Sitting in the middle of Duke University's high-tech, modern campus is an oasis of simplicity and earthy values. The Refectory Café serves “hot, healthy and homemade” dishes, according to its tagline, and students have been flocking to its doors since its opening in January 2006.
The cafe is aptly named in that a “refectory” is traditionally the communal dining area of a religious institution. The Refectory Café sits in a new $22 million wing of Duke's divinity school and was originally intended to offer divinity students and staff a convenient breakfast and lunch dining option.
However, these days, upward of 800 customers — from top administrators to general students — show up each day, a quarter of them for the breakfast, when the Baked Oatmeal — a hearty whole-grain casserole made with locally sourced, cage-free eggs — is a particular favorite, says Laura Hall, whose Bon Vivant Catering Company manages the Refectory Café.
Other breakfast options include cold selections like granola and kashi bowls, yogurt parfaits and fresh fruit bowls (made with as much local produce as possible), as well as from-scratch breakfast popovers and Hot Egg Strata, a layered casserole that comes in both meat and vegetarian versions.
A revolving lunch menu features daily salad, pasta and soup selections; various wrap, salad and deli sandwiches; and a variety of entrees. Daily specials include at least one vegetarian and one vegan choice.
A portion-controlled Student Special is a big seller, Hall says. It includes half a wrap sandwich and one side (cup of chili or soup, salad or cole slaw plus a “dessert bite”). The whole meal is under 600 calories.
“We see a lot of vegetarian and vegan students and always want to make sure we have something good for them,” Hall adds. Regular menu items also include meatless specialties like Indian Dal, Hummus Plate, Vegetarian Chili and Vegan Beans and Rice.
Those on a budget or looking for a quick comforting meal can choose the natural peanut butter and jelly or banana sandwich or the highly popular grilled cheese and tomato soup — both items made with fresh ingredients.
An especially popular event at the Refectory Café is the Sunday evening Simple Supper, served from 6 to 8 pm. “We often have both vegetarian and meat-based lasagna, as well and soup and salad, some other warm casserole and fish,” Hall says. “Asian dishes have also been popular, especially Asian chicken and a tofu dish in spicy peanut sauce.”
Customers pay cash or credit card, and upperclass students can also use points from their university meal plans at the Refectory. Lunch prices range from $3.50 for the PB&J to just under $8 for entrees like a salmon wrap, signature salad, daily chef's special and the pasta and dal dishes. Breakfast is $4.50 for the pricier hot selections and under $4 for everything else.
Hall came to the attention of Duke Dining Services Director Jim Wulforst through her catering business. When the university was looking to add a dining space in the new divinity school wing, he approached her with the idea of running it and she took him up. It is the first traditional dining space Hall has managed. Her previous culinary forays — initiated in 2001 after a career in business — were into social catering and a “gourmet-to-go” operation that sold ready-to-assemble meals to busy households.
These days, the Refectory Café, as well as a full catering service she manages from its kitchen, takes up most of Hall's time. The operation employs 20 people