Here’s go-to article for recommendations, tips, and general advice about your main source of food for the next four years.

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As you’ll find out, Columbia is a small campus, but it’s got a lot of mouths to feed.

From cafés, to dining halls, to sandwich shops, to grab-n-go stations, to whatever new format of dining gets invented to stop students from hogging up all the seats in Ferris, Columbia University has an entire network of food services to hopefully fulfill everyone’s alimentary needs.

However, much like the libraries on campus, all the different dining halls the CU Dining network have both unique qualities and many similarities. So, how do the students pick between all these options every day?

Well, luckily for you, here’s a guide to the basics of CU Dining!

General Advice:

  • All four undergraduate colleges can go to any dining hall, so long as the dining hall is open. This means Barnard students can go to JJs, and CC/SEAS/GS students can go to Diana. Go to them.
  • Try to vary your options throughout the day: you may have a favorite dining hall that serves lunch and dinner, but the chances they actually serve different entrées at those times are slim. Unless you really vibe with the Ferris quesadillas and want them twice a day, don’t go to the same dining hall twice in one day.
  • Columbia Dining posts the menus online everyday so that you can check out your options before swiping in. Barnard does the same as well, though it’s not as straightforward.
  • If you run out of meal swipes for the week, try using your dining dollars, Flex dollars, or, if you’re left with no choice, your credit card at any of the Columbia dining halls. These are all acceptable forms of payment and will cover your meal.

John Jay

John Jay is a buffet-style dining hall located on the first floor of the residential building of the same name. It’s the oldest dining hall on campus, and arguably the nicest one décor-wise, if you’re a fan of wood paneling. It’s got big dining hall tables meant for many parties to share, and they’re the only dining hall with chairs that have arm rests. Also, it’s got a conveyor belt where you can put all your used dishes and silverware.

John Jay is open Sunday through Thursday, from 9:30 am to 9 pm. They switch from the breakfast menu to the daily menu at 11 am, but they’re not the strictest at enforcing those times. In other words, if you already see lunch options being served and it’s 10:57 am, no one will call you out for getting it.

The best time to eat at John Jay is when no one is there; the chairs take up way too much space in the room, so it’s an illusion to think there’ll be space for you and your friends. Typically, breakfast time always has space, especially right around 10am since most people are in class by then. Try to get either late lunches or early dinners to avoid the post-5:25pm crowd, or get late dinners close to closing time. That is a risk, however, because by that time most of the food will be gone, and people tend to stay longer in the dining halls at dinner than at other times.

Typically, the best menus at John Jay are the breakfast and dinner menus. I’d say John Jay has the best breakfast options in general: it has a pretty decent bagel/toast section, good pastries, alright coffee (hint for alternative milk people: the fridge you’re looking for will be next to the giant boombox), reliable breakfast staples, and good omelets at the grill station. Then again, this is subjective and a matter of choosing for yourself.

Go to John Jay in a group of 3 or less. Big parties (such as any sports team you will ever encounter) can and will move all the chairs to one table, and the rest of the dining hall will just be all table and no chair. Also, everyone hates big parties for that exact reason. I’ve seen people walk out of line to swipe in because the ten people in front of them are all eating together. I’m “people.”

John Jay is one of the most vegan-friendly dining halls, which gives it an edge. They always have a vegan station loaded, and the options there are always decent. The bowl station is vegan unless you specifically ask for meat or fish. The salad bar has the most variety of all the salad bars at Columbia, so you could also make yourself a hefty salad. The pasta station serves vegan noodles and will always have classic marinara for serving. Its only flaw is that the milk options are limited due to the small fridge, and it’s not close to the coffee bar, so people often forget they exist.

Other good qualities of John Jay include:

  • Morning smoothies: This option is only in the morning, but John Jay will make fresh smoothies for the students. There are usually two options (in my head it’s either “green” or “not green”), and they use fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • The only dining hall that has good Sunday options. I don’t know if it’s the weekend hangover or the fact that nothing else is open, but John Jay really does hit on a Sunday.
  • The pierogies.

Random warning: John Jay tables are really sticky.

Ferris Booth Hall (“Ferris”) 

Ferris is another buffet-style dining hall located on the second floor of Lerner Hall (although, the floor you’re on is relative in Lerner-logic). It’s got arguably the nicest staff in any of the dining halls, and while they don’t serve the fanciest food, it is reliable. Many people say Ferris is their favorite, especially the lunch options, and its location is super convenient for both getting to your Barnard class and anywhere else on Columbia’s campus.

Ferris is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 am to 8 pm, and Saturday from 9:30 am to 8:00 pm. They switch from their breakfast menu to their daily menu at 11 am, but they keep the breakfast station located behind the first half-wall you’ll see until 2 pm. They’re the strictest on the switching of menus; if you even think about touching the salad station at any point before 11 am on the dot, they will tell you they’re not serving it, even if it’s 10:58 am.

The best time to eat at Ferris is brunch (around 11 am but before 11:30 am), given that everyone will be at their 10:10 am class, and both the lunch and breakfast options will still be available. 1 pm lunch is also a good time to go to Ferris since everyone is going either to their 12:40 pm or 1:10 pm classes, and, as you guessed it, both lunch and breakfast options are still available. The dinner menu is okay—it’s nothing “wow” or super high quality. Plus, everyone who’s flooding the serving station is just pissed off the entire football team took up all the seats in John Jay, so it’s not the best time to go. Avoid angry college students as much as you can.

The best menus at Ferris are the lunch menus. Again, it’s mostly comfort food, so dinner’s not the best quality, and the breakfast menu is the same everyday (except it’ll switch the potato dish up from time to time). It’s got decent sandwiches, a reliable salad bar (the premade salads…not so reliable), and, when in doubt, the pasta and pizza bars never change.

This may sound weird, but if you ever want to get rid of your fear of eating alone, eat at Ferris. Due to the small tables that really can only seat 1-4 people at a time, many people just go there to eat alone. Especially at quiet hours, you’ll often find people eating while watching TV on their laptops or reading a book, not really looking to be bothered. If you really want a buddy, however, go to Ferris in groups of four or less. The tables are not big, so seating is very, very limited.

For the love of anything sacred, drop your stuff off at an empty table before getting in line for food. First, you’re going to need to claim a spot beforehand because the limited dining sections are both a bloodbath and a warzone. Second, all you’re doing by wearing a backpack in line is making everyone’s lives worse. The serving station is really small, and unless you like hearing mumbled swear words constantly directed toward every single backpack taking up both line and passageway space, it’s not worth getting shoved and elbowed. Again: avoid the angry college students.

Ferris vegan options are often better than the meat ones, but there aren’t a whole lot of options in general. There’s only one vegan sandwich option at the sandwich station (and it’s dry and Not Very Good), and the pizza option may not be for you if you didn’t acquire Stockholm Syndrome for vegan cheese. The station itself is almost always one of the following:

  • Any variation of rice and beans
  • Spaghetti and (not) meatballs
  • Some kind of stir-fry and (not) sesame chicken

The alternative milk fridge is your best friend. For some reason, there will be cartons upon cartons of oat milk, coconut milk, almond milk, and/or soy milk—sometimes all four milks get their own, very stacked shelf. It’s also right next to the coffee and cereal bar, so you will never forget the milk fridge. Ferris will always serve rice and salad, and the main course serving station will always have either a vegetable or rice dish (sometimes both!) that will fulfill your vegan needs.

Other good qualities of Ferris include:

  • The fanciest and best-quality desserts. They put edible flowers and fresh berries on the cakes!
  • The buffalo chicken wraps on Thursday afternoons (known colloquially as the beloved “BuffChick”)
  • The Wednesday quesadillas
  • The rice/channa masala vegan dish with naan slices on the side. For some reason, this dish hits like nothing else
  • The (incredibly wonderful) staff plays bangers only! Some mornings, you get the ABBA/disco station, others you’ll get today’s pop hits, or you’ll get fun, Latino bops. Morale booster!

Random warning: Maybe don’t get the berry/arugula salad at the pre-made deli section.

JJ’s Place

JJ’s is the “late-night” dining hall (but the hours have never truly returned to 12 pm to 10 am the next day) that’s really small and really limited in its options, but people seem to really love it anyway. Is it for the endless servings of fries and/or mozzarella sticks? The somewhat decent black bean burgers with tzatziki sauce? The homemade grill station where you can order anything from a quesadilla to uh…other things I never ordered because the lines are way too long? Possibly!

JJ’s is located in the basement of the John Jay Building (hint: if you open the first set of doors to John Jay but do not go inside the building and look to the left, it’s the set of stairs that go down). JJ’s is now open 12 pm to 1 am, 7 days a week, making it the only dining hall on campus that is the most available for students. They don’t change the menus at any time: if you want an omelet at 10 pm, who is going to stop you? There are no laws in JJs.

JJ’s also has a snack option right at the entrance of the dining hall, where you can trade in your meal swipe for 4 snack items of your choosing; all you have to do is tell the person swiping you in that you want to use your swipes for snacks. You can even use two meal swipes in one visit (if you have enough left at the end of the week) to get 8 snack items of your choosing! However, a meal swipe is the equivalent of $15—always remember that you can get way more than four cans of La Croix for less at the Duane Reade three blocks down.

The environment of JJ’s is what one would describe as a sports bar for people who legally can’t be served alcohol. They’ve got comfy chairs, both barstool seating arrangements and tables, and there are foosball and air hockey tables.  The wall décor is old photographs of the JJ’s dining hall without any people in them. There are also a lot of TVs and the loudest music you will ever hear that almost exclusively play early 2000s pop hits, so you’ll always be entertained.

The most fun time to go to JJ’s is as late as possible on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. However, that’s also the busiest time, and the highest probable chance of encountering someone crossed out of their mind trying to convince you they’re in your Lit Hum class and that you’re “really smart.” To that I say: take the compliment!

If you want a seat guaranteed, go at normal dining hours because every other dining hall has higher quality food, so everyone will be there. Don’t be alarmed by the really long line at the grill station, however; sometimes I feel like the staff hired a bunch of students to stand there just to frazzle incoming visitors. The fries and burger stations usually have food readily available for you to just grab and get out.

Go to JJ’s by yourself, in a pair, with a small group, or your whole club (it’s been done before)! Who cares, people will stand around anyway, and there are no rules here. Just don’t get sensory overload from literally everything.

Don’t go to JJ’s if you’re vegan and want a balanced meal; only go if you just want something quick like a veggie burger, fries, and a terrible salad (the salad bar is really lackluster). Vegetarians are fine because you have the mozzarella sticks, omelets, and quesadillas.

Other good qualities about JJ’s Place:

  • Late-night conversations with your closest friend over a plate of fries and mozzarella sticks will always be one of your best memories on campus
  • They put buffalo sauce on everything, and it works?
  • The mixers slushies and juices
  • They’ll have themed events sometimes that are really fun if you get into it

Random warning: you will always run into someone you know at JJ’s Place.

Faculty House 

Faculty House is arguably an experience more than a dining hall, and it is the second-newest dining hall on campus. This is a completely self-serve dining hall and the fanciest dining hall yet. The wait staff take away your plates for you, you can eat on the terrace where you have a view of the NYC skyline, and the dining hall softly plays sensual jazz lounge remixes of pop songs (whatever the f**k that means) while you inhale your dry couscous.

Faculty House was located on the fourth floor of the building known as Faculty House, and no, I never learned that I can just take the elevator instead of hiking up all those flights of stairs. However, beginning next fall, the dining hall will be located on the second floor of the same building, making it way easier for students to get to!

This dining hall is open from 11 am to 3 pm Monday-Friday, making it an exclusive lunch time dining hall. It does not, however, stop the crowds in Ferris—seasons change, but people don’t!

There are maybe like, 20 chairs overall in Faculty House (exaggeration: there are more), so you’ll really have to try to get a seat, especially on the terrace. The terrace also closes during the winter, so there will be even less options at that point in the year.

It doesn’t matter what time is best to go to Faculty House, nor does it matter what the size of your party is: the seating options are way too limited, and the times are way too constricted, for any of your decisions to matter.

There is also one menu:

  • Fresh, wild-caught Atlantic salmon (except when they’re not serving the fresh, wild-caught Atlantic salmon)
  • Some kind of grain (quinoa, couscous, farro, etc. have all been options)
  • Some kind of vegetable
  • Mac n Cheese (marketed as “dressed up”)
  • Dessert
  • Pre-made salads

The vegan options exist, but they don’t have any flavor. The main selling point of this dining hall is the salmon and the Mac n Cheese, and the staff focuses all their culinary prowess on them. That’s great, of course, but both of these options are ones that vegans famously cannot consume. The grain options are dry and plain, so there is no joy in eating them, and the greens are mainly steamed vegetables or a whole boiled Irish potato with no preparation. The salad is great, though. They have the freshest salads.

Other good qualities of Faculty House:

  • Pescatarians will thrive here
  • The staff is really nice!
  • It’s a good change of pace from the more regular dining options

Random warning: Take your time eating the couscous.

Chef Mike’s Sub Shop 

Chef Mike’s is a sandwich/hoagie/submarine shop located in Uris Hall in the center of campus, but it’s also a cult classic among the students. Here, you get exactly what you expect: a sandwich (either a prepared menu sandwich from the hot or cold section or a custom sub), a soup, bag of chips, dessert, fruit, and drink. If you think that’s not enough to sustain you, do not worry: the hoagies are served on a 10-inch roll and filled to the brim. You will not be able to finish it.

Chef Mike’s Sub Shop is open from 10:30 am to 10 pm Monday-Friday, becoming one of the only dining halls that actually accommodates students who can’t eat until after their 6-8 pm class ends! They don’t switch out the menu options, so if you want a cold hoagie for lunch but the hot one also looks good, you can come back for dinner for that one. But also, maybe eat something a little more balanced for dinner.

The best time to go to Chef Mike’s is either right when it opens, after 1 pm, early dinner, or toward the end of the night. The lines get really long because sandwiches are prepared one at a time, so it could get really annoying to stand in line for an eternity while the radio plays club remixes of Dua Lipa.

Chef Mike’s is another dining hall where it’s great to go alone; however, it’s always nice to eat a sandwich with some friends! You could even get two sandwiches and split them to get some variety. Don’t worry about seating in the dining hall—the eating space is great for standing, and all the food is packaged in a way that makes it super easy to carry across campus. Once you’re finished with the hard part of waiting in line, everything gets super easy.

There’s a reason why Chef Mike’s is a cult classic: if you can get past the copious volumes of bread you consume, the “Grandma’s Special” entirely (avoid it at all costs), and the messiness of eating a sandwich, you get pretty good food! Also, you could get limited edition Chef Mike’s merchandise at any point during your visit because Chef Mike loves a good brand deal. Seriously, I think I own three laptop stickers and two shirts that are all Chef Mike-centric. I haven’t even met Chef Mike in person.

It seems odd, but Chef Mike’s is actually the friendliest dining hall to vegans. It tries really hard to be 50/50 with the vegan and non-vegan options, and it’s reliable. You’ll never go hungry at Chef Mike’s, no matter what diet (even the gluten-free hotties! They have gluten-free bread upon request! How fun!)

Other good qualities about Chef Mike’s:

  • The décor is camp
  • The chicken parmesan sandwiches, as well as their vegan equivalent
  • The three-bean chili
  • It’s right next to a Blue Java Café, so you can also get you after-lunch latte and scone to wash down the savory goodness of your sub
  • Their hummus spread for some reason. Again, CU Dining just goes wild with the garbanzo.

Random warning: the people who make the sandwiches sometimes forget to put all the ingredients in the vegan Rueben sandwich, so you’ll just end up with a sad tempeh mustard sandwich. Best to avoid that sandwich, even if the sauerkraut is tempting.

Hewitt Hall 

Hewitt is one of two Barnard dining halls, and it arguably has the healthiest meal options. Located in the basement of Barnard Hall, this dining hall has ample space for students (at most times), and a really nice staff. It has a breakfast menu, a lunch menu, and a dinner menu, giving us the most diversified options yet!

If you’re a student like me, the times Hewitt is open don’t matter simply because showing up to see if it’s open has always been pure guesswork, no matter how familiar you think you are with the daily schedule. If the doors are closed, it’s not open; if there’s a line outside, doors are about to open. If you hear music, walk right on in. Switching the menu is an obvious time because they just close the dining hall to prepare for the next entrée cycle.

In regards to the menu, there are unchanging staples like the pasta/pizza booth and the grill station, but the main line changes every day, and the vegan station circulates any possible combination of rice and beans frequently. Another plus of Hewitt is that it is the only dining hall across the University that has a hot, good-quality Kosher section only available to those who follow that diet, so you’ll hopefully never have to go through running out of food. They also open a second vegan station only at lunch hours that serves fancier, more elaborate meals than just rice, beans, and steamed vegetables.

The desserts are limited and terrible. Ignore.

Go to Hewitt in small groups; though there is ample seating, you often have a crowd to challenge that, and more often than not you’ll have to share a long table with other parties. All the separate tables fit five people MAX, and it gets really loud in there. Hewitt is also a really good dining hall to eat at alone; there have been many times where I just went, ate my silly little meal, listened to my music, and left without saying a single word, and it’s great!

Don’t go to Hewitt for breakfast (especially if you’re vegan): the options suck. There’s no other way to deliver this piece of news. Hewitt lunch, however, has a lot of space because everyone goes to Ferris or Diana and forgets about this place’s existence, so it’s pretty great. Dinner is also a great time to go to Hewitt for a good, balanced meal.

Veganism at Hewitt is great: there are always options in the main line, the grill station (they even cook the impossible/veggie burgers separately from the beef patties so they don’t touch meat), and the vegan stations. Get used to eating a lot of rice and beans if Hewitt becomes your main dining hall—their vegan station really loves to serve only rice and beans a lot. The salad station also has a lot of variety, and whenever Hewitt has vegan soup options, they’re always bangers. Lastly, the milk fridge is always stacked with oat and soy milks…and no other milks…ever. Classic Barnard (lovingly).

Other good qualities of Hewitt Dining Hall include:

  • Amazing soups
  • The grill station: it’s the only place where you can truly get a good burger
  • The iconic hot sauce and spices bar
  • Four TVs all next to each other that are turned on all the time, and one of them exclusively plays Project Runway reruns
  • The rice and beans

Random warning: The salad ingredients freeze over frequently, so be prepared for literal iceberg lettuce leaves.

Diana Café (“Diana”) 

Diana is Barnard’s second dining hall located in the Diana Center, and there is not much to say about it. If you go to the meal stations (there are only three), you can use your meal swipe; other than that, everything in there is paid for either with dining dollars/points or real money. Don’t get me wrong, however: even though it’s small, the food is always really good, so it’d be a crime to sleep on this dining hall.

Diana, like Hewitt, changes their opening times whenever they want, but they’re usually open Monday through Friday. Last year, lunch would open 11:30 am and then close around 4:00 pm, and dinner would begin at 5:30 pm and close at 10:00 pm. Notice that it has a late-night option, making it one of the three dining halls on campus that accommodates night owl eaters.

Diana is great for lunch or dinner, seeing that the menu doesn’t change ever. If you want to go for lunch, go right as it opens to both beat the lines and not get ushered out for staying past closing time (you swipe after you acquire your food). For dinner, either at opening time or past 7:00 pm is the best times to go.

Going to Diana alone is pretty much what most people do because the lines get so f***ing long and seats are limited, but the food is packaged in a way that makes it easy to walk to different places to eat.

Here are the only food options, as well as the qualifications for a meal swipe:

  • Mexican food station: most people get burrito bowls, but you can get a quesadilla, a burrito, or tacos if you want. This is usually the station with the longest line, and for good reason too—this is the station where you can get the most food with the limited meal swipe plan.
    • For a meal swipe, you can only order the following for a burrito bowl:
      • Rice + beans + protein (chicken, steak, tofu)
      • Three toppings
    • For some reason, guac costs extra and is not covered by the meal swipe. Chipotle sauce is covered by the meal swipe, however, and I still don’t get it. Hot sauce is free in the dining section, so use that to not eat a dry burrito bowl.
  • Whatever’s going on in the middle: this changes, and I still don’t know when or why. During my time it’s been a grain bowl station, a ramen station, a “popcorn chicken” section, and a baked potato section.
  • Pizza station: Diana makes custom-made personal pizzas for students. There are a limited number of toppings, but it’s reliable. This station definitely takes the longest in preparing your food.

Aside from your main meal, this is also what you can get for a meal swipe:

  • A bottle of water (don’t even think about touching the fancier brands like Fiji, SmartWater, or others—you only get Polar Springs) OR a can of Bubly (not sponsored)
  • A bag of chips, just not the chips that are on display. No, you get a bag of chips selected from a bin guarded by the person swiping your card because God forbid you walk out with Aunt Vickie’s jalapeño chips instead of the hexagonal Lay’s original baked potato chips.
  • One handheld fruit

There used to be two whole stations where you could get great vegan options, but since they replaced the hot, sexy ramen station with the boring, gross baked potato station, you can only get a good vegan meal at the burrito bowl station. Vegetarians know your dairy privileges; you’re all fine with any of the three stations.

Other good qualities about Diana include:

  • The ramen station that no longer exists!!!!!! Bring it back!!!!!! You want to bring it back so badly!!!
  • The rice in the burrito bowls is really good because they alternate between Spanish and Mexican rice, so it’s the only dining hall that gives me something other than white or brown rice.
  • Dining Dollar dukes and dames can get anything they want from the fridges if they don’t want the main meal options. This only works for the non-vegans.
  • It’s above Liz’s Place, a café in the Diana Center that takes dining dollars and serves nice chai lattes sometimes.

Random warning: they still haven’t figured out the most efficient way to assemble students’ orders, so lines are still a nightmare.

Author’s Note: This article has been updated to provide more accurate information concerning the dining halls’ hours of operation, methods of payment, accessibility to students, and dietary options.

Royalty-free Food via Victoria Borlando