At 6 p.m., the height of the dinner rush, the Broadway restaurant strip is the place to see and be seen — especially for the a cappella community.
Last Tuesday, inside a packed Au Bon Pain, where the line just to pick up orders is over 20 students long, four girls sporting identical Something Extra T-shirts finish their dinners with freshmen hoping to join the group. Four other members wait for more prospective singers just outside the glass doors. An Out of the Blue contingent picks over the salad bar offerings at Gourmet Heaven alongside two members of Mixed Company. A few Proof of the Pudding members finish their fries at A-One Pizza on Broadway and then exit onto the street where one member of Proof recognizes a friend in Mixed Company and stops to chat.
Meanwhile, one girl in Something Extra leans over and tells a friend she meets outside Au Bon Pain, “Look at the social circle on this corner. I know everyone here.”
Indeed, they have arrived. It is mid-September and so, predictably, Yale’s a cappella subculture has descended upon campus for the hectic three weeks known as rush. In the process, each year Yale’s singing elite — and the mass of freshmen who aspire to join their ranks — take over the dining halls to participate in the a cappella mating ritual known as the “rush meal” in a mutual attempt to woo each other.
But this year, with locals 34 and 35 on strike indefinitely, there are no dining halls to take over, so the groups commandeer local restaurants, coffee shops and street corners.
The goal of the rush meal is for both parties to get to know one another, members have said. For some groups, the rush meal helps determine if an aspiring singer will be a good social match. For freshmen, the rush meal may be a chance to make up for a shaky audition with a sparkling personality or to ask questions about the group.
But as news of the impending strike leaked out to the students over the summer, the prospect of indefinitely closed dining halls threatened the very foundations of the rush meal tradition and left Yale’s singing elite in a pitch-perfect panic.
“When I heard about the strike, my only thought was, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do about rush meals?'” said Elisabeth Schneider ’06, one of the rush managers for Red Hot and Blue.
The Singing Group Council, a student body that oversees the rush process, debated its options, including the possibility of eliminating rush meals altogether. But the Council opted to do what they could to keep the idea of rush meals intact, issuing a list of 22 authorized off-campus locations where rush meals could take place. The contingency policy is a departure from standard rush rules, which forbid singing group members from sitting with rushees at off-campus eating establishments.
The decision of which eateries to include on the allowed list — which includes locations like Gourmet Heaven, Naples, Claire’s Corner Copia, Tandoor and Mexicali Grille — was based on location and price.
“We tried to pick places that were familiar to most students and places the freshmen would have been discovering anyway, so hopefully we’ll help them get acclimated to New Haven a little,” said Amy Zinser ’04, a member of the Singing Group Council.
Eric Kubo ’07 said rush has introduced him to a wide variety of local eateries.
“I probably never would have gone into Koffee, Too? because I don’t like coffee and I’d figured it’s a Starbucks analog,” he said. “But they had food and it looked like good food.”
While Kubo chatted with Red Hot and Blue at Koffee, Too? and sipped his Diet Coke, he noticed the coffee shop served hummus. Kubo said went back that same night to order the hummus for dinner, but found that the restaurant had already run out. He said he plans to return another time.
But he may not make it back anytime soon. Currently, Kubo, who is rushing 12 different a cappella groups, has a packed schedule. Kubo went on 12 rush meals last week and has another six to attend before this week is over.
“I think I’m rushing the most groups of anyone ever. It’s a little bit hectic,” he said.
And a little expensive. The Singing Group Council decided to uphold the pre-existing rule that forbids singing group members from buying rushees presents or food, so freshmen are responsible for the cost of their own rush meals. While many freshmen have opted to get meal rebate checks rather than continue to eat at Commons, Kubo did not request a rebate.
“I forgot,” he admitted.
Kubo estimated he has spent an average of $10 a day for rush meals, in addition to the money he paid for the 21-meal plan at Commons.
Still, not every group is offering a veritable dining tour of New Haven. Out of the Blue members ask their rushees to bring their own meal or snack and eat with them in residential college courtyards or dining halls. Emily Piacenza ’04, one of the group’s rush managers, said Out of the Blue members felt uncomfortable asking rushees to spend their money at specific establishments.
“You don’t want to force people you don’t know to spend money they might not be spending,” she said, “Rush shouldn’t cost anything.”
The group, like many others, is also taking advantage of the free breakfasts and dinners offered in the residential college dining halls. But the atmosphere is hardly the same frenetic one that characterized the rush meals of old, Piacenza said. When she had a rush meal in Silliman College, she said the only other people in the dining hall were three freshmen and six upperclassmen — all on rush meals.
“It was so weird,” she said. “You could hear everything everyone was saying. If my rush meal had a moment of silence because everyone was swallowing, the other rush meals feel awkward because they’re the only noise in the room.”
Some freshmen said they lamented the missed opportunity to experience rush in its traditional form and the chance to discover the various residential college dining halls. Current group members concurred that rush has lost some of the cohesive campus feel it used to have.
“It would be nice to have the dining halls because then we run into the freshmen more and get to interact and be friendly with them on a day-to-day basis,” Zinser said.
But for the a cappella community, the strike has resulted in some pleasant surprises — including those that have strengthened the very interactions the council feared would be disrupted. The new rush meal process created the opportunity for more relaxed meals as groups share take-out in residential college courtyards, at picnic tables, and on benches on Old Campus, Schneider said. And the very disruption of the strike itself has provided a common experience that has changed the tone of the meals, Piacenza said.
“More conversations are starting with, ‘How are you doing?'” she said. “Not only is there all this a cappella madness, but classes are disrupted and you’re a freshman and you just got here and you can’t eat in your own dining hall. It’s been a bonding experience.”
With a week of rush meals completed and more than a week remaining, most students agreed that chatting about siblings and hometowns and high schools is the same whether it is over a tray of chicken tempura and Montreal steak in the dining hall or over a bag of Pirate’s Booty and Muscat Gummies at Gourmet Heaven.
“Rushees generally end up where they fit in best,” Schneider said. “What you eat and where you eat it isn’t going to affect who you decide to sing with.”