Senate aides welcome new cuisine, but don’t touch their bread pudding

With Senate cafeterias shifting toward privatization, Senate staffers are wondering what changes are in store for their hungry bellies.

When the House contracted Restaurant Associates to oversee its cafeterias, staffers saw their eateries begin to offer more options on the menu, faster-moving lines and an overall improved eating environment.

Restaurant Associates will take over the Senate cafeterias if, as expected, the House approves a privatization bill already approved by the Senate. It’s still too soon to predict exactly how food service will be revamped, since the company’s offerings might differ from chamber to chamber.

Still, Senate staffers are already making requests. Alex Renjel, a staff assistant to the Republican office of the Environment and Public Works Committee, wants more variety.

“The Senate food is very generic,” he said. “Burgers, grilled cheese, pizza — I mean, with the exception of the sushi, it’s all very generic. But you can go off the Hill and get cheaper sushi.”

Renjel is not alone. Many staffers have tired of the cafeterias and would like to see the menu’s offer more choices, because options like green peppers stuffed with brown rice or portabella pork chops are just plain unappealing.

“I never touch the hot entrees,” said Allison Preiss, a staff assistant for Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). “They just don’t look good.”

One of the busiest cafeterias is in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. It’s so busy that between noon and 1:30 p.m., only staffers with valid identification are allowed in. Despite its popularity, Preiss, who goes for the bean soup or the sushi, says not only the food but the atmosphere could use a makeover.

“It’s hard to say what the difference is between the House and Senate cafeterias, but the Senate feels a bit like a high school cafeteria — without the tater tots, of course,” Preiss said.

Natalie Brown, an intern for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), just graduated from high school and says that while the Senate cafeterias are a step up for her, she can definitely see a similarity to her old high school eatery.

“It’s like a working-class version of a school cafeteria,” she said.

The House cafeterias, by many reports, are more popular than their Senate counterparts, but faced with a 20-minute walk, most Senate staffers have accepted their fate of eating on their side of the Capitol. Some have even grown fond of some of the items.

“They can privatize whatever they want, just don’t get rid of the bread pudding,” said Lucian Niemeyer, a professional staffer for the Senate Armed Service committee. “I know folks who go to the buffet and pay $12 just for the bread pudding.”

Capitol Police officers frequent the Senate cafeterias, and though they would not share specific suggestions, one officer said he looked forward to the changes but was concerned about the fate of the existing employees.

“I wouldn’t be upset if they upgraded, I’d just be worried about the employees,” said the officer, who did not want to be named for fear of losing his job.

Under the privatization bill, employees in the eateries will be able to accept a $25,000 buyout or keep their current benefits. New employees, however, will receive benefits through Restaurant Associates and will not be eligible for the old Senate pensions.

Some Senate eateries are already private entities and will not be affected. An example is a café, known as Cups, in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building.

That’s a good thing, as it has generated a loyal following since opening in 2000.

“Cups is the best food on the Hill,” said Melissa O’Brien, a tax resource specialist for the Joint Committee on Taxation.

“I love Thursdays when they have turkey. It’s really killer and hearty, over rice with a little bit of cranberry sauce,” she said. ‘I’ve been making Thanksgiving dinners since I was 13 years old, and I’ve never made it as good as they do it.”

O’Brien shudders to think of what she would do without Cups.

“There would be a revolt,” she said. “I don’t care how good other people are. Cups is a great alternative for people, and it’d be great competition for the other cafeterias.

“They should be given more space,” O’Brien continued. “I’ve never been down there when it hasn’t been packed.”

Laura Ray, a constituent-relations representative for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), says the other cafeterias need more space as well because the lines are barely tolerable.

O’Brien takes it one step further, saying that Senate cafeterias could benefit by looking at how the House cafeteria in Longworth has improved the way the food is displayed.

“The House-side food is very good, but it’s also in their presentation,” she said. “Their food has improved, but the presentation is half of the appeal.”

This seems to be a common theme among Senate staffers.

“I’d like to see them change the layout and make it brighter, like the House side,” Preiss said. “It looks tired and old. It needs to be spruced up.”

Some staffers would happily go without improved appearances, if only the cafeterias would start carrying their favorite item.

“I love sweet tea,” Ray said. “The tea down there [in the Senate cafeterias] tastes gross and you have to add sugar. Any other Southern senator’s office will tell you the same thing.”

Ray loves her sweet tea so much that she’ll go home to get her fill.

“I’m flying to Memphis next week, and the first thing I’m going to do is go straight to Corky’s BBQ and get the biggest sweet tea. If they had sweet tea like that [at the Senate cafeterias] I would eat down there more often.”