It's Berkeley's biggest restaurant, and you've never heard of it.
It seats hundreds at a time. It serves three meals a day. Its fare spans the world: say, French, Mexican, Greek, American, Chinese, and Thai all offered at a single meal. Its genres, too, run the gamut: Soups. Stir-fries. Frothy coffees. Pizza. Chaat. Salad bar. Its portions are limitless. A certified Bay Area Green Business, it employs avant-garde strategies to save some 180,000 gallons of water every month. Its unsold food goes to the homeless, its scraps to a worm farm. It serves Moroccan tagines and vegan chocolate mousse, and dollars to doughnuts you've never heard of it.
Occupying UC Berkeley's first certified-green building, six-year-old Crossroads is the university's largest student dining facility, but nonstudents also can eat here for a nominal price. Sure, you retort, but why? Because student dining has changed since my sophomore year, when "manicotti night" was practically a holiday. Because the Crossroads salad bar is totally organic. Because anyone who ever lived in a dorm and ate at such places daily knows: I could get used to this. The boundlessness, the choice, the sense of being far from home but fed, of wanting to be grown-up enough to shop and cook for yourself but not yet.
A soaring ceiling with deliberately exposed pipes conveyed an epic-warehouse ambience as we arrived at 6 p.m. on a Friday. The place was packed, yet not unpleasant. Long queues awaited that night's featured entrées, salmon and boeuf bourguignon. Skipping those, we stacked our trays speedily with "blackened" tofu steaks, spelt salad, thick-crust pizza, curried corn, ziti with feta, brown rice, Sumatran coffee, and barbecue Ruffles, because we could. And this is the glory of such places, that I'm-eighteen ecstasy in which mixing and matching is part dare and part initiation and part declaration of identity.
Which is why we watched one student assiduously assembling kidney-bean sandwiches. We watched another devour mountains of plain jasmine rice. Another paired boeuf bourguignon with slabs of peanut-butter toast. Many ate cereal and milk for dinner. While Crossroads serves three meals a day, some breakfast items — bread, vats of jam, a cold-cereal bar — are on hand throughout all three.
Seared to seal its juiciness inside, one hand-sized tofu steak over brown rice would, at a restaurant, cost as much as this entire buffet. And these tofu steaks could be served in restaurants, as could virtually everything we tried that night. Maybe not Chez Panisse, but your average self-respecting restaurant. It's all too easy to dismiss institutional food as sodden, saltpeter-spiked, Dickensian pap of the sort that sparks prison riots. Dickens never saw sesame-goddess dressing, vegan pizza Margherita, or drink stations dispensing two types of milk, six sodas, six coffees, and six Gold Peak teas, plus bags of Stash and Peerless. He never saw all these bowls of fresh apples and pears, these rows of kitten-sized cantaloupe slices. Dickens never tasted curried corn this startlingly savory-hot.
Making the rounds a second time, we acquired five-bean stew, corn chowder, and a Middle Eastern lamb-spinach scramble that, along with the barbecue Ruffles and chocolate-frosted, chocolate-chip spice cake, proved to be the evening's most addictive items. Meanwhile, a machine dispenses four flavors — which change daily — of Freshëns frozen yogurt. Granola, broken Oreos, and other toppings wait conveniently nearby. This is where the freshman fifteen comes from.
Not that they must. You could compile not just one but six different kinds of balanced meal here. Flesh-starch-vegetables. Soup-salad-sandwich, selected from prepared salads and the dozen-item salad bar; from vegetarian and meat-soup options; from grilled cheese, Reuben, or tuna melts and made-to-order deli sandwiches. You could go macrobiotic or gluten-free. You could go low-carb, low-fat, or even low-calorie.
You could. Or you could note the hint of violet in the blackberry Freshëns, the bittersweet sophistication of the vegan chocolate mousse. You could go back for thirds and fourths, plus hot frothy vanilla cappuccino, all collected in a surge of polite, slightly giddy strangers.
As everyone knows who ever ate in such places daily, this is a very public kind of dining, during which you test your limits and find friends. Thus it is a theatrical, cathartic kind of dining, too. Wolfing fresh fruit, four guys at the end of our table heatedly discussed a rumor they'd heard that pineapple can be tasted, after consumption, in semen. Later, at another table, five young women ate cake, seized their bellies as we used to do so many years ago, and wailed, I'm fat. This is the kind of place where eccentricities bloom into personalities, where diners hunch over laptops, alone, or, several strong, howl like wolves and burst into song and sprint across the floor and laugh over their delicious crisp grilled-but-not-too-greasy Reuben sandwiches until they cry, because most here are of that age at which everything is either hilarious or fuel for suicide. It is also the age at which most cannot quite appreciate the bounty at their fingertips or the fact that these years, this bounty, will not last.
We went back on a Monday night. Arriving at 5 p.m., we had almost the whole place to ourselves. Over the next two hours, it filled slightly, but never came close to matching the Friday crowd. Pizza again, plus couscous, Chinese chicken stir-fry, mac-and-cheese, tomato bisque, hotter-than-you'd-expect samosas, shell pasta, pepper tagine, and dal whose explanatory placard said only dal, not the more condescending "lentil curry." As at all buffets, we found a bit of inconsistency. Vegan mousse, smooth and bittersweet on Friday night, was oversweet and gummy Monday. Chinese stir-fries don't lend themselves to being made and served in massive quantities over multi-hour spans. Nonetheless, no one could leave here unsatisfied. Crossroads is like every meal you've ever had, rolled into one, and in this highly sensitive, hungry, broke, and unexpectedly hopeless era, where else can you eat as much as you want of pretty much anything you want, for hours on end, with no one scolding you for chasing steak with Cap'n Crunch?