College towns in the U.S. come in different sizes, from the tree-lined streets of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to New York City, arguably the cultural and business epicenter of the country. For foodies, each town offers vast options of eateries from food trucks serving Korean tacos to white-tableclothed varieties with biblical wine lists.
My mission with this article is to guide you through some of the nation's college towns and offer my suggestions for the three best places to eat for each city. I kept budget in mind, so I have categorized my suggestions into three categories: Student Budget (SB), Date Night (DN) and Parents' Treat (PT).
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tomukun Noodle Bar (SB) is a sleek take on the typical Japanese noodle house. Tomukun serves amazing pork buns and big bowls of Asian noodles to satisfy your desire for comfort Asian food. For the faint of heart, beware of the delicious Spicy Seafood Ramen. There is no question that this soup is "Asian Spicy."
For a first date night, skip the romantic traps and have some incredible Indian cuisine at Shalimar (DN). The wonderful aromas of cardamom and turmeric permeate the dining room like a Mumbai bazaar. This restaurant is always packed for good reason.
If someone else is picking up the tab, you might as well go all out at the Chop House (PT). This classic steak restaurant is an AA institution with USDA Prime steaks and a Lobster Bisque to die for.
I could not believe the line at the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective (SB) the first time I encountered this joint located across the street from Chez Panisse. A few dollars will buy you a slice and a half (that's correct) of the best thin crust pizza in America. No need to worry about making decisions, as CPC makes only one kind of pizza each day. The pizza is so good that it's worth the price of admission to Cal.
The dining scene in Berkeley is all about eating locally sourced products. Gather (DN) epitomizes the abundance of local products in a warm and cozy environment. Your date is a vegetarian? No problem, as Gather's menu is 50 percent vegetarian while not disappointing the other half of the spectrum with dishes such as the half chicken with spicy beluga lentils and salsa verde and the Prather Ranch Burger. Don't forget the bacon.
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse started the whole Farm-to-Table movement in 1971. Let's just say that she made FTT cool way before everyone else followed. Chez Panisse (PT) is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Every dish, whether the grilled calamari or the daily pizzetta, tastes like it was plucked out of its own environment before landing on your plate.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
My best restaurant discovery this past year is the charming Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe (SB) in downtown Chapel Hill. Okay, I admit I love Indian food, but chef/owner Vimala's food has charismatic powers in every presentation and flavors unlike any other place I have encountered. It helps that Vimala serves up her dishes alongside her daughters in this over-the-counter restaurant.
If your intent is to transport your date to a foreign place, then Talulla's (DN) is your destination. This romantic Turkish restaurant in Chapel Hill's main drag is filled with carpets and dimly lit lanterns to help you cuddle with your date while enjoying traditional Turkish dishes like the Coban Salatasi salad and the Kuzu Pirzola (grilled lamb chops).
The prized foodie destination in Chapel Hill is Lantern (PT) on Franklin Street. Chef Andrea Reusing is a press darling, from Gourmet magazine's Top 50 to features in Saveur. My daughter Margaux and I had the most incredible Salt & Pepper Shrimp appetizer here during our college tour. Imagine munching on crispy NC shrimp with shells, fried jalapenos, coriander and sea salt. Oh, it was heavenly!
Time to face reality, NYC. Chicago can stand up to every foodie capital in the world. Chicago's time is now, and it couldn't get better than the Purple Pig (PT). The one- to two-hour-long wait is definitely worth it. Have a bottle of Rioja with the standing-room-only crowd and salivate as dishes like the Chicken Thigh Kabob with fried smashed potatoes and the sultry Pig's Tails in braised balsamic pass you by.
A sexy destination for a date without breaking the bank is the wood-covered Avec (DN) in the meatpacking district. This small-plate haven is home to the best appetizer in America—Avec's Chorizo Stuffed Dates. You just have to trust me on this one. It's an umami sensation.
About a mile west of the glitz and glamour of the downtown is Uncle Mike's Place (SB). This neighborhood breakfast/lunch institution is a stone's throw from Rush University Medical Hospital. Uncle Mike's serves up all the traditional American breakfast and brunch classics, but its claim to fame is the restaurant's Filipino breakfast dishes of Tocino (cured pork), Longaniza sausage, garlic fried rice, fried eggs and vinegar dipping sauce.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I know, I know . . . you didn't expect GR to be included in this illustrious list of college towns, but with fourteen colleges in the area and my current home base, I am including this rising foodie town in my list.
A great place to chill with your buddies on a budget is Stella's (SB), home of cheap brews (PBR, Stroh's), stiff drinks and veggie dishes carnivores would give thumbs up to. The underground punk bar motif and quarter slot classic '80s video games makes this pub an epic collegiate institution.
Grove (PT) is the latest restaurant to come into the scene in GR and there is no question that Grove is one of the best in the city. The menu is so deep with star items it makes me dizzy to narrow down my choices. The Parisian Gnocchi with Michigan chantrelles, chioggia beets, Brussels sprouts and white pumpkin jus is my wife's favorite, while mine is the Korean Kimchi Stew. Save room for the devilish Grove Cinnamon Roll to top off your dining nirvana.
Of course, I have to plug six.one.six (DN) restaurant into the mix as the JW Marriott's signature farm-to-table restaurant. The most addicting dish on the menu is also a crowd favorite, the Tempura Tuna Roll with spicy fireball sauce. The seasonal menu always offers a tantalizing seafood dish such as the Crab-Crusted Whitefish. The menu's knockout punch is the Char-Crust NY Strip with seasonal vegetables.
Los Angeles, California
Food trucks have become commonplace in the City of Angels, but none epitomizes this culinary trend beyond Kogi BBQ (SB). Twitter blew up Kogi BBQ's following beyond anyone's imagination. Throngs of people line up for bulgogi tacos and quesadillas on any given night, regardless of its location in the OC or LA area. For a bonus food truck experience, up to forty of the best food trucks in LA line up along Abbot Kinney Avenue in Venice Beach on the first Friday night of each month for foodie heaven on wheels.
Sitting under the stars in the terrace of Wilshire (DN) restaurant in Santa Monica with a glass of Sancerre and a plate of the Wilshire's Whole Grilled Branzino entrée is more than enough to illustrate the appeal of the SoCal lifestyle. The outdoor fireplace and cozy al fresco bar add to the appeal of this West LA hotspot.
Rivera (PT) in downtown LA offers the best handcrafted cocktails in America. This modern Latin restaurant beautifully presents each dish as if it's a Picasso masterpiece. The Flan de Elote is a luscious corn custard with black quinoa. The Quechua sweetbreads with Peruvian potatoes is another delectable dish worth the experience.
New York, New York
Sheng Wang Noodle House (SB) is a hole-in-the-wall Chinatown spot worthy of a visit for inexpensive noodles and dumplings. A glass window allows diners to check out how the chef miraculously converts a ball of dough into mile-long stretched noodles.
A wonderful date-night foodie restaurant is chef Daniel Boulud's DBGB (DN). Quotes from famous chefs fill the floor-to-ceiling bar while guests in the dining room are surrounded by kitchen mise-en-place in DBGB's version of the open kitchen. The Frenchie burger with confit pork belly and pomme frites is amazing.
The best view of Central Park is located thirty-five flights above at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. While immersing yourself in the spectacular scenery, brace yourself for an incredible dining experience at the superb Asiate (PT) restaurant. Chef Brandon Kida delivers on all levels, from the Tuna Sashimi to his Wagyu Beef Tenderloin.