TUESDAY AT NOON, THE CAFETERIA AT DC'S NATIONAL Cathedral School is humming. Girls sit at long tables, chatting and sipping juice against the tinny clang of forks and spoons.
On their plates? It's not sloppy joes and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Students at this all-girls school sometimes dine on sea trout stuffed with crabmeat. In the past year, rosemary chicken, salmon cakes, and beef and broccoli in oyster sauce have graced the plates of these 4th- through 12th-grade girls.
A group of slouching seniors spoons spinach-and-tomato quiche; they resisted the carrot-raisin and sesame-noodle salads on the cold bar. Between bites, they complain that the food tends to be fatty.
"But we're so lucky," admits one athletic, chestnut-haired girl. "I give tours, and people from public schools can't believe what we eat."
CAFETERIA FOOD HAS COME A long way from dry hamburgers and crusty macaroni and cheese. This is especially true at Washington's elite private schools.
To keep up with the tastes of students–many of whom are accustomed to eating out in the city's best restaurants–some schools have brought in professional chefs to create inventive menus.
Peter Moutsos, a former chef at the Washington Monarch Hotel, now puts his culinary knowledge to work for the kids at DC's Sidwell Friends School. Chelsea Clinton attended Sidwell, one of the most exclusive schools in the area. It has encouraged chef Moutsos to provide a menu to match.
Students nibble on saffron risotto with lemon baked cod. They push around their plates pine-nut-crusted salmon in a lemon-dill sauce. Some days they'll choose a cornmeal-crusted pork loin; other days it might be pad Thai.
If they do have hot dogs, says Moutsos, "it'll look more like a half-smoke with a side of tricolored tortilla chips." Instead of chicken nuggets, the lunch on November 6 was gratin of chicken tenders with mozzarella and tomato-basil coulis.
At Georgetown Preparatory School north of Bethesda, the dining director attended the prestigious culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. The school's cafeteria resembles a wedding buffet. A carving station slices London broil or roasted turkey while a pasta station serves up pasta with sun-dried-tomato pesto. Burgers are handmade, packed with seasonings, and grilled outdoors–year-round.
KIDS, OF COURSE, STILL LOVE PIZZA AND TATER TOTS. SIDwell students didn't immediately take to the gourmet cuisine, new since May.
"At first we laughed at the menu and ate peanut butter and jelly," says senior Leigh Spoon. "Even the salad dressings went from French and ranch to Asian sesame and raspberry vinaigrette. It took a little while, but now we're used to it and the lines have gotten longer."
Does gourmet always mean good? It depends on who's talking. One Sidwell mother says her seventh-grader dislikes the food so much that he comes home hungry every day. Meanwhile, a junior girl says, "I think it's good, but I was raised eating this stuff."
Moutsos joins the ranks of many school chefs in saying that kids' tastes are more sophisticated these days. Many are vegetarians, and one-third of American students belong to an ethnic minority group.
Bill Sanders, food service director at National Cathedral School, believes lunch has evolved for another reason: With more after-school activities, kids often arrive home late–as do parents–and families sometimes skip dinner. It's more important than ever, say school chefs, to get kids to eat a healthy lunch.
"A lot of these girls don't get home-cooked meals," Sanders says. "It's an important part of the day for them."
AT THE ALL-BOYs ST. ALBANS School, students eat around large wooden tables. Food arrives in glass serving bowls, and informal discussions are led by a faculty member. The purpose: to create a feeling of family.
The St. Albans ritual has been around for decades, but with the hectic lives of current parents and kids, school administrators feel it has become increasingly important.
"Lunch is the social center of their world," says Carole Rice, communications director at St. Albans.
The entrée selection here tends to be more modest–chicken nuggets and spaghetti are common. But a group of ten fourth- through eighth-grade boys couldn't hide their excitement at the potential for pine-nut-crusted salmon. They have been schooled in the art of fine dining. "Well, we had lobster last week," said one sixth-grader with a head of fluffy blond hair (he was joking).
"They've been exposed to this food at a young age," says Warren Belasco, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "It inculcates kids with elitist tastes. It's about socializing them into the same demographic as their parents."
Back in the sunny cafeteria at National Cathedral School, a group of girls discusses how their spiffy lunchroom has made them take a careful look at the dining services at prospective colleges. Princeton's is okay, they say. Cornell's is great.
"When I visited Haverford College," says one, "the food was terrible. I wasn't impressed at all." n