Salad bar
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La Gran Terraza

5998 Alcala Park, USD

“People lined up around the block!” states one exuberant diner, his orotund voice booming with joyous, blustery, academic indifference. “They’ve never had voter turnout like that before,” he adds, closing his assessment of Bernie Sanders’ victory at the 2016 Democratic Caucus in Maine, then moving on to his theories behind the perverse ascendency of the Republican front-runner.

At the buffet

At the buffet

Dessert bar

Dessert bar

Wine bar

Wine bar

The Pacific lurks in the background.

The Pacific lurks in the background.

Only on a college campus could such splendid impartiality butt up against the sensuous glow of white linen tablecloths and the musical clink of silver and chinaware. The University of San Diego has been hiding this nook of affordable luxury for quite some time. La Gran Terraza, concealed at the back of the student center, is open to anyone, not just students, and it’s quite the genteel scene. Visitors can avail themselves of free valet parking out front of the student center during lunch hours.

At $14.50, the daily lunch buffet barely costs more than a trip to Quiznos. Spoiled old pedant that I am, I prefer to eat from plates and tablecloths and to finish my meal with a miniature crème brûlée rather than an individually shrink-wrapped Snickerdoodle. The cuisine, while delicious, is somewhat anonymous, but the menu presents different themes daily (pan-Asian one day, Americana the next), and both dessert and beverage are included in the price.

During the evenings, the wine menu lists some good deals on bottles, but no alcohol is served during the day. Students must study, after all.

The restaurant’s positioning at the edge of campus gives it a gorgeous overlook. Tecolote Canyon stretches below the outdoor patio seating, and even indoor diners get to take in the vista through bay windows. There is even an ocean view, if you look due west out over Mission Bay.

Perhaps the most curious thing about La Gran Terraza is that the campus restaurant cultivates a fine dining attitude not by loading the menu with haute cuisine and high prices but by providing a formal level of service (which should be impossible in a buffet situation, yet works perfectly) and requesting that diners dress appropriately. The result is a comforting oasis of academic bonhomie.

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