A year late, Ratty turns 70
Almost 71 years ago to the day, the doors of the Sharpe Dining Hall opened for the first time to University students.
The project – costing just under $21.5 million in 2022 dollars – boasted a central dining hall, which could accommodate 920 students. With 17 additional dining halls specifically for fraternities, it offered room for another 680, according to Herald coverage in 1950.
When the dining hall opened, students, dressed in coats and ties, ascended the “wide staircases and grand halls … planned to avoid traffic jams” of the colonial-style building for family-style dinners served by hosts. student servers. The menu included a roast leg of lamb, wax beans, potatoes, coffee, milk and dessert, said Tara Norcross, director of residential catering for Brown Dining Services. The total cost for a week’s worth of meals was $14, or 70 cents per meal.
The building quickly earned the nickname “Rat Factory”. Rat Factory, in turn, evolved into the Ratty (and for a fleeting moment in 2018, the “Rodent”).
Last Friday, students – some dressed in shirts and ties, as suggested by Brown Dining Services, but most in sweatshirts, winter coats and jeans – climbed the stairs and entered the Ratty to find “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes exploding over the speakers. Black tablecloths and silver balloons – 7s and 0s – adorned the room to celebrate Ratty’s belated 70th birthday party.
The celebration would have taken place last year, Norcross said, but public health conditions proved limiting. Planning began in 2021 and kicked off in the middle of the fall semester, according to George Barboza, vice president of restoration programs.
“With COVID (and) the way we were serving, we weren’t able to celebrate,” Norcross said, leading them to push back the celebration until 2022.
“I thought it was really cute and special of the Ratty to do a little thing today,” Claire Hightower ’24 said. “It was a great way to break up the shopping period.”
Norcross shared that two students stopped her early in the festivities to tell her they liked to “start the semester off with a big party.” Ratty’s staff, Barboza added, also found it interesting to learn about past menus and the early days of the dining room.
When planning the celebration, Barboza said, catering services looked to the Ratty’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2001. Administrators also looked at original copies of past menus to pull together the daily specials.
Last Friday’s menu featured the same staples offered in 1951, along with more modern cuisine. At breakfast, prunes and French toast; at lunch, veal cutlets and butter beans; for dinner, roast leg of lamb, glazed peas, mashed potatoes and clover rolls.
Logan Schultz ’25 said he preferred lamb among the day’s offerings. Although Dining Services announced the event on social media, he said he was unaware of the celebration until that day.
“I really liked the modern style versus the old,” Brian Lee ’25 added.
For dessert, the Ratty offered devil’s cake and lemon meringue pie — classic ’50s desserts — as well as a birthday cake, which Lee noted he enjoyed the most.
“The best dessert was the lemon pie,” Hightower said. “I’m a big pie girl. The crust was on point – flaky.
On their tables, the students also found baskets with M&Ms, lollipops and candy necklaces, which were popular candies in the 1950s, Norcross said.
The building serves as a microcosm of Brown’s story: it hosted dances, union negotiations, and a student rally for Eisenhower’s presidential campaign. There was public controversy when the construction of the building meant the demolition of the school in Thayer Street, forcing 300 schoolchildren to change schools.
In some ways, the building hasn’t changed at all. Martin Daggett, the manager of the Ratty in 1952, listed three priorities for the operation in a 1952 Herald interview: to serve a well-balanced diet with “appetizing and wholesome foods”, to provide an “efficient and smooth operation” and to be a restaurant. who “help the education system and ultimately keep students happy”.
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Norcross noted that in 70 years, she hopes the Ratty is still around – but also that it gets a “wonderful and beautiful upgrade and facelift”.
“The building is such an institution – I wouldn’t want to lose its history,” she said. “But if anyone has ever looked for a plug to charge their computer in the Ratty, … (they would know), we would like modern updates.”