A familiar yet slightly more sophisticated menu at this college foodservice operation draws in students, faculty, staff, alumni and even members of the surrounding San Diego community.

 The University of San Diego’s La Gran Terraza was named one of that city’s 10 best restaurants.College foodservice operations have redefined themselves over the past several years. A sector once embodied by dull institutional feeders is now a home for quality, variety and customer service. Even with this evolution, though, there aren't many places where college dining and fine dining come together.

But at the University of San Diego's La Gran Terraza, they do. Named one of that city's 10 best restaurants in a vote of more than 305,000 customer reviewers on the online reservation site OpenTable, La Gran Terraza is helping to change the image of university foodservice.

The operation was developed in conjunction with the construction of a new student center at the University of San Diego (USD) that opened in 2009. Included in this facility is The Pavilion, a 10-station concept that serves as the primary dining spot on campus, especially for the university's roughly 2,000 residential students. Once this new facility became operational, something had to be done with the university's legacy student cafeteria and its adjacent faculty and staff dining room. After some consideration, USD decided to rework the spaces into a new high-end concept.

Few would argue that the existence of a genuinely high-end restaurant as part of a university's foodservice program is unusual. But USD made the decision in order to better serve its key constituencies, says Carol Norman, director of dining services at USD. "We wanted to have something for faculty, staff and alumni that was more modern. That's how the restaurant came into effect," she said.

La Gran Terraza actually consists of three distinct spaces: an outdoor terrace that overlooks Tecolote Canyon and Mission Bay; O'Toole's Lounge, a bar serving beer, wine and tapas; and the Grand Dining Room.

The lunch menu features food that's familiar and comfortable enough for a casual meal, but more upscale than what's served at a typical college dining operation. Lunch offerings include lamb sliders, a crab salad California club sandwich and a lump crab and asparagus salad with warm hollandaise sauce served over a salmon fillet. The restaurant also serves a lunch buffet Monday through Friday, which includes a dark and a white meat or fish, prepared salads, grains like quinoa and couscous, soda and dessert. Slightly more formal, the dinner menu features entrées that include crispy duck breast, rack of lamb and pan-seared scallops.

With such a menu, it's natural to suspect that the restaurant may be out of the price range of the university's student population. But USD's dining services department is not expected to be or even allowed to be a revenue-generating unit for the university. Instead, its goal is simply to break even. With the profit pressure removed, La Gran Terraza is able to keep pricing down. Most lunch entrées run less than $12, while the lunch buffet is just $13.50. With the student dining plan offering an $8 credit for each meal, the restaurant is easily within the budget of most of the USD population.

One surprising aspect of the creation of La Gran Terraza is that it was accomplished with an exceedingly small investment in foodservice equipment. La Gran Terraza shares a large back of the house with other foodservice operations, including the university's catering department, The Pavilion, which uses the space to prep food for its display cooking stations, and a bakery depart­ment that makes breads and desserts for all university concepts.

Practically all pieces of equipment in this kitchen area are legacy units that were used for the traditional cafeteria that was phased out in 2009. The only exceptions are two large combi ovens that are used primarily to produce meat and seafood entrées.

According to Norman, the combi ovens have worked out very well largely because they are easy to operate and have safety features that reduce the risk of burns. "It all comes down to trying to make sure everything is easy and user friendly. Even though we have a lot of chefs, we also have a lot of students working the equipment . . . We like easy pieces of equipment that are thought through for the different kinds of employees that a restaurant has."

Building Off-Campus Appeal

In addition to the style of operation, two aspects of La Gran Terraza that stand out are its marketing plan and the market it pursues. From the beginning, the restaurant was intended to be a dining destination for those outside the university community.

This took some getting used to on the part of the broader university, says Loryn Johnson, marketing director for auxiliary services at USD. For the first several months, there was some hesitance among administrators to really push the restaurant to the outside world.

"Having not been able to really push it to the outside community from the get-go, that set us back a little bit," Johnson says. "But over the past couple of years, we've come a long way. And being on sites like Yelp and OpenTable is an immediate, easy way to get people to the restaurant."

Also helping to drive off-campus customers to La Gran Terraza are regular events that USD hosts at the restaurant. These events include weekly prime rib buffet nights, regular wine and craft beer dinners and holiday-driven special events including brunches on Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day. The restaurant's website touts its weekday "business lunch" prix fixe buffet and free valet parking for off-campus visitors.

Notably, La Gran Terraza is closed to the public all day Saturday and Sunday. While the restaurant originally offered a Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch, neither proved to be viable. Closing on those days, though, has turned into a boon for dining services.

Given that the restaurant has a liquor license, an attractive decor and some of the most beautiful views on campus, "it's a very popular event space. It just makes sense from a financial perspective to have the restaurant available on the weekend for special events," Johnson notes.

Adapting to Change

The hours of operation aren't the only thing that has changed at La Gran Terraza since its opening, of course. Currently, USD dining services is looking to adjust the restaurant's menu and decor to better serve the university community.

Designing the Grand Dining Room was one of the project's bigger challenges. USD architecture follows the Spanish Renaissance style, and every major facility on campus must, if not strictly match that style, at least be in harmony with it. Prior to designing the Grand Dining Room, the university's executive director of auxiliary service and its director of design visited Napa Valley and Las Vegas to find ways to seek inspiration for how to blend modern restaurant design with a more classical look. After their travels, they settled on a color scheme of creams, light blues and light tans, along with white tablecloths and modern lighting fixtures.

While this undoubtedly succeeded in creating a modern, high-end look, feedback received from the campus community as a whole indicated they were a bit too successful.

"The general consensus from the campus and administration is that it almost looks a little too fancy," said Johnson. It's not unheard of for students dressed in casual attire to choose to dine elsewhere, she added. In response, the dining services team is taking steps to relax the atmosphere by adopting a bistro look. Among the options under consideration: replacing the white tablecloths with butcher paper and having waiters wear long aprons. "From a business perspective we know our students are excellent customers, so we want to appeal to them as well as to faculty and staff," Johnson says.

Those aren't the only changes coming to La Gran Terraza. The menu itself is currently under revamp, with its Mediterranean-influenced offerings being replaced by a farm-to-table concept. While the details of this change are still being worked out with suppliers, Norman indicates it will likely result in a smaller, more focused menu that will feature local, seasonal ingredients. Such a change, she adds, also helps support the university's larger commitment to sustainability.

The presence of a fine-dining establishment helps the university in other ways. Prospective students on official campus visits can eat lunch for free at La Gran Terraza, and it is the go-to place for on-campus meals with potential employees, hot student and faculty recruits, and donors. While a high-end campus restaurant may not fit the mold for a university dining operation, La Gran Terraza has turned out to be a major asset for USD.

"There are certain occasions where people need to go and have a nice meal, whether it's for recruiting, corporate relations or whatever the case may be," says Johnson. "It makes sense to have a place like this on campus. Our campus has always been beautiful. It just made sense that we had a dining establishment that reflected that as well."

USD La Gran Terraza Snapshot

  • Opened: Fall 2009
  • Signature items: Heirloom apple salad, pork loin and beer cheese soup, Mediterranean fish tacos, O'Toole's grilled cheese with pommes frites
  • Check average: Lunch, $14; dinner, $25 (in the Grand Dining Room)
  • No. of customers per day: Lunch, 125; dinner, 110
  • Unit size: Grand Dining Room and outdoor terrace, 2,758 square feet; O'Toole's lounge, 1,808 square feet
  • Kitchen size: 2,383 square feet, excluding storage and walk-in

Key Players, Lla Gran Terraza

  • Andre Mallie, executive director, Auxiliary Services
  • Carol Norman, director, Dining Services
  • Loryn Johnson, director of marketing, Auxiliary Services
  • Design: Led by Mallie and Mary Whelan, executive director, University Design
  • Chef: Joseph Sands