If you go

What: Members of the public can eat at the Center for Community buffet.

When: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Where: The Center for Community, on CU's campus, is on Regent Drive near Broadway, next to the Leeds School of Business.

Cost: Meals cost $9.95 plus tax, and the Center for Community only takes credit and debit cards.

On the outside of a state-of-the art dining complex, a wall of flat screens can televise live cooking demonstrations, perhaps zooming in on a chef sautéing green-lipped mussels in garlic butter.

Inside, a Tuscan-motif marketplace gives diners the option of nine themed restaurants. Behind one counter, chefs hand-roll sushi rolls that could complement salted edamame. At the Latin station, burritos can be topped with pineapple-cilantro salsa.

This is a just a taste of today's dorm food at the University of Colorado.

CU's opening of a new $84.4 million Center for Community building includes an avant-garde central dining hall that lampoons the college cafeteria stereotype of mystery meat and Lucky Charms for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (There are still cereal options, but they're next to the panini press and fresh fruit display).

New and returning students are wowed by what CU's got cooking in the new dining center.

"It's like a gourmet restaurant buffet," said CU senior Frank Distel, who ate lunch last week in the Center for Community with one of his friends who is a resident adviser.

"It feels like you're at Epcott," said CU senior Mary Peterson who came to check out the dining hall that she wishes she had as a freshman.

As food and ambience have improved, room and board costs at the flagship campus have also escalated -- although CU officials vow that the state-of-the-art dining center won't drive up the cost of eating and living in its dorms.

University of Colorado student Neal McMorrow serves himself from the grill station at the Center for Community s dining hall on Wednesday. The dining hall
University of Colorado student Neal McMorrow serves himself from the grill station at the Center for Community s dining hall on Wednesday. The dining hall offers staples -- like pizza -- along with fancier international fare. The dining hall will bring in guest chefs and even take recipes from students. ( MARTY CAIVANO )

But one conservative CU regent is concerned that such extravagant dining strays from the academic mission of the university, and is part of a trend that has schools modeling themselves after country clubs.

Students this year are paying $10,792 for room and board, which is nearly double what undergraduates paid to live on campus at the beginning of the decade.

Five-star dining?

CU's executive chef, Kerry Paterson, has been in the food industry for a quarter of a century and at the Boulder campus for a decade.

"Never did I dream I'd be opening a 900-seat restaurant," he said earlier this month, as a large group of students sat their trays down in a half-moon-shaped booth fit for a crowd.

Homesick students can bring in their favorite family recipe, and chefs at the "black coats" station will work to recreate it, Paterson said. Guest chefs from local restaurants will also be invited to cook at the station, which specializes in small plates. Already, Paterson expects chefs from Boulder's Laudisio Italian Restaurant will make cameo appearances.

Paterson said today's students have grown up watching cooking shows and have developed more discerning taste buds, which contributes to the shift in college dining.

"They don't want just a stir fry," Paterson said. "They want a Thai chicken basil dish."

They also want to see their food being prepared, Paterson said, which is why CU's chefs are customizing students' meals out in the open.

CU is considering an herb garden, said dining director Amy Beckstrom, to give dishes some extra-fresh flavor. In response to student requests, CU also serves kosher foods at one station.

An increasing number of students are also coming to college with food allergies, said Julie Wong, vice chancellor for student affairs, leading the university to specialize its offerings. An "A9 Allergen Project" helps students navigate foods that are free of the most common allergens, such as milk, eggs, peanuts and gluten.

CU's also catering to environmentally conscious students:

More than 200,000 gallons of fryer grease is captured for a local biodiesel company to turn into fuel. The newest dishwashers are water-efficient. And by 2015, 25 percent of CU's food offerings will be organic, 25 percent natural and 25 percent locally grown.

Chef Don Louie, center, jokingly tells Du Xuean to work faster as a long line of students forms Wednesday at the sushi station in the Center for Community
Chef Don Louie, center, jokingly tells Du Xuean to work faster as a long line of students forms Wednesday at the sushi station in the Center for Community s dining hall. The new building at the University of Colorado offers nine themed stations, including Italian, Persian, Kosher and Latin foods. ( MARTY CAIVANO )

Earlier this summer, CU's Housing and Dining Services accepted one of eight national Achievement of Excellence awards from the American Culinary Federation. CU was the lone college to win the award; others went to a golf and tennis club, a steakhouse, a hotel restaurant and a senior living center.

Catering to college kids

One of CU freshman Colby Colgate's first meals on campus included sushi rolls and a salad of organic lettuce from a 60-foot-long salad bar dubbed "Wholesome Fields" -- a play on words to invoke school spirit. (Think Folsom Field, home of the Buffs.)

Colgate's mother joined her in the new Center for Community dining hall Wednesday and ate antipasto from the Italian station, which also offers create-your-own pasta bowls.

Deb Colgate said she likes the fresh, nutritional options that her daughter will be able to choose.

The family will be paying about $17,800 for in-state tuition and room and board for Colby Colgate's first year of college. It's worth the money, Deb Colgate said.

"When I was in college, dining was very institutional," she said. "You had your choice of dried-out chicken breasts or roast beef, served from big trays."

Colby Colgate said she'll be making the commute from her Williams Village dorm to eat in the Center for Community for most meals.

Room and board at CU

2010: $10,792

2009: $10,378

2008: $9,860

2007: $9,088

2006: $8,300

2005: $7,980

2004: $7,564

2003: $6,754

2002: $6,272

2001: $5,898

2000: $5,538

1999: $5,202

The dining center is at the heart of CU's 183,000-square-foot Center for Community building, which also brings together several student offices, such as Career Services and the Office of International Education.

A separate late-night hub that's open until 2 a.m. in the building is designed to keep students on campus -- perhaps for poetry slam events or acoustic music -- instead of party-hopping on University Hill. Students will eventually be able to text message pizza orders to the hub, which also serves smoothies, gelato and made-to-order sandwiches.

The building is financed through bonds and will be repaid from campus parking fees, housing and dining revenue and private fundraising. Its construction is not causing an increase in student fees, officials say.

The building also relies on $18 million in donations; so far, CU has raised roughly $4 million but has listed the building as its top fundraising priority for the Boulder campus.

CU Regent Tom Lucero, R-Berthoud, voted against construction of the Center for Community a few years ago when its initial blueprints came before the board.

Among his concerns: CU shouldn't launch a major fundraising campaign for a non-academic building. He's among the critics who worry that colleges are treating students more like customers.

"It's a ridiculous arms race that higher education has gotten itself into, catering to students," Lucero said. "No wonder students don't want to leave and it's taking six years to graduate. We create an environment that's unrealistic of what they can expect in the real world."

Tater tots and pizza here to stay

The central dining hall is among five on campus.

CU leaders expect that its newness will initially draw large crowds of students, especially in the first few weeks of the semester.

But Kambiz Khalili, executive director of CU's Housing and Dining Services, doesn't worry that the other dining halls on the campus will be empty. The Center for Community is across the street from the Kittredge Complex, and will serve as the main eatery for students who live there.

But students in other dorms will opt for proximity and won't travel to central campus for every meal, Khalili said. Dining halls on campus each have their own features: Farrand, for example, has a focus on local and sustainable foods, and there are several big-screen televisions so students can watch the news or their favorite sitcom while they eat. In Williams Village, students can grill their own burgers and hot dogs.

Sarah Jane Siefert, a resident adviser at Kittredge who lived and ate in the dorms last year, is hooked on the new dining hall.

"Oh my gosh," she said. "It's like a whole new world. It's not even like a dining hall."

On a recent afternoon, she ate chow mein and apple pie.

And while there's lots of fancy international fare -- like hand-made kebabs and North African pork loin -- there are also the traditional college staples like tater tots and pizza (though it's baked in a stone oven).

Billy Kardys, a lead chef at CU, is also a certified judge for the Kansas City Barbecue Society.

CU's Smoke 'n Grill offers a combination of comfort foods and barbecue. An in-house smoker allows chefs to make brisket, pork, salmon and other recipes.

"The possibilities are endless," Kardys said. "We're turning college kids into foodies."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.