233 Houston Street
This post was one of the last posts to receive a big update (October 2014) so a lot of this information is current and I didn't need to do much when I did some minor updates in May 2015. Note that as I'm no longer a student, this information will go out of date, so I'll need your help (comments) to update this.
This post is on Sbisa Dining Hall (and if we go by the pronunciation of Sbisa's name, it's "spee-za", not "sa-beeza" as is commonly used.
After the fire at the Mess Hall, at some point long before any current attending Aggie or faculty was born, a decision was made to not rebuild on the site and build an entirely new dining hall a block away.
Sbisa Dining Hall is located at the corner of Ross and Houston, where the current building has been there for nearly a century. Named after Austrian-born chef Bernard Sbisa (the head chef of A&M), it was built in the classic European style that dominated campus in those days (regrettably most of those have been demolished). I don't have pictures of the old Sbisa Hall (though its incarnation in the 1940s can be seen in the film We've Never Been Licked), and I did manage to snap this picture in Military Walk, showing a much smaller Sbisa and a railroad spur from the Ross end, roughly where the "back entrance" (near the C-store) of the Underground is. It should be noted that Sbisa wasn't named Sbisa originally until well after Sbisa's death: he died in 1928 (shortly after the dining hall completed a physical expansion in 1925, which was known as Sbisa Annex for a long time) but it was still called the Mess Hall for a few decades afterward (or do I have my references wrong?).
Because there are so many facets of Sbisa I want to focus on, this post is broken up into multiple parts.
The Main Dining Hall (Sbisa Dining Center)In 1954, Sbisa was renovated (and not for the last time), adding new lighting, new décor, and air conditioning for the first time. It was likely at this time that the plumbing and electrical work was overhauled (also not for the last time). At the time, meals at Sbisa were still served family-style.
A further detail is elaborated in Aggieland '74 in which it stated that the dining rooms had different purposes, for breakfast, one served a full breakfast, the other was a continental breakfast (which included doughnuts, though I'm guessing they were cake donuts). Similarly, the lunch line featured a hot lunch while the other offered soup and sandwiches. Sure, it all sounds pretty reasonable, but Sbisa and Duncan were still the "main places" to eat meals (the four "Snack Bars" and Rumours were coming in at this time). It's also possible that the "third dining room" was in the lower level, which would eventually be the Underground.
In 1975, Sbisa went through another renovation, which would be for the next two and a half decade.
The new 1975 Sbisa (completed in 1976) introduced a few innovations to Sbisa that would still carry over to modern times, including a wheelchair ramp and a conveyor belt system to send trays back in for washing. The renovation removed walls from the dining rooms, with two dining areas (one reference said three, however), one of which served fast food (pizza, soups/sandwiches, hamburgers). The ceiling level was dropped as well.
The article I derived this from (courtesy John Ellisor) has one of the first mentions of the "Peniston Cafeteria", which would be the Underground many years later. Unfortunately, mention of that is rare since punching that in on TexAgs would censor it (the Scunthorpe problem in action). Jay Peniston was the TAMU dining supervisor in the 1940s and 1950s, and oversaw the 1950s renovation of Sbisa and Duncan.
By the late 1990s, the HVAC system (some of which hadn't been changed since the 1950s system under Peniston), sewer system, and décor were out of date, and Sbisa closed in December 1999 to perform major renovations on sewer and HVAC work.
During closure, there was an option to get food, a temporary area that's gone by both "Fish Pond Outbound" and "Sbisa Hut".
When it reopened in fall 2000, it featured two "areas" to get food with seating between them. There was the "Market", which offers a few salad bars, an omelet place, and a few cafeteria style lines (usually with freshly carved meats). The other side of "new" Sbisa featured several mini-lines clustered around the seating area (which was the reincarnation of the "fast foods" portion and the creation of a new main dining room), the first known "Sargino's" on campus (did you know it's a pun on "Sergeant"?), which was later renamed "Pizza & Pasta Station", probably because the P&PS pizza was the worst pizza on campus (maybe not so much with the service provider change--everything might taste the same now. While this negatively affected the pizzerias in the Commons and Ag Cafe, Sbisa's may have benefitted). "Dessert Center" (formerly "Sweet Traditions") had things like both fruit and Blue Bell ice cream. "Fish Fountain" was the drink center but renamed later for obvious reasons. The only things that still carried their original names up before Compass performed a cheap redecoration: "Ag's Diner" (hot dogs, hamburgers) and "World Cuisine" (Mexican or Oriental). There was also a soup station, and at one time a cook-your-own station...although there was still a waffle maker, I think the CYO had long been replaced with gluten free options. Some parts were served buffet style, some parts were cafeteria style.
I've pulled up a few pictures (via Google search) that show Sbisa after renovation, but none before. Also note the tables: they're not like that anymore, by early 2012 it was mostly cafeteria-style tables, which flip-flopped in later years (the cafeteria tables disappeared again after Chartwells took over).
In September 2012, I returned to Sbisa to find it oddly changed. All signage was gone: the neon "Market" sign, all the graphics and lettering gone, the price board, even the "no taking food out" signage. The food quality was altered due to Compass (no more "TruMoo" chocolate milk, though the nickname "Sa-grease-a" was less of an issue) as well. Also removed were the long, cafeteria tables, returning to individual tables. This disappointed the dorm groups, who would sit at those tables. A few months later, the signage was back, but only generic red Helvetica lettering (as slightly different food lines). What the heck was Compass thinking?
This was a time of much anger, as the food/price quality was worst and due to a maligned meal plan, people were forced to stand in long lines at peak hours, routinely stretching outside. One planned change of having an entrance at Houston Avenue never happened.
In summer, Sbisa was totally gutted again, losing the circa 2000 layout and the joke of a redecoration put there a year or so prior.
The new layout would alter the lines. Rather than the two "areas", there was one common food dining area with several kiosks to get food. Part of the reconfiguration involved some new eateries accessible from Houston Street. These included Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, which is actually not a concept from Compass (as I was previously told, or at least led to believe), and actually has locations mostly in Florida (and a few in Chile, even) and Smashburger. Smashburger is an actual chain. More on these are described later in the post.
One of the new features of Sbisa (which I actually got to eat in ultimately, and the food was decent, but sadly Compass lacked the great dessert options the original Sbisa had) was a second level accessed via a slightly curving staircase. Since the renovation only took place over the course of the summer, I'm sure they re-used a lot of the 2000 infrastructure which was still up to code, but I'm still not sure on the added second level loft. Is the century-old building really that sturdy, or did the extensive 2000 renovation make that theoretically possible?
Houston Street Side
As seen above, we have the current tenants, Einstein Brothers, Smashburger, Lime, and the underground. As mentioned before, Lime and Smashburger were created in the 2014 renovation.
Up until its closure in January 2013 (a previous version of this page reported 2012, that's wrong, I apologize, it was a typo), Bernie's Place opened at sometime in the 1990s (or even the late 1980s, or whenever the new metal roof was added). It featured pizza and pizza rolls (really good pizza rolls, apparently) in the early 2000s, but by the end of the decade, it primarily offered sandwiches and wraps, changing names over time, becoming "Bernie's Café Espress-O" after the Sbisa renovations circa '99-'00, and then eventually Bernie's Café.
One day, it was spotted on the Restaurant Report Card that Einstein Bros. Bagels was listed in Sbisa's address, which, although it would be preferable if we got a real one (i.e.: off-campus), turned out to be not going in the Underground where bbqs was, but where Bernie's was, marking the death of the former pizza emporium. Einstein Brothers opened in February 2013. Before mention of Bernie's disappeared from A&M's dining website, I grabbed a copy of the Bernie's menu.
As for Smashburger and Lime, they are accessed through a new interior corridor with a restroom and a window into Sbisa (it's emergency exit only). I was looking forward to Smashburger because the menu actually included beer, but apparently so did Lime (why can't I have a cerveza with my tacos?), and obviously neither did Smashburger. I'm not sure why it's gone, especially since as stated in the MSC article, beer was supposedly considered but removed because of the MSC's memorial status, and it's very very close to Northgate, which does have beer.
Lime Fresh Mexican Grill is good, and I was the very first customer there (got my picture taken, but it's not posted). It's not cheap but it is very good, enough for me to get my "I want Taco Bell style tacos but not actually Taco Bell" tacos.
Smashburger is alright as far as burgers go. It's got soft egg buns like Harvey Washbanger's (at least I think they're egg buns), fries are lackluster, and it will do in a "I've got a feeling for burgers" pinch.
The UndergroundThe Underground was opened sometime in the 1970s as a straight cafeteria that served "the same stuff as Sbisa" (that would be Peniston Cafeteria, of course--now you can see why that's not found on TexAgs), but it wasn't called the Underground at that point, however, by the late 1980s, even though it didn't have Chick-fil-A or anything at that point, it was called the "Sbisa Underground Deli", although in 1988 it was known as (get this) "Underground Railroad". Whether you think is offensive, silly, or maybe a bit of both, it was scrapped after not too long. I found this ad in a 1988 Football Program.
The Underground opened in its current form circa 1993 or 1994 in its current phase: there were actually surveys done (back when surveys were done through students and not email spam) about what students would like to see in the Underground. It was quite an opportunity to get fast food on the meal plan, which was a huge deal at first to many students (Chick-fil-a and Whataburger on the meal plan was nothing to laugh at). One of the original tenants was a Taco Bueno (a limited-menu walk-up one--and not a Taco Bell, which some accounts have), which sadly closed in 1999, the roster since 2001 has had Whataburger, Chick-fil-A, Se Wrappé (A&M concept), Alonti Deli (apparently a chain?), and Colombo yogurt. One source as to when the "new" Underground opened is the official CFA website, which claims it first opened February 20, 1995. Another sign of when it opened was the fact that Whataburger closed after the fall 2004 semester after its lease lapsed and they didn't want to renew it.
I also captured this article from Google's cache. It was from January 2001, and recently taken offline. This may be the only chance to see it:
Texas A&M board plans expand
Published on AllBusiness.com
The number of students on meal plans this year at Texas A&M Univ. in College Station has jumped 5%-6%, says dir. Ron Beard, who expects it to rise more when a new dining center opens in the spring.
"Most of the increase is due to the huge flexibility offered through our Outbound program," he says. The program began in Jan. 1998 to offer take-out meals from board-operations. In fall 1999, it was expanded to two cash-operations "and was a smashing success overnight."
Fully rolled-out: When Sbisa, the campus' largest dining hall, closed a year ago, the program was further developed to all cash operations in order to continue providing students with a wide variety of food.
Outbound offerings vary from location to location, but in each, six to eight choices are available. These range from pasta with sauce, salad, garlic bread, medium fountain drink and a dessert such as cookies or fruit, to a breakfast croissant or sandwich with fresh fruit and a drink such as juice, milk or Starbucks coffee.
The latest renovation being undertaken at the 43,000-enrollment university is at Sbisa Dining Hall, which was built in 1911-12. "This will be the Taj Mahal of f/s in the U.S.," says Beard (see Oct. 15, 2000, FSD, p. 42).
Basement brands: Sbisa's basement foodcourt will remain virtually unchanged, although a local franchised brand will be switched to a new in-house concept: Se Wrappe, featuring wraps and "Mexican burritos as big as your arm." Also featured are Chick-fil-A, Whataburger and alonte deli. [sic]
The lower level also houses a smoothie bar and a remodeled c-store. "We cut it in half to add 50 more seats for the foodcourt," says Beard, who says he feeds 2,500 students in daily in this unit alone. "We'll offer the same variety, but will just stack foods higher and restock more often. The c-store is still pretty big (approx. 1,200 sq. ft.) so I don't expect this to hurt us at all."
(The same article mentions that A&M was eyeing a "third Chick-fil-A" during this time, which probably was the Ag Café)
I'm not sure what they mean by Outbound options: is it another name for the late Maroon Plate Special, or was it a way to export food out of Sbisa? (Either way, there are still illegitimate "exports" from Sbisa) [SEE COMMENTS ON BOTTOM - Ed.]
One of the big changes of the Underground and Einstein's above it was done in the renovations. I was surprised to find that after the Underground was built and before the renovations, the Underground had zero handicap access whatsoever (I suppose that it's possible to get around through back entrances and what have you, but that's not exactly accessible). It was after the renovation, then, that the maze of handicap ramps were added to the side of the building, one leading up to Bernie's (later Einstein's, and until the 2014 renovations, the only thing up there). The 2000 renovations would add a shelter and a patio area near Bernie's. You can read what the original roster of the Underground was, and there were six spots: Chick-fil-a, Whataburger, Taco Bueno, Colombo Yogurt (I think that's what it says), Alonti Deli, and something else (I'd like to say that it's the convenience store, but I don't think so--I think it's a coffee brand). If you can identify this mystery, please leave a comment! [UPDATE 5/28/15: It is indeed a coffee brand, see comments below]
Over time, the yogurt place added smoothies (renaming to "Ultimate Fruit Sensations") and by the end of the decade, coffee (renaming to "Degrees"), at some point Alonti Deli became Pickles Deli, and Se Wrappé was stripped out for a barbecue place (01 Old Armydillo's like the old MSC place, renamed to bbqs sometime after 2008). Sadly, the Whataburger in the Underground would depart by the end of 2004, with the eatery "temporarily" replaced by The Other Burger. Over seven years later, The Other Burger was "temporarily" still there. There's also a convenience store in the basement. Despite what the article says, it seems cramped, small, and dirty and was last branded as a Rattler's, but in August 2012, it became "Outtakes", a house brand owned by Compass. However, Rattler's soon "re-took" the convenience store, including a short but awkward time when the convenience stores didn't accept Dining Dollars. Other changes in the Underground about that time was that Degrees closed and was replaced by a Smoothie King. I never liked Smoothie King, having used a coupon at Parkway Square years ago. Still, I appreciate it in spirit, as it as another branded option. Pickles Deli was now Mondo Subs (having now turned into a plain, generic sub sandwich place), The Other Burger was now The 3rd Degree (with a substantially reduced menu and quality, not that TOB was top-notch), and Chick-fil-A is still there. bbqs was gone, however--sad, but almost makes sense: it was designed to replace 01 Old Armydillo's, but since barbecue has returned to the MSC (as "Smokin'"), it rendered bbqs obsolete. After some hectic times where none of the places (save for Smoothie King) were open after lunch hours to my dismay, in fall 2013 a few new changes shook up the Underground.
I do have some pictures of the Underground I took a few years back soon after the Compass takeover. Note that 3rd Degree still pays homage to its predecessor eatery.
One of the reasons I despised Compass was because I despised Mondo Subs. While at the Pickles Deli locations, a chicken caesar wrap was pretty good, Mondo Subs managed to screw it up in every single way. The chicken was flavorless, the lettuce was white, the tortilla was old, the caesar dressing tasted awful, and the parmesan cheese had the look and feel of toenail clippings. I should never have to describe food with the phrase "toenail clippings". For a while, the bbqs vacancy was rumored to be a Denny's Fresh Express but that never happened. The bbqs vacancy was filled with 3rd Degree while the old Whataburger location became Papa John's, which I was excited about, but instead of having boxes of pizza, they're offering 8" personal pizzas (three flavors and not even Supreme), and didn't even taste really like Papa John's, they just ran them through a conveyer-belt style cooking thing and I think the pizzas were undercooked (there was a narrow window when they were cool enough to eat but just within an hour it became inedible). The lines also became really long during the Compass mandatory meal plans days, which is why I ended up stopped going to the Underground altogether.
In fall 2014, as part of the Sbisa renovations, the Underground was renovated again. The new renovation opened it up a lot more and gave the brands larger and more attractive storefronts. There was still Smoothie King, of course, but while it did change it to pay-at-the-counter (like a traditional mall food court), which eliminated the walls, but reduced the food court's store count.
The old Chick-fil-a front became a large wall with a Chick-fil-A Express logo (and I was told that the CFA would become full line), the Papa John's now faced toward the entrance, previously, that used to be the pick-up line for the burgers (which was walled up when The Other Burger closed), a new place called "Houston St. Subs", which was a Compass/Chartwells brand.
I never ate at Houston Street Subs because I had little reason to believe it isn't a repackaged "Mondo Subs", the aforementioned "toenail clippings wrap" place mentioned before. It also lacks a fifth option, which eliminates burgers (Smashburger is above), but it lacks a fifth option, which could've been that Denny's Fresh Express discussed but never realized.
The bathrooms pre-renovation were terrible, there was a urinal, toilet with door, and sink, but this was cramped and likely not ADA compliant, so that was altered to get rid of the walls and just make it single-use.
Going around to the back, the convenience store is still the same (untouched, really, including the same old floor tiles), but it also lost the Rattler's again (though having lost and re-gained it, I wouldn't put it past Rattler's to re-take the convenience store, though as of early 2015 this has yet to happen. The Rattler's at Hullabaloo Hall and the Commons were also genericized.
Sbisa mostly serves the Northside dorms, with the once-common "'Bisa Ball" fights (mostly constructed of the napkins) among the Northside dorms, which have fierce rivalries (subcultures, gotta love 'em). I never really liked Sbisa's main dining hall anyway: mostly because of aforementioned buffet food, and I felt like what I was eating was both bad and bad for me. That and the folding chairs near the dessert area/pizza area were awful. Coupled with the rising prices and the general creepiness of the place (that's Northside for you) caused me to avoid the main Sbisa Dining Hall.
Of course, with the numerous changes to Sbisa, Old Army hates it, but that's to be expected, right?
Here's a photo from c. 2001 (official marketing shot) of the once-generic "Underground Market".
More recently (spring 2014), however, I managed to get a picture of when something on the awning changed, revealing the original brand. It did briefly go back to Rattler's again, then "The Aggie Express" or something when it lost the branding again. I hope that Rattler's can get it back, or some other convenience store brand.
Other PlacesNot all of Sbisa is used for eating. There's an entrance on the southeast side (to the right of the main entrance) but I'm not so clear on the history of it (as of 2014, it's the "Global Supply Chain Laboratory", but in Spring 2012 was offices for something nuclear-related, if I recall correctly).
For more places to eat on campus, both current and former, check out Aggie Food, or see specific pages, like the MSC article or what we have on The Commons.
updated May 2015