Chateaubriand for two served by candlelight, with fresh flowers on the table and classical music in the background--University of Illinois students discover even a dormitory dining room can be elegant.
Each week, they scramble for reservations and a chance to sample international gourmet foods at bargain prices in this tiny and unusual restaurant in Allen Hall.
"What a way to end the week," one guest wrote on the comment card. "The food was excellent, the service was impeccable and the ambiance was delightful." Another said Reservations Only "is a nice place to have for poor college students."
On a typical Friday night, diners might select the Chinese shiu-bow appetizer, steamed buns stuffed with pork, egg and sausage in oyster sauce; an orange and jicama salad; pears with grated cheese, topped with a raspberry; a spicy African chicken groundnut stew; carrots and grapes sauteed in butter with a sweetened vodka sauce; crepes suzette; and a beverage.
The check: $4.50 plus a punch of their meal ticket (worth about $1.10).
Reservations Only is the creation of Maria Ramos, director of residence hall food service on this campus of more than 30,000 students. She wanted to provide an intimate atmosphere for them to experience gourmet dining.
Ramos also wanted a place where she and a few colleagues could get away from their administrative chores and do what they enjoy the most.
"We thought it would be really fun once a week to run a real restaurant-- haute cuisine, " said Ramos, who creates a new menu each week and prepares the entrees and desserts. "It is a creative effort that appeals to our interests."
It is a labor of love for them. Only the students who work in the dining room are paid. But they share the same enthusiasm for Reservations Only, which opened in November 1984.
"I really enjoy this--they come for a nice quiet meal, dressed like you would for a fine restaurant," said waiter Bill Bila, a law student.
The restaurant is open on Friday night and only about 75 people can be served. Students get first priority, and about 50 are on the waiting list each week.
Surprised by What They Find
Most students arrive in coats and ties or dresses, and often they are surprised by what they find.
"I had heard good things about Reservations Only but I was really impressed when I walked through the door," said Michael Mrazek, a senior. "I didn't expect this. "
The dining room is finished with fine wood paneling, brass trim and carpet. There are linens and miniature carnations on each table. The butter is arranged on plates in delicate swirls. Sparkling grape juice is served in tulip-shaped glasses. The menu describes a generous assortment of selections.
"Most of them are kind of inventions," said Ramos, who has perfected her cooking techniques in 20 years at the university. "I recollect how things taste and then I combine ingredients the best way I can."
Everything is made from scratch, from the "best sourdough bread in town to the marbled melon sherbet," said Ramos.
Still, she said there are a few ordinary items (pork chops and sole) on the menu "for those who aren't very adventuresome," including "appetizers I wouldn't order." But those nachos and the fried cheese and vegetables are popular among students.
Most are willing to try new things and learn, said Ramos, though one comment card asked, "What are veal sweetbreads?"