Don’t let the name throw you off. Steep Cafe is a cafe in the same metaphorical sense that Whole Foods is a market. If you’re looking for a place to snuggle on a sofa with 2000s pop rock playing in the background, leave the scooter at home and go to The Acorn. Steep is a full-scale cafeteria that, like The Bow Wow, accepts meal swipes in exchange for prepackaged items. The “cafe” provides sandwiches, salads and baked goods so that students running between chemistry sections don’t have to trek back to the Schwarzman Center for a meal. As a Branford-based humanities major, I usually ignore Science Hill and let it ignore me back. However, the pull of hunger is strong. Two weeks ago, I finally visited Steep and discovered Yale’s most uniquely unremarkable dining option.
The Yale Science Building forms part of a quad with a distinctly collegiate but modern style: the dress code is red brick and glass, and everybody shows up in uniform. Walk inside past the perfectly rectangular shrubs, and you suddenly enter what appears to be an airport lounge. There’s bright Ikea-style furniture and windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. You can imagine the Architectural Digest blurb: “greenspace, natural light, a playful palette, simple yet elegant.” The food is satisfying but predictable: eggplant cutlet sandwiches, chocolate croissants and other Panera Bread staples. My wrap tasted fresh, my cookie was soft and my latte was less bitter than the Blue State Coffee equivalent. Overall, however, Steep initially underwhelmed me. I had walked halfway to Hamden only to find a sterile space that lacked the culinary variety and energy of Commons. But clearly not everyone shared my boredom, and the line to Steep’s cash register rivalled Friday nights on High Street. What was I missing?
One answer is that Steep offers an escape from the stuffiness that pervades the rest of campus. Rather than simply fueling stations for students returning from lecture, most Yale dining halls operate under a pretense of grandeur. There’s elaborately carved woodwork and perhaps a marble fireplace; portraits of Dwight Elihu von Whitney and other New Haven Brahmins cover the walls. Nothing leaves the kitchen without salt, pepper and a suitably exotic adjective — they invite you to dine on Moroccan chickpea salad with forbidden rice. The story is that you’re part of a private club and every mealtime is an event to mix with members.
Most of us enjoy this prototypical Yale pomp, but sometimes we need a break. In the residential colleges, sitting alone is tantamount to social death — don’t we all perform a frantic scan after walking in? The culture of the Yale Science Building’s canteen, by contrast, is relaxed and anonymous. Some students grind on lab reports; others scroll through Twitter or chat together in a corner. If Steep seems generic, it’s only part of the charm: there might not be any forbidden rice here, but at least the ghosts of Yale past aren’t glaring at your sweatpants.