The Refectory at City University of London.
Arriving on a hectic Tuesday lunch hour, the first sights and smells would do much to incite any stomach to groans. There is a buzz of hungry students milling around carrying lunch trays, scanning The Refectory for a seat or friends. The aroma wafting from the several stands serving hot food creates a nostalgic feeling that immediately makes a student feel at ease.
The range of food offered goes from simple sandwiches and salads – more on these later – to oven-baked pizzas and fried chicken. Beside the typical canteen fare, more outgoing ‘foodies’ may be interested to hear the Refectory also offers a so called Guest Counter, which “changes [its menu] weekly, serving authentic, fresh street food style dishes from around the world.” Today’s choice was a falafel and hummus wrap with a side of chips, a Middle-Eastern staple paired with one of Britain’s favourite sides.
So, now you must be thinking that with such an abundance of choice the lucky and hard-working students at City are well and truly spoilt for choice. Unfortunately, as the saying goes “all that glitters is not gold,” or in this case oven-baked pizzas often come cold. Alas, it is time to tuck into the meat of the matter…
As a somewhat health conscious student on a budget (one which is unashamedly biased towards alcohol), the order of the day was a nutritious meal that would keep the brain and body fuelled. The Refectory would have to supply some real bang for my buck. I first turned my attention towards the salad bar located right at the entrance to the canteen.
A choice of three rather similarly sized plastic containers sat before the salad bar with varying prices. The ‘small’ was priced at £2.50, the ‘medium’ at £3.50 and the ‘large’ at £4.50. I reluctantly grabbed the medium container, as it did not seem you could pack more than a few leaves of lettuce and some tomatoes into the small. The choice offered at bar wasn’t the most broad but it did look fresh and colourful.
There was a mixed rice and chopped herbs, a potato salad that was heavy on the mayonnaise, halved boiled eggs, some couscous, and a variety of healthy leafy greens that would make a good, healthy accompaniment to any meal. Beside those were a variety of oils and sauces to add to your salad, as well as some pumpkin and sunflower seeds to add as a final topping.
Taking it all in, I finally decided on a bed of leafy greens and rocket, topped with some couscous, tomatoes and shredded carrots for their vibrant orange colour and crunch. A drizzle of chilli-infused olive oil was met with a sprinkling of seeds and I closed the lid shut and shifted my way across to the till.
Next, I carried my tray towards the scent of melting cheese and tomato, joining the queue already several ranks deep, waiting at the City Pizza counter. The sight of the stone oven behind the counter piqued my interest, and hunger, that bit more. After a few minutes of eager anticipation, I was able to grab a standard Margerhita pizza and placed it on my tray for £2.75, little more than the price of a small salad. Besides my choice there was a pepperoni pizza and a chicken pizza, both of which were Halal.
Turning around to look for a seat, for the first time I noticed the popularity of the canteen with the students. There was hardly a free seat in the house. I elbowed my way between two students with an apologetic smile on my face, and sat at a high stooled table in the middle of the refectory. The Refectory was alive with the sound of laughter and enthusiastic conversation, as I eagerly prepared to take my first bite.
Aesthetically it certainly looked like a pizza. The crust looked crisp but not burnt, and the herb garnish was disappointing. In fact you could probably fit all the bits of oregano onto a five pence coin and still have room.
Grabbing my first slice of pizza, I was immediately struck by the rather cold sense of touch I was feeling. This was not the old morning after a night out pizza, this pizza should be hot. Nonetheless, I took a bite and immediately rather wish I hadn’t. The base was remarkable for its staleness. The more I chewed, gnawing my way through a thick and stale crust, the more I felt my pangs of hunger turn to regret.
Washing it down with some water, free from the dispenser by the tills, I decided to go back to my salad instead. Forking my salad I felt my spirits reinvigorated. The salad was fresh, the crunch satisfying and sun-dried tomatoes bursting with flavour. Finally I felt my taste buds dancing in delight. It was so pleasing that I forgot about the horrible staleness of my pizza and even managed another bite.
However, a salad is hardly a bulwark for the impending alcohol that will be consumed. I noticed a shelf stacked with sandwiches and thought I would have a look at the selection. BLT’s, Tuna Mayo Crunch’s, and Roast Chicken Salad’s. Not bad. Only on my final scan did I notice the sandwich which turned me off completely. A Plain Cheese sandwich.
Humble by name, and oh so humble by nature. Between the two slices of white bread was a measly a bland looking pair of mild cheddar slices. You would imagine this dull and dreary looking thing would be priced generously, to give it a standing chance in the competing arena of flavours.
Instead, the wise managers at The Refectory decided on a price of £2.30. That’s two slices of white bread, and two slices of cheese. Four modest components, priced just shy of a stone baked pizza.
Disgusted again and morally outraged, I decided I would not part with any more of my cash and left.
Excluding the cold pizza and over-priced cheese sandwich, The Refectory would be a nice place to eat with friends or pick up a coffee. There certainly is variety on offer, and the hubbub of noise alone can help energise you to continue your day of studies.
Nutritious options exist and there is food catered for Halal-only consumers. Just be aware that it does get rammed to capacity very early in the day, and well, sometimes you may have to take back your supposed ‘hot’ tray of food back to the counter with complaints.