24 Best College Towns in America for Food (Slideshow)
July 15, 2016
Even the top colleges in the country need a solid town to call home; for food lovers, these are the 24 best locations
#24 Tuscaloosa, Ala.
For a football-loving town like Tuscaloosa, Alabama (home to University of Alabama, of course), one of the most important features of a desirable town is ample barbecue restaurants. Which is why it’s handy to know that Archibald & Woodrow’s BBQ is king for ribs and wings and Moe’s Original Barbecue is more than worthy of mention in the same breath. Elsewhere, Chuck’s Fish is solid not just for seafood but also for pizza, and The Waysider is the spot for biscuits and gravy or any other breakfast items. For quicker fare in a retro setting, Hwy 55, Burgers, Shakes & Fries just opened up its first Tuscaloosa branch earlier this year.
#23 Walla Walla, Wash.
Photo by David c. via Yelp
Most people know nothing about the town of Walla Walla, Washington — a place that actually has a little bit of everything! Students from Walla Walla University or Whitman College can choose between Mexican food at Dora’s Deli (No. 25 on last year’s list of the 75 Best Tacos in America), the old-school burger and fry vibe at Ice-Burg Drive-In, or bar bites at the Green Lantern. For students wishing to impress their visiting parents, an upscale dinner at The Marc Restaurant in the Marcus Whitman Hotel is sure to do the trick.
#22 Brunswick, Maine
This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one college town in Maine. Where else can you find the best lobster rolls? If you have to choose just one place to get them, go for retro Fat Boy Drive In, where you can dine inside or get old-school, in-car service. Brunswick’s beautiful, coastal setting enriches a dining scene that does not go unappreciated by Bowdoin College’s small but robust community. The student go-to is Wild Oats Bakery and Café, a from-scratch bakery that prides itself on fresh, healthy ingredients. For the best views of the water, go to Frontier Café, which offers an artistic, cafeteria-like setting, as well as an art gallery and movie theater. Unfortunately, local favorite Flipside Pizza recently closed, but for a different type of treat, Gelato Fiasco is still serving scoops of creamy goodness made with milk from Maine cows.
#21 Charlottesville, Va.
Picturesque Charlottesville, Virginia’s food scene is often overshadowed by nearby Washington D.C.’s, but the University of Virginia town has its own share of excellent student and non-student options. If you’re downtown, go to The Whiskey Jar for farm-to-table Southern food, and if you’re not in the mood for meat-heavy dining, try the Senegalese Peanut Tofu Soup at Revolutionary Soup. Fry’s Spring Station is best for pizza (and includes some outdoor seating), but if you’re curious to try a classy take on mozzarella sticks, go to Sal’s Caffe Italia. Take the trolley to the Blue Moon Diner for the typical but delicious diner fare, plus out-of-the-box options like vegan garbage plates and kombucha. To beat the Southern heat, your best bet will always be Splendora’s Gelato.
#20 Chapel Hill, N.C.
When considering schools, one has to keep in mind the general ambiance and character of the town. No prospective student should hesitate when it comes to Chapel Hill, though; it conjures images of biscuits, gravy, and endless green lawns. (It’s also one of the friendliest towns in the South!) Keeping with that, the best biscuits in town are from Neal’s Deli. Delicious preserves and provisions are found at Farmer’s Daughter, while succulent barbecue can be had at the aptly named The Pig. Sandwiches are of the utmost importance at Sandwhich, and it’s of the utmost importance that you stop in for one. The best spot to bring the folks would have to be Lantern, where they can enjoy an upscale meal in a hip setting that lacks the usual stuffiness of a fine dining experience.
#19 Missoula, Mont.
Montana might get occasionally forgotten all tucked away up north, but Missoula deserves some attention, credit, and visits for its fantastic food scene. Red Bird is one of the first places students and locals alike will mention for fine dining and locally raised meat (same deal at Pearl Café and Scotty’s Table, too), Biga Pizza is the place for pies, and the Missoula Club can always be counted on for a fine burger. A special shout-out is in order for Bernice’s Bakery, where University of Montana students can reward their hard work with one of the joint’s famous cupcakes. For upperclassmen, Charlie’s Bar is the best watering hole, having landed spots on both our 150 Best Bars in America (No. 22) and 25 Best Dive Bars in America (No. 4) lists.
#18 Amherst, Mass.
Amherst, Massachusetts, has the reputation of being somewhat of a hippie town, but since it’s the home of the Five College Consortium (Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke, Smith College, and U-Mass Amherst), you’ll find a lot more than excellent vegetarian and vegan fare here. Antonio’s Pizza seems to be popular across the board, with not-commonly-seen toppings like tortellini and crème fraîche. For a part-Southwestern, part-Jewish comfort food breakfast, check out The Lone Wolf. Rao’s, a popular place to study and drink great single-origin coffee, has been recently rebranded as “Share,” but the ownership, atmosphere, and philosophy have remained the same. Communal eating in a greenhouse is a very Amherst thing to do, and the place to do it is at 30 Boltwood.
#17 Evanston, Ill.
Nerd out with Northwestern students at Found, a farm-to-table restaurant decorated with found objects like vintage maps and books. For a less sophisticated (but still delicious) option, get messy at Buffalo Joe’s with wings (try the suicide sauce, if you dare) and queso. You can’t go wrong with the varied selection of restaurants in town, which includes both parent-friendly places like The Stained Glass wine bar and casual grub like the Evanston Chicken Shack, which Thrillist voted one of the best chicken spots in America this year. Students have been getting their (European-influenced) sweet fix at family-run Bennison’s since 1938.
#16 Savannah, Ga.
Known for being the best-dressed city in the South (and the best place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day), Savannah’s culinary landscape is catching up with the rest of the Savannah College of Art and Design-inspired arts scene. Foxy Loxy serves artisanal coffee, baked goods, and Tex-Mex, and also features live music, artist receptions, and a fire pit every Saturday. Line up for breakfast at the communal table at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, and take your folks to the sophisticated Olde Pink House, which looks like it’s been plucked straight out of Gone with the Wind. Eat the crab dishes at Narobia’s Grits & Gravy (plus, you know, the grits), and for the best and freshest peaches, head straight to the Forsyth Farmer’s Market every Saturday.
#15 Bloomington, Ind.
One obvious sign of a good town for food lovers is an excellent farmers market, and Bloomington has one of the best in the United States. Moreover, Spoon University thinks Smokin’ Jack’s Rib Shack has the Frank Underwood seal of approval. Kilroy’s Bar previously made our list of the 28 best college football bars, and Mother’s Bear pizza offers traditional, deep-dish or honey-sesame crusted pies with unique sauces and meats, like salsa del rafano (a blend of house red sauce and fresh horseradish) and apple-Gouda chicken sausage. For a true Indiana experience, get the Hoosier ham on a deep-dish pizza.
#14 Providence, R.I.
Photo by James C. via Yelp
The Rhode Island capital city is home to one of the best art schools in the country (Rhode Island School of Design) and an Ivy League university (Brown), and manages to appeal to both ends of the spectrum. There you’ll find casual diners and coffee shops (like the beloved Louis Family Restaurant and sustainable Coffee Exchange) as well as renowned dining establishments (like The Dorrance, a gorgeous, globally influenced New England eatery located in an historic bank). Students can walk to Federal Hill on the other side of the river for several great pizza places and late-night grub at Haven Brothers, one of the oldest diners in the country. Trying to impress the parents? Bring them to Al Forno, where you can get upscale versions of grilled pizza, pasta, and wood-fired mains.
#13 Eugene, Ore.
Vegetarian-friendly with a heavy dose of outdoor activities and cultural outlets, Eugene, Oregon, seems tailor-made for students. And we didn’t even mention its ever-thriving food scene yet. Metropol Bakery is the go-to spot for freshly baked breads, sweets, and smoothies; Organic pizzas and microbrews can be found at the somewhat motley Cozmic Pizza, which is housed in sculpture-filled former car dealership; and parents would be happy to foot the bill for moules frites, seared sea bass, and roasted game hen at the French-inspired Marché. Taste of India’s authentic fare lives up to its name and has captured the heart of every Eugene denizen, whether they stay for four years or forever.
#12 Madison, Wis.
Madison, Wisconsin, is one of those great college towns where universities are everywhere, but it still thrives in the summer when the students are gone. Great cultural opportunities abound in Madison, but food shines just as bright at places like the retro-style joint called The Old Fashioned and also the upscale Harvest Restaurant. Students can hunker down at Bradbury’s Coffee for a study session over the shop’s famous crêpes and a latte.
#11 Athens, Ga.
Home to University of Georgia, Piedmont College, and R.E.M (and the B-52s, Widespread Panic, and dozens of other great bands), Athens is also host to quite the array of gourmet options. At 5 & 10, executive chef Jason Zygmont — whose background includes stints at Noma (a.k.a. “The World’s Best Restaurant”) in Copenhagen and Thomas Keller’s Per Se (No. 12 on our list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America 2016) — serves items like “pimentowurst” BLT burgers and grandma-style fried chicken. He even offers a ramen-centric night! The restaurant’s Mediterranean-inspired sister The National is equally top-notch. This is still a college town, though, so wallet-friendly options like Kelly’s Authentic Jamaican Food are also wildly popular among students. For buttery viennoiserie, look no further than Independent Baking Co. Although they supply the bread for most Athens restaurants, nothing beats getting a whiff of their fresh-baked goods at the HQ.
#10 Ann Arbor, Mich.
Photo by Sarah W. via Yelp
No matriculated student in Ann Arbor has an excuse for being on an all-ramen diet, what with the “world famous chipatis” at Pizza House and deep-fried dumplings at University Café. The classic deli-style sandwiches from Zingerman’s Delicatessen — specifically the Reuben — make for perfect study food. And when you’re looking to impress an out-of-towner, head to Gandy Dancer (housed in the former Michigan Central Railroad Depot) for Dungeness crab, cedar-planked salmon, and seasonal specialties.
#9 Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Photo by John F. via Yelp
Picturesque Saratoga Springs, with its Revolutionary War aesthetic and famous racetrack, had a thriving culinary scene even before Skidmore College became one of the most well-known liberal arts schools in the country, thanks to places like the charmingly old school Mrs. London’s (and now, her hip brother next door, Max London’s). Fair trade coffee shops, like Uncommon Grounds and Saratoga Coffee Traders, are where you’ll see most students when they’re not studying in the library. Caroline Street is bustling with bars that are packed with college students and locals alike. If you’re looking to escape the summer crowds, drive or take a taxi further out to Harvest and Hearth for pizza or The Local for an English pub experience and weekend brunch. However, no trip to Saratoga is complete without two things: A black raspberry softie from Dairy Haus and a doughboy (chicken, cheese, and scallions baked in just-browned pizza dough) from Esperanto, which is rumored to have been invented by a Skidmore professor. Makes sense, considering most students have learned that a doughboy is the best way to end a night on the town.
#8 New Haven, Conn.
Photo by tc t. via Yelp
When a town is home to colleges like Quinnipiac University, Southern Connecticut State University, the University of New Haven, and Yale University, its food game better be up to par. Thankfully for these students, New Haven’s is. In addition to the famous Louis’ Lunch (which claims to be “The Birthplace of the Hamburger Sandwich”), students can also munch on the perfect pizzas provided by Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana (No. 1 on our list of the 101 Best Pizzas in America 2015 for its white clam pie) and Sally’s Apizza (No. 5 on the same list). If these three places alone don’t delight local students, the non-pizza Italian fare at L’Orcio can’t be missed, and neither can Olea, which was opened by Manuel Romero, the same chef behind the now-shuttered Ibiza. For quicker bites or a cup of pre-class coffee, Atticus Bookstore & Cafe offers everything an on-the-go student could need.
#7 Oxford, Miss.
Photo by Melissa B. via Yelp
In late October, before midterm exams and Thanksgiving break, Oxford, Mississippi, hosts its annual BBQ Throwdown festival — just one of the many signs that Oxford has become a delicious college town. The fact that Ole Miss throws one of the best tailgates in the country doesn’t hurt, either. Budget-friendly places like Bottletree Bakery (for sweet potato and andouille soup and gourmet pressed sandwiches) and Handy Andy (for pulled pork sandwiches and slices of apple pie) are typical student haunts, and the best burgers and (sweet potato) fries can be had at Bouré. It’s also absolutely worth mentioning that City Grocery has routinely made it on our 101 Best Restaurants in America lists, including a spot at No. 55 in 2015.
#6 Princeton, N.J.
Study hall can only last so long. So for students who like eventually leaving the library, Princeton’s food scene proves to be a more than worthy venture. Stop by Olives for a mouth-watering lunch of moussaka, a classic BLT, and an oversized cookie. Find delicious evening meals at the dinner-only Blue Point Grill, which serves an eclectic array of seafood like the crab soup, Portuguese sardines, Maine lobster cakes, and shrimp dumplings. Any gelato (or cupcake) cravings can be satisfied at The Bent Spoon, where you can choose from an ever-growing menu of flavors like New Jersey honey, peanut butter, and lavender mascarpone.
#5 Berkeley, Calif.
Photo by Emma M. via Yelp
Considering its proximity to the food and wine hot spots of San Francisco, Napa Valley, and Sonoma, it will come as no surprise that food-loving students should enroll in school in Berkeley. Inarguably, the best meal you can have (when your parents come to town) is at Alice Waters’ upscale Chez Panisse. The Cheese Board Collective is a classic California cheese shop that grew into a bakery, serving muffins, cookies, specialty breads, and even pizzas. And for those times when savory just won’t cut it, Sweet Dreams Candy Store will cover all your gummy, bonbon, taffy, and chocolate needs.
#4 Ithaca, N.Y.
Already known for being a true food-lover’s town, Ithaca gives students the chance to study in a gorgeous (gorges?) setting with a healthy helping of Greek souvlaki, calamari, and French fries on the side from Souvlaki House. Seasonal Italian dishes like chicken liver pâté, grilled artichokes, and chicken Milanese at Mercato Bar and Kitchen are enough to pull Cornell University and Ithaca College students away from even the most riveting study sessions, and Ithaca Ale House works for when you have a late class the next morning.
#3 Durham, N.C.
One of two North Carolina college towns on this list, Durham was named the South’s “Tastiest Town” in 2013 by Southern Living magazine. It’s been three years since then, and the city’s reputation has only grown stronger, thanks to the photogenic pies at Scratch and down-home patio dining at Geer Street Garden. The wood-fired pizza at Pizzeria Toro is a favorite of gourmands and students alike, but the tighter-budgeted are more likely to haunt Monuts for bagels (like the “Guac Dirty to Me”) and doughnuts. Durham also has an unexpectedly large population of authentic taquerías, like Taquería La Vaquita and La Superior Taquería y Carnicería (which is also a market), as well as a whole fleet of fantastic food trucks in the greater Raleigh-Durham area, like American Meltdown, Cockadoodlemoo, Porchetta, and the Chirba Chirba Dumpling Truck.
#2 Boulder, Colo.
Long known as the hardest partying college town in the country, Boulder can also rank itself among the tastiest. Moe’s Broadway Bagel serves the best in bagels and a schmear in town, and The Kitchen is a cool and communal space with a seasonal, farm-to-table menu featuring homemade tagliatelle carbonara, Colorado quinoa with broccoli, and Colorado steak frites. For an even more authentic taste of Boulder, students should hit the Boulder County’s Farmers Market (No. 53 on our list of the 101 Best Farmers Markets in America 2015).
#1 Burlington, Vt.
Photo by Ian Y. via Yelp
Burlington is a gastronome’s town whether your life is divided into semesters or not. It isn’t possible to overhype American Flatbread pizzeria, and to say it’s a college student staple would be an understatement. Likewise, Red Onion serves consistently fresh and flavorful sandwiches, and every college town should be lucky enough to play host to The Penny Cluse Café, where lines routinely form for the gingerbread pancakes and other brunch options. After hitting the books, reward yourself with a trip to Shelburne Farms, a 1,400-acre working farm, forest, and National Historic Landmark.