It sounded like an interesting dining experience so I had to bite — literally. When I heard about the Bistro Dinner Series, hosted by the students at the Widener University Center for Hospitality Management, I couldn’t wait to make a reservation.
A few years ago, I dined at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College on Walnut St. in Philly and I was totally impressed by the whole experience. Culinary students staff each of the Restaurant School’s restaurants and provide the ambiance and gourmet cuisine, creating a one-of- a-kind dining experience that’s tough to find elsewhere. I found something pretty darn close to it last Wednesday night, right here in Delaware County, when I visited Widener’s student-run café. If you’re looking for something totally different—and very yummy- make a reservation for this mid-week treat of a night out. Diners get to choose their time on select Wednesday evenings, between 5 and 6:30 p.m.
Students from the Widener University Center for Hospitality Management kicked off their popular Fall 2017 Bistro Dinner Series back in October. Throughout the semester, members of the public are invited in to dine and experience vibrant flavors from around the world.
The dinner series gives students the opportunity to learn how to lead and operate a restaurant. Student groups are assigned a menu and each management team plans, develops and executes the meal from pre-production to post-production. The students — many of whom are pursuing careers in event planning and restaurant/hotel management — are responsible for calculating production costs and managing their fellow students who are producing and serving these meals.
Dinner is served in the J. Willard & Alice S. Marriott Dining Room, located in the Academic Center North (ACN) on the Main Campus of Widener University in Chester, where there’s plenty of free parking. The Marriott Dining Room is the laboratory environment for two courses, the Applied Food Production Management and Restaurant Operations Management. In these courses, students apply the theoretical concepts learned through the management of restaurant operations from conceptual development, service management, operations management, human resource management to financial management. Student managers are able to develop their leadership skills while managing the Marriott Dining Room.
When we arrived at the tastefully decorated restaurant, we immediately found a relaxed, casual atmosphere and beautifully set tables. The staff of students was both friendly and accommodating. Tyler Campbell of Aston, a junior at Widener, was serving as the general manager that night. He told me that he and classmates take turns in their jobs at the restaurant so students can experience all aspects of the restaurant business, from management to chef to server. The very personable Tyler, dressed impeccably in a suit, showed us to our table. He reappeared several times throughout the evening to be sure we were enjoying our meal and had everything that we desired.
We were apologizing profusely to him because we were late for the reservation. The I-95 ramp was closed near Widener, which we didn’t know, so we had to cut through and take a longer route. I felt like one of those customers who comes in the restaurant 10 minutes before closing time and gets the evil eye from all staff. However, Tyler showed no evil eye. He was gracious and seemed unfazed by our tardiness. I would give him an A-plus for his friendliness and hospitality.
Next, we met student Katie Rabuck of Hagins, Pa., who was our server. Katie was friendly, attentive and told us that she hopes to work for Hershey some day. She started Widener with hopes of becoming a physical therapist but after starting into the course work, she realized it wasn’t for her. She enrolled in the hospitality program and never looked back. Katie said that’s what she originally wanted to do, but was unaware of all the career opportunities in the hospitality field. Once she explored the options, it was a no-brainer to choose which degree and career path that she wanted to pursue. Her enthusiasm and passion for the hospitality industry shined through her work and her conversation — and she gave us superior service.
I don’t know how to explain it, but there is something exhilarating about being around young students who are just starting out on their career paths. You wish you could bottle up the excitement and freshness for adventure and take it with you for the road. Forget the doggie bag for the leftover food. I want the doggie bag with the bottle of youthful energy!
The two-course bistro menu typically features a soup or salad and a main entrée, all for a reasonable price. The menu was limited, but one description sounded better than the next, honestly. Maybe it was because it was almost 7 p.m., but by the time we placed our order, I was so hungry I could have eaten a horse. Thankfully, there were no horses on the menu.
My two dining partners and I all ordered the French Onion Soup as an appetizer. The menu gave diners a choice to pick an item from column A, which was soup or salad, and an entrée from column B, which was the main meal. For an entrée, I chose the Greek Kabob Salad, priced at $14.95. Tender sirloin beef was marinated with Greek seasoning and was served grilled to perfection, resting on a classic crisp Greek salad, garnished with mint and feta cheese. It was truly to die for!
My two dining partners both chose the Teriyaki Salmon Udon Bowl, also priced at $14.95. The seared salmon was nestled atop a blend of teriyaki udon noodles, long beans and bok choy and garnished with scallions, sesame seeds, cilantro and lime. Trying not to look unsophisticated and uncultured, I leaned quietly in and asked my dining partners, “What the heck is an udon noodle?” I learned something new and unexpectedly increased my culinary knowledge.
Other menu choices included a Pulled Chicken Sandwich, served with choice of fries or onion rings, and Hawaiian Flatbread with grilled ham and pineapple and mozzarella cheese.
When we were making our menu choices, I asked the family dining at the table next to us, what they would recommend, since they were already digging into their desserts. Taylar Spata of Aston recommended the Salmon. “It was phenomenal,” she exclaimed, “and so is the French Onion Soup!”
Danielle D’Ambrosio of Aston, at the same table as Taylar, confided, “The service was really good here too — prompt and attentive!” We later found out that the family was related to our GM Tyler, so that may have made them a little prejudiced. However, we found out for ourselves, about 15 minutes later, that they were right on about the salmon, soup and service!
As we waited for our meals to come out, Professor Jeff Lolli, Ed.D, CHE, CHIA, came out to introduce himself. With all those letters behind his name, I knew that he had to know his stuff, and know it well. Professor Lolli teaches in the School of Business Administration and Hospitality Management at Widener. Lolli said there are about 100 students in the Hospitality undergrad program at Widener and about 25 in the graduate program.
The 107 is a basic course where students learn to cook, Lolli explained. The 207 course is the class where we found ourselves this past Wednesday night. Guests enjoy a two-course à la carte meal prepared and served by the students as part of their Applied Food Production Management Course. The student groups are assigned a menu and each management team plans, develops, and executes the meal from pre-production to post-production to create a casual and relaxed dining experience. This course is designed to simulate the opening and running of a casual service restaurant.
“We have 96 percent job placement with our graduates,” explained Lolli. He said the curriculum is strong on the core components of service, operations, leadership and management.
“Our graduates go right into entry level general manager positions,” Lolli explained. “Everyone here at Widener is very well trained when they graduate this program, with a lot of on-the-job and business experience.”
The 407 course, a more advanced class that will be taught in the spring, teaches the fine dining experience. Even the hours of operation are different. Reservations are taken up to 7:30 p.m. Guests enjoy a four-course fixed-price meal prepared and served by the students as part of their Restaurant Operations Management Course. The student groups are assigned a theme and each management team plans, develops and executes the meal from pre-production to post-production to create an elegant and formal dining experience. Themes vary from “Disney Dining” and “Mexican Fiesta” to “California Adventure,” “Middle Eastern Sampler,” and “Rustic Southwest.” This course is designed to simulate the opening and running of a fine dining restaurant. I thought Wednesday evening’s “casual” dinner was pretty fancy schmanzy, but I was told that the spring series is more upscale and even fancier. This knowledge made me anxious and excited to come back and dine again in the spring because it was really fun being a part of students’ learning experience and it was a fabulous dinner for $14.95.
Oh, and did I mention, you’re able to add on beer and wine to round out your meal? There’s a choice between House Red, House White, House Rose or bottled beer. Katie bought out a delectable dessert tray, too, and offered us Oreo Pie, Peanut Butter Pike, Apple Caramel Tore or Chocolate Turtle Lava Cake. From appetizer to dessert, the meal was truly delicious. I didn’t want to disturb the chefs who were back there cleaning the kitchen after cooking up a storm all night, but we told Katie , Professor Lolli, and of course, GM Tyler, to be sure that they give our compliments to the cooks. They did a super job and I hope it reflects in their grades.
The fall Bistro series will soon come to a close. There are a few dates left, so if you want to help out some ambitious students, who will be the bright future of the hospitality industry, and at the same time have a unique (and delicious) dining experience, get in your reservation soon. Reservations will be taken for Nov. 8, 15, 29 and Dec. 6 — that’s four more opportunities to check out this fun dining experience before it disappears until the next semester.
The menus change each week, so if you like the experience and want to become “a regular,” you can count on variation, which is a fun way to escape hum-drum ruts and expand your dining horizon. To get more details and to view menus for each week, visit widener.edu/academics/schools/sba/hospitality/Marriott.aspx/. I scoped out a few of the menus to come in the next six weeks and they offer all kinds of yummy options, from Shrimp Pad Thai Bowl, Chinese Cashew Chicken Salad , Spanish Tapas Flatbread and BBQ Chicken Mac and Cheese Bowl to Ham and Cheese Panini, Beef Stroganoff Bowl, Cubano Flatbread, and Strawberry Salad.
Buona petite! If you go, I hope that you enjoy your dining experience and have as much fun as I did!
For reservations, call 610-499-1127 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Reservations for parties of six or more must confirm the Friday before the reservation date. Any unconfirmed reservations will be cancelled. A take-out option is also available.