Scientific Dining: Reviews of Research Institute Cafeterias (part one)

A look at various dining facilities at scientific research centers, from a series first published in the Annals of Improbable Research.

Blackford Hall

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories: Cold Spring Harbor, New York

by Karen Hopkin, Biochemist and food critic

The decor is stoic but pleasant in a dining hall that offers a spectacular view of the quaint and peaceful Cold Spring Harbor. With its informal ambiance, Blackford Hall draws a very faithful following. In fact, many diners return just about every day.

"Actually, the food here is not bad, really," raves geneticist Alcino Silva, a frequent diner. "At least they don't rip you off...They offer mediocre food at a mediocre price."

The group we lunched with began the meal with a dish called "Shrimp Nuremberg." This entree was described by the diners as being "chunky," "yellowish," and "somewhat recognizable," with a taste that was "subtle, sort of."

The weekly menu frequently features ethnic dishes, ranging from jambalaya to lamb curry, and lyonnaise potatoes to white beans and sausage with corn chowder. We were told that these meals usually proved to be less frightening than predicted.

We were most pleasantly surprised by the dessert selection. The cakes and pies, imported from a local bakery, were described as "supreme" and "highly recommended," though when it came to dessert, resident scientists seemed to feel that quantity was as important as quality. Because of the imprecise nature of the cake-cutting procedure, biochemist Yuri Lazebnik informed us that, with careful observation and selection, one could choose a slice of cake that might be two standard deviations larger than the average hunk. All for the same price, of course.

Unfortunately, we could not stay long enough to experience firsthand the boisterous excesses of the legendary Saturday night lobster banquet. Or the warm comfort of the Sunday afternoon lobster bisque. Or the half-price bargain of Monday's lobster salad.

The quality of the food improved exponentially after Chef Ron Padden, formerly of the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, joined the staff in March of 1994. He replaced a chef who had been the head cook on a submarine for seven years. "He certainly had a captive clientele," said geneticist Michael Hengartner of their former chef, "But he wasn't too good with fresh fruit."

Hengartner summed up the Blackford experience most eloquently. "It's the best place for miles around," he said. "Actually, it's the only place for miles around."


Quality: 1.78

Trendiness: 2.5

Bearded Men: 3


General Motors Research and Development Center Cafeteria Warren, Michigan

by Stephen Drew

The cafeteria at the GM Research and Development Center is very clean. Sited majestically in the basement, just steps from the base of a gleaming Eero Saarinen-designed spiral staircase, it attracts a well-groomed and occasionally faithful lunch crowd of hungry researchers.

Just outside the cafeteria entrance, a blood-pressure monitor has been placed next to a display of plastic-wrapped real food.

Every table features a bouquet of artificial flowers anchored to an attractive woven basket.

We asked, "What is there about this cafeteria that distinguishes it from any other research lab cafeteria?" A focus group of five GM staff research scientists answered this question with silence. Eventually, one scientist offered the notion that "it's subterranean."

The build-it-yourself sandwich bar and the do-it-yourself stir-fry facility are popular attractions, and are frequented by researchers and executives alike. Arv Mueller, GM's Vice President and Group Executive for Vehicle Development and Technical Operations, told us that he can always count on the sandwiches. What does he find memorable about them? "Nothing whatsoever. I guess I can't say much about the uniqueness of the food. It's just food."

Dr. Linda Means, one of two linguists on GM's research staff, is a member of the cafeteria committee. She recently persuaded the manager to augment his wide range of vegetarian dishes, which previously had been limited to french fries.

Over all, the food was well engineered and highly plentiful. The cafeteria's regular diners give it a consistent 1 (on the scale of i to pi) in our ratings for both quality and trendiness. "It's okay if somebody sees me there, but I don't go there to be seen," one scientist explained.

Unlike every other research dining facility we ever visited, the GM cafeteria displays no pictures of bearded men. But it does have a poster of a mustachioed race car driver.

All in all, we found that if you visit the GM Research and Development Center, and if you have to have lunch, and if you can't find your way out of the basement, the cafeteria is a fine place to dine.


Quality: 1

Trendiness: 1

Bearded Men: .6


Siemens R&D Center

Neuperlach, Munich, Germany

by K. Retsling Dodgen and Gertie Metallkopf

In a city where coffee is more expensive than beer, which is cheaper than water, the Siemens technical complex in the Neuperlach district of München offers the visiting researcher a welcome respite from the high prices that otherwise abound in the city. Situated in the northeast corner of the complex, or the Ameisenhaufe as it is affectionately known to employees, the cafeteria was recently rated second in a nationwide ranking of company cafeterias.

Quantity mit Quality

The cafeteria's primary, and perhaps only, attraction is the food. In short, it's delicious and cheap. Where else could you get two large pieces of tender grilled salmon in a cream sauce, a lovely soup, crisply cooked vegetables, some kind of potato, a bowl of fresh berries, German bread, a glass of milk, and a large glass of fresh-pressed fruit juice for 13 DM?

The decor falls somewhat short of your finer cafeterias, resembling a carpeted warehouse with light fixtures that look like two-foot ping pong balls gently swaying from the ceiling on long cords. But who can complain about a corporate cafeteria that serves beer on tap for 1 DM?

Although German cuisine is traditionally not known for its vegetarian tendencies, the Siemens cafeteria is a haven for vegetarians in Wurst-und-Schnitzel-Land. Not only do they offer a daily vegetarian entree, but also numerous side dishes with an excellent variety of grains, vegetables, and fruits prepared in delicious and diverse ways. One of the most commendable daily features is the offering of several varieties of fresh-squeezed juices, with combinations such a strawberry-orange-apple, orange-mango-papaya, avocado-banana-apple, and so on.

Efficiency, Deftness, Velocity

But the most remarkable feature of the Siemens cafeteria is the Efficient Cashiers, who tally up the several items on your tray before you can even put it down in front of them. The Efficient Cashiers have afforded the authors many lunch hours of Performance Art entertainment, as their deftness and velocity are as graceful as a ballet.

Trendiness and Sausages

In terms of food, at first glance there are various indicators of trendiness, but a closer inspection reveals also enormous sausages, half-chickens, beer, and pretzels, the most spiessig Bavarian fare. Another mixed bag with regard to trendiness is the fashion parade provided by the customers. Clothing styles include blue jeans, shorts, pastel-colored suits on male executives, see-through blouses, spandex pants and miniskirts, and frilly Bavarian skirts and blouses. We can only conclude that the highly progressive thinking evidenced at the Siemens cafeteria transcends adherence to trends. The décor is unambiguously utilitarian.

Rating the cafeteria on the number of pictures of bearded men is easy, since there aren't any. In fact, there are no pictures of any sort unless you count the icons on the silverware holders depicting forks, knives, and spoons (the icons are there in case you don't recognize the actual items which fill the compartments).

In summary, the authors have found the Siemens cafeteria to be an excellent, inexpensive lunchtime eatery; in fact we missed it on the weekends.


After several weeks of eating in the Siemens cafeteria, imagine our surprise to arrive at the cafeteria one Monday to find it... GONE! Completely dismantled. However, all is not lost. To the contrary, there are two additional cafeterias at the same site offering the identical food and lack of ambiance.



Trendiness: N/A( see above )

Bearded Men: 0

Explanation of ratings:

Quality: Food quality is rated on a scale from i (the square root of -1) to (with a numerical value of 3.141592...), where a rating of i signifies that the food is of good quality only in your imagination, and signifies that it is roundly accepted as delicious. As an example, the research facility with the finest quality food, a rating, would be the Howard Hughes Medical Institute headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland; the cafeteria with the poorest quality food, a rating of i, would be the Princess Margaret Dining Hall at the University of Swansea in Wales.

Trendiness: The cafeteria's trendiness is also rated on a scale from i to . As an example, the dining hall where one would most like to be seen would be at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. The cafeteria where one would least like to be seen would be the Princess Margaret Dining Hall at the University of Swansea in Wales.

Bearded men index: Number of photos or drawings of bearded men displayed on the walls of the cafeteria.

Editor's note: conditions may have changed since this series first appeared.


This article is republished with permission from the May-June 1995 issue. the July-August 1995 issue, and the January-February 1996 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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