Six years ago, hungry staff members at the United Nations’ New York headquarters thought big changes were afoot in the cafeteria, and not a moment too soon. Toward the end, the provider, Aramark, a publicly traded firm best known for its catering at prisons and baseball stadiums, replaced silverware with plastic and got rid of all trays, dishes and cups; if you wanted a glass of water, it was strictly BYOG.
And who can forget the bug found crawling among the salad bar cucumbers? When Aramark soon after beat a retreat from the UN, it claimed it was hemorrhaging money. Take their luncheon specials — please.
Well, there’s a new caterer at the UN, as well as a new cafeteria for staff members and others who work in the headquarters, called the Riverview, located on the Secretariat building’s fourth floor. But it turns out things haven’t changed that much. The new kitchen boss, CulinArt Group, runs dining facilities in 18 American states and specializes in “large population accounts within sophisticated facilities [including] many Fortune 500 businesses and prestigious companies, esteemed educational institutions and a variety of cultural institutions,” according to its corporate website.
At the UN, CulinArt Group provides food services for all the in-house restaurants and cafes, including the celebrated but overrated Delegates Dining Room. “CulinArt serves up a fresh and innovative menu each and every day, and we give you the tools you need to eat well all year long,” it boasts on a website devoted to its UN activities.
So what does that mean in real life? At the cafeteria, not much. The food is middling, which is sad given that UN personnel like to eat well, face limited choices within walking distance during their lunch hour and often find that they are practically stapled to their desks during that time anyway.
Like the old main-floor cafeteria, which was shut down in 2015 for security reasons (it is close to the FDR Drive and therefore considered vulnerable to possible attacks), the new cafeteria has big windows and even outdoor space overlooking the East River’s tugboats, barges, seaplane landings and the occasional gull.
A fairly sizable salad bar greets diners as they head in. Here you’ll find a variety of fresh vegetables and prepared cold items, including a tasty, predressed grab-and-go salad.
And hats off for one symbolic improvement: actual silverware has replaced the throwaway plastic (unless you’re taking your food to go).
Generally, the cafeteria has suffered over time. The UN dining facilities used to be run by Restaurant Associates, a quality outfit still found at the Metropolitan Museum, Lincoln Center and Tiffany & Company’s Blue Box Cafe, to drop a few names. Then, Aramark took over, and in 2009 won a five-year contract, only to run into hard times when the UN’s main cafeteria closed for more than three years during the interminable renovation of the Secretariat building.
Problems intensified when the cafeteria reopened in 2013. It curtailed afternoon hours and started closing at 4 p.m. (While the cafeteria used to serve dinner daily, it now shuts at 3 p.m.)
The coffee bar was transformed into an untended institutional espresso machine and a row of urns (now gone). Desserts and soups were trucked in from outside providers (a practice that continues). A “made-to-order station” and a grill were cut back and have now disappeared. (Another smaller cafeteria, windowless in the basement of the UN Secretariat, offers handmade panini and a sushi bar, among other selections. The Vienna Cafe, also windowless, offers basics.)
Usually, big institutional or corporate cafeterias in New York are subsidized. But the General Assembly has insisted that UN catering be self-sustaining, apart, of course, from providing the caterer with kitchens and dining rooms.
Which brings us to the present day. The staff cafeteria on the fourth floor now offers three or four hot dishes a day and a salad bar along with a grilled sandwich and four vegetable sides. Several soups are also available daily, as well as pre-packaged salads and sandwiches, chips and snacks.
Both the hot and cold foods are sold by weight ($9.75 a pound). You can tell what is offered by consulting the menu posted weekly on the UN website.
The salad bar includes not only the usual greens and chopped veggies but also proteins like salmon. During a recent visit, we created a base with some of that pre-dressed salad, topping it with salmon and green beans. All this came to a mere $5.
A main dish of “Sole with Pico de Gallo” was on the dry side from overcooking and a bit fishy, while a tangy “Roast Beef with Chimmichurri Sauce” was tasty but tough. The “Tomato Ginger Chicken,” consisting of chicken breast cooked in a tomato sauce, was also dry from overcooking and had no ginger flavor we could detect.
We found a side vegetable dish of green peas and onion to also be overcooked but enjoyed an Asian-spiced chickpea stew, some roasted red potatoes and a roasted mix of mushrooms, peppers and onions.
Desserts, priced at $4.70, were sweet and gooey, how we like them. There were five pastries on offer during our last visit, including a Black Forest Cake and a fudgy German Chocolate Cake with a walnut and caramel topping. The coffee ($1.85) was fine, if nothing to write home about.
The Riverview Cafeteria, the main staff cafeteria at New York headquarters, is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Breakfast is served 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is located in the southeast corner of the fourth floor of the Secretariat Building, inside the UN Compound, which stretches from 42nd to 48th Streets on First Avenue.
You must have a UN badge or be a guest of a UN staffer and go through a security check. CulinArt lists no public phone number at the UN but accepts written comments here. A map of its UN dining facilities is also available.
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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.