Evolution of a Georgetown Dinner
While O’Donovan Hall is often the subject of harsh student criticism, the much-maligned on-campus dining options were not always so divisive. From the bountiful Christmas feasts served in Georgetown’s earliest days to the short-lived dining hall under Darnall Hall, food at Georgetown has gone through a wide range of transformations.
Dining options at the Hilltop were well-received at the school’s inception, and founder John Carroll believed that a hearty and nutritious diet should be an important aspect of every Hoya’s daily life. In 1812 he wrote to University President Fr. Giovanni Grassi, S.J., imploring, “Never relax in your attention to … the personal neatness of your scholars; and to their diet. I know it is good in substance, but I fear, your cook is deficient.”
As a result of Carroll’s focus on quality food, the first few decades of the university saw students treated to extensive, gourmet menus. In an 1813 diary entry, Fr. John McElroy, S.J., described the Christmas dinner offered to students: “First dish, Corn’d pork and Cabbage; second, Smoked Beef and Turnips; third, spare ribs roasted; fourth, roast geese, toddy, aplles, cakes, and crackers.”
Carroll hired a French cook in 1819 to instruct the resident chef, and in 1833 the ground floor of Mulledy Hall — now Freedom Hall — became the first location specifically allocated for dining on campus. When this new location was introduced, the quality of food quickly began to fall. By the 1840s, complaints were commonplace. In 1846, University President Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., insisted that food at the students’ table “should be as good as that of the community.”
Unfortunately, Mulledy’s recommendation did little to improve the deteriorating dining situation. In “Student Life at Georgetown in the Late [Eighteen] Sixties,” Fr. Francis Barnum, S.J., the university’s first archivist, discussed the sanitary conditions at the time: “It would sometimes happen when pouring out a cup of coffee that the flow would suddenly cease and I have seen a student calmly run his lead pencil down the spout and dislodge one of these big roaches.”
By 1907, nearly 100 years after the enviable 1812 Christmas menu, the food selection looked drastically different. In the Georgetown College Journal, student Robin Ruff (C ’60) reported: “Horologically we had three meals a day. [But] gastronomically, it may fairly be questioned if we had one … breakfast … of coffee or tea and dry bread, abundant, but not toothsome. The mid-day meal … one dish of meat. … Supper was an encore of breakfast, plus butter.”
At this time, a new dining location at Ryan Hall was intended to mark a transition into a better dining experience. Ida Mary Barry Ryan, the wife of business magnate Thomas F. Ryan, donated an ornate set of delftware and even provided a uniform for the college waiters, complete with “swallow-tails and shiny pumps.” These waiters served meals to students until the 1950s, when the service became too expensive. This marked a transition from “family style” to cafeteria style at Georgetown, which was theorized to lower expenses and raise the quality of food.
The New South Cafeteria, the last before Leo’s, opened in 1959. Receiving mixed feedback throughout its existence, New South faced its harshest criticism in the 1970s. A switch of the food services provider from SAGA Corporation food services to Specialized drew backlash from both students and administrators. In 1971, Hall Director John Bengiovi called equipment at New South “antiquated and inadequate,” and noted the malfunctioning steam tables, conveyers and ice machines as well as insufficient amounts of plates, silverware and trays.
The cafeteria had very poor sanitary conditions, and closed for eight days in 1971 after three cases of bacillary dysentery sent employees and students to the hospital with severe cramps, diarrhea and fever. It reopened in November of 1971, and it was not until 2002 that the university decided to discontinue the New South Dining Hall.
When it was still open, a Wall Street Journal writer and top local chefs criticized the cafeteria’s lack of sushi, made-to-order pasta and carving roast. Their complaints came at a time when the quality of college dining was becoming a more important issue, and schools across the country refocused their options in an effort to attract more applicants.
The space below Darnall Hall, now occupied by Epicurean and Company, was once its own dining hall used largely by upperclassmen. When New South Dining Hall closed and Leo’s opened, Darnall hurried to make changes to match the amenities of the new location. In 2003, the space underwent a $650,000 redesign in an attempt to create a restaurant-style look. The renovation, made only to the dining section, added a pizza station and make-your-own pizza bar, as well as structural alterations such as repositioning entire walls and adding islands for drinks and desserts.
The space closed just two years later, and Leo’s became the campus’ only cafeteria. Students expressed discontent with the lack of student involvement in this decision, and the Darnall Dining Hall was widely missed. Students began to petition for its re-opening, raising concerns about overcrowding at Leo’s and the lack of a separate dining hall for Georgetown upperclassmen.
Considering the changes made to Hoya dining over the last 200 years, it is not surprising that the school once again finds itself at a crossroads as the end of its contract with Aramark in May draws closer. Neither the university nor the catering service has directly commented on the future of the partnership, but Auxiliary Services Director of Business Operations Loren Sumerlin said the dining transition will be more inclusive than ever.
“We continue to work on the request for proposal and post updates on the Auxiliary Business Services website,” Sumerlin wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We have multiple students involved with the development of the RFP and have planned opportunity for further student engagement throughout the process as we work to develop a new contract.”
With the potential for a new catering service soon, students can hope for a return of dining options that would make John Carroll proud.