For the fifth consecutive year, UCLA has topped Niche.com’s list of Best College Food in America. This is the seventh time in the past 10 years that the campus dining program has been named No. 1 in the annual rankings, which are based almost entirely on student survey results. The second factor, meal plan cost, accounts for 15% of the formula.
So, what makes UCLA such a culinary standout year after year?
“It’s the strength of our entire team and the thoughtful care and innovation that goes into everything we do,” said Al Ferrone, UCLA’s senior executive director of food and beverage services. “Food is an important part of the student experience, and we do everything possible to bring students an incredible experience that they will remember long after they graduate from UCLA.”
The UCLA Dining program comprises nearly a dozen quick-serve restaurants and all-you-care-to-eat dining halls on campus. The style and quality of food is key, of course, but it’s so much more than that. Each location also takes into account everything from atmosphere and ambiance to lighting, décor and comfort.
For example, Bruin Plate at Carnesale Commons emphasizes healthy eating. Student diners will find locally sourced produce and meats, sustainable seafood, unprocessed and preservative-free items, organic foods, nutrient-packed superfoods, and expanded vegetarian and vegan options. The restaurant also has communal tables and a private dining room for groups.
A short walk north will take you to the Study at Hedrick, which is known for its artisan bakery, coffee and tea bar, 24-hour study space, private meeting rooms, phone-charging stations and plenty of sofas and chairs.
The newest restaurant is Epicuria at Ackerman, which opened in the student union in 2022 as a satellite location of Epicuria at Covel. The restaurant emphasizes simple Mediterranean cuisine and cooking methods in a comfortable setting.
But there are so many more reasons why UCLA leads the nation when it comes to feeding its 14,000 on-campus residents. Here are just nine:
1. Endless options
Variety is king. UCLA is dedicated to providing options that appeal to all tastes, needs and requirements. Kosher, halal, vegetarian and vegan options are available, as are cuisines representing a variety of countries and cultures. Serving roughly 30,000 meals every day during the school year means that creativity, communication and teamwork are key when it comes to keeping guests happy. UCLA Dining also has a nutrition education coordinator on its team to help students navigate nutrition-related questions, provide tips on making healthy choices, address dietary concerns and special needs, and provide other information and nutrition-related resources.
2. Unique dining spaces
Each unique venue has been designed to ensure that the dining experience can be as relaxing, social and flexible as possible. Artwork, wall-sized tile mosaics and music curated by our UCLA students contribute to the atmosphere at these multifunctional spaces, where eating, socializing and studying can happen simultaneously.
3. The UCLA bakery
UCLA has its own bakery, which produces roughly 95% of all baked goods served on campus. Having an in-house bakery allows these items to be made fresh daily with less sugar and salt, extra whole grains and no preservatives. It also reduces food waste because the team only makes what is needed. Among other things, the UCLA bakery, headed by executive pastry chef Richard Ruskell, produces 3,000 sandwich baguettes each day and 1,200 ganache tarts and 1,500 vegan brownies each week. And for cookie lovers, the bakery creates a whopping 3,000 of these delicacies each weekday, with chocolate chip being a fan favorite.
4. Theme dinners
To add fun and interest throughout the year, the dining team prepares several special “one night only” menus, décor, playlists and other features that align with a chosen theme. Recently, an Earth Day dinner highlighted the work of the honeybee, with items such as grilled honey balsamic flank steak, grilled yuca with habanero honey glaze, and strawberry flatbread with honey and goat cheese. The Garlic Festival dinner included options like garlic parmesan fingerling potatoes, Polynesian bass with preserved lemon and garlic chips, roasted garlic mofongo and Neiman Ranch ham, and smoked garlic flatbread. And the Black History Month Celebration Dinner featured fried green tomato grilled cheese, Cajun-spiced tofu with grits, and Jamaican chicken salad, among other dishes.
5. Our UCLA Dining team
The people who work for UCLA Dining play a vital role in creating a friendly, inclusive environment and memorable guest experiences each day. The team, which is always looking for new members, includes people who are new to food service and those who have had extensive careers in the hospitality field. Together they play a vital role in the undergraduate experience on the Hill, UCLA’s on-campus residential community. Students are encouraged to provide the team with feedback related to food and service by speaking with the restaurant managers or leaving a review on Dine & Dish, an online guest form that is available in each restaurant.
6. Jobs for students
Each year, UCLA Dining employs up to 300 undergraduate students in its restaurants. These opportunities allow them to earn money and enjoy a number of great perks, like earning two free meals per shift, skipping the line at some dining locations and discounts on summer housing. Working in dining also helps students gain and build a variety of transferrable skills that can be applied to their future careers, among them time management, problem-solving, patience, communication and prioritization. Applications for these roles are currently being accepted.
7. A commitment to sustainability
Every possible effort is made to minimize food waste and maximize environmental sustainability through a culture of conservation, which includes offering smaller portion sizes, providing ample vegetarian and vegan options, composting food waste and finding creative and efficient ways to use unserved food ingredients, such as repurposing vegetable peelings for use in stocks, soups and sauces, and using cake and brownie ends as crumbled toppings for ice cream and frozen yogurt.
8. Culinary education
Preparing food is an important life skill, and UCLA Dining works to get guests excited about cooking. Guests can watch chefs and cooks prepare meals in many of the restaurants, and there are ample opportunities for guests to customize their meals. UCLA Dining has also published the Bruin Plate Cookbook and Plateia Cookbook, which both walk readers through the process of recreating some of their favorite meals. In addition, the Tipuana Teaching Kitchen, located in one of our newest residence halls, is used for food-related events and education.
9. Partnering with the community
UCLA Dining supports the community through its various efforts to ensure food security for veterans, low-income individuals, UCLA students and others. During the COVID-19 pandemic, dining staff took care of UCLA’s essential campus workers and hospital personnel by providing meals for them to eat at work. In addition, the team partnered with the Venice Family Clinic to deliver thousands of healthy meals to low-income clients. UCLA Dining also works closely with the Semel HCI Center at UCLA and the national Menus of Change consortium to promote healthy eating and food literacy efforts on campus and across the nation.