UC Berkeley students share their top 10 lists of the best boba places around town; Cornell students walk around with Collegetown Bagels stickers on their water bottles as they bite into their warm breakfast sandwiches; Duke students’ eyes light up at the insanely affordable prices of Q Shack, their mouths watering after each bite of barbecue. If you’re a foodie like me, learning about a great restaurant in a college town fills you with excitement. And you’ll be happy to learn that this is the ultimate collection of iconic restaurants in college towns across the country!
We’ll start this two-part series with iconic college restaurants across California and around the West and Midwest. This guide features places that are just a walk or short drive from campus that students simply can’t miss out on. With so many unique menu options, not only will you be well fed at these colleges, but food may become your #1 hobby!
Golden State grub
I toured colleges along the coast of California over spring break, and at each college, I made sure to ask students what their favorite food spots were. At the University of California, Berkeley, students take their boba very seriously. Some favorite boba places include Asha Tea House, known for its high-quality ingredients; U Cha, known for their signature drink called the Bomberman; and Happy Lemon, which offers incredible flavors and is also famously known for their salted cheese toppings. Moving on to lunch, gigantic slices of pizza with delicious, flavorful sauces can be found at The Artichoke, located right across the street from campus. After indulging in a slice of savory goodness, there are a myriad of desserts to choose from at other places nearby, such as creamy frozen yogurt from Yogurt Park, wildly unique ice cream flavors like creamy horchata from Milkbomb, and carnival-themed foods like deep-fried Oreos, caramel apples, and funnel cakes from Endless Summer Sweets.
Moving up the coast to Davis, it feels like you’re stepping into an alternate reality: a small, adorable town filled with cute coffee shops, friendly people, and beautiful greenery that’s home to the University of California, Davis. Head over to Café Bernardo, filled with cool scenery like makeshift lights made from bicycle wheels on the ceiling, good music, smiling faces, and most importantly, great food. They’re known for their tasty breakfast burritos, mouthwatering French toast, and a variety of baked goods that waft through the entire café. Crepeville is another popular spot, known for their insanely delicious crepes. Sam’s Mediterranean Cuisine is a Greek delight, Burgers and Brew offers a nice environment with great food, and Woodstock’s Pizza not only offers amazing pies but hosts weekly events like bingo, trivia night, and more.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is a charming town much like Davis and offers food that is seriously to die for. Luna Red, located downtown about 10 minutes away from California Polytechnic State University, serves tacos packed with flavor, award-winning paella, and unique drinks like pomegranate-cucumber and sparkling grapefruit juice. The Novo Restaurant and Lounge also offers heavenly entrées and great service. You won’t be let down with dessert either, with places like Batch Old Fashioned Ice Cream, 350 Cookie Company, Nite Creamery, and Cowboy Cookie & Ice Cream.
Moving down to Santa Barbara, Freebirds is the perfect place for delicious, affordable burritos. The Rockfire Grill is also famously known for their house-made sauces with insanely flavorful burgers and delicious flatbread buns. And although McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams can be found in other California locations, its creamy, delicious ice cream scoops are thoroughly enjoyed by students from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Finally, we can’t forget about LA. Being born and raised here definitely boosts my knowledge of good restaurants for students considering the many colleges in the area. If you need a pick-me-up during the day, go to La Monarca, a small shop with affordable and delicious coffee, yummy baked goods, and incredible tacos. Sushi Stop is not only the most affordable sushi restaurant I’ve ever encountered but their sushi and service are incredible, from their kind servers to their tasty baked salmon rolls that quite literally melt in your mouth. If sushi isn’t your thing and you’d prefer a lot of options, visit Grand Central Market located in downtown LA. You can grab a carnitas taco from Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, try the pastrami at Wexler’s, or visit PBJ LA, which simply sells peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but spices them up into crazy concoctions!
More munchies out West
While I haven’t yet toured colleges outside of California, my thorough research has given me the ability to confidently state the most iconic college restaurants by state. Let’s start alphabetically!
Students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks enjoy big, cheesy slices from College Town Pizzeria, less than a mile from campus. Also nearby, Bagels and Brew offers delicious lunchtime bagels, and Pho House has a relaxing environment and delicious Vietnamese food.
Near Colorado College sits the Fifty/Fifty Coffee House, with locally brewed cold brew to sip and enjoy. Another notable restaurant is Brother Luck’s, which serves food that’s almost too pretty to eat. No wonder Colorado is nicknamed Colorful Colorado—these plates are filled with vivid colors, leaving your eyes and stomach fully satisfied.
Honolulu is home to several colleges (like the University of Hawai’i at Mā, Chaminade University of Honolulu, and Hawaii Pacific University) as well as the best smoothie bowls imaginable. Students wanting to grab a quick bite before their next class are often found at Banán Waikiki Beach Shack, which has delicious smoothie bowls and a great atmosphere. If you’re tired of Starbucks, grab a cup of coffee or a matcha latte at the Morning Glass. There’s also great Mexican food at Serg’s, with large, affordable, and wildly delicious portions.
At Idaho State University, head over to Einstein Bros. Bagels, where you’ll find college students grabbing breakfast on their way to class. Sunrise Family Restaurant is also a cute little restaurant known for its great service, warm environment, and yummy food.
If you’re craving comfort food, head to Granny’s Gourmet Donuts next to Montana State University in Bozeman and see all the colorful, jelly-filled, sugar-coated donuts on display. Around the corner, Storm Castle Café not only reels you in with its adorable name but the delicious smells of buttery pancakes, French toast, and other yummy breakfast foods that waft through the air as you pass. For lunch, Jimmy Johns is a classic sandwich spot that’s usually filled with college students.
One of the first locations of Dutch Bros. Coffee was Las Vegas, Nevada. They have not only the kindest employees but delicious cups of coffee that students from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas rave about. If you’re craving some late-night snack after an exam, a popular food truck in Reno is the place for you: Gourmelt’s grilled cheeses, like its name, literally melt in your mouth with each bite. They even have dessert sandwiches like the Bumble Brie with cheese, ham, and cinnamon apple bread. If this cheesy delight isn’t for you, The Mill Juice Shop’s menu is filled with healthy options, and as a bonus, they even offer free yoga classes.
The beautiful state of Oregon has some iconic college spots like Voodoo Donuts, where Willamette University students can often be found, as well as the Vero Espresso House, where you may find University of Oregon students enjoying the free Wi-Fi and warm cups of joe. Pegasus Pizza in Eugene is as magical as it sounds, with just the scent filling you with joy. Salt and Straw is another go-to place for college students in Portland, the city where this famous ice cream shop (with a whopping 19 other locations!) first originated.
Pizza is a classic option for hungry college students, which makes Pie Hole in Salt Lake City the go-to place for students at the University of Utah. They offer affordable slices, vegan options, and great music. Spitz is another great restaurant that offers Mediterranean food and even gives you a set of Cards Against Humanity to play as you dine with friends. For those late-night cravings, IceBerg Drive Inn will surely satisfy your sweet tooth with their creamy, thick milkshakes.
Just a mile away from Washington State University in Pullman, Cougar Country-In Drive-In serves everything from pizza to burgers to burritos. If you drive to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, students will tell you that Wing Central is the best place to get great chicken wings—they even feature a flavor that’s so spicy, you have to sign a waiver to eat it! Zip’s Drive-In is Eastern Washington University students’ go-to place, with a warm environment and delicious burgers.
Love to read? Love to eat? Then you’re in luck: Night Heron Books & Coffeehouse near the University of Wyoming in Laramie features good reads, delicious paninis, fresh pastries, and, of course, coffee! Sweet Melissa features vegan and vegetarian options, with a variety of entrée and dessert options. If you want to eat something before class or feel like having breakfast for dinner, J’s Prairie Rose offers the best breakfast food in Wyoming.
Midwest and Southwest food fest
We’re now traveling to the Midwest and Southwest United States. Let’s take a look at what these states have to offer hungry students, continuing in alphabetical order.
If you’re looking for a great spot to study and sip your coffee at the University of Arizona, Bentley’s House of Coffee & Tea serves tasty cold brews, delicious sandwiches, and daily quiche. For students on a budget, the China Pasta House serves delightful noodles and dumplings for under $10!
One popular restaurant for non-meat-eaters at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is the Red Herring, offering a vegan and vegetarian menu as well as nutritional guides for healthy eating. On the flip side, when you’re craving a snack while cramming at 2:00 am, Insomnia Cookies is the place to go. For the sushi fans out there, Sakayana offers great sushi and an elegant, relaxing atmosphere.
Bloomington is home to Indiana University Bloomington and the popular restaurant Mother Bear’s Pizza, which perfectly embodies the name with its log cabin look and adorable food inventions like Goldfish cracker croutons on top of their salads. Students looking to satisfy their sweet tooth can head down to Baked to get a warm box of cookies and try their sludge bar—a combination of the different leftover cookie dough each day. Just like many other college towns that have great coffee, you won’t fall short in Bloomington, with Soma serving both espresso drinks and delicious smoothies.
Ever had a pie shake? At the Hamburg Inn near the University of Iowa, students line up to get a taste of this famous milkshake and pie drink mixed together. You can also soak in the historical value of this cute restaurant, which has hosted visits from presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama throughout the years as they passed through Iowa. Another popular place in Iowa City is Pagliai’s Pizza, named the best pizza place in the state for its crispy crust and yummy list of toppings to choose from. Shorts Burger and Shine is also iconic and located just down the street from campus. Iowa students pack the place and are eager to read the list of dishes named after local towns.
Favorites of University of Kansas students include the flavorful truffle fries from The Burger Stand, chocolate-filled cookies from Hot Box Cookies, and a myriad of sauces and dishes from India Palace. If you’re looking for the best boba in Kansas, head to House of Chá to taste refreshing teas filled with chewy boba balls.
If you’ve ever seen the American Pie movies, you may be familiar with the famous college restaurant Yesterdog in Grand Rapids. Their menu is filled with different types of hotdogs, from classics to the Ultradog with chili, cheese, onions, pickles, ketchup, and mustard. Students from Calvin University and Aquinas College love customizing their orders and checking out the wall of fame consisting of people wearing their Yesterdog T-shirts in places all over the world. For a great breakfast, Central Michigan University students visit Stanley’s Famous Restaurant in Mount Pleasant, which makes all their food from fresh farm ingredients. They’re known for their homemade toast baked every morning, delicious crispy hash browns, and stacks of buttery pancakes to top it all off.
The story behind Al’s Breakfast is one that will leave you eager to visit the University of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas, and other nearby colleges. Al’s used to be a simple alleyway until the owner had the grand idea to place a roof over the alley and name the cute little shop Al’s, which is now known for having the best burgers in town. Other yummy options include the Tea House, serving great Chinese food; Wally’s Falafel and Hummus, specializing in falafel wraps; and Bona Vietnamese Restaurant, known for their friendly environment and delicious Pho, a soup consisting of broth, meat, and noodles.
Shakespeare’s Pizza in Columbia is constantly packed with University of Missouri students who are eager to immerse themselves in the great environment, chat with the kind staff members, and munch on the delicious dough balls. To satisfy sweet cravings, U Knead Sweets offers a variety of cake flavors from coconut to strawberry black forest, plus other tasty desserts.
Visit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and you’ll find The Blue Orchid, a perfectly named restaurant with a calm, beautiful atmosphere and a variety of delicious Thai food, including vegetarian options. About an hour away, students at the Omaha campus go to First Watch for a great breakfast featuring delicious crepes, breakfast burritos, and eggs benedict.
With their outstanding service and expansive menu of delicious Indian food, the Safari Grill near the University of New Mexico is a go-to for students. In Ruidoso, community college students enjoy stepping into the fairy tale that is Tina’s Café, with a cottage-like atmosphere and pies that are filled with delicious flavor.
Red Pepper has been continuously voted the “most iconic restaurant in all of North Dakota,” drawing in University of North Dakota students year after year with its reputation for elevating “simple” foods into culinary works of art. Rhombus Guys has a similar reputation—it’s completely elevated the ordinary image of pizza to insanely unique menu items like the Pacific Northwest—made with garlic olive oil, salmon, tomato, olives, capers, and feta cheese—or the Tater-Tot—a pizza covered with literal tater tots!
The moment you step into SOW Plated near The Ohio State University, you’ll absorb the beauty of the restaurant’s gorgeous decor and smell the aroma of fresh ingredients. The blackened salmon burger is apparently to die for at this place. If you’re a seafood fan, the Columbus Fish Market is an iconic college restaurant. At Brassica, you may spend more time admiring the beauty of the presentation than actually eating the food—their Mediterranean dishes are seriously masterpieces, with vibrant colors that fill the table.
For many University of Oklahoma students, Tea Cafe is a popular spot to grab a boba tea or sit down to eat delicious kung-pao chicken, fried rice, miso soup, and a variety of other dishes. Known for its cheese dip and tasty enchiladas, The Mont is another popular restaurant that’s always packed with hungry college students.
You can indulge in crazy ice cream flavors like candied bacon, watermelon basil, and Earl Grey tea at Pheasant Restaurant near South Dakota State University in Brookings. This wonderful place also features live music and excellent food. George’s Pizza is another popular spot where students can be found swarming the buffet, laughing, and chatting while devouring delicious cheesy pizza.
Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the heaping servings at the restaurants near Texas A&M University at College Station that could feed an entire family. Savor the large stack of buttery French toast topped with strawberries and powdered sugar at Hullabaloo Diner, known for their unique brunch options. Next, head to the Grub Burger Bar for burgers larger than your hands can hold but more delicious than you could ever imagine. For some dessert, visit Napa Flats for homemade gelato and their cobbler, which everyone says is to die for.
You’ll find a ton of great restaurants near the University of Wisconsin–Madison, including Gloria’s, which serves incredible tacos; high-end restaurants like L’Etoile, which means “the star” in English and uses farm-fresh ingredients in every dish; and Fresco, which overlooks the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and serves delicious pasta and colorful drinks. Mickie’s Dairy Bar is also a must-visit when you’re visiting colleges in the area. Don’t be fooled by the long line: once you step into the restaurant, you’ll realize the wait was worth it. Students from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and Marquette University love to visit Beans and Barley, which arguably serves the best matcha in Milwaukee, as well as Vagabond, which hosts DJs and serves $2 tacos on Tuesdays and Thursdays—satisfying your stomach and your bank account.
Feeling hungry yet? We’re halfway across the country and are going to take a break to digest all this information. Stay tuned next week for Part 2, where we’ll travel across the Southeast, Northeast, and New England—home to numerous colleges and even more student-favorite restaurants. Cheers!
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