The Refectory–A Cutting Edge Cafeteria

Tucked away in the LSTC building at 55th and University, you’ll find Hyde Park’s best-kept secret: the Refectory Cafeteria and Solá Café.   Ben Randall, the executive chef, has spent three years creating this hidden gem, which began as a food service to McCormick and LSTC students and now is a beloved hangout of residents, construction workers, professors, and neighborhood residents.

Ben was recruited by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) to take what was then a struggling food service and turn it into a place where the seminary community could hang out and get a good (and cheap!) bite to eat. Ben had been cooking professionally for over 20 years, and had worked everywhere from Mom and Pop Italian joints to 4-star Michelin restaurants. But he was looking for a change. The fast life of a chef was no longer appealing, and it was cutting into his family time. This job offered Ben the opportunity to be more creative in the kitchen, to build something new from the ground up, and afternoons/evenings free to hang out with his kids. “It was a gold mine,” he says. At the beginning of his tenure in 2012, Ben was given three directives: make the food service sustainable, homemade [healthy], and fun!

Chef Pedro prepping some of the Refectory’s homemade bread
Chef Frank at the popular Friday Stir-Fry station

The first item of business was to create a good team to work with, and Ben hired Pedro and Frank almost immediately after he started the job. He credits them with a lot of the Refectory’s current success. “Between the three of us, we have over 70 years of professional experience, and have worked in every kind of restaurant imaginable.” The three cooks collaborate on the menu, which highlights their strengths and passions. Frank cooks the heartiest meat and potatoes you’ll ever eat, and but his cooking also has an Asian flair—his bahn mis are some of the best in Chicago. Pedro is responsible for most of the Mexican and Mex-fusion items, and is the reason for the success of Taco Tuesdays. Ben likes to play around with the menu. His most recent addition is the Mob Cobb salad, which translates the taste profile of a Chicago Dog into a mix of fresh veggies, sport peppers, and celery seed dressing. All dietary restrictions and preferences are welcome, the staff have a wide variety of vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options as well. “If you can name it, we can cook it.”

“I follow the Ben and Jerry’s business model,” Ben says. “If it’s not fun, why do it?” And Ben has put a lot of thought into fun. Walk into the Refectory now, and you’ll be greeted by an eclectic mix of music, which Ben loves to curate. He describes himself as an avid listener with 0 talent. Frank and Pedro, the two sous chefs, call hello with warm smiles, and start working to prepare something delicious and fresh. The baristas are always up for a chat, and customers enjoy hunting for the wandering Han Solo action figure. You can either eat in, or take your food to go, all without feeling guilty. All of the Refectory’s take-away dinnerware is compostible, so customers don’t have to feel bad about contributing to landfills. The coffee in the Solá Café is all Equal Exchange, which ensures that the famers who grew the coffee are treated well and paid a fair wage. Ben orders as much locally-sourced produce and other ingredients as possible, which is about 1/3 of the total orders; he hopes and plans to increase that share in the future.

Mini Han Solo keeps an eye on the lunch crowd

The Refectory and Solá are much-frequented by the two seminaries, but have also been drawing in a diverse and ecletic crowd from Hyde Park. Every shift of construction workers at the new University of Chicago eyesore dorms, neighboring daycare staff, a local mom’s group, and neighborhood residents are also among the regulars. Ben likens the atmosphere to a mix between a diner and Cheers—a place with good food where everybody knows your name. And this place has become one of the most sustainable, delicious, and fun Hyde Park hangouts.

Ben may have met, and exceeded, the expectations set three years ago, but he has no plans to stop growing. “We’re working on getting an outside grill station going for the summer,” he says. “I want to be open 7 days a week, with full service at each meal.   I want to serve brunch on the weekends.” Although he wants the Refectory to grow, Ben won’t change what makes it great: delicious, responsible, and fun!

You can keep up with the Refectory, check out their menu options, and follow the antics of Mini Han Solo at their facebook page. The Refectory is open Monday through Friday, from 7am to 2pm during the summer and from 7am to 6pm during the school year.  The Solá Café stays open until 8pm during the school year.