Edible Underworld 

Eat like the Class of 2009 at the next generation of cafeterias.

Driving down Main Street, I've noticed that life is once again flowing through the veins of the town's avenues in the form of robust, healthy college kids. I don't remember being that ... effervescent, so I caught myself asking myself, "What the hell are they feeding these kids?" And for the sake of the fat bastardry of America, I decided to go to the source and find out.

Walking into the glossy gastronomy of Market 810 in Virginia Commonwealth University's Shafer Court Dining Center, I realized the days of the Eastern European lunch lady glaring at you over the hairy hemisphere of a largish mole on her cheek are over. Almost a year old, Shafer Court is the next generation of cafeterias, an $18 million marvel of stainless steel, open-air food-prep stations, composite-stone surfaces and flat-screen TVs. Even the elevator still has that new-car smell.

For students, meal plans range from $185 to $1,570 for the whole package, including Dining Dollars that get you chow from the retail stations downstairs and around campus: Sbarro, Biscotti's, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A. For cretinous nonstudents like myself, give the cashier at Market 810 upstairs $7.55 (including tax), and you're let loose in a wonderland of culinary possibility. I bounced around like a pinball.

There's a whole vegan food station, right at the front. Vegetables and tofu find romance on the grill. Two kinds of hummus, marinara and pesto, were delicious. The salads were standard but fresh. A bean and bacon soup would've been better without the bacon, but still hit it. I had to go with my own college standards: pizza (made fresh in two brick ovens and as light and crisp as you please) and something greasy, in this case a wonderful bratwurst, and onion rings that held together well.

I had to rest from exertion. The Mongolian stir-fry bar had a line and the taco bar was doing good business, but I was relieved to see that kids still eat cereal dispensed from clear space-age bins for lunch. All this is included in the cost of admission, but for another swipe of the meal card (or a few bucks more), you can get at something they call Upper Cuts, a higher-level menu that includes the sushi bar (they're everywhere now; Japan must be running out of rice) and rotating options like baby back ribs or ... wait for it ... lobster tail.

I looked around at the bustle of students, rubbing my belly where someday, with a lot of work — and a lot of heart! — I may have a gastric bypass scar. Supposedly, the word around Market 810 is that the Freshman 15 is now the Freshman 40. Food-service conglom Aramark has responded to the call for healthier and better food; but while tofu cubes and stir-fry dot the landscape, it's safe to say the pizza ovens won't cool anytime soon.

The cafeteria's a pretty good emblem of America: total abundance in the hands of people with questionable self-control. Will these kids be smarter? We'll see what decisions this generation makes. In the meantime, anyone with a taste for variety stands to benefit from this stainless-steel cornucopia. — Brandon Reynolds

Market 810, VCU's upstairs restaurant, is located in the Shafer Court Dining Center and open to the public Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-midnight; Friday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; and Saturday-Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Lunch and dinner for nonstudents is $7.55 with tax, plus $4-$8 for the Upper Cuts menu. 810 Cathedral Place. 828-1148.

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