The third new dining hall in as many semesters has opened, and that means one thing: ex-editors and knowledgeable, postmodern food critics Victoria Borlando and Lillian Rountree just have to review it.

Move over Ferris; move over Diana; move over John Jay; move over JJ’s Place; move over Faculty House; move over Hewitt; move over Chef Mike’s… there’s a new dining hall. And this time, it’s on SEAS turf. Welcome, Chef Don’s Pizza Pi.

Yes, Columbia just got a new dining hall. It’s a pizza shop spearheaded by none other than Chef Don, who we just learned is a whole other chef instead of the Dr. Jekyll to Chef Mike’s Mr. Hyde. He’s also behind Chef Mike’s, so do what you wish with that lore.

Anyway, since this is far from our first rodeo, we showed up on opening day, our stomachs empty and our minds sharp to critique and review the newest dining hall around. We stood in a line for fifteen minutes, we ate the food, and we wrote an article about it. Here it is!

How it works: You walk into Mudd, and helpful signs guide you to the hole-in-the-wall-esque location of Chef Don’s—and the line. “Are these kids starving?” asks a SEAS professor, just trying to get to her office on the ninth floor but overwhelmed by the number of students lined up, waiting for Pizza Pi. The line moves fast—on opening day, we got in line when it went past the elevators, and we were sitting down with pizza within 20 minutes. There are only two pizza options (daily specials are coming soon): one with dairy/non-vegan and one vegan, though both were a similar combo of cheese/tomato/basil. It’s open from 11:30 am to 7 pm on the weekdays (Monday through Friday), and alongside the pizza, you can get a side salad, dessert, and drink (including coffee!). More logistical information can be found in our article following the announcement of its opening.

The vibe:

Vic: For the interior of Mudd itself, it’s like IAB without carpets. We got chrome, decorative pipes, shiny floors, minimalist walls… because nothing screams “working for the industry” like an industrialist lounge. The dining hall itself is just a pizza café. Like, there’s a tiny room to get your food, and then an open space to eat your food. Think of the café at the MoMA. Colored chairs to contrast the dark-colored walls and whatnot.

Lillian: Honestly, the space was pretty nice! Colorful chairs, plenty of possible seating, and despite the churn of people, it shockingly wasn’t that loud. I don’t understand why there is a designated quiet working space on the other side of a glass wall at one end—why do I get to watch these people work in silence while I eat my pizza? Is this some commentary on our culture of constant surveillance? A performance art piece asking us to meditate on the human condition?—but I found it much more comfortable than expected. The actual serving area is small, but everything is clearly labeled and there’s a nice flow (though there weren’t napkins when we went, but that’s what innovation and the nearby bathrooms and their paper towels are for).

The good:

Vic: Having only two options to choose from is surprisingly this dining hall’s best feature. By walking in and saying you either want the vegan or the non-vegan option, everyone involved in this process can speed up the serving process and make everything go much more smoothly. I have no idea if they’ll announce what the toppings are before opening in the future (it would probably be a good idea), but they also chose safe pizzas (margaritas) to open with. This wasn’t a flashy opening day, and I like that. The dining hall is very calm!

Lillian: It’s only opening day, but Chef Don’s is already running smoothly. I was amazed it took so little time for the line to move and for us to get our pizza. Plus, all of the workers are incredibly kind, and Chef Don himself was there, slinging pizzas for the insatiable student body. It feels like the most efficient dining hall I’ve been in. Also, the little pizza boxes they use look like normal pizza boxes and they’re cute.

The bad:

Vic: It was unclear if we could use the coffee bar, and having that station alongside the napkins and utensils and in the same space as the pizza bar just blocks people from actually entering the eating area. In fact, the serving station may have too many things in such a small space. Perhaps putting the coffee bar outside and making the exit a little past the glass doors will help with clutter issues. The dining hall also does not take Dining Dollars! Lastly, the prepackaged cookie is soulless. 

Lillian: There was an area for additional spices to add to your pizza—red pepper flakes, garlic powder, the works—but in an inconvenient place that crowded the narrow serving area and got messy fast. Like Vic says, finding a better space for that would be great, and a kink that seems pretty easy to work out. And I’m not sure why they don’t accept Dining Dollars. I have money to burn, y’all! Let me get my silly little pizza! 

EDIT: Dining Dollars are accepted generally—it was a first day discrepancy. So I can get my silly little pizza on my own dollar after all…

The food:

Vic: I had the vegan pizza, and it was a margarita! I liked the simplicity of it; you cannot go wrong with (vegan) cheese, tomato, red onion, and basil. Compared to the other vegan pizzas on campus—Ferris and Diana (if you order a pizza without cheese)—this one certainly reigns supreme. The crust is good; the cheese isn’t that weird, creamy, semi-coconut oily nonsense Ferris has; it doesn’t feel as cheap as Diana’s. It was also a good portion size! The salad was prepackaged but good—you can’t mess up a prepackaged kale salad—and I appreciate the variety of beverages in the drink fountain, especially in a world where some similar dining halls (*cough cough* DIANA) only make you get either bottled water (almost never in stock) or the worst Bubly flavors (also almost never in stock).

Lillian: Four ingredients went into this pizza: the dough, the mozzarella, the tomato sauce, and the nice little julienned pieces of basil. The dough was perfectly nice, with a satisfying crunch and mild flavor. The mozzarella was shockingly good mozzarella—burnt in some places, melted, plentiful, and actually tasted like mozzarella. The tomato sauce felt more like a marinara pasta sauce rather than something for a pizza—there were a ton of herbs and other flavors beyond sheer tomato—which felt a little weird to me, but I wasn’t mad at it. Julienned pieces of basil? Such a chic addition! The prepackaged salad delighted me with its diversity of vegetables. Kale! Carrots! Radicchio! Lettuce! The bounty! But the dessert left a lot to be longed for. Cookie bad.

Is it worth a meal swipe?:

Vic: Yeah, sure. A personal pizza, water, and a side salad might add up to $16.50 in New York.

Lillian: Vic had to swipe me in because they don’t take dining dollars, so sure! Wasn’t my money <3  

Final thoughts:

Vic: This style of dining hall reminded me of the opening day of Chef Mike’s Sub Shop, which we also attended almost exactly a year ago. The main difference between this and Chef Mike’s is that Chef Mike’s changed the game. They were the first, really, to have a dining hall that was just a serving station, encouraging students to either sit in a different corner of the room or some other place entirely. Chef Mike’s variety in the form of the sandwich, the portion sizes, the experience…they were all groundbreaking for campus culture at the time. It took us out of our shells, forced us to reimagine what we liked in our staple food, subjected us to the Grandma’s Special, and had floor-to-ceiling decorations and complimenting merchandise that were centered around the central theme of the establishment and our hearts: Chef Mike. Chef Don’s Pizza Pi is the same thing minus the charismatic persona of the head chef, so it’s not as exciting. It’s fine. I met Chef Don and proved his existence, and he’s a nice man, not a myth. It will be reliable in due time. It’s not so much a dining hall as it is a café. It’s not revolutionary at all, but it’s not trying to be. Instead, it’s doing something a little more subtle yet beautiful: it’s making sure SEAS students take a well-needed break and eat something nutritional. 

Lillian: I would call Chef Don’s a sleeper hit if it wasn’t widely advertised and discussed. It has the good qualities a sleeper hit would have. (Fittingly, though this was certainly the first time I had ever heard of Mr. Donald Bartlett, he’s been a behind-the-scenes mastermind of Columbia Dining since 2009, which I think means he is a sleeper hit even if his newest business venture is not.) Chef Don’s unassuming but satisfying. It’s elegant in its simplicity. It’s a little out of the way for the non-SEAS people among us. It doesn’t exude personality the way Chef Mike’s or Faculty House do, but it doesn’t need to. Chef Don’s is the middle child who’s actually really nice but a little timid and always overshadowed by her older and younger siblings, who are all bombastic and go-getters and do really “unique” extracurriculars, like harp and the 50-meter butterfly. She doesn’t feel like she’s anybody’s first choice when her peppier, prettier siblings are around. But once she goes to college and is able to find her place in the world outside of being the quiet kid—she majors in English and gets really into the school’s Shakespearean theater troupe, and good for her!—she absolutely shines. And serves pizza, I guess.


Food photography by the food “critics”