Remember those cafeteria lunches from high school days? Well, forget them. Times have changed and when it comes to college dorm food and what students are eating today, we're in a whole new universe. Not a student? No problem. Newman Hall's dining room welcomes the general public. So for nostalgia's sake, we decided to pretend we were still in school and headed over to Newman Hall for a "school lunch." Boy, were we pleasantly surprised.

The St. John's Catholic Newman Center on Sixth and Chalmers in Champaign is a private residence hall that was recently remodeled and expanded. Its new dining room is now open to the public and the food is plentiful and cheap. Their ever-changing menu is posted online, so one can always check it out before heading over. We went for lunch on a recent Wednesday when they promised Jamaican chicken pizza, Crab and cornbread soup and fried chicken.

When we walked in at 12 noon, the place was pretty packed, but getting a table was still easy as the dining hall is huge. The atmosphere was warm, airy, bright and clean. Next we scouted out the different food stations available: there was a salad bar, a dessert bar, a sandwich bar, a pasta bar, a pizza station and the grill. Each station had their own chefs and since this was the lunch rush, everyone behind the counter was busy loading up the food.

After reviewing the offerings, we got our requisite tray and went shopping. My first stop was the salad bar where I made myself a fresh spinach salad with tomatoes, beets, sprouts, croutons and Italian dressing. On the way to the grill, I paused at the sandwich bar and saw custom sandwiches being made to order — there was a variety of deli meats to choose from — and you could get your sandwich made any way you wanted. There was hardly any line at the sandwich station and people were getting their sandwiches in what seemed like seconds. However there was a line at the grill where everyone was helping themselves to the fried chicken, but it was worth the wait. Within a minute I was picking my favorite chicken pieces and loading up on mashed potatoes with gravy and steamed veggies. The cost of the entree? $5.25.

On the way back to the table, I spied some Jamaican Chicken Pizza and since the sign said "79¢ a slice," I couldn't resist. As it turned out, this was the best item on the menu that day — pieces of nicely marinaded chicken that were both spicy and sweet, topped with onions, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. The crust was nice and thin and reasonably crusty. The mashed potatoes and gravy was my next favorite item, perhaps because it's been so long since I've indulged. The fried chicken didn't stand up to the KFC version, but it was reasonable crunchy on the outside and juicy enough on the inside.

As we looked around the dining room, we saw an interesting mix of students and older people — perhaps professors and/or professionals in the area. Apparently Newman Hall is not really a best kept secret and we can see why: decent food, healthy portions, great prices and a nice atmosphere to boot. What about the parking? Maybe because it was a Wednesday, but we saw plenty of empty spaces on Chalmers, some even right in front of the Newman Hall entrance.

I have to thank Geoff Merritt, the owner of That's Rentertainment for tipping me off about Newman Hall. When Geoff mentioned that he's been eating dorm food recently, my curiosity was instantly aroused. "All of the food is good, not great," said Geoff. "It's just great that such a place exists on campus. Lots of choices, super friendly staff, open all day (breakfast, too), and always tons of people milling about. The other day I bought a sandwich and a soda for under $4... beat that!"

Newman Hall Dining Room is located at 604 East Armory Avenue: (Enter on Chalmers at 6th)

Phone: (217) 344-1266

Hours:

Breakfast 6:45 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.
Lunch 11:45 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Dinner 4:45 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.