“Who’d have thought you’d see honey-glazed parsnips on a college dining menu?"

The question is posed by Jim Richard, and I don’t have a good answer for it. It’s late August, and Richard ’87 H&HD, interim director of Penn State’s residential dining, is sitting with me in Redifer Commons, in what’s now known as the South Food District, as I finish my second serving of honey-glazed parsnips. Certainly, when I ate regularly in Penn State dining halls 20 (or so …) years ago, I would not have thought I’d ever see parsnips on the menu. Back then, I’m not sure I could’ve picked a parsnip out of a root vegetable lineup.

But now here I am, digging into heaping helpings of parsnips and steamed broccoli and farro pilaf, all of it quite tasty. It’s the first week of a month-long quest to eat my way across University Park, where the options—both in number and variety—bear little resemblance to what most alumni will remember. Armed with a notebook, a healthy appetite, and the occasional curious companion, I’ve committed to spending the next four weeks eating a meal at every conceivable spot on campus.

illustrated map of campus dining spots by Aaron Meshon


Day 1. A beautiful Monday morning, first day of fall classes, and I’m up early for a walk up to the Kern Building, home to Penn State’s graduate school—and, more recently, to one of four Au Bon Pain locations on campus. Most alums probably remember this as Otto’s Café, named for Otto Mueller, the former longtime head of housing and food services. The switch to Au Bon Pain came in 2013, and it’s emblematic of a trend on campuses across the country toward more national chains. I skip the calorie-bomb pastries and instead grab a granola bar and an unsweetened iced tea—not an adventurous start, but pretty much what I’d have for breakfast any weekday morning.

For lunch, I make the first of a handful of trips to the HUB. Spots you might remember, like The Cellar, Joegies, or Coaly’s Café, have been replaced by the likes of Burger King, Jamba Juice, Sbarro, and Panda Express. Covering much of the ground floor in the newly renovated HUB, the expansive dining area gives the impression of a really nice airport food court, with a variety of snack options and a huge salad bar to boot. But I’m not feeling like salad on this particular Monday, opting instead for chicken nuggets and fries from Chick-fil-A.

The folks in food services (who oversee everything sold in the residential commons) and the folks in retail campus dining (who oversee the HUB, those Au Bon Pains, and pretty much everything else) have put together a rough schedule that has me eating at retail spots one day, residential locations the next. That makes Tuesday my first day at the dining halls, where I’m quick to learn that both the term “dining hall” and my own campus dining memories are largely outdated. It also means a long-awaited return to Findlay Commons in East Halls, where I consumed some ungodly number of calories in my first year on campus.

open face salmon burger with lettuce and tomatoes beside fries

SALMON BURGER: Freshly made and available every Friday at Redifer City Grill in South Food District.


Breakfast is at Roxy’s, a sort of stripped-down, comfort-food-focused version of the dining hall I remember, and it is wonderful: I inhale a breakfast burrito and a bundle of French toast sticks, washing it all down with a glass of Creamery chocolate milk. (This rekindles a long-held dream: If I ever hit the lottery, I’m getting one of those big stainless-steel milk dispensers installed in my house. Chocolate only.) I’m joined by Jim Hopey ’82 H&HD, associate director of residential dining, who endures my reminiscing about how little Findlay has changed physically since my undergraduate days—and in truth, since the commons were built in 1965. It’s a perfect segue to a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen and food prep areas, where Hopey shows me a wall covered with color-coded maps—plans for the Findlay Commons renovation, a complete overhaul that is set to begin in February.

For lunch, it’s on to Southside Buffet at Redifer Commons, where the future of campus dining is here and now. Redifer was renovated in 2004, and Southside is what I would’ve called its dining hall. The food services folks now refer to it as an “all-you-care-to-eat” venue; you’ll never hear them utter the word “cafeteria,” and even “all you can eat,” with its implication of gluttony, is discouraged. Of course, in the traditional dining-hall setting, I can gorge myself if I choose, which is both a bad idea and—you remember they’ve got Creamery ice cream in here, right?—really, really tempting. But it occurs to me that unless I plan on buying bigger pants, my current pace of caloric consumption—Chick-fil-A yesterday, French toast sticks this morning—is unsustainable. So it is that I end up with a plate full of broccoli, farro, and parsnips.

And here’s the thing: It’s all really good. So good that I get seconds, of everything. I say as much to Richard, the interim food services director, whose smile registers satisfaction, but not surprise. Richard and his colleagues are proud of their work, proud of the food and the people who cook and serve it, and they want more people to know about it. And not just students: Every dining hall and retail establishment on campus is open to the public, and they’re eager to get the word out—especially to alumni, those of us for whom nostalgia and curiosity might provide a powerful pull. They want us to come back, give them a try, be surprised. Be impressed.

At Redifer, it’s easy to see why. In addition to the more traditional setup at Southside Buffet, Redifer’s South Food District offers no fewer than eight other walk-up options—burgers, pizza, Mexican, Asian, soups and salads—for a la carte buyers. It’s a similar vibe to the HUB food court, only smaller and without the restaurant chains. Hopey refers to the “living room” appeal of the commons, where it’s not unusual to see bleary-eyed students stumble in for breakfast in their pajamas. Combine that level of convenience with a lineup of options that mirrors the likes of the Chipotle or Five Guys across College Avenue, and you wouldn’t blame the students living on campus if they never felt compelled to leave.

As for quality? More than ever, how the food tastes matters, too.

“Students today are so much more educated about food,” says Bill Laychur, the university’s corporate executive chef. Though his title doesn’t quite make it clear—he says he prefers “Chef Bill,” anyway—Laychur oversees the preparation, recipe development, safety, and training for the food services operations at the 11 Penn State locations throughout the commonwealth that offer on-campus dining—meaning he’s ultimately the guy in charge of serving 65,000 meals a day. He came to Penn State food services 18 years ago after a stint at the Nittany Lion Inn, and he’s substantially expanded the operation, adding an executive chef in Mark Kowalski, a registered dietitian—Melissa Filchner Hendricks ’07 H&HD, who originated the position in 2013—and managing chefs at the individual commons. In every way, the expansion is motivated by quality control, which Laychur makes clear isn’t a mere luxury; the shift in student awareness, and therefore expectations, makes it mandatory.

“When I started, we could have something a little bit more upscale once or twice a week, and it would keep everyone happy,” he says. “Now our menus are much more diverse. It’s no longer just Chinese food—we do Korean, we do Vietnamese. American is no longer just burgers and fries—we might do Cajun food, low-country Southern. Fish is extremely popular. We constantly see what’s out there that’s within the realm of affordability and get those items on the menu.”

three bites of sushi and chopsticks on a green triangular plate

SUSHI ROLLS: Regulars at Pollock Commons line up for Masa Matsui's expertly prepared sushi.


Evidence of students’ sophisticated palates is on display all over campus. Each semester at South, chef Stephane Gawlowicz—who is not only French-trained but actually French—oversees a “sustainable dinner” made entirely with locally sourced ingredients. That one comes too late for my deadline, but I do make it to North Food District in Warnock Commons for the authentic, halal-certified gyro, and to Pollock Commons for the sushi.

And about the sushi: I don’t eat sushi. Not normally, anyway. But Pollock is home to Masa Matsui, a master sushi chef from Japan, who prepares fresh sushi rolls while diners watch. I can’t not try them, and so I do: California rolls with tuna and avocado and thin slices of tempura shrimp. Not that my opinion should carry much weight on this one, but I quite enjoy them.

The rest of my residential dining visits are less adventurous, but no less enlightening. At The Mix in Pollock and The West Wing in Waring, I grab made-to-order cheesesteaks, custom-building a sandwich from options on a touch-screen kiosk. It’s the on-campus version of the Sheetz and Wawa counters with which so many students are familiar, and it’s a hugely popular choice. (Along those lines, each residential commons also has a fully stocked convenience store.) I make the trek back to Findlay Commons on another day for a toasted turkey and Swiss sandwich at Fresh Express, and later again for a couple of slices of pizza at The Big Onion. For breakfast one day, I go healthy (oatmeal with almond slivers and dried cranberries) at South—and less so a few days later at Pollock, where my egg, sausage, and cheese on a biscuit is a near-flawless reproduction of the one you’ll find under the golden arches.

My plan all along is to stick to breakfast and lunch on weekdays, but a classic lazy-Sunday brunch seems to be the one necessary exception. And so I head again to Findlay—and this time, I bring my kids. They’re 10 and 7, and they’re a little self-conscious thanks to the curious looks of all those freshmen and sophomores, but they get over it when they taste the French toast sticks and spot the wall-mounted dispensers full of Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops. My daughter, the younger one, recoils when a bowl of the latter makes her milk turn an artificial pink, but otherwise we have a blast.

The fish-out-of-water aspect is part of the joy of this whole thing; being a 40-something in a room full of “kids” roughly half my age is awkward but undeniably fun, like I’m getting away with something. A few days later, I get to share that feeling with the rest of the magazine staff when we head to Waring Square for an extended lunch meeting. Actual lunch choices vary among the group, but for dessert, we all agree on a plate full of famous, fresh-out-of-the-oven West Hall cookies. Or was it two plates? It might have been three.

I have a feeling that the “freshman 15” is going to be harder to lose this time around.

plate of chocolate chip cookies on a red surface

WEST HALL COOKIES: Always fresh-from-the-oven gooey, the West cookies are a campus favorite.


From the nostalgic appeal to the unexpected variety of good food, my dining commons visits are everything I’d hoped they’d be. I’ve got no such nostalgia for the retail options, so many of which didn’t exist when I was an undergrad. But for a quick and—if you choose—healthy breakfast or lunch, the options are plentiful: those Au Bon Pain locations, two coffee shops (including an insanely busy Starbucks) in the HUB, and an array of other café-style spots ranging from MacKinnon’s in Pattee Library (a personal favorite given its proximity to the Hintz Family Alumni Center) to the popular Blue Chip Bistro in the Business Building.

I’d need another week or so to hit every spot on campus, and so the final few days of this cross-campus culinary quest require some tough decisions—despite multiple trips back to the HUB, I never do make it to Jamba Juice or Burger King, nor to Findlay’s Asian Grill. Among my priorities as I wrap things up is Café Laura, the student-run restaurant near the Nittany Lion Inn. Staffed by hospitality management majors and best known for its popular theme dinners, it’s open daily for lunch, and that’s where I head on my second-to-last day. The Café was renovated in 2014, and from the spacious kitchen and prep spaces to the curved, window-lined dining room, it’s immediately one of my favorite places on campus. My lunch—pecan chicken with green beans and asparagus, and a decadent chocolate pudding for dessert—is delicious.

For my last meal, I head back to South for a lunch date with my wife, a fellow mid-’90s alum who’s also a pretty serious foodie. Among the must-have dishes I’d been told about before I started were the handmade salmon burgers at Redifer City Grill; I’m eager to try one, and also to see if it’s up to my wife’s discerning taste. We’re joined for lunch by Chef Stephane, who talks about adapting his French culinary training to the appetites of American college students, and about the bounty of central Pennsylvania produce. It’s great conversation, one neither my wife nor I can imagine having when we were students. And the salmon burger? Yes, even she is impressed.

I’m impressed, too—by the burger, yes, but mostly that I can, just barely, still fit into my pants.