Anyway there's a full-blown fancy restaurant in the center called Terra Fresca, open for lunch, with a surprisingly affordable menu. It welcomes students - and best of all, it also takes flexi-dollars (prepaid credit for non-dining hall food on campus). And they really do the whole thing - bring you bread and oil, ask if you'd like dessert/coffee after the meal, and they even have a selection of wines.
So for lunch I had a grilled calamari steak sandwich with some lightly peppered bacon on sourdough. Calamari steak! I didn't even know that existed. And the thing was only 7 bucks. That's about the average price of a meal in the dining hall, and when you're in the dining hall you don't know what you're going to get but it's usually some popcorn chicken in some culturally ambiguous sauce. And this sandwich at Terra Fresca was quite tasty and filling. It also came with a cup of caramelized onion and potato soup, which, although a bit bland, was leaps and bounds ahead of any dining hall soup.
It's really quite odd that this sort of place exists and isn't as well-known, especially given the prices. The staff is courteous, the ambience is great, and the food is on par with any other sit-down restaurant. I'd think the reason people don't go here more often is because it might take more time to sit down and eat there... or because they have limited flexi-dollars they decide not to go there at all. Or it might be that it'd be seen as ritzy and haughty and people don't want to do that.
And that's sort of what's interesting to me. When I sat down and had this meal I was giving it my best in terms of manners and politeness - stuff I learned from previous experiences at fancy restaurants. I know that a lot of people frown at restaurants like these and they'd really rather just pay less, fill up, and get out, but since this place is so cheap I'd think of it as nice practice for future dining endeavors. But still I felt as if I was upper-class and priveleged, as if none of the other students who go here could do what I was doing just then - and then I realized, well, I'm on a UC campus. I'm paying a butt-load of money a year to go here. I am priveleged.
But still if you haven't heard about it before I suggest going. They've got some really nice dishes and especially if you're on some sort of numbered meal plan (you can pay with those too) I suggest trying it out. Go with friends, though - I went by myself because I had some free time and thought I might as well go upstairs to a fancier place than the dining hall since I had the flexis - but of course this is the sort of place where you sit down and dine with friends. (Or coworkers.)
P.S. they don't want you to tip! That's saving a dollar or two.