In the ever-evolving restaurant culture of the United States, college hubs are emerging as new testing grounds for destination dining both high and low. With diverse populations that have a predilection toward creativity, these launch pad communities incubate groundbreaking culinary concepts that then spread across the country.
A few of these towns are already famous for their food; these trailblazers are home to the establishment spots where chefs set the bar for college town dining long ago. In “upstart” towns, fresh talent is following in the footsteps of the old guard to advance the culinary culture in their respective cities. And keep an eye on the “renegade” towns, where the innovative chefs who don’t want to be tied to tradition are willing to wing it, succeed or fail.
Alice Waters, of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, is widely considered the founder of hyper-local, sustainably minded California cuisine. While her restaurant is a deservedly tough reservation, her cooking philosophy (focus on the highest quality local ingredients and minimize fancification) has influenced many envelope-pushing restaurants in the area (and beyond).
Most notable is the nearby Gather, just a few blocks from the University of California at Berkeley. The casual restaurant espouses whole-animal butchery and showcases house-grown herbs on its creative cocktail menu. A few streets over, Comal epitomizes haute Mexican cuisine; devotees of its homemade chicharrones, squash blossom quesadillas, and white shrimp ceviche flock to the large covered patio. Ask for a bottle of the secret-recipe habañero sauce.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Home of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is a small city with progressive values and tastes—the kind of place students often end up living in for the rest of their lives. When Zingerman’s Delicatessen was founded in 1982, it quickly established a reputation as one of the country’s top delis. Now, its Korean spin-off, Miss Kim serves family-style food that revolves around house-fermented kimchi and the best banchan in the state. On Liberty Street, Spencer co-owners Abby Olitzky and Steve Hall have built a culinary masterpiece complete with a list of natural wines, cheeses worthy of a diner’s full attention, and light-handed desserts.
James Beard Award–winning chef Janos Wilder put Tucson on the fine-dining map with his namesake restaurant, Janos, which morphed over many years into Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, a casual spot with a global menu. While University of Arizona students can still have a hearty meal for under $5 at the delicious Taqueria Pico de Gallo—where carnitas, carne asada, and cabeza tacos are just $1.50 each—the city is also a magnet for chefs who want to experiment with contemporary Southwestern cooking. Another downtown restaurant, Cafe Poca Cosa, from Guaymas-born chef Susana Davila, is a must-visit for homemade mole, tamale pie, and the best birria north of the border.
Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital and the state’s biggest city, isn’t all surfing and shave ice. The home of the University of Hawaii at Manoa is also a buzzing university community, and the restaurant scene is keeping pace with the diverse and growing student body.
The Vietnamese-leaning downtown restaurant The Pig and the Lady serves reinventions of pho, pan-Asian interpretations of Italian dishes, and local vegetables with fermented tofu and tamarind dip. With the city’s history of Japanese culinary influence, sushi is on the short list of must-eats in Honolulu: Sushi ii serves a destination chirashi bowl at lunch, and at dinner, the full-blown omakase meal is a mere $100.
MW Restaurant, the most under-the-radar of the New Hawaiian restaurants, is the place to go for creative expressions of poke, butterfish, and unagi, along with locally grown veggies, including long beans, okra, and eggplant from Ho Farms.
The Triangle Area
Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, collectively known as North Carolina’s “Triangle Area,” each have creative, global dining spots that make them all of a piece, culinarily speaking. In Chapel Hill (home of the University of North Carolina), The Lantern is a pan-Asian restaurant that highlights local ingredients in an elegant setting.
Don’t miss the okra with Indian spices or the Vietnamese summer rolls with North Carolina shrimp. Duke University’s hungry student body flocks to Pizzeria Toro for Durham’s best wood-fired pizza. The daily lunch and dinner spot serves Naples-style pizza, pig’s ears with mostarda, and ricotta dumplings with local corn.
The new dining darling in North Carolina State University’s town, Raleigh (also the state capital), is Brewery Bhavana, a brewery, dim sum restaurant, flower shop, and bookstore. Pro tip: the Dry Cardamom Tripel alone makes Bhavana worth a detour. Pair it with the scallion pancakes with bone marrow and oxtail jam.
Bozeman has been known as a beer town since its first brewery opened in 1867—26 years before Montana State University was established. The most comprehensive of its watering holes is Montana Ale Works, a converted industrial freight house with 20 local brews on tap and a menu that includes hand-cut steaks from local beef and homemade tater tots.
Plonk, just down the street, is part art gallery, part restaurant with wine-driven global cooking. It’s the only place in town that serves a vegan burger. Feast Raw Bar & Bistro is the upscale hot spot, with oysters, killer elk chops, and a sweet corn cake with crispy pork belly that may be the best dish in town.
In Vermont, Hen of the Wood is a paragon of Burlington’s burgeoning restaurant culture and confidently rooted in ingredients sourced from the Green Mountains and Champlain Valley. Tied more to invention than tradition, the menu is inspired by what is most local and of the moment.
The city’s craft beer scene reaches new heights at the waterfront Foam Brewers, where science-driven experiments have produced great brews like Hypoluxo, a sour ale with lactose and peach, and Mulholland, an IPA with coconut. It also serves spot-on charcuterie and cheese plates. Finally, El Cortijo, the “farm-to-taco” joint known for its handmade tortillas; ceviche; and the 25 tequilas behind its bar, has reinvented Mexican food in Burlington by incorporating local ingredients.
Eugene is one of the last bastions of college counterculture in the United States, and vegans love it. Cornbread Cafe is the most successful attempt thus far to satisfy University of Oregon students’ desire for organic, vegan, non-GMO food. There, “Phish & Chips” means deep-fried seaweed tofu and “Chik’n & Waffle” is seitan (a soy derivative and a cousin of tofu) and a Belgian.
The newest culinary disruptor in the neighborhood is Agate Alley Bistro, just one block from campus, which focuses on local ingredients presented in a global—mainly Mediterranean and Latin—style. Izakaya Meiji is Eugene’s only traditional Japanese tavern and the 100 plus entries on its whiskey list would be impressive even in Kyoto. Pair one of those with the homemade pickle plate and Shojin chowder (a Japanese temple vegan soup) for an irresistible combination.
Twenty years ago, Madison’s restaurant scene was only marginally more sophisticated than that of its surrounding farmlands. Chef Odessa Piper’s L’Etoile brought wine consciousness and a focus on culinary technique to the city in 1999, but the past two decades have seen an explosion of cutting-edge cooking.
The brick-and-mortar Taiwan Little Eats on State Street was the first place in Madison to serve traditional Southeast Asian street food like fried squid balls, Tainan braised pork, and tapioca pudding. The restaurant delivers lunches on order to University of Madison students when school is in session.
Working Draft Beer Company on East Wilson Street is an homage to spontaneity with an ever-changing menu of food pairings and a seasonal menu of hop-driven craft beers, all wickedly cheap. Mint Mark is Madison’s destination fancy joint, featuring chef Sean Pharr’s homemade biscuits, local cheese selections, and a weekend brunch that has folks lined up out the door; the restaurant hosts a decidedly not-fancy Friday fish fry, too.