College spends $2 million for 200 extra seats in Dining Center expansion

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The Latinx Heritage Month celebration took place in the Lion’s Den. Anissa Gardizy / Beacon Archives

By Anissa Gardizy

The college plans to open an extension to the Dining Center at 116 Boylston St. Wednesday following the departure of the Whisky Saigon nightclub in June.

The renovated space—named the Lion’s Den after receiving the most votes in a student survey — will add about 8,000 square feet and 200 seats to the college’s existing dining space. The addition follows the re-opening of the Little Building which added 1,030 beds to campus and a new rule requiring third-year students to remain in on-campus dorms. 

The space will begin food service once the college receives the proper permit, which should be within the next week or two, Vice President and Dean for Campus Life James Hoppe said. The college does not have plans to further expand dining services, Hoppe said.

The renovations cost the college about $2 million, Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Campus Services Duncan Pollock said.

To pay for the renovations, Pollock said the college used funds from startup costs with Bon Appétit, who became the college’s food service last year. The college also used deferred maintenance money,  a fund used to repair buildings and equipment annually, he said.

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The Lion’s Den space takes up the back half of the former Whisky Saigon, running from the elevators in the alley of the Walker Building toward the State Transportation Building. The college has not decided whether they will expand farther into the front half of the building. 

“We have some [legal] restrictions on the use of the storefront space—it has to be a retail-related business,” Pollock said. “So we can’t just take it for Emerson use.”

Pollock said the college hopes to open the Lion’s Den on Monday or Tuesday of next week. The Lion’s Den will be accessible by a new staircase located by Center Stage and by the elevators behind the Dining Center that now stop on the first level of the Walker Building.

When arriving at the Lion’s Den, students and faculty will enter a coffee bar, similar to the Backstage Cafe, with seating. Behind the coffee bar is a grill and main seating space, which mirrors the Center Stage grill options—burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, and salads—and features high and low tables. In the back of the space is an area with more lounge-style seating options. 

Students can use a meal swipe to order from the Lion’s Den grill, Hoppe said. 

“They will have a meal equivalency, like a combo, similar to what is offered at the Max or Paramount Cafe,” Hoppe said. “You can also use Board Bucks and ECcash.”

The coffee bar in the Lion’s Den also accepts Board Bucks and ECCash. 

The space is scheduled to open at 11 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. On the weekends, it will be a flexible and bookable space for clubs and members of the community to hold events. The new coffee bar won’t compete with the Backstage Cafe in the morning because of its later opening, but when Backstage closes at 5 p.m. the Lion’s Den coffee bar will stay open four more hours.

At 9 p.m., the gate between the Dining Center and Center Stage will come down, and the Center Stage grill will continue to operate as a retail operation where students can use a meal swipe, Board Bucks, and ECCash until it closes. Seating in the Lion’s Den will also be available, but the upstairs grill will be closed. 

Center Stage will serve food until midnight, and the space will stay open until 2 a.m.

“We want to give Bon Appetit time to figure out how to best utilize all the different prep and food areas,” Hoppe said. “That might be adjusted in the spring based on what they learn in the fall.”

Whisky Saigon, the high-end nightclub which once lined the Boylston Street sidewalk with sparkly red carpets, bouncers, and a noisy line of guests on the weekends, ended their lease with the college earlier this year. The original lease allowed the club to remain in the building until 2022, when Whisky Saigon could have extended their lease through 2032.

Instead of leasing the space to a new tenant, the college decided to use the back half of the building to expand the Dining Center in anticipation of more students on campus, Hoppe said. 

“Once the college realized Whisky Saigon was going to vacate their lease, there was a conversation about what the best use of the space [would be],” he said. “We came to the decision pretty quickly that it needed to be for internal college use.”

This semester, the college will enforce new rules regarding swiping in to the Dining Center and Center Stage because of confusion last year, Hoppe said.

“Last year it was really confusing when you walked into Center Stage, whether you were swiping or retailing—could you come in if you weren’t buying anything?” Hoppe said. “It seemed like we never really got that universally known.”

Starting this semester, students will need to use a meal swipe or purchase a meal swipe in order to enter the Dining Center or Center Stage. All students can enter the Lion’s Den—via the elevators or the staircase next to the elevators—without using a swipe, and they can choose to bring their own food. 

“If commuters are there, they can get what is offered downstairs [in the Lion’s Den],” Pollock said.

Since students can sit in the Lion’s Den seating area after using a meal swipe in the Dining Center or Center Stage, the swipe system is now configured to only charge for one meal during meal times. The system will remember that a student swiped recently and use the original swipe to allow students to go back and forth between seating areas, Hoppe said.