Whether you’ve moved off the Hill to live in an apartment or were ousted thanks to COVID-19 (lookin’ at you Class of 2020/21) the Bruin dining hall withdrawals are real. One of the things I miss most about residential dining is the deliciously outrageous themed dinners---one of the many things making UCLA dining so incredible. These special meals popped up a couple of times each quarter at all four dining halls. The themes were boundlessly creative; in my two years on the Hill, they included 1920’s Paris, Día de Los Muertos, Harry Potter, Indian Market, K-Pop, Pacific Island Cuisine, Black History Month, Dinner at Nonna’s, Chinese New Year, Avocado Fest, Carnival, “Brunch on Mamma’s Front Porch,” and Garlic Fest.

At these special meals, the hosting dining hall offered even more food options than usual, all related to the night’s genre. Adorable decorations, live performances from student groups, special music, and costumed employees made the evenings extra festive. UCLA dining has an incredible variety on a regular basis, but the addition of these unique dinners made it impossible to get bored.

If I had to rank them, my favorites would be as follows:

Garlic Fest

A spinoff of the California Gilroy Garlic Festival, this dinner theme was straightforward but utterly delicious. Everything had garlic and the aroma was absolutely heavenly. Giant heads of all different types of garlic adorned BPlate’s nooks and crannies and fact sheets were posted about the allium’s uses and health benefits. The night’s offerings included delicately striped bass with garlic chips and preserved lemon, supremely flavorful garlic parmesan fingerlings, green beans roasted with whole garlic cloves softened to a buttery consistency, and even garlic soup. Thankfully, my roommate and I went together so neither of us had to feel bad about reeking of garlic afterward.

Avocado Fest

Like most Californians, I live and die for avocados. They’re featured so frequently at BPlate that it only made sense to have an avocado-themed dinner. Full disclosure: I made a point to be one of the first ones in line. The lovely employee who swiped me in was literally dressed in a head-to-toe avocado costume. There was even free swag by the door: avocado stickers, little cookbooks, plus a cool avocado cutter/de-pitter. You could find avocado in every shape, form, and consistency that night. I started with a succulent shredded pork tostada drizzled with avocado crema, followed by Corvina (a white fish) topped with roasted corn avocado salsa and aji Amarillo sauce. Next was crispy pomegranate lamb leg with guacamole and couscous, an avocado stuffed baked potato, and avocado Margherita flatbread, and, of course, chips and guac. I only cried a little bit.

Grace Danon

Indian Market

This dinner might have been the most impressive, and I’m pretty sure it even involved a guest chef. It was at Feast and truly put their occasional Indian lunch buffets to shame. The authenticity and spice combinations were like nothing I’d ever had before, even at high-end Indian restaurants. Chicken tikka masala, keema paratha (with Impossible Meat in lieu of mutton), paneer butter masala, warming Rajasthani dahl, cumin-crusted baby carrots with cardamom yogurt, and, of course, naan and basmati rice to sop it all up (A.K.A. bliss).

Grace Danon

Pacific Island Cuisine

In general, Pacific Islander dishes are highly underrated, so kudos to UCLA Dining for putting them in the spotlight. One swipe and we took a step right into paradise, with student lua dancers performing right in the middle of Feast and leis strung on every corner. The food was pretty unforgettable. My favorite was the smoky kahlúa pork with sticky white rice, which went perfectly with a hyotan squash and mushroom bake (a crunchy, cheesy veggie casserole) and a colorful fruit salad in a sweet yogurt-honey sauce. For dessert, there was Samoan panikeke and possibly the best pineapple upside-down cake I’ve ever had. This one was during Spring quarter too…just in time to really make you wish it was summer…

1920’s Paris

This themed dinner was très charming. Before entering, we were greeted by a small magic show---not sure how that’s Parisian, but sure I guess? Crisp white tablecloths, string lights, and relaxing Parisian jazz convinced us we’d been transported to a classy French bistro…an all-you-care-to-eat French bistro. I honestly never thought that a) I would ever eat frog legs or b) that my first time trying them would be at a college dining hall; I guess it goes to show you that UCLA is a special place. Frogs aside, they dished out a beautifully rich coq au vin, gooey cheese fondue, crusty croque madames, steak diane, crepes, and macarons. Pizza was required since it was in Covel, but they topped it with escargot to compensate. Magnifique.

Grace Danon
Grace Danon

Harry Potter

The Potter fans definitely came through that night because it was by far the most crowded dining hall I’d ever seen. Dimmed lighting and black tablecloths created a whimsical atmosphere, and the Harry Potter movies rolled on the dining hall’s flat screens. Several enthusiastic employees were even fully decked in black robes and bearing Harry’s signature scar. The films’ soundtrack played in the background as everyone got into 30-minute lines for themed grub galore. The menu included some Potter-specific dishes as well as familiar British bites: toad-in-the-hole, Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips, sweet yet savory pumpkin and chicken pasties, scrumptious meat pies, carrots and peas, and cheesy cauliflower au gratin---all decadently filling. Washed down with some butterbeer, it was a magical meal indeed.

Grace Danon

It’s hard to believe that all these meals were in college dining halls. Hopefully, these themed dinners go to show it IS possible to mass-produce fun and diverse options that give students college food experiences that are actually worth remembering. Chicken tenders? Thanks, but I’ll take the frog legs, please.