I manage to find our table just as the chipotle-seasoned chicken slides dangerously close to the edge of the plate. My struggle to balance a precarious number of dishes is not an uncommon plight, especially during lunch rush at Bruin Plate — or B Plate, as it’s called on the Hill, the residential corner of campus. I set down the spoils of my whirlwind journey through the dining hall, and I’m greeted with evidence that my friend and fellow Bruin Claire has taken a similar tour of the various dining stations. Our table is now laden with Cobb salad wraps, yogurt with granola (a staple for her, no matter the meal), fresh fruit and warm flatbreads, all cast in a speckled light from the window.
Our excitement is palpable as we survey the extent of B Plate’s lunch offerings. Claire takes an inaugural bite. “It’s just as I remembered,” she gushes. Her eyes open wide. “But I think they’ve changed the granola.”
For the next few minutes, we’re too busy reveling in the flavors to talk further. The chicken and mozzarella flatbread boasts a medley of herbs that evoke the familiarity and warmth of holiday cooking; the perfectly ripe avocado nestled in our wraps serves as an homage to our locale, as well as the intentionality of incorporating seasonal ingredients. It is this seasonality that motivates Bruin Plate’s dishes.
As we start on our third and fourth plates, slow, melodic jazz fills the dining hall, perfectly accompanying the gray skies to which we have a front-row view. We gaze out at passing students while sipping Americanos and eating our dessert of vegan brownies, thankful for many things — nothing more so than that the days of our parents’ poorly lit dining halls and Jell-O puddings are firmly in the past.
As part of a three-year expansion project in 2012, this concept of a health-themed dining hall was born out of a need to feed more students and, more importantly, to feed them differently. At the time, dining trends were indicating a dramatic shift in the preferences of students, who were reaching for fruits and veggies over processed food. Not only did the new student foodies want to eat more kale, but they were also asking where that produce was coming from — was it locally sourced? Bruin Plate became the answer, a cornerstone for campus dining where French fries are exchanged for roasted veggie stations and 20% of all ingredients are sustainably sourced. As one of the first health-themed dining halls west of the Mississippi, Bruin Plate has become one of the most popular dining halls on campus, garnering a national reputation on par with fine dining restaurants. It has revolutionized not only the way in which students fuel their bodies, but also the environment in which they do it. The net effect is a radical reimagining of college meals as more than just an interlude between classes.
This idea that B Plate is something special is not lost on Executive Chef Joey Martin, who recalls how getting the job six years ago was like “getting the keys to a Ferrari that you don’t want to crash.” Even before B Plate opened its doors in Fall 2013, its dishes received rave reviews at the Hedrick Test Kitchen, priming the soon-to-be dining hall for a swift ascent to campus fame.
The way to keep this special dining hall running and evolving, Martin says, is through collaborating, maintaining standards and always looking out for what’s next. Whether B Plate team members are bringing in ideas they’ve tried at home or getting inspiration from themed dinners on the Hill, Martin says the commitment to low sodium and low sugar ensures that menu planning is always a unique process.
I notice a few bowls at the end of the table and ask Martin if he was able to grab lunch. “Yeah, the lentils were actually a little salty for me,” he says, making a note to check with that station. Even when he’s not dining in, the chef makes sure to “touch each station” at least once a day, ensuring B Plate’s quality through a hands-on approach.
While seasonality and low sodium/sugar may inform the ingredients list, the menu itself is often adapted based on student feedback — or what Martin wryly calls “30,000 food critics a day.” When one dish in the rotation isn’t getting enough attention, there’s flexibility to take it off the menu and rethink it. “It’s about winning one student at a time,” he says, uttering a motto that not only encourages but revolves around students’ opinions. Martin says that B Plate’s main goal is to do far more than feed students — it’s also to enrich their lives and create memories for them.
As I think about my own experiences eating here and the memories I’ve made, I can personally say that the goal has certainly been achieved. Eating at Bruin Plate is not only a current experience, but one that constantly recalls the last one. It’s a place that houses memories and meals rather than just fast fuel. As I brace myself for the cold outdoors, I tug my jacket a little closer — careful not to squish the extra brownie I smuggled for later.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.