Scientific Dining: Reviews of research institute cafeterias
The Scripps Research Institute Cafeteria
La Jolla, Californiaby Stephen Drew
The Scripps Research Institute feeds its researchers in splendor near a clifftop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The facility is located in, and shared with, the Green Hospital, Scripps’ neighbor and affiliate. The cafeteria is a study in cleanliness. Walk in the door and there, immediately, is the most appetizing aroma in the world: close your eyes and you might believe you’re in a McDonald’s. Open those eyes and you see a large modern room with extremely subdued lighting. Windows comprise one side of the cafeteria, giving a lovely view of the world-famous Torrey Pines golf course and its toney green-and-yellow-clad Torrey Pines golfers. Beyond the linksters, and over the cliff, lies the mighty, crashing Pacific. Dine on the terrace if you will, and gawk at an array of pudgy people putting, driving, cursing and putt-putt-putt-ing in their little carts from hole to hole. The pleasant striped umbrellas on the terrace tables protect against the Southern California sun and against the uric acid from bird droppings.
This is the only research cafeteria we have visited that has valet parking. It is also the only cafeteria which has a separate room that contains tables laden with wristwatches for sale.
The clientele exhibits the range and scope of humanity, or at least part of that range and scope. Most of the diners are from the hospital—doctors in their fashionable whites and patients in varying degrees of distress. People entering the cafeteria are occasionally solicited to donate blood.
The diligent medicos do not hesitate to abandon their food at a moment’s notice whenever the public address system summons them to an emergency case. When this happens, the doctors flee en mass; thus there is seldom a problem finding places to sit at the tables.
The tables themselves are bland, solid and clean. Diners we surveyed described the ambience as "no style," "non-existent," "characterless," and "brown." There are plenty of real plants, which are broadleafed and resilient. We were disappointed to find that the cafeteria has no pictures of bearded men. The walls were blank, except for the attractive "TRAY RETURN" signs (several diners told us that the cafeteria has "an obsessive interest in trays") and two remarkable pieces of art.
The art was chosen by the wife of a former Scripps Institute director. The two works are identical. Each consists of multicolored, cheap plastic twists affixed to a framework. This is pure art, undoubtedly worth many times the cost of its constituent materials. There is also an impressively bad, large and expensive sculpture in front of the building. Called "Okeanos," created by the possibly noted sculptor William Tucker, and chosen by the aforementioned wife of the former director, it represents a wave emerging from the ocean. The Scripps Institute scientists who guided our visit, though, had not realized that this extremely naturalistic work was made by the hand of man. They at first described it as "a dinosaur turd someone brought from the desert."
The food was pretty good. Many of the Scripps researchers eat there every day, drawn as much by the price, proximity and atmosphere as by the vittles. Especially the price. Scientists get a 20% discount.
Researcher Jean-Louis Reymond told us that the cafeteria is a good place to meet people. Many of those people are hospital patients. It is not unusual to find yourself seated next to someone with an IV holder in her arm or electrodes protruding from her head. All about, people stroll by pushing IV carts.
Some of the patients are what the doctors term "La Jolla-ites," wealthy, if ailing, residents of the surrounding community of La Jolla. They are recognizable by their behavior. Many have never before had to serve themselves food. They are unfamiliar with the techniques of picking up a tray, choosing plastic dinnerware, and ordering themselves a sandwich or an extra helping of green beans. Several times a week, La Jolla-ite patients proudly solve the mysteries of the self-serve coffee urns, only to be undone moments later when the coffee melts through the bottoms of the wax-paper cups that house their coffee. (Most non-La Jolla-ites choose styrofoam cups.) The melting generally manifests itself at about the time they reach the cashier line. Some of the scientists have similar difficulties serving themselves coffee.
The menu is large and changes daily. One of our dining companions, Yogesh Prasad, had the fish special. It was well-cooked and fresh, made with fresh tomatoes and a good green pepper sauce. Prasad praised the cafeteria’s deep-fried vegetables, saying that they are comparable to those made in his native India. Researcher Nicole Herold had a vegetarian Garden Burger, made from buns and other ingredients obtained by the hospital from outside vendors. Herold found her burger to be "unpleasantly salty" and "Wonder Bread-y."
Among the other recommended dishes are oriental chicken salad (which always sells out immediately) and the chicken pot pies. Diners cautioned us against the vindaloo beef and the curry with cheese. Spaghetti is generally overcooked, but other Italian dishes are mouthwatering and worth a trip through the serving line.
The salad bar is impressive, featuring chunks of good quality feta cheese and a wide selection of fat-free dressings. Fatted dressings are available, too. There is a deli bar with ham, eggs, sliced cheeses of many types, egg salad and a variety of good breads (croissants, rye, corn, etc.). Two soups are offered daily. While a bit expensive (the soup is sold by the pound), they are hearty, often with lots of meat and rice, and can by themselves comprise a very good meal.
There was a plethora of wonderful cookies, cheesecakes and other splendidly unhealthy, delicious desserts. Different cashiers charge different amounts for the cookies, so we recommend visiting the facility in the company of an experienced Scripps scientist.
Perhaps because of the scientists, the cafeteria has its own popcorn machine and a separate room filled with vending machines. On the day we visited, though, there was no Diet Coke, which many of the researchers found upsetting. On the other hand, there was a profusion of Snapple.
The cafeteria staff remarked that scientists eat differently from the other patrons, often taking three meals a day there and usually chowing down in groups. The staff also observed that:
- the scientists tend to eat at one extreme or the other, choosing either extremely healthy food or a diet that is totally junk food;
- the scientists "dress differently" from everyone else; and
- unlike everyone else, the scientists go to the cafeteria every day—even holidays—except when there is free food at another building in the area.
On balance, the Scripps Research Institute’s cafeteria is worth a visit from any hungry scientist. Eat on the terrace unless you enjoy bland brown vistas and the occasional moaning hospital patient. Several Scrippsians compared the facility with that of the neighboring Salk Institute, and recommended that we adopt the latter as our new standard for poor quality.
Bearded Men: 0
Copyright © 1996 The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). All rights reserved.