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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Culinary Creativity: Spotlight on Foco Theme Nights

The termly events allow Dartmouth Dining to provide fresh, creative menu items to students.

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This article is featured in the 2024 Green Key special issue.

From New England Fall Harvest to Italian Night, theme nights at the Class of 1953 Commons consistently attract large numbers of undergraduates — who, faced with stir fry, pasta, pizza, salad and daily specials, may be looking for a respite from the monotony of College dining.

While some students seek out theme nights in search of higher quality food and a fun ambiance, others walk into Foco surprised to see the dining hall decked in streamers and balloons. Behind the scenes, Dartmouth Dining staff members work hard to execute these termly events — not only to give students something to look forward to, but also to switch things up for dining workers themselves.

Class of 1953 Commons general manager Brandon Crosby said that “because ’53 Commons is here seven days a week, almost 20 hours a day,” theme nights “are designed to alleviate some of that fatigue that every single one of us feel.” Theme nights are planned, along with the entire term’s menu, by around week five or six of the previous term, Crosby said.

Anne Guidera ’25 said she hears about Foco theme nights by reading the table tents at various Dartmouth Dining locations, which promote upcoming events. Others, like Madeleine Wu ’26, hear about the events by word of mouth. 

“I think they are a fun change of scenery at Foco,” Guidera said. “Everybody goes to Foco on those nights, and it’s busier and more fun.”

Wu added that people gravitate toward theme nights not only because of the higher food quality but also for the “social aspect.” She explained that theme nights provide a space to socialize “because everybody’s there.”

On Italian night, Foco fed more than 2,600 students — more than half of the College’s undergraduate population, Crosby said.

While Wu said she enjoys the social scene, she emphasized the need for “some system to better optimize population control” — noting that some people had to arrive at Foco on Italian Night at 5:30 p.m. to get in due to crowds.

Frank Gallo ’27 said he enjoys the variety that theme nights bring, highlighting the venison pizza, sushi and blue corn cakes during Fall Harvest as particularly creative menu items.

“I really like the fact that they introduce … unusual dishes that are otherwise not super common,” Gallo said.

However, Gallo also recalled that some of Foco’s staples largely remained the same during theme nights that he attended. He suggested that Dartmouth Dining do more to change up the menus at other stations to fit the theme night. 

At some theme nights, the ’53 Commons invites local vendors to participate, according to Guidera. She said it was “so cool to see all the vendors and local farmers and food producers outside Foco when you walk in” during Fall Harvest.

Another popular event is Pancake Night, when Late Night is transformed into an all-you-can eat breakfast food buffet, including pancakes, french toast sticks, eggs, hash browns and fresh fruit. The event happens during finals week, giving students “something to look forward to when you’ve been in the library all day,” Guidera said.

“It’s a nice way … [to] be able to break up your studying, take a breather with friends and relax and enjoy some good late night food,” Guidera said.

Guidera added that she enjoys Pancake Night’s unique offerings. According to Guidera, alumni classes donate money for real, local Vermont maple syrup on Pancake Night, and she also appreciates the fresh fruit.

“Honestly, one of the best parts about Pancake Night is being able to have berries and watermelon — which feel like foods that I haven’t had in three months when they get here,” Guidera said.

Wu said the popularity of other theme nights — such as the spring term’s Italian Night — “reflects people’s general desires to have fresh food.”

“That's just one thing I remember the most from Italian night … there was a lot of fresh fruit and meat,” Wu said.

Italian Night brings an antipasto spread to the salad station, Italian-style gelato and a celebratory ambiance complete with checkered tablecloths, flowers in vases and Italian music. 

This past winter, Foco featured a Mardi Gras theme night as the main event of the term. Green, gold and purple streamers decked the halls to accompany New Orleans-inspired dishes, such as shrimp and grits and fried catfish po boy, Gallo said. 

Other annual themed events at Foco include Valentine’s Day, Decade Nights, a Star Wars-themed “May the Fourth” event and Cookie Decorating. On Valentine’s Day, Gallo recalled that he “was waiting in line for like 10 or 15 minutes” but said “it was totally … worth it because of the [cheesecake].”

Guidera said she enjoyed attending the cookie decorating event at the end of fall term, where there was a station for attendees to decorate gingerbread man cookies.

Students are interested in bringing some elements of theme nights into the regular Foco rotation. Guidera suggested incorporating some of the food items featured on theme nights into the daily Foco menu, though she acknowledged that these offerings can be expensive. 

“Maybe you don’t necessarily need to wait until finals to offer more fruit, or it doesn’t just need to be on fall harvest that we get cheese and crackers from Vermont and New Hampshire,” Guidera said.

Crosby explained that there are “10 to 12 little things that make [a theme night] special.” One detail, which Crosby said he learned during his culinary education, is the importance of visual presentation.

“People eat with their eyes,” he said. “It’s a bunch of little things that make it look like it's a big thing.”

While the events require extensive planning, such as decoration, menu setup, service methods and more, Crosby said that some of the “pressure” of planning theme nights “comes from an internal desire to make everybody happy.”

“When you feed 2,600 people … not everybody’s ever gonna be happy, but I think everybody appreciates what we tried to do,” Crosby said.

According to Crosby, Dartmouth Dining is open to student recommendations for theme nights and other events. Guidera said she thinks that a Pasta Bar Night would be successful, while Gallo suggested a burrito-making station in place of the regular stir fry section. Wu said she would like to see an Asian-inspired theme night at Foco.

Crosby reiterated that dining workers “work with students” — citing the green-to-go program, which “started as a student-led initiative.”

“I think these theme nights serve as sort of a reminder to the student body that I guess [Dartmouth Dining] cares,” Gallo said. “They definitely … emphasize the dialogue that exists between [Dartmouth Dining] and the student body.”