Jessai Flores

It is hard to see why Schwarzman Center is anything special. It houses Woolsey Hall, and if you did not know any better, it is Woolsey Hall. In fact, I never set foot inside of the edifice before because I believed that it was another stuffy, old building with the same copy-paste upper crust personality that all the buildings at Yale share. I also say this as someone who hates leaving his residential college for anything other than class because why would I go out of my way to a library when I can just study from my room? Regardless, when I was selected by Wknd’s editors to go and review Yale’s newest student dining options, The Ivy and the Elm, it was the first time I ever entered the Schwarzman Center. The building prides itself on embodying the possibilities of a modern Yale, and this vision extends to their design and dining options.

For the unfamiliar, getting to the Underground, where the student bar and café sit, is an entirely different journey. The Schwarzman Center is a labyrinth of undecorated beige walls and orb-like light fixtures, and there is not a sign in sight. I was eventually pointed in the right direction by a staff member who saw me walking in circles. When I finally made it to the cafe, it was as if I had stepped into another world. Gone were the elaborate chandeliers, indulgent brickwork and antique furniture of other Yale buildings. In its place was an array of steel, wooden panels, colorful tiles, glass and granite floors. The Elm and the Ivy are so uncharacteristic of Yale’s typical design that they look like they were plucked from some other college campus or from an airport café. In fact, I used to take classes at the University of Texas at Arlington, and you could switch their cafeteria with the Underground, and I would not be able to tell the difference. It is hard to put to words just how jarring it is to step out of a world of collegiate gothic architecture and into a place that looks like any other cafeteria. The only reminders that you are still at Yale are the many television screens coaxing you to break bread and the little blue Ys printed on the parchment paper their food is served on.

The Ivy’s selection of food is limited to chicken bites tossed in your choice of sauce, French fries, mini sliders and tacos. The menu is a lot like a buttery’s menu but cooked by professionals and much more expensive. You can use your dining hall swipes at the Ivy’s automatic clerk machines, but the Ivy is open so late that you could swipe at a residential college earlier in the day and then pay out of pocket later at night. The premise is simple: tap to order, swipe your card, get your order number and go. I ordered the chicken bites tossed in Gochujang sauce and a side of fries. Together, with no drink, it was $13, which would be okay if the portions were bigger. They gave me a good number of French fries but just a meager six or seven small chicken pieces. I will admit that I paid more attention to eating the chicken than counting it, but it was still very little chicken. For comparison, for five dollars more, you could get a chicken tender combo at Haven Hot Chicken or, for three dollars more, you could get a ‘shroom burger with fries and a large soda at Shake Shack.

Price aside, the food was good. Not overly spectacular but not terrible. The fries were nicely salted, thinly cut potato wedges akin to those you would get at an upscale steakhouse. They came with a cup of ketchup and in a little metal serving tray. If you feel like they may be too plain for your taste, you could add chili to them … for an extra $4. If you do not feel like spending $8 on chili fries, then stick to the plain ones. The chicken was tasty, well-seasoned and delightfully crunchy. It came with ranch, pickle slices and a tiny lime wedge, which I assume makes up about 25 percent of how much the plate costs. That lime wedge must cost at least three dollars. Jokes aside, the chicken’s texture and taste strongly resembles Yale Dining’s General Tso’s chicken but with a bit more kick. Personally, I prefer my chicken so hot that it makes you cry. Nevertheless, the Ivy’s chicken should be spicy enough for most Yale students. The ranch, I believe, is truly the pearl of the dish, and it’s just regular ranch with herbs. Ultimately, the Ivy is standard Yale Dining fare but at a high price point.

I limited my exploration to food and did not test out the Well, Yale’s first official student bar, for two main reasons. First, I do not drink — I think it tastes gross, sorry. Second, the Well is open at odd hours. Who would want to drink on a Thursday afternoon? Not me. I did catch a glimpse of the Well from behind locked doors and it looks like a nice place to hang out with friends who are of legal drinking age. I find the concept of the Well so interesting. It is an established location at Yale where you can buy and drink alcohol, and no one will look at you funny. Getting a drink at the Well will eventually become a Yale coming-of-age ceremony. As freshmen turn twenty-one, they will no longer need to sneak swigs of stuff from under their deans’ noses. To step into the Well will be to step into adulthood.

Think of the Underground as a shopping mall food court designed to look like a hospital cafeteria. It is cozy but not cozy enough that you would want to stay there long. Even the patterns of the woodwork, wave-like arches in the ceiling and chevron on the walls, seem to dress the space in an air of urgency. It is the first place I have been to at Yale that appears to be designed to get people to move in and out, like a dining hall that has been plastered over with large tiles in neutral tones. The food may taste and look like it came from a dining hall, but eating it here is different. This place screams something that Yale often hesitates to embrace: progress. Schwarzman Center is a daring step towards a newer, modernized Yale. From its automated clerks to its steel and wood interior, it is clear that from within its stoic and intimidating facade, this place is screaming new, new, new! Whether or not you choose to give in to this nascent idea of what Yale could be, a place at once prestigious but also as inconspicuous as any other place, any other cafeteria or campus, is completely up to you.