits including Niman Ranch, Hodo Soy, Bi-Rite, Wild Planet, Peet’s Coffee, Peerless Coffee, Mary’s Chickens, Wilcox Eggs, Alvarado Street Bakery, Numi and Silk. Augmenting a wide array of cooked entrées (think pizza, tagine, tofu steaks and pho) at any given meal, Crossroads also sports house-baked pastries, an organic salad bar — audited regularly by the California Certified Organic Farmers organization — and an extensive cold-cereal bar that’s accessible morning, noon and night.

Freshly baked scones. Photo: Anneli Rufus
Freshly baked scones. Photo: Anneli Rufus

And what’s the price for as much of this and more as you care to eat? Ten dollars at dinner. Nine at lunch.

It’s all prepared in a lively, organic, open kitchen under the direction of Crossroads’ executive chef Marcos Hernandez, a young California Culinary Institute/Greystone alumnus whose previous gigs include Postino and Cliff House. It’s served smilingly in an airy, sunny, certified-green building — one of Berkeley’s first.

Executive chef Marcos Hernandez in the Crossroads kitchen. Photo: Kristan Lawson
Executive chef Marcos Hernandez in the Crossroads kitchen. Photo: Kristan Lawson

Looking — with its soaring ceiling, sweeping stainless-steel angularity, potted palms and glass-enclosed patio — like a tiny airport, this multi-award-winning Bay Area Green Business has one downside if you relish personal service: Yours will be one of some 3,500 meals prepared here today. Crossroads sometimes gets crowded. But hey, so does Comal.

Organic Salad Bar at Crossroads. Photo: Anneli Rufus
Organic Salad Bar at Crossroads. Photo: Anneli Rufus

Not that Crossroads rivals Comal for potential Michelin stars. But Crossroads has the edge when it comes to customizability: Its comprehensiveness lets you tweak, tailor and personalize your meal to a degree unimaginable at standard restaurants. Crave tacos and clam chowder, side by side? No problem. Want sliced pears and Sriracha sauce in your triple-decker ham sandwich? Beef teriyaki on naan? A baked potato stuffed with vegan sausage, marinated mushrooms and a whole mugful of pumpkin seeds? Done.

Ida Shen. Photo: Kristan Lawson
Ida Shen. Photo: Kristan Lawson

“A lot of people are prejudiced against buffets. And there’s a general stigma against eating in a student dining hall,” says Ida Shen, culinary and catering director for Cal Dining, the self-supporting, independent nonprofit that operates Crossroads and other open-to-the-public UC Berkeley student-dining facilities such as Café 3, whose sushi bar is wildly popular and whose pop-arty design evokes Mad Men meets The Jetsons in a psychedelic Tokyo disco.

“Some people didn’t have good dining-hall experiences in their own college days,” Shen sighs. “They remember gray mystery meat. They don’t realize how much things have changed.”

A typical lunchtime scene at Crossroads. Photo: Kristan Lawson
A typical lunchtime scene at Crossroads. Photo: Kristan Lawson

But change abounds. In 2006, the Crossroads’ kitchen became the first in any college dining hall nationwide to be certified organic. That same year, the University of New Hampshire — which operates its own organic dairy farm and, like many schools, welcomes non-students into its dining halls — became the nation’s first college to sign the International Slow Food Association’s Agreement of Intention and Collaboration. Ever more universities are increasing their dining-hall sustainability; Yale, Bowdoin and Michigan State, for example, source produce from their own organic gardens.

This trend is transforming these institutions into attractive, under-the-radar options not just for students but for anyone seeking to dine out, dine well and dine affordably.

Other Bay Area student-dining facilities open to the public include the University of San Francisco’s largely organic Market Café, outfitted with a fifteen-foot salad bar. Non-students can eat buffet-style at CD-operated Clark Kerr Campus, Foothill, Café 3, and Crossroads, as well as at Berkeley’s mouthwatering International House dining hall, San Francisco State’s City Eats Dining Center and several Stanford University dining halls for the price of a single sandwich at La Note, say, or Luka’s Taproom.

You don’t need a college degree to do that math.

Cal Dining director Shawn LaPean. Photo: Kristan Lawson
Cal Dining’s director Shawn LaPean. Photo: Kristan Lawson

“Everyone’s working on making college dining more sustainable. We’re on a path toward getting better at that every day,” says Cal Dining’s director Shawn LaPean, who hails Cal Dining’s partnerships with the Marine Stewardship Council, the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaign, the Real Food Challenge, the LeanPath Food Waste Prevention Project, Feeding Forward, Filta Environmental Kitchen Solutions, the Green Initiative Fund, and the Berkeley Environmentally Aware Consulting Network.

The Crossroads' open kitchen. Photo: Kristan Lawson
The Crossroads’ open kitchen. Photo: Kristan Lawson

The bottom line, of course, is serving Cal Dining’s target audience: students.

“What do students want? Flavor. Safety. Sustainability. Salmon. They want gourmet food at Walmart prices,” LaPean laughs.

College dining programs can afford to offer affordable abundance because they buy ingredients in such quantities.

“It’s all about economies of scale,” LaPean explains.

Crossroads has tripled its meals-served volume over the last decade: the same span of time between the Wall Street Journal calling Cal Dining the nation’s worst college-meals program in 2002 and deeming it, last year, one of the best.

“This tripling of volume has allowed us to have an organic salad bar stocked with all those nuts and seeds,” LaPean adds.

And you don’t have to be under 23 to love that.

Vegetarian pizza. Photo: Anneli Rufus
Vegetarian pizza. Photo: Anneli Rufus

2415 Bowditch St. (at Channing Way) Berkeley, CA [map]
Phone: (510) 643-8323
Summer hours: Open daily: Breakfast: 7am-9am.; Lunch, 11am-2pm; Dinner, 5pm-9pm
Facebook: Cal Dining
Twitter: @CalDining

Is Dorm Food the Bay Area’s Best Dining-Out Deal? 11 July,2014Anneli Rufus

  • Cammy

    Bravo for locally sourced foods! Dorms in the 1980’s (at another UC college) were notorious for processed inedible foods. And breakfasts were stale cereals many with neon colors. The cooperative had much better food because students prepared it, and ingredients were fresh. On Saturday exchange students made egg rolls, and on Sundays freshly baked carrot, or blueberry muffins were baked.

    Dorms would do well to keep to fresh foods that are healthy and easy to prepare – steamed veggies, salad bars, some fresh grains to add (quinoa), noodles, etc…

    Students are at a time of their lives where they are seeking answers, learning and questioning the foods they eat. It’s a perfect time for good habits to continue to form.

    (On a side note, That pizza in the photo does NOT look appetizing. As a college
    student, I think I’d rather have a slice of pizza at the Cheeseboard. The dorm pizza looks
    like a typical frozen crust – as it’s too uniform. It looks doughy as

    • Anneli Rufus

      Cammy — Thanks for your insights! As for the pizza, it’s actually much more delicious than the photo might make it appear. Unlike the Cheeseboard’s pizzas, Crossroads’ pizzas are not thin-crusted — because I guess the consensus is that college students prefer hearty, filling fare. True, they must make literally hundreds of pizzas to satisfy the demand, and consequently they might look “uniform,” but it’s far better than any typical frozen pizza. The availability of vegetarian pizzas (such as the one depicted) along with meat pizzas at Crossroads is another plus.

      • Shirin

        Are you implying that students would prefer crossroads pizza to cheeseboard?! This is getting more than a little out of touch…verges on parody.

        • Anneli Rufus

          No, no, I’m not implying that. Obviously, given the Cheeseboard’s vast popularity, the Cheeseboard is the hands-down winner among students and everyone else. I was merely speculating that from the perspective of administrators designing a menu for a college dining facility, it might seem that students would prefer thicker-crusted, more carbohydrate-y pizzas. I wasn’t saying that they’re better than Cheeseboard pizzas, or that everyone loves them — only that in my opinion they’re better than they look.

  • joan

    Go to Arrillaga Family Dining Commons at Stanford!

  • Oski

    Where did you get Cafe 3, “whose sushi bar is wildly popular”, from, out of your arse? This is misinformation. Not even once did I see Cafe 3 serve sushi! Personally speaking as the GOLDEN BEAR, I do not like CrossRoads or Cafe 3; these dining commons are OVER-RATED.

    • Anneli Rufus

      Oski — That information about the sushi bar came directly from Cal Dining admin Ida Shen. Looking at my notes right now, I see that she told me sushi is served at Café 3 sometimes, and on those occasions, the students “eat us out of house and home.” She told me this while we were standing in Café 3, which was closed at the time, and she showed me the part of the facility where sushi is served — when it is served. So that’s where I got the information from.

  • Seems very expensive for dorm food – at least $9 a meal? Can’t believe students are eating that 3 meals a day, or maybe I’m now out of touch living in Thailand where a typical meal for a student at a university is under $1 and it’s delicious 🙂

    • jack31961

      Thats the price for non students who want to eat there. Students buy meal plans at the beginning of the semester at a significantly lower price.

      • Ah thanks. That explains it then 🙂 I was just thinking when I was a student, there’s no way I could have paid $9 a meal. Actually, I still wouldn’t on an ongoing basis 🙂

        • vulcan300

          Most people didn’t go to dining halls for 3 meals every day anyway (the most popular meal plan options don’t actually let you do that). When I was in the dorms, I’d usually do one big meal at a dining hall, and then supplement with snacks and outside food throughout the day. Not really the most ideal consumption schedule, but a pretty common one…

  • James

    As a Cal student, I think Cal Dining is way over-rated. Their grilled chicken breasts taste like rubber and the menus get awfully boring. UCLA Dining knows what they’re doing. Cal Dining should learn some tips from UCLA

    • Anneli Rufus

      Shawn LaPean of Cal Dining praised UCLA’s dining facilities highly during our interview.

    • Cammy

      James, what’s the difference between UCLA and Cal? As a student at UCLA in the 1980’s I don’t remember the dining at the dorms as being very good, but of course things can change!

  • SG

    Anneli — curious if you talked to any students in your reporting? Or if you actually tried any of the food yourself? As someone who ate meals at UC Berkeley dining halls every day for nearly 2 years, I would venture to say you might have received a much more cynical impression than what the staff seemed to share with you…

    • Anneli Rufus

      I didn’t interview any students — although you’re right, that would have added a new perspective to the story. But I have eaten at Crossroads fairly frequently myself for the last several years — all three meals — as have several of my non-student friends. Compared to the dorm food we all ate as students years ago, Crossroads is excellent. But everything is a matter of perspective, opinion and comparisons.

  • Now if only we could infect the High schools on the Peninsula with this healthy food… check out the menu at MVLA hamburger + chips, turkey sandwich + chips and cookie, Meatball sandwich chips/cookie, chilidog tater tots + cookie, chili cheese nachos. next week: pizza, cheeseburger, mac/beef, chili cheese nachos.…/downloadMenu…#kidsdeservebetter #fedUp

  • Anonymous

    As a Cal student, I can tell you that the meat which is served is often “mystery meat” – especially in the chilis and other meat options besides the standard beef and chicken burgers. The fruit is often spoiled/not fresh (and is rarely available during the year besides for the apples), and the food is ridiculously unhealthy. If you check Cal Dining’s menu page, you can see that one serving of their eggs has no protein, but double to triple of the recommended cholesterol serving per day. Crossroads is a disgrace – cups and forks/spoons are often left with marks, the food is bland and fattening, and the customer service is abysmal. Before you publish articles praising the dorm food of Berkeley, please consult with a more diverse range of individuals, such as students, parents, and professors rather than just the executive chefs and staff. There is a lot more negativity surrounding the quality of Crossroads and other dining halls than there are positive aspects, and it only takes a conversation with any random small group of students to realize this fact.

  • fliparoo

    A lot of these commenters here are really missing the point. The reason Crossroads is so brilliant is that there is nearly an infinitude of options from which one can customize one’s meal. Something there not to your taste? Then choose one of the other 500 options! Or be creative and build your own dish, since many of the areas contain the raw materials for your own salad, sandwich, and so on.

    Hey, if you want to spend $32 for a gourmet pizza that’ll leave you hungry, go right ahead. That’s your choice. But if you want to spend $9 for as many slices of pretty decent pizza as you want, plus every other side dish imaginable, then the Crossroads is your place — which is exactly what this article is saying, since the very first sentence says it’s about “affordable dining options,” not blind praise for the latest overpriced hipster joint in SF, as so many predictable reviews are.

    Students need to find something to complain about, especially in this modern world where their every need or whim is accommodated, and “I hate dorm food” is usually the fallback whine, even if (as in this case) the dorm food is much much better than it was in “the bad old days.”

    I say bravo to Bay Area Bites for publishing a recommendation for the kind of place almost always completely overlooked by the so-called cognoscenti. I’ve never been to Café 3, but I can say that Crossroads is definitely one of the best deals in the entire Bay Area, since most other “buffet”-style places charge a lot more, with a smaller selection.

    • b4tm4nf4n

      hey contact me about that video poker deal! 😉

  • aBerkeleyBear

    In my 3 years here as a Berkeley student, never have I seen sushi at any of the Cal Dinning facilities. In addition i feel like “gourmet” is a bit of an exaggeration.

    Regardless with a meal plan, $8 is not too terrible considering it is all you can eat and a meal at Asian Ghetto would probably cost about the same anyways. I still get the minimum Blue plan simply because it is convenient and I can eat my 1 meal for the day at one of the dining halls.


Anneli Rufus

Anneli Rufus is a Mystic Mint-craving, award-winning journalist whose work can be found at Psychology Today, Spirituality & Health, Experience Life, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post and other venues. She is also the author of numerous books, including Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto and Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself.

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