Though college students have better meal options than they used to, most are still eating on a budget. That’s why parents love to treat them to dinner when they visit, and what college kid would say no to free food? Instead of settling for a chain restaurant or someplace they frequent, try these college town eateries recommended by dining critics and online reviews that might be beyond a typical student budget — but aren’t so expensive that the parents are scared off.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Italian restaurants are crowd pleasers, whether you’re college age or approaching 60. Mani is just off the University of Michigan campus, making it an easy jaunt from the dorms. It serves a long list of antipasti, wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas, and pastas in an energetic atmosphere, and has even made Eater’s list of essential restaurants in Ann Arbor. Mani is currently open for outdoor dining.
State College, Pennsylvania
The area around Penn State is full of restaurants you’d expect to find near a huge campus: chains, diners, and takeout. Head a few miles east to Kelly’s for a more distinguished experience with reasonably priced 28-day dry aged steaks, fish, and even half-pound burgers.
Located between the Harvard and MIT campuses, Cafe Sushi has been serving innovative Japanese cuisine since 1984. It made the Boston Magazine list of best restaurants in the city for being “the place for exquisite nigiri and maki” and undergoing a recent, much-needed dining room renovation.
Home.made was known for their amazing brunch but chef and owner Mimi Maumus is now focusing her considerable talent on dinner. The menu includes traditional Southern favorites like fried chicken, crab cakes and cheese curds, but don’t leave without trying the Swanee Bites: cheese straws with pimento cheese, rolled in pecans.
Just across from the Wisconsin Capitol and a few blocks from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Graze is a critic-touted restaurant serving everything from a fantastic burger to raw oysters, with entree prices averaging around $25. The chef and owner, Tory Miller, has won a James Beard Award as best chef in the Midwest and operates the exclusive, expensive L’Etoile next door.
Spanish restaurant Lupo has been open about a year just west of the Ohio State University, serving tapas such as grilled octopus with chorizo and piquillo peppers and beautiful cheese and charcuterie plates. Sharing the small plates makes for a fun meal, and sharing Spanish vermouth and sherry is even better (for those over 21, of course).
The area around the Purdue campus isn’t exactly swarming with fancy restaurants, but RedSeven just east of the river in downtown fits the bill with sophisticated decor and well-plated food. The menu includes filet mignon sliders, a 20-ounce bone-in ribeye, and truffled lobster mac and cheese. Yelp reviewers recommend the bruschetta chicken medallions.
The menu at Merchants consists of reimagined classic dishes with an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients. Though the space is casual and comfortable, it’s gorgeous, with soaring ceilings and vintage light fixtures. Try the crab cakes with a dill mayo sauce, fried pork chops, or cauliflower tikka masala. And if your University of Kansas student is now vegan, this is a great spot for all kinds of dietary requirements.
Dinner at the acclaimed Chez Panisse is a little out of reach for most University of California, Berkeley, students, but La Note down the street is a satisfying consolation prize. The French bistro is quaint and homey and dishes top out at $27 for dinner. Try an open-faced sandwich called a bagnat with grilled tuna steak, or a classic seafood bouillabaisse.
Your Illini may already be familiar with Sakanaya thanks to its late-night chicken wings, but this Japanese spot right off campus has a lot more to offer. Sushi is tops here, and ranges from simple California rolls to the VIP roll topped with grilled salmon and lobster tempura, decorated with a lobster shell, and served flaming. Anyone not fond of seafood will still find something to enjoy, with a large selection of ramen, teriyaki, and katsu.
Chapel Hill, South Carolina
Entree prices on the Asian-influenced menu at Lantern are around $30, but they’re so worth it. Over the years it’s been featured in Southern Living, named as among the 101 Best Restaurants in America by The Daily Meal, and owner/chef Andrea Reusing won a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast. Lantern is currently operating on a limited basis. Check the website for pop up events.
New Haven, Connecticut
A sophisticated university such as Yale deserves some sleek, sophisticated restaurants. Zinc has been right next to campus serving up modern, Asian-inspired fare since 1999. Make a meal out of small plates such as duck nachos, or try the Vietnamese chicken with purple sticky rice. Fodor’s says it “turns heads with its artfully prepared and globally inspired farm-to-table cooking.”
South Bend, Indiana
Located in downtown South Bend, Cafe Navarre is housed in a historic bank building with an elegant but unstuffy atmosphere. It serves a seasonal New American menu that changes often based on what’s available. Expect items such as mussels, lamb shanks, and grilled salmon.
Though House of Tricks isn’t exactly cheap — expect around $30 per entree — it comes highly recommended and is right next to campus. The cozy space has a secluded, lush patio with a fire pit and its own bar, so you can soak up the sun with your Arizona State University student. Check out their “hours of tranquility” menu, aka happy hour, for a light meal for less cash.
Durham, North Carolina
What began as a little Cuban sandwich shop near Duke has blossomed into a Cuban-inspired tapas restaurant that bakes its own bread, grows much of its own produce, and has an atmosphere of old world sophistication. Copa serves traditional dishes such as pork croquetas and and medianoche sandwiches, but there’s more unusual fare too. The News & Observer says that “it’s hard to go wrong here, no matter what you order.”
Eater calls Embers a “Gainesville go-to for upscale dining,” and it’s not kidding. Embers is such a popular spot to celebrate University of Florida graduations that reservations are often booked months in advance. No matter when you go, you can gorge on king crab, sesame-crusted tuna, and wood-grilled steaks.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
When you’re visiting your student at LSU, you may as well treat them to some Cajun seafood. Parrain’s has a large menu of fresh fish and shellfish. Crawfish etouffee, New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp, and all kinds of fried seafood are customer favorites.
There aren’t many college students who don’t love big plates of pasta. Embrace those carb cravings at Vincenzo’s, an Italian restaurant that’s a serious step up from Olive Garden. Most of the menu costs less than $20, including classics such as lasagna, chicken marsala, and fried calamari.
Head to Blackbird in Bozeman for an incredible Neapolitan-style pizza served in a space that feels like an industrial loft but is still cozy and inviting. Bozeman Magazine long ago gave it a glowing review, especially recommending the freshly baked bread and lamb. Pizzas come in huge variety, but the traditional margherita is a classic for a reason.
Ithaca, New York
Moosewood is a famous restaurant near Cornell that’s been serving up vegetarian cuisine since 1973. It’s spawned 17 cookbooks so far, but you can just visit the source and let staff do the cooking for you. The menu changes all the time, but you can always expect a number of soups, pasta, and rice-based entrees, and the option to add seafood.