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A hospital is the last place most of us think of when it comes to good food. We're more likely to envision standard cafeteria fare or awful coffee and plastic-wrapped items from sketchy vending machines.

The Colorado Center for Health and Wellness on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora is about to change that image. In April, Bistro Elaia will begin offering real food and healthy choices in sit-down, take-out or catering service — prepared by actual chefs.

Chef Paolo Neville and his culinary team have worked with the Colorado Center's dietitians to develop a menu of sensible, wholesome foods that taste great.

There were two driving forces behind Bistro Elaia — the name comes from the Greek word for "olive," by the way, a nod to the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. First was to walk the talk, so to speak. The Colorado Center's mission is to promote health and prevent disease by reducing obesity and the rates of weight-related chronic diseases. A restaurant that serves delicious, healthy dishes is an important complement to classes and cooking workshops that emphasize sustainable nutritional choices.

The second factor was the location of the Anschutz Campus. The former Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center site east of Denver was very nearly a food desert before the opening of the university teaching hospital and research facilities in 2008. Fitzsimmons had been decommissioned in 1999, leaving decreasing demand for eateries in the area for nearly a decade.

Once Anschutz opened, quick-service and pizza joints sprang up nearby, but a 2011 survey found that nearly half of the students, faculty and staff working on campus considered the healthfulness of food the most important factor when deciding what to order. At the same time, the study noted, meal and snack options designed to meet specific dietary needs, let alone provide balanced nutrition, have rarely if ever been available on campus.

Enter Bistro Elaia, with its menu of whole grain options, vegetarian dishes and full espresso bar, among many other items.

"The menu puts our customers' eating woes to rest," Chef Neville said. "Whether you're gluten-free, lactose-free, vegetarian, have other dietary restrictions, or just want to eat healthfully, you'll be able to find an array of satisfying and wholesome foods at the bistro that taste great."

Getting a jump on the soon-to-be-announced federal menu labeling requirements, he added that his staff will also ensure nutrition information is accurately portrayed and readily apparent.

"What we eat shouldn't be a guessing game," he said.

In fact, there won't be any guessing about the source of the bistro's herbs and greens — they will be grown in season on the Colorado Center's green roof, which will also be open for al fresco dining.

Bistro Elaia will be open for breakfast, lunch and snacks with extended hours to meet the needs of visitors, the campus population and the surrounding community.

For more information, go to www.ColoradoCenter.com.

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