Evolution of the Oak Room

Ah, the Oak Room. The name alone conjures images of slightly overpriced dishes of bowtie pasta in a bland cream sauce, our fellow students tripping over their server aprons, eternally fuming about getting stiffed on their last three tables. Ever "flagging," ever doing worse than the year before, ever in a state of promised renewal or near shut-down... and yet the Oak Room endures.

The "up-scale" dining option on West opened in 1946, burning up food points decades before George's staked its claim on the $25 entrZe. The Oak Room was the place to get a decent bite to eat when you got sick of Han's, the Loop, 'Dillo, etc. It wasn't as good as what you'd expect from a real restaurant, but hey--it was the Oak Room, a Duke classic with a lot of heart and a lot of history.

It seemed like every fall, the Oak Room had a "grand reopening" where really all that changed were the names of dishes--"parmesan pasta" would become "asiago chicken." Complaints about the stagnant menu and crappy service would surface, and once again, plans were announced for massive change--from buffet style to privatization.

Finally, last October, ARAMARK did the impossible: It completely transformed the Oak Room. With the help of Pop's and Brightleaf 905 restauranteur Maggie Radzwiller, everything changed. The waiting area showcased a wine bar with walls painted in a trendy pumpkin hue. The lights dimmed, the prices rose, the menu completely transformed with both improved quality and decreased options. It seemed the perfect compromise between a "better" Oak Room and maintaining a tradition.

And the food was great. From a flavorful if garlic-heavy artichoke dip to a perfectly cooked filet to a rich cr?me brulZe, I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner there last November. Martin and I were looking to review the "new" Oak Room amidst the new concerns--namely, the expensive prices and fewer menu items. Yes, Radzwiller succeeded in bringing a "Pop's" style restaurant to campus--but she was fired less than two weeks after we had eaten there. Reopening yet again this semester, it features the old Oak Room stand-bys--gourmet burgers and bowtie pasta.

What went wrong?

My hypothesis: ARAMARK failed to realize that the Oak Room is a brand name, a Duke tradition. Just like a McDonalds or George's, certain expectations are connected with the name of the restaurant. No one would buy a $25 filet mignon from McDonald's even if it were Angus Barn quality. Likewise, Duke students and faculty have grown to love the Oak Room's satisfactory food at satisfactory prices. There'll always be complaints, but that's because we're whiny Duke students. There's comfort in Santa Fe Fries and, yes, bland creamy pasta dishes that the Oak Room embodies.

The most recent reincarnation was like something out of Beetlejuice, when ultra-trendy Catherine O'Hara attempts to revamp the quaint country home of Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis--it just didn't feel right. Could Radzwiller's restaurant have worked within another name or another location? Perhaps. But, for now, the Oak Room remains with its definitive and charming mediocrity.


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