West Union: Beautiful, and Tasty, Too

Writer: 
October 24, 2016

Robert Coffey, executive director of Duke Dining Services, remembers taking the decisions that years of meetings and student focus groups had yielded and presenting them to the West Union builders. “I remember the designer saying, ‘Fire pit? NitroCream? Really? You want do to this on a college campus?’ ”

Yep. The architectural inventiveness of West Union’s new glass box makes a strong first impression, but open the door and the thirteen restaurants run by eight different vendors will quickly stop you thinking about buttresses. Show kitchens line both sides of the central walkway surrounding the building’s core, with smells emerging from tandoor ovens and paella rings mingling with the tang of wasabi and the smoky aroma from that fire pit. Duke Dining has a great national reputation; the new West Union will not diminish it. Southern cookery at Skillet; Japanese food at Ginger + Soy and Gyotaku; pizza and pasta at Il Forno; healthier and vegetarian food at The Farmstead and Sprout; and on and on. The Great Hall ceiling might draw eyes upward, but other senses will remain focused right at food level.

Those years of meetings made clear to Duke Dining that students wanted food that was local and authentic. The result was one national chain—Au Bon Pain—and twelve local eateries. “This has become quite a foodie town,” Coffey says of Durham. “We wanted to bring that to campus and the students did, too.”

Oh, and that fire pit at JB’s Roasts & Chops? It’s one of only two in the nation, according to team leader Javon Singletary. The wood fire sears the meat and heats bricks that make your steak keep not just its flavor but its shape. “None of my steaks shrink,” says chef Ron Trower; Singletary was only sorry that late in the lunch rush the pit held only a small, glowing fire. “You should see it when it’s all lit up.” And NitroCream, by the way, is sort of flash ice cream: You pour liquid ice cream base into the bowl of a mixer, start things mixing, and hurry things up a bit by blowing liquid nitrogen onto the contents. “Do we freeze it fast, slow?” asks Ron Caster, who describes himself as the nitrogen barista at Café, on the Plaza level. “Do we keep it spinning while we freeze it?” He was giving away samples as they tried things out. Result: Ice cream tastes good.

“The food’s exceptional,” said junior electrical and computer engineering student Alex Zaldastani. “Really diverse. As I see it, this is the hub for food now.”

And if you fear for a generation of college students texting home to complain that “the crepes could have had more Nutella,” take heart that some things never change. “We have a custom pizza oven that has three windows,” at Il Forno, says Coffey. “Usually there’s only one or two, but we wanted to be prepared for the volume.” 

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.