Harvard has a multitude of dining halls and options. But where and when are students eating?
The data we used for this analysis was provided to us by Harvard Undergraduate Dining Services (HUDS). It covered the last academic year, ranging from September of 2021 to May of 2022. Each swipe was recorded with an identifier, type, location, and timestamp - we dropped the identifier and analyzed the other variables.
Even if you’re a freshman, you’re likely already well acquainted with HUDS Dining and probably even have some strong opinions (complaints) about the quality of our food. Rumors often fly around concerning which upperclassmen dining halls have the best food, so we have decided to seek concrete answers to determine once and for all: what is the most popular dining hall?
If you’re trying to figure out the best time to eat so you can avoid long lines, we’ve also decided to look at the number of swipes throughout the day to determine when the most (and least) popular breakfast, lunch, and dinner times are. Curious how dining changes throughout the year? We’ve got you covered. We’ve zoomed out from looking at a typical day to look at how the number of swipes fluctuate through the months of the school year.
To determine whom to bestow the lofty title of “Most Popular Dining Hall” upon, we looked at the total number of interhouse diners at each dining hall in the 2021-2022 school year to gauge popularity outside of just eating at your own dining hall. We’ve also sectioned off the houses into their different neighborhoods (the Quad, River East, River West, and the Square) to determine the most popular dining hall within each area.
Quincy, which boasts nearly triple the number of interhouse diners as the second most popular D-Hall, takes the coveted title! This is most likely because it is the only upperclassman dining house that offers hot breakfast in the mornings. Not too surprisingly, Cabot and Pfoho (members of the not-so-coveted Quad) land at the bottom of the list. Understandably, not too many people want to go out of their way to eat in the Quad.
Winthrop is the most popular dining hall in River West, though Eliot and Kirkland are not too far behind. We found this fact a bit surprising, considering that Eliot and Kirkland are both slightly closer to the yard, and that walking to the front entrance of Winthrop’s dining hall requires passing by both Eliot and Kirkland.
Dunster is clearly the most popular dining hall in River East, with over 10,000 more interhouse swipes per year than either of its neighbors. However, interhouse swipes are a bit lower for all three houses in the neighborhood when compared to River West. This is probably because River East is the furthest neighborhood from the Yard, excluding the Quad.
As the reigning champion across all houses, Quincy is naturally also the most popular among dining halls in the square with three times the number of interhouse diners as Lowell and Adams. The immense number of diners at Quincy results in the graph of Square dining halls being on a completely different scale than those of the other neighborhoods. Though they are overshadowed by Quincy, Lowell and Adams also have a respectable amount of interhouse diners, with about 30,000 swipes each perhaps due to their relative closeness to the yard and the rest of campus.
In the Quad, Currier clearly triumphs over Cabot and Pfoho with about 5-6 times the number of interhouse diners. Often regarded as the best dining hall, (though it may not beat out the appeal of convenience and hot breakfast at Quincy) Currier is the clear choice for fine dining if you ever decide to take a trip to the Quad.
Overall dining numbers tell us about which dining halls are “the best”. But given that the dining halls are open for three hours at each meal, it doesn’t tell you when you’re most likely to find a Harvard student in a dining hall. To answer this question, we graphed the number of swipes made at each time of day over a year.
Rather unsurprisingly, the number of swipes between 7:00-10:59 am is significantly lower than at other times of day - showing that a significant portion of Harvard students don’t eat breakfast in a dining hall (or perhaps at all). The timing of swipes between 11:00-2:00 pm, which corresponds to swipes for lunch, is much more stable and spread out. We hypothesize that this is because of the timing of midday classes starting at 12:00 and 1:30 respectively, forcing students to eat at regular times as opposed to whenever they want within the time period. For dinner, you’re most likely to find a Harvard student swiping into a dining hall sometime between the hours of 6:00-7:00 pm.
We also graphed swipes over the course of a year to see if there were any yearly trends.
Overall, the number of swipes is pretty constant, with significant dips corresponding to Thanksgiving, Winter, and Spring break. We hypothesize that the regular dips in the number of swipes correspond to weekends, when more people tend to eat out. Also, there are slightly less swipes during the spring semester, which may correspond to more people eating out as the weather warms up.
If you don’t have the time to sit down in one of the dining halls for lunch, your options are limited: skip lunch, buy lunch, or… grab Flyby! But who opts for the third option? Let’s find out!
The Flyby lines at Annenberg are unsurprisingly dominated by first years, while all other upperclassmen houses have a pretty similar proportion of the total Flyby swipes.
Surprisingly, first years also make up a sizable chunk of the SEC flyby lines, despite higher level classes being offered there. Everyone else has a pretty equal proportion of the total swipes.
Overall, our data gives an insightful and in-depth look at HUDS popularity across houses and neighborhoods. At the same time, it is essential to note that there are limitations to our data analysis. Popularity is often associated with high-quality dining food, but it could also be the case that other factors are also attracting students to eat at different houses. Maybe some houses offer better amenities, study spots, or even office hours. Of course, these questions would have to be better researched, but they remain possibilities.
Though our analysis provided a basic picture of the dining habits of Harvard undergrads, there’s still a lot more that remains to be explored. It would be interesting to try and link swipe numbers with dining hall menus to see if the menu makes a difference in where people choose to eat, or compare eating times with class schedules. We could also interview people and see if the perceived popularity of dining halls aligns with the data we’ve collected, and see what the reasons for liking a dining hall are. Of course, these ratings are always subject to change. If the hot breakfast dining petition is successful, we may see Quincy lose its title as the “Most Popular Dining Hall.” But for now, you can be reasonably confident in where you should go to “grab a meal together”.