Talking Taste: Lancaster University’s On-Campus Eateries

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There are 20 places to eat on campus, and, to me, that’s 20 ways you might end up wasting your money. To this end, I threw any idea of a diet out the window, donned my bib, withdrew more fivers than I wish to remember, and went to work reviewing each place. What follows is my findings, and serves as the absolute compendium of Lancaster University’s food offerings split into assumed lunch and tea/dinner categories.

Lunch

Café 21 – GOLD AWARDED

Café 21 sits on the top floor of InfoLab and is one of the most pleasant surprises Lancaster University’s catering has to offer. It has a lovely balcony area where you can relax and enjoy your food when it’s sunny, and the light that beams in from every direction makes the large space feel deceptively cosy and warm even on wintery days.

I popped in and had the lemon chicken with Lyonnaise potatoes and green beans. The chef had cooked the chicken perfectly, and I wish I could have gone into the kitchen to ask how he’d done it. The onion accompanying the potatoes provided the necessary savoury grounding to the sweet lemon zing, demonstrating the chef’s obvious ability to build a delicious plate of food. My only downer was on the green beans as they were watery, but this seems to be a pandemic problem across campus anyway, so I let it slide on the strength of the rest of the dish.

The taste of InfoLab comes at an extra price of about £1 more per meal than other places, but the quality is worth it. This should be your definitive lunchtime destination.

Bowland Deli Bar – SILVER AWARDED

Every other college should envy what Bowland has. Its Deli Bar is in a snug corner area next to the bar and fosters a comfortable atmosphere complete with relaxing leather sofas. Their unique selling point is a hot roast sandwich carved whilst you wait, and it is with that in mind that I pootled in one grim Monday afternoon.

The chirpy cashier that served me was the first thing to cheer me up, and the pleasant bit of theatre that followed whilst she did indeed carve the meat whilst I waited was strangely pride-inducing, like I’d just given her the break she needed in her acting career. I don’t know, that’s probably just me, but I appreciated the touch of seeing a genuine bit of well cooked ham in front of me rather than that weird 32% maybe-meat crap that you get in pre-made sandwiches. My roll had a generous amount of filling, and I was very pleased with how generally right and tasty everything was. I managed to find a crown jewel in a trough.

The Foodworks – BRONZE AWARDED

Straight off the bat – The Foodworks is excellent. It’s easily the best place to eat on campus. No contest, in fact. Situated in the elegance of the Lancaster House Hotel, it oozes style, and the chefs have a blatant and intrinsic knowledge of food and how to make you want to get fat on it. The service is a demonstration in waiting perfection, and my waitress Kath Pennington deserves recognition for this.

So, why’s it not got gold? And why is it not more suited to the tea/dinner category? Well, regrettably, The Foodworks has a price point to match its excellence, and the cheapest option comes in at £11.50 for a two-course lunch from the deli table. This is by no means a compromise – no, the deli table has a fine sample of options (unless you’re vegetarian unfortunately) of cold cuts of local meat, fish, and salad for a starter, an interesting and varied selection of mains, and cute, delectable sponge cake puddings. The cold cuts were not merely a few bits of ham, but slices of authentic chorizo and salami, and the main dishes had surprises in store such as the black bean chicken made by coating the bird rather than putting it with a sauce. There wasn’t a single mistake on the counter.

In saying this, though, I simply cannot in all good faith as a critic recommend an £11.50 lunch as the best option in a student newspaper. While the hotel’s Unite card offers discounts of up to 50% off, it is ‘only’ at 10% as a standard, which doesn’t help that much. However! If you have the money, or if you want to celebrate a good coursework mark or the like in a small but worthy way, go here for lunch. It is the undisputed best eatery on campus.

Private Dining Rooms

The Private Dining Rooms are a disgrace. They serve excellent food, it costs just £7 for a wonderful three-course meal, and it’s disgraceful.

Why? Because it’s a staff only venue, and the reason given for this is that staff may want their private space where they can get away for a bit. That’s fine, but otherwise there is absolutely no reason as to why they get such better quality of food compared to students. This is especially galling considering the Private Dining Rooms share a kitchen with the abysmal Café Twenty Ten and is overseen by the same head chef.

I would happily and immediately give the Private Dining Rooms a gold award if they would let me eat there without having to ask the LUSU President to accompany me for lunch. Amusingly, despite staff allegedly wanting to get away to avoid being disturbed, Mr Pickles was interrupted a couple of times by other staff for a quick chat. Perhaps they just need to get away from us dreadful peons?

This is a public address to Lancaster University’s Hospitality Division: please let me savour once again the succulent king prawns sautéed in garlic butter. Let me devour your sugar baked gammon cooked just right. Give my student brethren and me the chance to relish in the sweet-but-not-tangy raspberry roulade.

Give me the chance to eat great food at reasonable prices.

Greggs

I’m sure many reading this will already know who, what, and where Greggs is, and how it offers a multitude of yummy pastries, but, for the sake of completion, it should be counted.

As you’d expect from a chain store that produces its foods on a mass scale, everything is identical every time you taste, is always the way you like it, and offers no (good or bad) taste surprises.

The exception to this rule is when Greggs notably step up their game during holiday seasons, and their Christmas menu is especially something to look forward to (or back on). Otherwise, their standard fare lacks the delicious imagination they can demonstrate so easily. Take, for example, their Christmas Brie and cranberry bake. It mouthwatering goodness in four increasingly large bites. They could bring out something similar at other times, perhaps using Camembert and another fruit. C’mon Greggs, I know you can do it.

Like most people, though, I still enjoy their usuals, and Greggs serves them up well and quickly to the always out-the-door-queue. You’ll have to wait a bit, but you’ll be glad you did.

Diggles

Diggles is adaptive to its audience’s demand, which is only ever going to be a good thing. Their winter customers will want pastries and hot baps, which they serve up to opposing degrees of success. Their sausage rolls, for example, are cheaper than Greggs and are disarmingly sweet thanks to their glazing. This is originally confusing, but it leaves you with a moreish aftertaste and an appreciation for the difference. An egg and bacon bap costs you £2.64, and, even if the ingredients are fresh, it’s not a noticeably remarkable difference; also, considering the size, the price makes it difficult to recommend Diggles for anything more than passing business.

In summer, many will undoubtedly queue out the door for some of their weather capitalizing smoothies and milkshakes, once more to varying degrees of success. The smoothies are strong and flavourful, but the milkshakes pretty much taste the same unless you use a chocolate bar with a plentiful filling. Nobody will be able to tell the difference between a KitKat Chunky and a Dime Bar shake, so it’s often worth lumping for any special offer they may have on at the time. This mantra applies across the board.

The Venue

The homey décor at The Venue is immediately comfortable, helped along by appreciable touches such as its bunched up curtains and free newspapers kindly left for you (something overlooked by almost everywhere else).

I only had to wait a short while for service even at a peak time, but considering the half-asleep husk I was greeted by I would have rather waited longer. He took my order incorrectly, which, considering I can write the entirety of their overly simple menu on my hand, was an annoyance to say the least. However, I was more amused than annoyed thanks to the waitress who operatically sings your order number.

I found the chicken and bacon filling to be nicely creamy; it coated and cooled my mouth soothingly against the steaming hot potato. The side salad was fresh and had peppers in, a detail that, again, was appreciated because you don’t see it too often. Nevertheless, I couldn’t get over the fact I’d just paid over £3 for a potato when I can get them cheaper elsewhere on campus, or get four for £1 in Sainsbury’s and do it myself.

There’s an obvious care to The Venue that others can learn from; I just wish they had a more appealing menu to draw me in oftener.

Grab & Go at Fylde Bar

I never thought I’d find a crab mayonnaise filling at a university that wasn’t Cambridge, let alone at the Grab & Go in Fylde’s bar. I was very excited to try it, as I’ve always viewed crab as a sweet and creamy delicacy reserved for holidays abroad. It was a shame, then, that the crab was grated to shards less than the size of a blade of grass and mixed into a vat of mayonnaise. I got the sweetness and the creaminess, but there was no ‘taste of the sea’, and the mayonnaise made the filling so strong I felt like a hungover Spongebob Squarepants. There really needs to be a yin to the mayo’s gigantic yang (careful how you read that).

I also tried a toasted chicken tikka Panini, but the bread didn’t seem particularly fresh and the filling was mild even for a spice-a-phobe like me. However, the salad included beetroot and a black olive, and brought a touch of class and originality to the proceedings that genuinely put a smile on my face.

The Grab & Go tries to bring ingredients that students would never otherwise dream of buying to the forefront of the counter in an effort to show that they serve fine food. In practice, they don’t, but the effort is definitely admirable.

County Diner

As much as I might dislike to say it, County Diner is the best place on campus to grab a cheeseburger. It is the antithesis of Wibbly Wobbly where they admire fresh tasting produce and a high price, County will have you buy a very cheap (£1.90) burger that has a taste reminiscent of meat rather than being particularly flavourful. However, as I say in their respective reviews, Wibs’ prices are simply too high, and Sultans’ and Pizzetta’s burgers are too plain. This makes County’s burgers the best by default. It lacks the accompanying salad that others offer, but, at the same time, one must wonder if that’s really worth the 70p extra.

A huge plus at the Diner is the staff’s sheer efficiency of service. Five staff manage to squeeze into their cupboard of a kitchen, and they are the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a well-oiled machine. They’re also very kind and understanding, and offered a poor soul who dropped his burger on the floor a free replacement when I was there. Bless.

HUB Café

I take quite a dim and uneducated view of the Management School. Students enter, aged 18, study all sorts of ‘exciting’ Business Things (some modules even include graphs) for a few years, and then leave wearing a grey suit, aged 52. If the School is this dull, I wondered, what’s their Hub Café going to be like?

Well, it’s dull. Surprise. I went and ordered a barbecue chicken toastie, but was informed, unusually forcefully by two members of staff in unison, that they couldn’t toast that. Why not? I can get a chicken tikka Panini toasted a few steps away in Fylde. This is barbecue chicken, folks, it’s supposed to be hot. Still, I didn’t argue about it just in case I got fired and sent home in a taxi, and got a jacket potato with it instead. The potato was fine much like everywhere else, but the steaming hot temperature of the jacket overpowered the cold filling and I never really got to savour it. Instead, it just turned out to be a bit of creamy beige stuff.

The waiter took my plate away and asked me how it was. I said it was just okay, to which he replied that just okay was fine for him. It’s not. The irony of the statement being said in a Management School, where young entrepreneurs are trained to craft excellent businesses, filled me to bloated, so I put on my coat to leave and I will never return.

SPAR

I’ve had bad experiences with SPAR in the past, so I approached this review with a great amount of hesitation. I can never decide whether the SPAR caterers are crafty or just careless, as, in the past, I’ve been overcharged for baguettes, fobbed off with smaller sizes of bread and charged for the size I actually asked for, and had a plaster left in the middle of one particularly memorable chicken caesar salad offering.

Nevertheless, I fearlessly went in for a hot lunch and chose the roast meat of the day. What I actually got was a lukewarm lunch, and, by the time I got it back to my flat, a stone cold offering that had gravy with it. I wouldn’t dare eat it anywhere else, as the internationally reviled plastic cutlery they provide is about as useful as a paper bathtub. Also, they traditionally overcharged me, so I had to ask for a new price sticker before I went to pay.

So, as SPAR was off to a fantastic start, I couldn’t wait to actually sit down and taste my purchase. Thank the heavens, the food wasn’t bad, but that’s hardly a praiseworthy statement. The meat didn’t seem too fresh, and, I’m not sure if SPAR has Irish roots, but they gave me no less than three types of potato. Even for a spud-loving freak such as myself, it was a carbohydrate overload, and a vegetable replacement would have been welcomed.

Writing this review has helped me make up my mind that SPAR are just careless with their food, depressingly fixed into a routine of preparing a set menu that produces hateful servings.

Grizedale Bar – WOODEN SPOON AWARDED

It’s only right that I preface this review with the news that the barman told me after I didn’t enjoy my lunch. Soon, although he couldn’t tell me a date, Grizedale Bar will be reinventing their lunch menu and getting their own fillings to serve instead of reheating the packaged crap they currently dole out. This review was written before these changes (if they are indeed ever made) were brought in.

So then. You’ll know already where they’re going wrong. My reheated egg, bacon, and sausage ciabatta was flavoured well with pepper (gasp) but that’s the only thing that was right with it. The bread was like cardboard, there was very little egg, the bacon was the fatty rather than flavourful kind of streaky, and there were only three bloody 1p-sized bits of sausage in the entire thing. A side salad comprising three leaves that were wilted and traumatized ‘accompanied’ the sandwich. I felt utterly ripped off.

Let’s hope Grizedale gets these promised changes soon and they get better because of it. Until then, they get the wooden spoon award, with which they can use to bash open some more abysmal reheatable sandwich packets.

Tea/Dinner

Atkinson’s Fish and Chip Shop – GOLD AWARDED

You’d be forgiven for not knowing there was a fish and chip shop on campus, what with it being squirreled away in a corner and utterly dwarfed by Pizzetta’s presence. It really is a tiny building, and a strictly takeout-only affair.

It’s comforting to be able to grab the most English of takeaways, and the regular staff are very friendly and happy to serve to your tastes regarding more or less condiments. Otherwise, this is very much as you’d expect to find it. The fish is well battered and does away with those horrible over-crunchy bits you can sometimes get at either end, and the chips are soft and greasy, filling a hole the way only chippy chips can. The prices are ridiculous for good reasons; they’re so cheap you might even be able to trade them for poetry.

There are some bizarre occasions during their last hour of business when they’ll have run out of fish (making them an “‘n’ chip shop”), and, in general, their opening hours can cause confusion as they are open on one day one week, but not the same day next week.

However, if you can find it and get in, this is one of the most recommendable places on campus.

Wong’s Chinese Restaurant – SILVER AWARDED

There’s a sign near the till of Wong’s Chinese Restaurant that says “we serve good food, not fast food”. It made me chuckle nervously to myself, but I was off with my takeaway well inside a decent twenty-minute timeframe.

I usually use Wok Express to fulfil my Chinese cravings, and for all intents and purposes they do an alright job of it, so when I broke tradition to review Wong’s I was curious to see whether their higher prices would really be worth it. They are. I could immediately tell that my king prawn chow mein had been made with much better, fresher, and, most importantly, tastier ingredients than at Wok Express, as the prawns swam on my tongue with a subtle saltiness that made me question if the chef had just fished for them himself. The green peppers also kept their flavour and livened up the already delicious noodles.

The downside came from the Western-influenced sweet and sour chicken balls, which had a far too crispy coating. They took too much forking and had too little chicken inside to be worth the staggering £4.50 I doled out for them. In fairness, Wok Express don’t do these very well either, but that’s at the cost of £2.30.

If you go to Wong’s wanting the more typical Chinese dishes, you won’t be at all disappointed. They have certainly gained a regular with my custom.

Barker House Farm – BRONZE AWARDED

The menu at Cartmel’s Barker House Farm is exactly the type that parents would love to see: a list of classic British dishes that will keep their spawn scurvy free and peppy.

The ever-friendly and genuinely irreplaceable waiting staff brought out my huge helpings quickly. I should note that I’m not greedy, but Barker’s portions are ridiculous. Most meals would satisfy two, and if you dare order nachos, they come to you on a platter. A platter! Good grief.

Barker does huge, hearty food, and it does it to your budget too. The phrase ‘cheap and cheerful’ was invented for places like this, as I had to rely on taste memory to remember what my steak should be like. Don’t get me wrong; it was cooked to my liking, it tasted like meat, but it was extremely greasy and lacked the strength and overall hurrah of a bloody good bit of red meat. The sticky toffee pudding was likewise. It was sticky. It was toffee. And, yes, it was a pudding. But there was no sugar rush, no “mmmm” as the warm cake melted in my mouth and the toffee sauce slid down my throat. No… it was just a bit nutty.

Taking all this into account, if cash is sparse and you are hungry, you could do a lot worse than eat here.

The Sandeman’s Bar

The Sandeman’s Bar, much like The Foodworks, finds itself in sophisticated company by being situated in the Lancaster House Hotel. The difference between the two eateries is that this bar area is designed for a quicker meal, while The Foodworks would gladly have you relax in their all afternoon or evening long. And in this system lies the problem.

Whereas The Foodworks would like to keep you in and offer you discounts on extra courses for doing so, The Sandeman’s Bar is going to make you keep paying full whack every time. It’s not that they don’t deserve your money, because the food and service is on par with perfection, but, on a student budget, it’s too much for too little.

Perhaps if the management could introduce standard offers that don’t rely on a Unite card then The Sandeman’s Bar could become a special destination like its brother across the hall, but, until then, it’s just too expensive.

Wibbly Wobbly

Wibbly Wobbly is a confused venue, and badly tries to straddle the fence between restaurant and takeaway. It takes its main influence from the former with well-sourced ingredients and an effort to make your burger exactly how you like it. However, its worn, uncomfortable décor (it’s probably older than I am) doesn’t make it pleasant to eat in, and the staff annoyingly yell out full orders for customers to come and collect rather than operating a number system or a table waiting service. They do so for the drinks, why not for the food?

Most of the menu is hard to recommend because the taste, while lovely, doesn’t reflect the extortionate pricing of a £3.90 cheeseburger. The specials are what makes Wibbly Wobbly as they have a much more justifiable price point, and are much easier to tell your friends about. I tried the surf ‘n’ turf, an enchanting mix of chicken and scampi that I never would have thought to concoct myself.

I can’t say that Wibbly Wobbly is bad, because it’s not, but I sure can’t say it’s good either. There needs to be some serious decisions made towards direction before their student audience can fully enjoy their offerings.

Sultans

I always enjoy going to Sultans because of the staff. Even if they don’t know you or recognize you as a regular they’ll chat about something or other, but on the flipside if you’re not feeling talkative and sit down to read a magazine they’ll leave you be. It’s just as it should be really, but the amount of places I’ve been to where people try and force a conversation always surprises me.

Sultans is a personal guilty pleasure of mine for on-campus food, and I blame that entirely on their curly fries. No matter what supermarket I buy from, the taste of Sultans’ deep-fried curly fries trumps anything I could go and find elsewhere. It must just be a takeaway thing. I wish I could say the same for their burgers, but, regrettably, they’re as plain as Pizzetta’s offerings, and putting the two together would be the hardest blind taste test ever created. It’s a good job, then, that they have those curly fries served to me with a smile.

Pizzetta

Pizzetta is a difficult place to review, as the majority of people go there to rest and eat after a night out and after having had a fair few drinks. The taste bud numbing alcohol will make anything better than it is normally because you’ll only taste a fraction of it, thus making you want more for a fuller experience. In your hazy state, you’ll confuse wanting more with tasting fantastic. How many times have you gone to Pizzetta while stone cold sober, picked up a margherita pizza, and proclaimed how amazing it is? Yeah. Exactly.

It sounds like I’m setting this review up for a fall, but I’m not; everything at Pizzetta is just so plain. I’ve gone in for a cheeseburger (which at £2.60 is much cheaper than Wibbly Wobbly) and found it to be alright. I’ve gone in for a pizza and found it to be alright.

Its location of being not too far away from any college makes it a good place to go to grab a quick, cheap takeaway if you’re on a coursework deadline, but it never makes you want to go there otherwise. This is nullified by my previous explanation of if you’re drunk, in which case it’ll get the gold award.

Café Twenty Ten – WOODEN SPOON AWARDED

Café Twenty Ten is a new restaurant built in County to be the north campus clone of Barker House Farm.

I went in for a meal and was stared at until I proclaimed that I’d like the beef lasagne. No welcome, no “how are you?”, just blankness. It was worse when I went to pay, as the staff member who should have been manning the till had wandered off.

I did pay my £3.50, and regretted it after a couple of mouthfuls of the heavily cheese-topped lasagne. I took a double take and tore bits apart to check I hadn’t received a vegetarian option, and there was some meat in there, but it was bland and overpowered at every point by the mountainous layer of cheese. My vegetables were awful too, and had obviously been left alone at all stages of cooking as they were completely tasteless, watery, and cold. No wonder people don’t eat their vegetables. The stupid picnic benches they have in there which make it impossible to sit and eat comfortably helped none of this.

Café Twenty Ten need to buck up and introduce a tastier, regular menu akin to Barker in order to achieve success. Until that happens, they can have the wooden spoon award for worst in the tea/dinner category. Perhaps they can use it to cook better things with?

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2 Comments

  1. I disagree with the Wibbly Wobbly review. The ingredients are completely locally sourced (hell, the menu shows you exactly where everything comes from) and the pricing reflects that.

    I’m not going to deny it would be hard to afford it every single day, but as an occasional once a week treat, I (and most of my mates) find the pricing fine for the quality you get.

  2. Absolutely spot on with the Foodworks. It literary is a hidden gem of campus. It’s great if you want to have a lunch meeting with member’s of staff or potential employers as well. In fact I’m off there today!

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