You did it almost every day in high school. Routine: take a plastic tray, slide it down the rails, and choose between platters like a cheeseburger or beef stew, then grab a plate of Jell-O resting on a bed of ice. Pretty boring.
But with companies vying to hire new workers or to get existing ones back into the office, workplace cafeterias are taking the old standby to the next level. In New York’s Hearst Tower, Café 57 prepares sushi with an in-house chef. In Redmond, Washington, Microsoft’s headquarters offers thirty-three different—and free!—workplace cafeterias; Google offers thirty-five “cantinas,” and the employee cafeteria at Condé Nast was the place where editor Anna Wintour ordered blood-red burgers, inspiring a scene in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Chicago’s employee eateries do not have that lavish abundance, but many downtown buildings feature cafeterias as well as cafeteria and food-court combinations. Besides offering more modern, healthy fare, these canteens are also a nearby indoor option that’s most welcome during days dominated by cold rain and snow.
The art deco Franklin Building (227 West Monroe), branded as The Franklin, houses over 7,000 employees working for companies like Guggenheim Funds, Credit Suisse and Rockefeller Capital Management. Taking an escalator past the marble floors, granite walls with gold-leaf trim and chandeliers hanging sixty feet in the air, you’ll find the second floor Rustle + Roux. It opens at 7am, offering workers coffee, latte and cappuccinos, as well as breakfast with cooked-to-order omelets. Lunchtime diners see a range of choices, including the Relish Grill that dishes out standard burgers; Tortellini, which serves up the thumb-sized noodle with many different fillings and toppings including green leafy pesto; and the Urban Deli which offers a more sophisticated take on sandwiches like the Reuben and the Cuban. But the main feature is a thirty-foot-long salad bar featuring sixty items that you can build as a side dish or sprinkle over kale, arugula, spinach and romaine. As a compromise between healthy and tasty, I topped my romaine with giant chunks of turkey, croutons, real bacon bits and a side of pasta salad. After weighing, the total added up to under ten dollars. Just like high school, you take your tray to the cashier who adds up your selections.
“Do you have your ID?” the casher asks. “Building employees get a five-percent discount.” (While employees get a discount, the space is open to the public.) I shake my head. pay full price and proceed to eat my salad while seated on one of the many high-backed, padded chairs sprinkled throughout the area.
The employee cafeteria was introduced by Hallmark founder J. C. Hall in Kansas City in 1923. Hall claims he opened his cafeteria because the restaurants in the area were too expensive for the employees, though others contend it was because the wages he offered were too low.
Like Rustle + Roux, employee cafeterias have mated with the modern food court. One of the newest and best is the Urbanspace in Willis Tower, which offers twelve different stations plus a bar. Some non-traditional cafeteria offerings include Plant Junkie for plant-based comfort food, Happy Lobster and Polumbia for an edgy Polish and Colombian fusion. There are also the more standard Mexican, Thai, sushi, hot dog and sandwich offerings. All are in the West main lobby where customers dine under a giant glass dome.
The Cafeteria (813 North Orleans) offers another take. Located in a section of River North still populated with galleries, it’s a combination cafeteria and food court. Its focus is on healthy items, including Blended for smoothies; a build-your-own salad station called, well, Salads; a Mexican station, Jalapeño; and a Middle Eastern kiosk, Chickpea. There are more food courts and cafeterias in the Loop, but some, like the Café 330 in River North, only serve building employees with an ID.
If you don’t have access to the new wave of cafeterias, you can still enjoy the old-school steam-table experience at Manny’s Deli (1141 South Jefferson), which offers standbys like beef stew, meatloaf, and mac and cheese. Manny’s is best known for its Jewish-inspired fare, like corned beef, pastrami, gefilte fish, lox and bagels, matzo ball soup and potato knish, as well as a frequent photo op for politicians hoping to come off as regular people. The a la carte menu, however, is more stockbroker- than retail-worker-friendly.
For a similar meal of meat loaf, corned beef, short ribs, halibut or roast chicken with two giant sides for under eleven dollars, Valois (1518 East 53rd) is the place to go. Opened in 1921 by French Canadian William Valois (pronounced va-loys by locals), it is Chicago’s oldest cafeteria. Located in the Hyde Park neighborhood, its patrons may be the most diverse in the city. It has long been a meeting place for students and faculty from the nearby University of Chicago, and former Mayor Harold Washington sometimes ate there twice a day. Valois is best known for its breakfasts, including omelets, hash browns and meat with portions large enough to require three separate plates, all for about ten bucks. These low prices kept a young community organizer named Barack Obama fed in the 1990s. President Obama returned the favor by dining at Valois before giving his final address as President on January 10, 2017. Six years later customers are still greeted by a large sign in front of the steam table that reads, “President Obama’s Breakfast Favorites” which include N.Y. Steak and Eggs, The Steak Omelet, a Mediterranean All-Veggie Omelet and the Egg White Omelet.
So, grab a tray and get in line knowing you can now dine on halibut, kale salads or sushi, instead of your high school’s breaded filet of fish, mac and cheese and pizza squares.