My Lunch at the Condé Nast Cafeteria

June 4, 2007 | By | COMMENTS

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Psssst… don’t tell anyone, but I’m about to sneak you into the Condé Nast cafeteria. That’s right. This is where Anna Wintour (you know, Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada”) goes to eat, alongside the fine people from Gourmet, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and so on. People are fascinated with the place-they’re always writing about it on Gawker–and many people wonder (including myself, before last week) what kind of food do fashion models, feisty editors and literary luminaries eat together? Well now I have the answer. My friend Mr. X just started a job there and he invited me to join him for lunch as long as I didn’t take flash pictures or reveal his identity. So, get your heels on and “gird your loins”–it’s time to do the Condé nasty

The 4th floor of the Condé Nast building has a hallway with two ends: at one end is Gourmet Magazine and at the other is the Cafeteria. We arrived around 1 pm and the cafeteria was bustling. Two things happen before you enter the cafeteria proper: (1) You put cash on your card (sort of like we did in college) so you can pay by swiping it afterwards; and (2) You read the specials on the board:

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As you can see (despite the blurry picture) the options are pretty unique for a cafeteria: Polish food, fish and chips, grilled beef satay and halibut. I’m not sure–and I just tried to research it, to no avail–but it feels like Gourmet has its hand in the food they serve across the hall. Lots of the food looks like Gourmet Magazine food–colorful, fresh ingredients. Then again, my friend Mr. X said that the cafeteria is run by the same management company that ran our college cafeteria.

I didn’t take a picture of the food stations because that would’ve been too conspicuous. Far more fascinating than the food arrangements, though, were the people lined up for food: there were older men in suits chatting about “fact checking,” young fashion model-y types heading straight for the salad station, and there was this blond guy with glasses from The New Yorker who interviewed Rufus Wainwright two years ago at The New Yorker festival. (I know, because I was there!) And yet, despite all these illustrious characters, the room was a bit depressing. Dark and crowded, I still felt like I was in a cafeteria. Which proves the adage: “a cafeteria is still a cafeteria, even at Conde Nast, dumbass.”

After we paid, we made our way to a table in this Frank Gehry designed environment:

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I should’ve mentioned that sooner: Frank Gehry designed the Conde Nast cafeteria. As you can see, it has his signature wavy architecture and idiosyncratic shapes. I enjoyed all of that but the overall aesthetic reminded me of EPCOT: a kitschy, retro version of the future.

But who cares about the aesthetic, this is a food blog and you want to know about the food. Let’s study my plate, shall we?

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Look how it glistens. At 12 o’clock, you can barely make out cauliflower in some kind of chile sauce; then, moving clockwise, there’s asparagus, bowtie pasta, and–from the Polish table–Kielbasa, Pierogi, and braised red cabbage.

It was all pretty good. I say pretty good because I don’t wish to have any of it again. And some of it lacked flavor, though kielbasa and grainy mustard is a classically good combination. All in all, I was disappointed: this is what all the fuss was about? Is this really what Anna Wintour eats?

Before I was ready to dismiss it all, though, Mr. X and I split this cupcake:

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I don’t know why, but I loved this cupcake. We cut it down the middle and there was cream on the inside too. The cupcake was a green color–was it pistachio? Or lime? It was hard to tell but one thing I know is that it was one of the best cupcakes I’ve ever eaten. It almost made me wish I was Anne Hathaway tracking down an impossible copy of the newest “Harry Potter” just so I could eat that cupcake everyday.

Otherwise, though, I won’t be returning anytime soon (except to hang out with Mr. X, who is fun company). Cafeteria food is institutional food, no matter how you slice it. Prison food, school food and this are all in the same family. And like Meadow Soprano, who went to Columbia and may now go to law school and who dated a hot dentist in the last season, she is–despite all her accomplishments–still a Soprano. This is still a cafeteria. To quote a great woman: “That’s all.”

Categories: Manhattan, Midtown, New York, Restaurant Reviews

  • Julie

    Thanks for shedding some light on this deep dark mystery that’s haunted me for ages! I’ve always dreamed of working for Conde Nast. It’s mildly disappointing to hear that the cafeteria isn’t all it’s supposed to be, but oh well: you’re still in the middle of New York City, with some of the country’s finest dining.

  • Sandy

    The cafeteria has always been about limiting, and limited, access. Some people want to go there because they generally cannot. Food is secondary, to the extent it even comes up in their thinking. I’ve never heard anyone say the food was any good, or even advance-comment on the food if they’ve gone there – have you?

  • Sam

    Next time you’re in the Bay Area, you should try to eat at Apple’s cafeteria. It doesn’t feel very cafeteria-foody. But it might to you. But it didn’t to me. :)

  • http://www.kitchenbeard.com kitchenbeard

    I temped at CondeNast for several magazines (Vogue, Gourmet, Bon Appetite) from 1997 to 1999. Back then the cafeterai was decent. I’ve read that the food service corporatioin that ran it when it first opened no longer runs it.

    As for Anna… I doubt she never eats there.

  • http://www.cookingwithamy.com Amy Sherman

    Isn’t it funny how only at a cafeteria do you end up with a plate of stuff like that? Same thing happened to me when I ate at Google’s cafeteria. Weird combos based on, I dunno, availability perhaps?

  • Mr. X

    Mr. X thinks that the Amateur Gourmet came on a weird day (“Polish Cuisine Day”), and he would have been much happier if he had come on “Comfort Food Day” or “Taco Bar Day.”

  • Anonymous

    Anna does eat there! Amazing, I know. I agree with Mr. X that you may have enjoyed a different day… “Swedish Day” and “Greek Day” are two of my favorites… You’ll have to come back!

  • http://www.pinkofperfection.com Sarah

    I know it’s where the “model-y” types flock, but the salad bar truly is amazing. Roasted fennel! White bean salads with sun-dried tomato and arugula! Heirloom tomatoes with Maytag blue! I have no complaints.

  • anonymous

    As a matter of fact, Anna does eat in the cafeteria. The food quality is amazing. The deco is very nice. My favorites are “Turkish Day” and “make your own pita day”.

  • Deb

    Hysterical and fascinating. I think you should do a whole series and it can be your second book!

    The Devil’s Food Eats Prada.

  • anon foodie

    For the record, Gourmet doesn’t have anything to do with the food in the Conde Nast cafeteria! They have their own private dining room on the same floor as the cafe (overseen by Sara Moulton), where they serve fabulous & swanky Gourmet meals to clients, VIPs and a few lucky readers from time to time. The cafeteria is run by Restaurant Associates…

  • chrisp

    oh my god you made the Huffpost!!–way to go–i have enjoyed your blog very much–now try to get into the Gourmet Dining Room

  • Julia Haley

    The best part about the caff is it’s design and the viewing, it’s very very social. Tea time (4pm) is a little treat—smoked salmon finger sandwiches, teeny cream cakes, and a cuppa—they’ve got to keep the brits there somehow!

    Anna W definitely eats her (all white) food there on occasion. She has been seen at the salad bar (naturlich leibchin!) grazing and whispering to a blonde tourist correspondent. Anna couldn’t cross her arms as she was holding a china plate—this is Conde Nast, no nasty paper for them!

  • NastyGuy

    You got one detail wrong. The opposite side of the floor from the cafeteria are the Gourmet test kitchens. Gourmet magazine itself is located one floor up.

  • http://www.midtownlunch.com Zach@MidtownLunch

    I’m so jealous!!! I’ve been wanting to sneak in there for a Midtown Lunch piece forever!!!

  • Susan

    Your description sounds almost exactly like the employee cafeteria at the Met Museum, including the ample salad bar but minus the Frank Gehry glamor (Glamour?) factor. Restaurant Associates sounds right — edible, sometimes pretty decent, but nothing to get excited about.

  • ebw

    how about a report from google’s cafeteria? or ebay if you are ever on the west coast. my sister works at there and the food sounds really good.

  • anonymous

    Can’t believe no one has mentioned the most peculiar aspect of Conde Nast cafeteria food. By decree of our fearless leader, NOTHING has garlic in it. Although some food has always been great without that magic little allium—those cupcakes, for instance, and sushi(Ruth Reichl eats here)—it’s absence in Ceasar salad, Cuban mojo, and lasagne is nothing short of food lobotomy.

  • cherifi

    je suis un hotellier de lecole de bousaada du tourisme et de l’hotellerie.j’aimerais savoir plus sur les decore de restauration et des salades(hord’eouvres.car on a auqu’une aide depuis que ns avans termine notr stages.sa serra un honneur pour moi ainci que mes amis on amerais faires savoir no clients vos decores superbe franchement on est sur le point de perdre tous ce que nous avons etudier

    merci et bonnecontinuite

  • Anonymous

    actually, it’s delicious…the roasted butternut squash at the salad bar is my favorite

  • Anonymous

    actually, it’s delicious…the roasted butternut squash at the salad bar is my favorite

  • Conde Corbin

    Anna dose eat at the cafeteria,

  • Conde Corbin

    Anna dose eat at the cafeteria,