One can easily get lost on the way to Moreton Fig, one of USC’s new restaurants in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. But behind a heavy wooden door and down a long hallway, the gold-tinted restaurant sits. With cozy booths and impossibly large windows overlooking the two majestic Moreton Bay fig trees (the restaurant’s namesake), there’s something comfortable and elegant about the place.
Born from a partnership between USC Hospitality and the Lark Creek Restaurant Group, the farm-to-table venue is the only restaurant of its kind on a college campus.
Building off the success of Upstairs Commons, a previous restaurant at USC, Director of Hospitality Kris Klinger strives to give students a familiar yet special place to eat with other students, faculty and staff.
Klinger attended USC and graduated in 1992 with bachelor’s degrees in international relations and German. During his junior and senior years, he worked as a bartender at Traditions. Klinger, who took the helm of USC Hospitality a year ago, was part of the team that opened the new Traddies in the campus center.
By collaborating with USC alumnus Michael D. Dellar — co-founder, president and chief executive officer of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group — the concept for the restaurant came to life.
“Everyone wanted a nice, sit-down restaurant,” Klinger said, referring to a student survey USC Hospitality took about the future food choices at the student center.,
“A lot of these kids have been fortunate enough to be exposed to good food,” Klinger said. “This is something that students have been ready and looking for.”
But it’s not just expensive food students wanted. According to the survey, students also demanded more sustainable options.
“Young people are more aware than ever. They want local, sustainable and fresh food. They almost expect it,” Klinger said.
When asked about what campuses he looked at when planning the high-end and sustainable concept, however, Klinger smiled.
“We wanted to do this one on our own,” he said. “No one anywhere else is doing anything like this.”
Preliminary menu items for the late summer opening include stone fruit bruschetta with peaches, pluots and nectarines on grilled country bread, summer-sweet watermelon salad with cucumber granite and baby basil, and a grilled hanger steak with béarnaise sauce and big duck fat fries. The dishes will change according to seasons and diner interest.
The wine list will feature American wines, including unusual finds such as a brandeur sauvignon blanc from Mesa Verde Vineyard. Drinks will also include non-alcoholic beverages like the university cooler, which features fresh lemon juice, fresh lime juice, raspberry puree, peach bitters, mint simple syrup, soda water and a fresh mint garnish.
With strong California cuisine influences, the Lark Creek-generated menu began as a rough concept but was fleshed out by Chef Todd Koenigsberg, who has worked with famous chefs including Bobby Flay and Mario Batali.
“The menu is designed to be totally user-friendly,” Koenigsberg said.
He spent three weeks testing concepts and recipes to prepare for the fall opening. The chef, who described his style as rustic, simple and technique-driven, describes Moreton Fig’s character as detail-oriented.
“We take care of our ingredients. It’s all thought out and prepared with love … We’re not making anything from a can. The mayonnaise, the potato chips, hot sauce — we’re making it all [from scratch],” he said.
This kind of quality can usually come at a steep price, but Klinger and his staff are dedicated to keep costs low. With seasonal items and direct relationships with growers, Klinger and his staff can charge less for traditionally expensive upscale food. Even so, with appetizers starting at $7.50 and entrées at $15.50, Moreton Fig won’t exactly be an everyday staple.
However, with preliminary plans for deals like an “all at once lunch,” which will include an appetizer and entrée for $13.50, and the addition of burgers and sandwiches, more budget-conscious eaters can also enjoy themselves.
Notably, the menu makes a concerted effort to include a comprehensive amount of vegan and vegetarian options, such as whole-braised bulb of fennel, saffron pearl couscous, English peas and pepper broth. Klinger and his department are in the process of looking for a possible all-vegan vendor for campus.
With plans to have special-themed menus for game day as well as seasonal tasting events and beer dinners, General Manager Tiffany Bosch expressed nothing but excitement about bringing fine dining to a college campus for the students and the general public.
“There’s this mystique behind college campuses — that they’re elitist clubs,” she said. “But [Moreton Fig] will allow the public to get a peek in.”
Bosch, a veteran of the hospitality industry, aims to create a haven for students — and everyone else — with a venue that could hold its own as a free-standing restaurant.
“I want [the restaurant] to be a home away from home,” Bosch said.
With such an ambitious and high-end concept, some might question USC Hospitality’s choice to move forward with Moreton Fig.
However, Klinger defended the restaurant. “It’s not exclusive,” he said. The idea came directly from student responses.
“We want to set the tone. We want to hear what the Trojan Family wants,” he said. “No one else has something like this.”