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The UN Cafeteria: Nowhere Else to Go


They say that an army travels on its stomach. If the same is true of international diplomacy, the United Nations is in big trouble.

The main UN cafeteria in New York recently sprang back to life as headquarters staff members started returning to the painstakingly renovated landmark Secretariat tower. But it appears the troops are not happy about the menu.

UN cafeteria delicatessen station
The delicatessen station at the UN's main cafeteria in New York headquarters. IRWIN ARIEFF

“You wouldn’t think it could get worse, but it has. And it’s more expensive too,” lamented one longtime cafeteria regular.

For those who don’t work at the UN, the important thing to know is that its cafeteria is close and convenient for the thousands who work in the building. It’s inside a high-security 17-acre compound in a neighborhood where getting fed at noon might otherwise require a lot of time and foot power. So think of the headquarters complex as an island, with just one watering hole. Hardworking staffers who need to grab a quick lunch, whether to eat on the spot or take back to their desks, have nowhere else to go.

Hence all the grumbling about the new fare. To paraphrase, it tastes bad and there’s not enough of it — at least toward the end of the day. The new closing time of 4 p.m. rules out the late-afternoon pick-me-up or dinner many employees used to buy when they had to work late.

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Put aside the floor-to-ceiling windows and lovely views of the East River. Somehow during the renovation hiatus, the place lost what little soul it possessed. The food prepared on the spot is overcooked and often on the greasy side. Although its captive customers are a sophisticated lot who come from every country in the world, the kitchen no longer seems to even try to turn out first-class meals reflecting the UN’s unrivaled cultural diversity.

The hot dishes, for example, look mostly like high-school cafeteria food. Instead of South Asian curries, Chinese stir-fries, Latin roast chicken, North African couscous, a British roast or Afghan kebabs, one might end up with slices of stringy, fatty pork in a nondescript red sauce or overly battered fried fish and bland rice. (Daily menus are listed on the Web site of the catering firm for the UN, Aramark.) By 2 p.m., many of the steam trays are empty and the choices are down to one or two.

Salad fixings look equally unloved and also decline in number as the afternoon goes on (and at one visit, a bug was spotted crawling among the cucumbers, although it was quickly dealt with by a cafeteria employee). At the sandwich counter, flavorless interchangeable Boar’s Head deli products substitute for house-made meats and fillings, although you can still get a sandwich to order. At the “global” counter, the sushi is pre-made and encased in polystyrene. The oversize freshly made chocolate chip cookies of yore are gone, as desserts are trucked in from who-knows-where, along with the soups — which hail from Hale and Hearty, a local chain.

UN main cafeteria in New York.
The UN main cafeteria in New York, with its closeup views of the East River and parts of Queens and Brooklyn beyond. IRWIN ARIEFF.

The coffee bar, at one time run by an actual human who could whip up a cappuccino, now consists of a D.I.Y. institutional espresso machine and a series of coffee urns festooned with ads for the Seattle’s Best Coffee franchise. The fancy fruit juices? All gone, replaced by routine sodas and waters.

The made-to-order and grill stations, where food is still actually prepared, crank out mostly American-style Mexican fast food and pre-formed burgers, although the sweet-potato fries are quite respectable. Why not just farm them out to Taco Bell or Mickey D’s?

Adding insult to injury, there are no trays. And no dishes — just foil containers that burn your fingers. Bizarrely, while you can get a paper cup for your coffee in the food service area, there are no cups — glass, plastic, paper or otherwise —  at the water spigots in the dining area. (Don’t forget to bring a glass from home!) No surprise: the forks are plastic.

What’s up with all that, you might ask?

“The use of disposable cutlery and recycled paper plates is a temporary arrangement,” notes a poster of “frequently asked questions” in the dining area. “The use of disposable food trays was discarded in order to reduce the trash volume. Instead brown paper bags are available to carry food to go. Once the DDR [Delegates Dining Room] is reopened in early 2013, staff can expect the availability of the usual silverware and chinaware for use in the cafeteria.” Early 2013, alas, has come and gone.

Whatever; the volume of trash — thanks to all those disposable accessories — is still vast. Maybe that’s because everything that’s left is a throwaway.

UN cafeteria sign
No cups are provided at the water spigot at the UN cafeteria.

So what’s the real reason? Could it be that, with no real dishes, trays, cups, silverware or glasses, Aramark — the caterer for prison systems across the United States as well as the UN — could lay off all the dishwashers?

Back in 2000, when I started eating daily at the UN as a reporter in the Reuters bureau, the cafeteria was catered by Restaurant Associates, a quality outfit that lists the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Time Warner Center and Lincoln Center among its clients. But years ago, the UN dumped Restaurant Associates for Aramark, presumably to bring down costs. Too bad the towerwide renovation didn’t include the kitchen.

The Secretariat Main Cafeteria is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for breakfast and from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch and snacks. It is located in the southeast corner of the ground floor of the Secretariat Building, inside the UN Compound at 42nd Street and First Avenue. You must have a UN badge or be a guest of a UN staffer and go through a security check to go there. The Aramark Web site lists several phone numbers for the cafeteria but they are not answered.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Irwin Arieff

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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The UN Cafeteria: Nowhere Else to Go
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11 years ago

Please pardon if my comments are a little lengthy. The Aramark service personnel in The UN cafeteria, The Delegates Dining Room and The Banquet Service have all been working in tThe UN for many years. I have found them all to be very courteous, efficient and always very hospitable. That also includes the event captains, Mohammed, The Maitre D and Mr. Jay the banquet manager. I am however very very disappointed with the poor quality of food and lack of services provided by the Aramark management at The UN……I’m very appalled and dismayed on how Aramark were awarded the contract to operate food services in an international venue such as this where there are so many employees from nearly every country around the world…..The company is known for providing sub-standard food services for prisons and other institutions………….I have worked in The UN Secretariat Building as a secretary for over 20 years and in the last 4 years I have visibly noticed a dramatic decline in the standard of food, facilities and services in both the cafeteria and the catering events….There are no longer trays and stainless steel silverware. The cafeteria hours have been cut down to 4:00pm and just recently a noticed was placed in the cafeteria posting the new closing hours to 2:30pm. This is despite the fact that the building renovations has been completed and the office occupants have all returned…… The company no longer operates coffee and beverage service below the UN lobby and also no longer provides a cafe or food services in The North Building……Several months ago I attended a catered sit-down luncheon in The Cafeteria and a dinner in The Delegates Riverview Tent. All the guests were served rolls similar to canned Pillsbury biscuits. The guests ( some of them who were diplomats and ambassadors ) all commented jokingly about the rolls and the sub-standard ingredients in their meals.
I have attended many diplomatic events for member states at their missions, residences and other venues outside of The UN. Many of the diplomats complain that they no longer have their events at The UN because it is very difficult to contact the Aramark Catering office. They frequently have to leave voicemail messages. It often takes up to a week before The Aramark personnel responds. When they are able to reach with the sales person they are often quoted astronomical estimates that were sometimes double the price from their previous events plus higher rates for rentals, audio, video and lighting……They are often not accommodated and at times have to hire food services from outside caterers or restaurants to do their events in spaces alloted to them in The UN by UN administration. Other times they are forced to take their even business to other venues around the City some in close proximity toThe UN where they are able to negotiate better rates.
I just learnt from a fellow UN colleague in The Protocol Dept. that Aramark has terminated the services of Mr. Jay, The Banquet Manager….This is a complete shock to all since we have found him to be the nicest, most hospitable, helpful, friendly and most efficient person in the management team. His absence will be a complete lost for all departments at The UN. He was the last person would see at the end of the day or at the end of an event and the first person we will encounter at the start of the day
We will like to urge UN Administration to strongly review and revoke their contractual arrangements with Aramark and provide us with a food service provider who will facilitate us with quality foods and services both in the Cafeteria, Delegates Dining Room and Catering Department.
A food service provider who will offer services to at least 7:00pm during the week with updated menu choices.

11 years ago

Great article! As a UN employee the cafeteria is atrocious and embarassing.

11 years ago
Reply to  Salvo

we all know that, and miss the RA one – little did we know what was going to disappear.
SO – get a petition together, fight back…! there are a LOT of you, who all hate this travesty.
Aramark is dreadful, and dreadful to their employees. And they probably fired that nice little man who made the espressos.
You’ve got voices, make a stink, and make them listen…

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