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Ambience

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Midday at the Hillside Cafe. By Lee Pellegrini

A cup of chai, a choice of breads, and thou

This past September, Patricia Bando, director of Boston College Dining Services (BCDS), scanned a recent issue of the Heights, BC's independent student newspaper, and got a surprise. "Sometimes I open the Heights and I cringe," says Bando, explaining resignedly that campus eateries can occasionally become scapegoats for students' frustrations with other aspects of life. But two weeks into the school year, Bando found an editorial praising BCDS for coming up with "a revamped look, more convenient layouts, and . . . new dishes." The paper's highest approbation was for the Hillside Café, the year-old dining hall that the Heights called "one of the most popular hang-out areas" on campus.

The Hillside Café is located in the new Lower Campus Administration Building, where it shares the first floor with a branch of the BC Bookstore. The café was initially intended to complement St. Ignatius Gate, a residence hall still under construction that will house more than 300 students. Since the nearby Lower Campus Dining Hall (called "Lower" by most students) was already doing a high-volume business, the plan was to lure diners to Hillside over the course of two years. But the migration didn't go as expected. BCDS projected that the new facility would handle about 1,000 transactions a day after its opening on Parents' Weekend in fall 2002; instead, Hillside was tallying 3,500 daily transactions during its weekday hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. within the first two months. It became so popular, says Bando, that BCDS had to revise the menus in other eateries.

Hillside's appointments are distinctive: On the perimeter, there are commodious high-back easy chairs, two-seater cushioned sofas, and faux marble coffee tables; tall round tables with bar stools—the good kind, with backs—fill one section, and café-style tables and chairs fill another; cappuccinos and lattes are served at a crescent-shaped coffee counter.

The café's success owes much to its menu, especially its warm panini sandwiches and toothsome smoothies. "It has really good food," says Ashley Hawkins '06, as she picks at two breadless scoops of tuna piled on cheese slices. The petite blonde with a sparkly metallic nose piercing elaborates: "I don't like the bread down here, it's like cranberry, white, and wheat. But I love the tuna."

Around 12:15 P.M. on a Thursday in early autumn, the café's 150 seats were full. Young men with fluffy hair and khaki shorts shared tables with young women in denim skirts and plastic flip-flops. Latecomers eyed the packed premises, then snapped plastic covers over their plates and sauntered out. In a corner, on a sofa flanked by tall windows, a couple snuggled—she holding open a copy of the conservative, student-published Observer (headline: "Educating for Damnation"), he flipping through an issue of the Heights bearing the headline "The Fabled Freshman 15." To their left, a husky male student in a backwards black baseball hat tossed a potato chip at the open mouth of the blonde female beside him. It missed, bounced off her cheek, and fell to the floor.

Amid the ubiquitous communing ("I love my new apartment—I wish I could telecommute to school"; "You must've had fun last night because you sure look like it"; "I was ready to leave for Fidelity, but then I noticed a peanut butter stain on my shirt"; "He's cute—very Marine-ish"; "It's weird to be doing work when it's so nice outside"), there was talk about Hillside: "This tuna is soooo good," said a young woman to seven companions squished around a table designed for four.

Shen Chen '06, a cheerful young woman with a round face and sunglasses on her head, eats lunch at Hillside once a week. She limits herself deliberately—she loves it here and doesn't want to grow bored. She's just finishing a New England Classic—smoked turkey with Vermont cheddar cheese, thin slices of green apples, and honey mustard sauce on two toasted pieces of cranberry bread. Served with a pickle and thick, ridged potato chips, the sandwich is the café's most popular menu item.

Chen says Hillside is the rare campus eatery where undergraduates feel comfortable eating alone. The café is located a hard throw from the RecPlex, and she comes here after working out—as do many other students, judging from their attire. "I don't like going to Lower by myself. If I did, I would hide in the back—it's just kinda weird," Chen says.

Kevin Haynes '05, a transfer student from Suffolk University, has been seated on a couch alone for the last 60 minutes, engrossed in a packet of photocopied papers. Asked to comment, he says Hillside "is really like a Starbucks."

Across the room, assistant manager Chris Bove pours 2-percent milk into a plastic cup of chai and ice. Call Hillside a restaurant, he says—don't use the word cafeteria. "Dining is all about perception."

Camille Dodero


Camille Dodero '98 is a writer based in the Boston area.

 

Photo: Midday at the Hillside Café. By Lee Pellegrini

 

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