Admittedly, I’d never heard of the Establishment dinners until a friend once casually mentioned it over dinner and told me it is entirely student-run and student-staffed and located right in Statler Hall. To be honest, I was both skeptical and intrigued. The website of the Establishment describes it as providing a “refined casual dining experience” to diners, boasting an “eclectic” mix of cuisines and being “classroom first, restaurant second” in its mission. So how exactly does it live up to its reputation? My curiosity could not be quenched without paying a visit myself.
The Establishment is located on the second floor of Statler Hall, where I had seen the hustle and bustle of students during the day until it quieted down in late afternoon. Behind the big glass windows I could see neatly-arranged four-person tables with a Fuji apple at the center of each table. A small decorative fireplace stood in the room. Drawn blinds cut off my vision as I attempted to look outside and I felt the walls were closing in. It’s indeed a small restaurant, roughly classroom-sized, connected on both ends to the back kitchen and the “staging area” where waiters come and go. A glimpse at the back kitchen told me there were more cooks and prep-cooks there than the number of diners combined at full-capacity.
My friend and I were greeted with enthusiasm as the server handed us the menu. There was a slight mix-up with the menus and we found ourselves staring at the drink menu and the specialty menu for two minutes before we were handed the main menu. I was eager to taste the “All About Apples” dishes and ordered apple and butternut squash bruschetta as appetizer. We also ordered drinks: a honey-lavender mocktail soda and a lemonade with cranberries. I would very much like to have eaten dessert first, but our waiter said she would come back for our dessert order later (though we ended up skipping dessert). There was another slight mix-up with the drink orders, but we finally got our drinks and started to dig in the bruschetta. It was sliced ciabatta bread with ricotta cheese, topped with sliced apple, butternut squash and a drizzle of balsamic. It was pretty good-tasting, with a sweet-tart, cinnamon-like flavor, though it’s not something that left a lasting impression on me.
For my entrée, I got an apple turkey burger with cranberry aioli and french fries. In the burger patty there were chopped-up apple slices, and between the buns were a slice of brie cheese and some arugula leaves. The bun was good: toasty, soft and not soggy. However, the meat patty was a little bit tougher than ideal and I wasn’t sure it was a great idea to overwork the patty with onions, apple slices and herbs. I did love the cranberry aioli, though. The honey-lavender mocktail was refreshing: I always enjoy the nectar and lavender taste in drinks. Maybe a little bit of purple food coloring and fresh lemon slice (instead of dry lemon peel) as a garnish would have made it more visually pleasing.
Overall, I was pleased with my dining experience at the Establishment. The only thing I would wish for is faster service. For example, I couldn’t help but notice that my friend and I had nothing to drink for at least ten minutes. At the end of our meal we were asked to do a survey and I was glad to comply. Will I come again? Sadly the answer is no. Knowing fully that a restaurant dedicated to educating students faces a number of constraints, I’m still more inclined to visit places that give me more of a getaway ambience instead of a conference room vibe. Nevertheless, I was delightfully surprised by the variety of menu items and how an entirely student-run restaurant could pull it off. By any measure, I did not regret my visit.