One of my favorite restaurants in town isn’t the swanky chain restaurant, the fine dining establishment, or the fast food place. It’s the simple cafeteria. You know the drill: You push your tray down the line past the steam tables laden with everything from salad to dessert. Many people think that the cafeteria isn’t good, that it’s boring (no bar or ESPN on twenty screens), that it’s like a school cafeteria, or that it’s only for the older folks. Not true. I find that the cafeteria is a very frugal choice for a meal out and I make it a point to find a cafeteria when we travel. So what’s great about the cafeteria?
For not much more than the price of a combo meal at a fast food joint, you can get a meat, two sides, and a drink. Dessert won’t set you back $8 like it will at a chain restaurant, either. If you aren’t that hungry, you can just get a couple of sides and a drink for under $5 at most cafeterias. Since there are usually no servers, there’s no need to tip which saves you even more.
The Atmosphere Is Peaceful
Though the price is cheap, the atmosphere is more like a sit-down restaurant and you can spend some quality time with your companions over your meal. While some people find the lack of a bar and TV screens to be a drawback, I find it’s a plus. When I go out, I want to focus on my food and my companions, not have everyone at the table staring slack-jawed at a football game or being yammered at by the talking heads on CNN. Most cafeterias are TV-free and it’s wonderful. The lack of a bar and loud music also means it tends to be quieter and lower key. The lack of servers means that you aren’t being interrupted every five minutes and you don’t feel rushed to turn over the table so the waiter can earn more tips.
There’s Something For Everyone
Most cafeterias have a wide variety of choices on the menu every day, and the options tend to rotate through the week. There’s usually chicken, beef, pasta, fish, and a large selection of vegetables and sides. This means that if one person is craving Italian and another wants fish, you can accommodate both wishes. Cafeterias are often good choices for picky kids, too, since there are usually at least a few things they will eat.
The Food Is Good
Not only is the food good, it’s often as close to homemade as you can get. Many cafeterias make their own food on-site rather than having it shipped in, frozen, from some warehouse. While it may not be truly homemade, it’s often as close as you can get for a meal out and tastes better than chain food.
There Are Healthy Options
Cafeterias aren’t just full of fried foods, mashed potatoes, and mac and cheese. There are salads, vegetables, grilled fish and chicken, and plain water to drink. These are not the cafeterias you remember from high school that served nothing but pizza (aka, “barf on a shingle” at my school), fries, mystery glop, and over-sauced pasta.
There’s People Watching
While you can people watch anywhere, I find the patrons of the cafeteria to be especially fun. This is particularly true on Sundays when people turn up after church in their Sunday best. Around here, it’s a fashion show with people decked to the nines.
Budget Holiday Food
Cafeterias can also be great for budget holiday celebrations. Many offer Thanksgiving or Christmas promotions (such as full course meals) that can be eaten in or taken to go. This can be great if you don’t want to cook or physically can’t cook for whatever reason. If you’re alone at the holidays, it can be a great place to go and get out amongst other people without breaking the bank. It’s also a budget alternative for groups.
Cafeterias aren’t what they used to be and they definitely don’t resemble the cafeterias you remember from school. They are budget-friendly places to go for a good meal out. If you have one near you, give your cafeteria a try. It may surprise you.
(Photo courtesy of Universidad de Navarra)