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At the University of Houston, Barron's makes college food like you've never seen

It's always seemed to me that college cuisine is perfectly defined by the three Fs: fast, fatty and forgettable. But sitting at a table at Barron's Restaurant at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, I had to reconsider my opinion. Looking out the window, I admired the lush greenery of the UH campus; looking at my plate, I admired the lush excess of a massive seafood platter consisting of some shrimp in a whispery-light batter, a few medallion-sized scallops, some open-shell mussels (admittedly a little on the dry side) and a generous portion of grilled salmon, cooked so that the juices still flowed. The meal set in front of my luncheon companion was equally enchanting: an ostrich tenderloin served in a rich soy sauce to keep it moist, along with crisp asparagus and quinoa, a rarely seen high-protein grain similar to couscous.

Definitely not your standard scholar's burger and pizza fix. But then again, Barron's is definitely not your standard university commissary either. Rather, it's a well-appointed, white-tablecloth kind of place with the look and feel of a classy restaurant. The lunch menu is both lengthy and adventurous, even by non-collegiate standards. And once I tried one of the restaurant's International Dinners, I knew I had discovered something very special.

If you weren't aware that you could eat a gourmet meal at UH, don't worry. You're not alone. It's one of the city's best-kept secrets (so much so that it's even unknown to many UH students). In fact, Barron's Restaurant almost seems not to want any visitors. It's not listed in the phone book, and a call to information yields only a "sorry, there is no listing" reply. Then there are the hours of operation -- 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for lunch, 5 to 7 p.m for dinner, Monday through Friday -- which aren't all that convenient for people outside the immediate neighborhood. After trying a couple of times to rush home and then make it to Barron's for the final 7 p.m. seating, I finally gave up and simply dined on my way home. I was glad I did.

In 1969, when Conrad Hilton pledged $1.5 million to begin construction of the building that houses the college named after him, little did he know that the school would turn out to be one of the preeminent institutions of its kind in the world. What Hilton's pledge ultimately resulted in is a hotel with 86 guest rooms, 30,000 square feet of banquet area, 11 conference rooms and two restaurants, all of which is a stone's throw from the main entrance to UH, and all of which serves as a laboratory for nascent hotel professionals. The building also houses an extensive library and archive of Hilton Hotel memorabilia, including some concept drawings for the first hotel in space.

How the school came to be in Houston is an interesting story unto itself. In August 1969, James Taylor, who would become the Hilton school's first dean, went to Conrad's son Eric with a set of blueprints for a fully-functioning college of hospitality. Eric was impressed with the plans and showed them to his brother, Barron. They both thought that it would be an honor to have a school of this kind in Texas, where their father began his famous chain. That historic event occurred 78 years ago in Cisco, near Abilene. Conrad Hilton was passing through the state at the height of the early oil boom and was literally unable to find a room at the inn. Since the roustabouts worked 24 hours a day, hotel rooms were rented by the hour, and turned over up to three times a day. On his first night in Cisco, Conrad slept on the couch of the town's only hotel, noticing the incredible business it was doing. The next day he offered to buy the place, and the cornerstone of the Hilton empire was laid.

Over the years, the Hilton foundation has contributed more than $30 million to the college of hotel and restaurant management. It's little wonder, then, that the school's two restaurants are named in honor of his sons -- Barron's and the more casual Eric's. Here, students get practical training in all aspects of hotel and restaurant management, from how to make a bed to how to cook coq au vin. The only place students aren't allowed to work is behind the fully-stocked bar. And lest you question, as I did at first, whether you should pay full fare to be served by trainees, remember that they are very eager to please, and that since they have yet to be jaded by the real-world public, they actually have genuine smiles on their faces.

One of the most appealing aspects of Barron's is the capstone course of the advanced food management program. Called the International Dinner Series, it's the culmination of four years of training and study. The students selected as chef and as manager for each evening are responsible for thoroughly researching a night's theme, menu selection, pricing, entertainment and decor, as well as getting customers through the door. Though the students are fully in charge of the restaurant, everything they do is done under the watchful eye not only of instructors Layne Eggers and Mary Wollin, but also of French chef Jacques Fox. Since the decorations and music change to fit the evening's food, Barron's is rarely the same place two nights in a row.

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