Duke Dining has received a boost in national ranking as the West Union is slated to open 12 new eateries on campus. 

Duke Dining was recently ranked first in a list for best college food by restaurant review website The Daily Meal, rising from ninth place two years ago and fifth last year. The jump coincides with the reopening of the West Union, which has been closed since July 2013

“They’ve worked so hard over the past few years to improve the dining program,” said Rick Johnson, associate vice president of student affairs for Housing, Dining and Residence Life. “They’re trying to get better all the time and some of that is being recognized by the rating agencies.”

The building does not contain any typical soda fountains and instead offers flavored water, iced tea and carbonated water. Brian Taylor, Trinity ‘16 and a current master’s student in the Nicholas School of the Environment, said the carbonated water can be customized using flavored syrups—much like an Italian soda.

The decision about sodas reflected the opinions of focus groups, Taylor said. Groups included Duke Student Government representatives, Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee members, administrators and other students.

“We elected to focus on healthy dining throughout the building as is reflected by the various menu items and the emphasis on fresh, nutritious and communal,” wrote Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, in an email. “Moving away from fountain beverages supports that notion.”

Taylor, who has remained DUSDAC chair since last year, added that students will still be able to purchase sodas from the Bryan Center.

New offerings

The West Union is designed to have different varieties of food than other campus eateries. 

At Ginger + Soy, students can order dumplings and Asian buns from a custom-made steamer. Johnson explained the steamer is the only one on a United States college campus and is one of only four in the world. 

“We knew that to enhance the Asian offerings, students wanted dumplings and buns, and you needed this piece of equipment,” he said. 

Moneta wrote that he believes the fire pit at JB’s Roast & Chops, an eatery specializing in finely cooked meats, is one of the coolest features of the West Union. Unlike a traditional gas fire, the dishes—including paella, London broils and steaks—are prepared over an open wood fire.

Johnson noted that the inspiration for this fire pit was Jaleo, a tapas restaurant inside The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. There are no similar apparatuses on college campuses, he said.

At Café, the West Union showcases a different type of ice cream, Johnson said.  The ice cream is mixed in a container while liquid nitrogen freezes it to be ready in 90 seconds, and the result is creamier than normal ice cream. Johnson explained that the ice cream will be made in front of students using milk, cream, sugar and flavors such as strawberries, peaches or vanilla.

“It’s the same great homemade ice cream because we start with the freshest ingredients,” Johnson said.

The Chef’s Kitchen in the West Union will serve as a teaching kitchen and will host cooking lessons for students, faculty and staff later in the Fall semester. The same area will also have a pop-up restaurant, which will have a rotating theme and a seasonal menu.

“That really is the crown jewel of the building,” Johnson said. “It’s not that every venue isn’t unique and beautiful in its own way, but when you look at the Chef’s Kitchen, that’s the real wow factor.”

Other changes

Taylor noted the West Union may continue to change as students return to campus and begin sampling the food for themselves.

“None of the menus are set in stone by any means,” Taylor said. “We’re hoping to get a lot of student feedback over the next few days, weeks and months. Any menu can be changed to add an item or take away an item that people don’t like.”

The re-opening of the West Union will have an impact on some of the existing dining options on campus, he added. 

Taylor said that there will not be any cuts to the Merchants-on-Points lineup, but the hours of operation will be scaled back so that they will primarily be a late-night option. Any further changes to MOPs will be decided by student demand, he noted.

“I would anticipate that at the end of this year going into next year there will probably be a large change to the lineup because some MOPs or some food trucks might not have nearly as much demand,” Taylor said. “Because there is something in the West Union that fills that niche, there’s no reason to have a food truck that offers the same cuisine as something that’s open in the West Union seven days a week.”

Food trucks will no longer operate in the Chapel circle. Instead, one will be stationed in the Kilgo lot and another will be located on Swift Avenue, wrote Robert Coffey—director of dining services—in an email. This year’s food truck schedule is still being finalized, he added.