Earlier this week, The Chronicle reported that the Duke Student Dining Advisory Committee has been brainstorming ways to boost the on-campus presence of the Penn Pavilion. They plan to use special promotions, social media and other marketing techniques to encourage more students to stop by the new dining space.
Although it is important for students to know what dining options are available to them, we remain unconvinced that the lackluster performance of Penn Pavilion is a function of insufficient publicity. It seems more likely that students have tried the Pavilion and found it wanting, either because they prefer other eateries on campus or because the Pavilion has failed to recreate the lively and inviting atmosphere of the Great Hall.
Although food taste and quality are important, we suspect that students’ waning interest in Penn Pavilion has less to do with taste and more to do with variety and ambiance. The dining options lack diversity—some stations offer food similar to that found at other venues on campus—and the food choices are significantly less varied than those once available at the Great Hall.
Penn Pavilion will house a dining hall only temporarily, and, regardless of how well DUSDAC markets the new eatery, we question whether the space will ever become a strong dining venue. Renovations to the West Union Building will stretch over the next two years, and, in the meantime, the University may have to accept the absence of a centralized dining space on campus.
The effects of the West Union renovations extend beyond the Great Hall’s absence, however. The Faculty Commons have also closed, depriving faculty of a swanky lunch spot and students of a place to FLUNCH with their professors. With these restaurants gone, few eateries remain on campus where large groups of students can sit down and converse with one another. Many of the popular food vendors on campus feature grab-and-go style eating, with little space for students to have sit-down meals, and the eateries with ample seating space are often crowded at peak dining hours. Food trucks fuel a grab-and-go culture, but they bring culinary variety and other benefits to campus.
The difficulties faced by Penn Pavilion reveal that simply placing tables in a cafeteria does not create a communal dining culture on campus. To foster a convivial dining experience at Duke, we will need inviting dining spaces, a variety of food options and a student body disposed to communal eating.
We are hopeful that the new West Union will address most of these concerns. Featuring multiple dining rooms on several floors, the building will provide students more space to eat together and will offer a range of eating options. Although it is impossible to know whether or not the new West Union will succeed in reconfiguring Duke’s dining culture, we suspect a space designed specifically to promote communal eating will have more success than Penn Pavilion.
Ultimately, students create the dining culture on campus, and there are small things students can do to create a more positive dining experience. Suspending work to eat with friends, staying on campus for dinner and sitting down for a meal all help to create the dining culture we want.