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

(Image credit: Flickr user Juan Manuel Caicedo Carvajal)

The CERN Cafeteria, Geneva Switzerland

by Lois Malone

Autumn in New York!

April in Paris!

January in Geneva! The winter destination of choice for the high-energy physicist. Only the most discriminating mind can appreciate the delicate shadings of the gray skies, the nuances of a weather pattern that daily promises rain but delivers instead a damp so intense you can hear the moss grow. Day's end brings the spectacle of Geneva's night life: on the Rhone's Left Bank neon spells out the names of Switzerland's glorious national heroes: Patek-Philippe, Rolex, Piaget, Baume et Mercier, while along the avenues sounds the pounding, sensuous rhythm of doors being shut and bolted so the streets can be properly empty by 8:30.

In the face of all these distractions, the physicist seeks refuge among his peers and inevitably finds himself at mealtimes jostling happily along amid thousands of colleagues, staff and miscellaneous hangers-on, at the Main Cafeteria at CERN [Centre European des Recherches Nucleaires].

Such a Deal

This reviewer sampled the CERN cuisine on a recent Thursday at lunchtime. My overall impression is that this must be one of the best deals in lab food anywhere, and this in spite of the comparatively steep prices, which for the daily menu of entree plus two vegetables run from 7 to 11 Swiss francs depending on the choice of entree.

There is a wide choice of meal types: an ample salad bar, with breads available of the high European standard; two hot meal counters; and of course the prepared-sandwich case for the scientist on the go. Beverages include the usual juices, bottled water, coffee from do-it-yourself espresso machines, and taps from which the customer can serve him/herself several types of beer and a selection of wines including chianti, Cotes du Rhone, a Spanish rose, and for the white wine connoisseur, a Chasselas de Peissy. A dessert table that would do credit to a two-star hotel presents a bewildering array of pastries, but owing to the fact that I was sponging off someone who seemed disinclined to proceed beyond the cheese course, I was unable to sample any of them.

In the confusion of handling trays while surreptitiously scanning the crowd for Nobellists, my companion and I ended up with nearly identical meals: the veal, a tomato and Brussels sprouts for me, the veal, a tomato and noodles for him. What can be said about veal? Or, for that matter, noodles? Each of us got yogurt; I had a glass of the rather undistinguished chianti, and we adjourned later to one of the other two rooms for our excellent espressos, all for just under SFr 30.

Bearded Men: 3-D Yes, 2-D No

Looking about for photos of bearded men, I noted that, although the walls are devoid of photos of any kind, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of actual bearded men among the clientéle. I suggested that 1 in 6 men seemed to be bearded; my companion supported my hypothesis.

Overall, a high rating for this establishment. It may not be worth a special trip from Paris, but it's certainly worth the bus ride (SFr 2.30 round trip) from downtown Geneva.


Quality: 23e-i/1.5

Trendiness: 2.5

Bearded Men: 3

The Scripps Research Institute Cafeteria

La Jolla, California

by Stephen Drew

The Scripps Research Institute feeds its researchers in splendor near a clifftop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The facility is located in, and shared with, the Green Hospital, Scripps' neighbor and affiliate. The cafeteria is a study in cleanliness. Walk in the door and there, immediately, is the most appetizing aroma in the world: close your eyes and you might believe you're in a McDonald�s. Open those eyes and you see a large modern room with extremely subdued lighting. Windows comprise one side of the cafeteria, giving a lovely view of the world-famous Torrey Pines golf course and its toney green-and-yellow-clad Torrey Pines golfers. Beyond the linksters, and over the cliff, lies the mighty, crashing Pacific. Dine on the terrace if you will, and gawk at an array of pudgy people putting, driving, cursing and putt-putt-putt-ing in their little carts from hole to hole. The pleasant striped umbrellas on the terrace tables protect against the Southern California sun and against the uric acid from bird droppings.

This is the only research cafeteria we have visited that has valet parking. It is also the only cafeteria which has a separate room that contains tables laden with wristwatches for sale.

The clientele exhibits the range and scope of humanity, or at least part of that range and scope. Most of the diners are from the hospital -doctors in their fashionable whites and patients in varying degrees of distress. People entering the cafeteria are occasionally solicited to donate blood.

The diligent medicos do not hesitate to abandon their food at a moment's notice whenever the public address system summons them to an emergency case. When this happens, the doctors flee en mass; thus there is seldom a problem finding places to sit at the tables.

The tables themselves are bland, solid and clean. Diners we surveyed described the ambience as "no style," "non-existent," "characterless," and "brown." There are plenty of real plants, which are broadleafed and resilient. We were disappointed to find that the cafeteria has no pictures of bearded men. The walls were blank, except for the attractive "TRAY RETURN" signs (several diners told us that the cafeteria has "an obsessive interest in trays") and two remarkable pieces of art.

The art was chosen by the wife of a former Scripps Institute director. The two works are identical. Each consists of multicolored, cheap plastic twists affixed to a framework. This is pure art, undoubtedly worth many times the cost of its constituent materials. There is also an impressively bad, large and expensive sculpture in front of the building. Called "Okeanos," created by the possibly noted sculptor William Tucker, and chosen by the aforementioned wife of the former director, it represents a wave emerging from the ocean. The Scripps Institute scientists who guided our visit, though, had not realized that this extremely naturalistic work was made by the hand of man. They at first described it as "a dinosaur turd someone brought from the desert."

The food was pretty good. Many of the Scripps researchers eat there every day, drawn as much by the price, proximity and atmosphere as by the vittles. Especially the price. Scientists get a 20% discount.

Researcher Jean-Louis Reymond told us that the cafeteria is a good place to meet people. Many of those people are hospital patients. It is not unusual to find yourself seated next to someone with an IV holder in her arm or electrodes protruding from her head. All about, people stroll by pushing IV carts.

Some of the patients are what the doctors term "La Jolla-ites," wealthy, if ailing, residents of the surrounding community of La Jolla. They are recognizable by their behavior. Many have never before had to serve themselves food. They are unfamiliar with the techniques of picking up a tray, choosing plastic dinnerware, and ordering themselves a sandwich or an extra helping of green beans. Several times a week, La Jolla-ite patients proudly solve the mysteries of the self-serve coffee urns, only to be undone moments later when the coffee melts through the bottoms of the wax-paper cups that house their coffee. (Most non-La Jolla-ites choose styrofoam cups.) The melting generally manifests itself at about the time they reach the cashier line. Some of the scientists have similar difficulties serving themselves coffee.

The menu is large and changes daily. One of our dining companions, Yogesh Prasad, had the fish special. It was well-cooked and fresh, made with fresh tomatoes and a good green pepper sauce. Prasad praised the cafeteria's deep-fried vegetables, saying that they are comparable to those made in his native India. Researcher Nicole Herold had a vegetarian Garden Burger, made from buns and other ingredients obtained by the hospital from outside vendors. Herold found her burger to be "unpleasantly salty" and "Wonder Bread-y."

Among the other recommended dishes are oriental chicken salad (which always sells out immediately) and the chicken pot pies. Diners cautioned us against the vindaloo beef and the curry with cheese. Spaghetti is generally overcooked, but other Italian dishes are mouthwatering and worth a trip through the serving line.

The salad bar is impressive, featuring chunks of good quality feta cheese and a wide selection of fat-free dressings. Fatted dressings are available, too. There is a deli bar with ham, eggs, sliced cheeses of many types, egg salad and a variety of good breads (croissants, rye, corn, etc.). Two soups are offered daily. While a bit expensive (the soup is sold by the pound), they are hearty, often with lots of meat and rice, and can by themselves comprise a very good meal.

There was a plethora of wonderful cookies, cheesecakes and other splendidly unhealthy, delicious desserts. Different cashiers charge different amounts for the cookies, so we recommend visiting the facility in the company of an experienced Scripps scientist.

Perhaps because of the scientists, the cafeteria has its own popcorn machine and a separate room filled with vending machines. On the day we visited, though, there was no Diet Coke, which many of the researchers found upsetting. On the other hand, there was a profusion of Snapple.

The cafeteria staff remarked that scientists eat differently from the other patrons, often taking three meals a day there and usually chowing down in groups. The staff also observed that:

                      • the scientists tend to eat at one extreme or the other, choosing either extremely healthy food or a diet that is totally junk food;
                      • the scientists "dress differently" from everyone else; and
                      • unlike everyone else, the scientists go to the cafeteria every day -even holidays- except when there is free food at another building in the area.

On balance, the Scripps Research Institute's cafeteria is worth a visit from any hungry scientist. Eat on the terrace unless you enjoy bland brown vistas and the occasional moaning hospital patient. Several Scrippsians compared the facility with that of the neighboring Salk Institute, and recommended that we adopt the latter as our new standard for poor quality.


Quality: e/Ö2

Trendiness: (p-i)/2

Bearded Men: 0

The Cafeteria at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

Cambridge, Massachusetts

by Stephen Drew

The cafeteria at the Whitehead Institute was a disappointment to this reviewer. The food is fairly tasty, the room sunny, the decor simple and clean -altogether a betrayal of the cafeteria standards honored by most of the world's other, older research institutions. However, the place is not without its quirks and charms.

All That Gleams is Not Eggs Benedict

The food is of sufficient appeal that Whitehead researchers sometimes commission the staff to cater their weddings. Various diners recommended the hamburgers, the chocolate chip cookies, the Thai noodles, the chocolate chip cookies, the vegetarian chili, the chocolate chip cookies, the vegetarian calzone, the tofu salad dressing, and the chocolate chip cookies. Vegetarians raved about the roasted potatoes. Chemist Tom Tuschl told us that the food is "up to European standards." Computer artist Liane Fredel drew an equally vague conclusion: "It�s better than European standards."

Mouse geneticist Detlev Binischiewicz found favor with the cafeteria chicken, because, he said, "it tastes like chicken." Another diner, though, complained that the chicken cordon bleu looked like eggs benedict. We ourselves found the dish meritorious; in its complex mix of chicken and egg flavors, clearly the chicken came before the egg. Not all the dishes were worth a trip through the serving line. Fredel muttered darkly about the beef stew, saying, "I won't even try it, it looks so terrible," and adding that "it doesn't smell good, either."

The salad bar and other low-fat options are limited. This upsets many of the scientists other than the Germans. However, postdoc Leila Bradley insisted that the the Whitehead salad bar is excellent, especially in comparison to the labs in her native England, where there are no salad bars. One diner railed against the bagels. Space does not permit a full exegesis here, except to mention that the bagels are purchased from an outside vendor.

Trendiness, and Points to Chew On

Overall, the cafeteria is a popular place, where most Whitehead denizens dine often, and where scientific king and commoner meet on comfortable ground. Two Nobel Laureates, both young enough to still savor the taste of their food, dine there regularly. The Whitehead Institute is affiliated with MIT, and the cafeteria is sometimes left-handedly called "the Taj Mahal of MIT cafeterias."

Several researchers took pains to point out the gathering and eating habits of their fellows, and suggested the need for a cafeteria etiquette class. Like the members of any small community, the Whitehead eaters have their favorite peeves with each other. The top items seem to involve: (a) closing one's mouth when chewing; (b) remembering to chew when one's mouth is stuffed with food; and (c) not cutting into the serving line.

Mechanical Difficulties

The coffee is almost universally described with the word "nightmare." It is dispensed from vending machines that could, and perhaps should, be put to some alternative use in some distant place in some time far removed from our own.

One other small cafeteria deficiency is of special interest to the biomedical researchers. The containers used for takeout food are unsafe for transport to the lab. They pop open easily, leading to spillage and spoilage and laundry bills.

The Discreet Charm of the Staff

One unusual feature of the cafeteria is its staff, which is actually a small private firm hired by the Whitehead Institute. The head cook trained at Cordon Bleu in London. (Regular readers of this column will recall the contrasting example of another research institute whose chef had trained in a submarine. See AIR 1:3for details.)

Dave, the singing dishwasher, has an occasionally pleasant, untrained baritone voice that is sometimes heard as far away as the Institute's auditorium (a distance of about 75 feet). The cafeteria manager, Jim Nally, is a keen appreciator of the science social scene. "Not to dump on scientists, but a lot of them just don't have it together when it comes to ordering food," Nally opined. Some scientists have the habit of changing their orders after the food has been prepared. This so enraged one former cafeteria staffer that he frequently punched out a kitchen wall and once broke his hand (see Figure 3).

One former researcher, a wealthy, wafer-thin, young woman from France, would eat enormous traysful of food, yet never gained any weight. The cafeteria staff surmised that she went out back after every meal and vomited. They named her "Ralph."

A current researcher is known as "the hamburger man." Every day the hamburger man comes early to order a hamburger, then says, "I'll be back," and forgets to return until after the burger has basked for several hours under the heat lamp. The hamburger man then returns and scarfs down the wizened morsel.

Imminent Beard?

At the time we visited the Whitehead Institute Cafeteria, its walls displayed not a single picture of a bearded man. Administrators assured us that a portrait of Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, the Institute's first director and the possessor of a high quality beard, would soon grace the dining area. For that reason we give the cafeteria a bearded men rating value of i.


Quality: .7-3i

Trendiness: .8+ .05i

Bearded Men: i

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.

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


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 1996 issue. the July-August 1996 issue, and the November-December 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! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

Newest 3
Newest 3 Comments

Who eats veal anymore? :( I've no objection to eating meat (mmm bacon) however I do object to causing its short life to be full of suffering.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Scientific Dining: Reviews of Research Institute Cafeterias (part two)"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More