Eating out with Unitas and S.S.R.
'Alcohol is not necessarily the most important thing'
One of the most challenging aspects of being a student who's moved out of their parents' home is figuring out what to cook each night. Especially if no one among your roommates enjoys cooking. Students these days have been eating out a lot less often compared to previous generations. The reasons are numerous: restaurants are becoming increasingly expensive, old cafeterias have been closed for decades, and the university decided to close its kitchens in the evening last year.
Luckily, some student associations have been filling that gap. Some of them have been offering meals for decades, making sure that members get access to affordable meals. DUB took a peek at the kitchens of two such associations to see how these restaurants keep their head above water.
S.S.R.-N.U. offers pesto pasta and vegetarian stew
SSR NU, on Oudegracht is a rustic, somewhat dim space that doesn't differ much from a Dutch "brown café". There are fraternity shields on the wall next to the dining table and a portrait of the king hanging above the piano in the corner. Classical music is playing and there is a chessboard painted on a round table. Board member Tamara explains that the music played actually varies. "It depends a bit on who puts the music on but there is usually no loud music at the dining table, the conversation is more important.”
The purpose of the dining table is to bring members together in a slightly different way than a drink. “Alcohol is not necessarily the most important thing. This is really about talking. Sometimes we put discussion cards on the table with all kinds of topics, to help people engage in conversation."
SSR members can eat at the association's headquarters every other week, on Thursdays, for 3.50 euros. This usually attracts about fifteen to twenty members but the association adds more tables to the space if more people come. "Sometimes the entire aisle is full.” The members present are served a meal consisting of a main course and dessert. The meal is cooked by members themselves, and they also purchase the ingredients and wash the dishes. Usually, the menu features student staples such as pesto pasta or a couscous dish, but sometimes it gets a bit fancier. “If the cooks are creative with the budget, they can make a starter or just go all out. We had a vegetarian stew once which was really tasty.”
The food at SSR is almost always vegetarian. “Many of our members are vegetarians, so we accommodate most dietary requirements. It also helps a lot to keep the meal cheap.” The cheap prices at SSR are impressive, but also increasingly difficult to maintain due to inflation. “If a lot of people come, we can buy things in bulk, so it's not that much of a problem, but if not many people join us for dinner, there is no way for the cooks to be creative. In that case, we either go for a simple meal or small portions, but that's not how it's supposed to be. We want to offer creative dishes and enough food for everyone. That is sometimes hard to do.”
In the long run, this will probably mean they will have to raise the prices, but, for now, the board is committed to getting more members to attend the meals. “People have been less inclined to come after Covid. We would like more members to think 'Oh yeah, the association restaurant, I'm in'. There is no need for 150 people to eat here on Thursday, but we are trying to boost their enthusiasm."
And there sure are things to be enthusiastic about, she says. There is a Valentine's dinner, a pancake day and a yearly cook-off, in which several groups compete against each other. “Every year there is a theme around which the participants can build a story, and a play is performed during the meal.”
Unitas' ballroom feels like a real restaurant
At Unitas, hungry members can go to DeMoulin five days a week for 5 euros, where the old designation "dining room" can still be read on the door. Pictures, in particular of old year clubs and an extensive mural of an owl, stare at the members and here too the nearest bar is very easily accessible.
In 2001, the dining room was converted into a ballroom with a soundproof construction. The decor therefore feels more like a nightclub than a restaurant. But 100 to 150 members still dine here every Monday and Tuesday. “At the beginning of the year, all committees eat here every Monday and all new members dine here on Tuesdays. Those are the busiest days of the week when it really feels like a restaurant," says rector Sanneke Crezee.
Customers are given options to choose from. “There are two weekly menus, one from the oven and one from the fryer. There is also a daily menu from the stove. We try to take vegetarians and people with other dietary requirements into account as much as possible so that there is something for everyone.”
Unitas' menu includes croquette burgers, rigatoni and tikka masala. Just like at SSR-NU, everything is arranged by members. First-year students cook under the supervision of the responsible committee, the Michelin Group. “They do it with great pleasure. They turn the kitchen into a party.” When asked whether it is a curse or a blessing for board members that they are confined to the dining table five days a week, the answer is quick: “I like it. They always cook delicious food. Last Wednesday, they made lemon pasta with salmon, which was so delicious!”
Unitas also organises special dinners each year, such as an inauguration dinner, which celebrates the inclusion of first-year students in the association. “It's a very nice dinner for more than two hundred people. A real highlight for the Michelin Group. We also make boerenkool (Dutch dish with mashed potatoes and kale, Ed.) to celebrate the association's anniversary.” Unfortunately, the rector doesn't know the reason for boerenkool being a tradition on that day. Even after investigating it further, it remains a mystery.
Inflation is not hitting Unitas too hard yet: “We make whatever is possible with our budget. We also care about sustainability, so we strive to figure out things to do with leftover ingredients and we want to make smarter purchases to throw less food away.” The Rector adds: “The biggest problem is serving food on time. Everyone gets to eat, but not always on time.”
A lot has changed for Unitas' restaurant over the years. In addition to the renovation of the dining hall in 2001, the association's restaurant was open to non-members until 1993, which means it attracted customers who were not students. A graduate is happy to tell us about a regular best known as Bengeltje. “He was a neat-looking old gentleman in a tweed jacket, who would walk cheerfully into the Dining Hall. When someone paid attention to him, he always said the same words: 'Hello, my dear little ones,'" followed by a rabbit-like bow. Then he happily had his meal among the students. No one laughed at him, everyone treated him respectfully.”
Other associations that have restaurants
Other associations offer the possibility to eat together with other members.
-Veritas: Five days a week, around 6 euros
-USC: Four days a week, 5.80 euros
-UVSV/NVVS: Every Monday and Wednesday, 3.50 euros
-UMTC: Thursdays, 3 euros