Quantum Delights (Daily Press)

Quantum Delights

From frittatas to moussaka, international fare is a must at Jefferson Lab's Quark Café.

When the nearly 2,000 scientists at Jefferson Lab aren't studying the stuff that's inside all matter, they may be found lining up for espressos and paninis inside the Quark Café, a small cafeteria with exotic fare located inside the lab's main administrative building.

Jefferson Lab is the place where scientists from around the world come to experiment with a powerful electron beam that manipulates atomic particles called quarks.

The Quark Café's menu includes everything from burgers and grilled cheese to chicken Marsala and Swedish meatballs. It's one of those places where everybody knows your name — and whether you've been eating your vegetables this week.

On a recent lunch hour, the café dared to serve both lima beans and Brussels sprouts on the cafeteria line — and no one was complaining.

"We have a lot of international foreign students here so we go to the more delicate cuisine," said Audrey Carter, a café worker with Compass Group USA's Eurest Dining Services, the contractor that operates the cafeteria.

The salad bar includes four types of greens, feta cheese and deviled eggs. Vegetarian menu items are a must for scientists who come from cultures that don't eat meat, says Marty Hightower, staff services manager.

"These guys are pretty picky," she says. "If we put any kind of international fare on the menu, it had better be authentic, because people will tell us if we don't do it right."

The chef, Ed Bittenbender, has never traveled outside the United States, but at the Quark Café he gets to try dishes from Greece and the Middle East.

"There's so many things that don't sell other places that sell here," he said.

Imagine moussaka, a sort of Greek lasagna, being served up at your work cafeteria. How about Hungarian goulash or vegetable frittata? Not likely? Well, they sell like hot cakes at the Quark Café.

If those menu items sound appealing, don't get your hopes up. Only invited guests and employees of Jefferson Lab are welcomed to eat at the Quark Café.

Russian scientist Viktor Mokeev was recently seen piling fruit and cheese onto his plate.

"The food is very good," he said. "And the price is very reasonable." In Russia, his lunch costs five times as much, if you account for how much less money scientists get paid there, he said. Some scientists from developing countries have never been through a cafeteria line before, so the servers make sure to explain the dishes as best they can.

The dining area is an interesting mix of people, said Amy Wilkerson, who supervises a College of William and Mary program at the Applied Research Center next to Jefferson Lab.

"I get to see and speak to people from Jefferson Lab here that I wouldn't be able to speak to otherwise," she said. John Kelly, the lab's safety officer, said the café's friendly staff starts cooking him a bacon and egg biscuit when they spot him walking in each morning. They know his favorite dish.

"I can walk in for breakfast and I don't have to say a word," he said.

Cashier Mary Haga is known as "Mom" by many Jefferson Lab scientists. One scientist from Sweden who is not familiar with local shopping customs even asked her to go to the store with him.

"He was feeling cheated," she said. The favors run both ways.

"When I had open-heart surgery, these people worried about me," Haga said. "They showed so much love."