Bates College’s acclaimed food service is offered in its large, open dining hall that features a variety of dedicated food stations and plenty of seating. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

A Bates College student’s plate is piled with much-talked-about chicken nuggets, French fries, vegetables and pasta salad. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Let’s say someone really didn’t like curry, but that someone decided to try the beef panang curry for lunch at Bates College (last Monday, 12:30 p.m., corner table in the back).

That someone (OK, it’s me) might realize curry is actually delicious — all flavorful and warm and slightly spicy — and that past curry disasters were not so much the fault of the curry but the places that made the curry.

And with that corner table epiphany, I now like curry. Thank you, Bates College dining hall.

Lunch at Bates is a lot like walking into a magical pantry: You have approximately a billion choices, every dietary need is taken into consideration and all the food is already cooked. Almost all from scratch. By someone else.

The college constantly wins accolades for its food, environmental stewardship and overall dining experience. It is so often ranked among the best college dining halls in the country — named 5th in the nation by Business Insider in September and ranked in the past by CollegeVine, delish, Town & Country and Niche — that even the higher-ups at the college can’t keep up.

“Sometimes it just happens and we don’t even know until somebody tells us,” said Christine Schwartz, who is officially the assistant vice president for dining, conferences and campus events, but unofficially the champion of all things food and Bates.

So why does Bates win so many awards? Is the food — apart from the curry, obviously — really that good?

Sometimes in journalism, you need a firsthand experience.

Brick oven pizza is a big hit with the diners at Bates College. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

THIRTY KINDS OF CEREAL

OK, two things first.

To be fair, Bowdoin College in Brunswick also ranks among the best college dining experiences in the country. If you see Bates on a food list, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find Bowdoin hovering somewhere nearby. But Bates is in our backyard and, honestly, we can only eat so much. So we’ll just have to check out Bowdoin another day.

And before you grouse about Bates kids getting a fine dining experience while you personally have to walk uphill both ways in a snowstorm for a stale baloney sandwich, the all-you-care-to-eat Bates dining hall buffet is open to the public for lunch and dinner, as well as weekend brunch. (Full disclosure: Bates provided lunch free to the reporter and photographer working on this story.) The college also offers free or discounted meals to visiting schools, local nonprofits and first responders, and it gives its excess food to the Trinity Jubilee Center, part of its outreach to the community. (See information box on public dining at the college.)

That said, Schwartz made one thing clear: “It is not our intent or desire to compete with the local restaurant market.”

She estimates 3% to 4% of diners are from the community, up to 6% if you add in local schools that drop by on field trips or for other events.

The massive dining hall — with a high ceiling made of reclaimed wood from Thomas Edison’s phonograph factory — was built 11 years ago, much to the specifications of the people who work there. So the loading dock has a dedicated trash bay to ensure incoming food and outgoing waste never cross paths. The recycling room has space to separate wax cardboard from regular cardboard, and glass from seven different kinds of plastic. The bakery has wide windows and an opening to the dining area, so diners can see what’s going on with their vegan chocolate nanny cake or chat with the baker who recently tweaked the recipe for the morning glory muffins.

Gabriel Alvarez helps himself to one of the 30-plus varieties of breakfast cereal available at every meal. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The kitchens and back area are where the magic happens. (And by magic, I mean curry.) With three meals a day plus 6,000 catering events a year, it takes a core staff of 97 people — 180 with student workers and on-call employees — 22 hours a day to get everything done. The place hums from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week, with cooks who make almost everything from scratch.

But what most people care about is the front section. You know, where the food and drinks are. Like the exceptionally popular . . . oat milk?

“It’s blown out the door,” Schwartz said. “I think because it’s something new.”

Oat milk (Yes, it’s made with oats. A story for another day.) is housed in the no-gluten zone, along with other drinks, breads and food sans gluten.

For people who are fine with gluten but not animal products, there’s a vegan section.

For diners who want to carb it up, there’s the pasta bar.

For those who love the basics, there’s a soup-salad-sandwich section, with nitrate-free luncheon meat.

Then there’s the brick oven, which often features pizza but is also where chefs roast meat, bake casseroles and make frittatas. Other sections offer grilled or fried dishes, comfort food and baked goods.

There are more than 30 kinds of cereal. (Color coded by sugar content.) Twenty-one kinds of ice cream, five kinds of frozen yogurt, four kinds of frozen vegan desserts and 21 toppings on rotation.

Christine Schwartz, assistant vice president for dining, conferences and campus events, walks through the kitchens at Bates College. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

And more than 45 different drinks to wash it all down.

“You can mix it up. There’s a lot of room for different combinations,” said Skye Brown, an 18-year-old freshman who, despite all those options, favors grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese.

New students often stick with well-known comfort foods — first semester freshmen adore their pizza. By senior year, they get more adventurous.

“Our philosophy is that we’re not here to make choices for students,” said Schwartz, who is as proud to offer both Pepsi and Coke products together as she is the new oat milk. “This, believe it or not, is a huge learning experience for students because they never had to think about eating. Our goal here is to provide the appropriate selection of items so students can learn to develop their own eating identity.”

And while that identity allows for eating that is both health-conscious and ethics-forward, the most popular item on Monday was not the jerk-seasoned seitan or edamame with olive oil and garlic. Diners lined up for another of the day’s specials: chicken nuggets and French fries cut thin, just like McDonald’s.

“It’s a big day for Bates,” joked 18-year-old sophomore J. Daniel Kim, whose lunch consisted of — yup — chicken nuggets and fries.

The Bates College bake shop opens up into the dining commons. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

‘I LOVED ALL OF IT!’

Bates employees and outsiders may be more likely to see the dining hall for what it is: fortuitous.

“It’s a far cry from what the dining hall in my college was like . . . very bad,” said Jeff Oishi, assistant professor of physics, who had a salad and sandwich for lunch while his physics department co-worker had curry, a slice of pizza and fresh melon.

President Clayton Spencer filled her plate with vegetables and proteins, valiantly resisting the siren call of chicken nuggets just a few feet away.

“Which are secretly my favorite,” she admitted.

So there’s a lot of food. And much of it is made using Maine-grown ingredients. But how good is any of it, really?

Turns out, really, really good.

My two plates (yes, two, don’t judge me), included beef panang curry over long grain white rice, a slice of sun-dried tomato pizza, jerk seasoned seitan from the vegan section and cream of broccoli soup.

Fine, and chicken nuggets and French fries. I am weak.

The vegan bar at the Bates College dining hall is popular with many students. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The curry, I was shocked to discover, was my favorite. I hate curry. Or, I should say, I hate other curry. All other curry. But the beef was tender (hard to accomplish in institutional cooking), the sauce was warmly spicy.

I might be a curry fan now. Not the story I’d gone to Bates expecting to tell, but there it is.

I’m still not sure I know what seitan is, but it was coated in sauce and came with sliced vegetables, and tasted very much like well-seasoned beef without the need for actual meat. (OK, I looked it up: It’s a wheat-gluten meat substitute that is far tastier than its definition.)

The soup was creamy and did not have the salty aftertaste I’ve gotten with the canned soups I rely on when left to my own dinner devices.

The pizza was only lukewarm (I ate it last, so probably my fault), but it was topped with sun-dried tomatoes that were soft and chewy without being leathery and chewy.

The chicken nuggets and fries were delicious, as everyone (literally, everyone) promised. Lightly fried, tender chicken. French fries that were thin but not hard. I did not go back for seconds. I. Did. Not. But it was touch-and-go for a while.

For dessert, I tried a piece of vegan chocolate nanny cake, which tasted like a very rich brownie, and a sugar-free baked apple, which looked and tasted exactly like a mini apple pie. I do not like sugar-free desserts. Except, like with curry, apparently I actually do . . . at Bates anyway.

Daisy Taylor, left, and Jane Herrick lift a mixer of pastry dough in the Bates College bake shop. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Photographer Andree Kehn didn’t embarrass herself with multiple dishes, opting instead to mix together seitan, beef curry, chicken nuggets and corn salad over a bed of spinach, with a bit of olive tapenade in a single bowl. Smart.

“I loved all of it!” she said.

In all, we tried a dozen different things. Not one was left uneaten.

So why does the Bates dining hall win so many awards? Part of it is the sheer amount of choice. Part of it is the focus on sustainability. And part of it is that the food is really that good.

“We try to do what we can the best every day. Sometimes we’re better than others. Sometimes we’re not better than others,” Schwartz said. “But really it’s about just trying to do the best you can.”

A map in the Bates College dining hall shows all the Maine farms where ingredients are sourced. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Cost: adults (ages 8 and up), $9 for lunch and $10 for brunch and dinner; children ages 3 to 7, $4.50 for lunch and $5 for brunch and dinner; children 2 and under, free.

Hours: lunch, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. every day; brunch, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Location: 136 Central Ave., Lewiston, in the Bates College Commons building.

Note: Hours change during holidays and college breaks. The dining hall may not be open

BATES DINING BY THE NUMBERS

Number of meals served a day: 5,000

Number of events catered every year: 6,000

Number of recipes: 3,000

Percentage of food that is from Maine: 28%

Percentage of waste diverted from waste stream: 84%-plus

Kinds of bread: 12

Varieties of cereal: 30-plus

Drink options: 45

How often particular dishes appear: Every 5 weeks

Most requested by students: Nutella; a panini grill; a student-usable fryer

Students’ most popular dishes: Shepherd’s pie, meatloaf

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