Of the approximately 3,000 four-year colleges in the U.S., 245 of them field teams in NCAA Division I football, the highest level of the sport that isn’t the NFL. While that might seem like a small number, the programs produce some of the most die-hard fans in all of American sports, with legions traveling from town to town throughout the fall to watch their favorite teams duke it out on the gridiron.
As such, those road-weary-yet-dedicated supporters will need sustenance—of the solid, liquid, and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ varieties—to help them achieve peak-fan performance. But when it comes to college-town dining, we’re not content downing struggle dogs and tasteless swill. No, fueling up before partaking in one of this country’s finest fall pastimes requires drinking well and eating better.
And who better to consult than nine of the country’s best college-sports writers, who make a habit of flying all over the country to spill ink on the latest Hail Mary pass. So get your game-face ready and prepare to beeline to these vouched-for establishments, no matter the conference territory.
Favorite spot: Little Richards BBQ (4885 Country Club Rd, Winston-Salem, NC; 336-760-3457, eatmopig.com)
Rickman says: “This is Lexington ‘cue, dropped off in Winston and tucked a little bit away from the city. So for a person who went to Wake Forest, it was its own little oasis without having to drive the 30 to 40 minutes down to Lexington to get it. The place is as unassuming as you get. Wooden tables with checked tablecloths, styrofoam cups with crushed ice, and your fork wrapped in those little paper shells you have to rip open. The barbecue is not fancy. Neither are the hushpuppies, nor the fries that practically beg for some Old Bay seasoning. But you look up and your food is gone and there’s a smile on your face. Plus there’s a signed photo of Scott Wolf from Party of Five, and you’re not going to find that at just any BBQ place in the South.” (Photo: Yelp/Daniel B.)
Favorite spot: The Watering Hole (8300 Northwoods Dr, Lincoln, NE, 402-488-8300)
Sorensen says: “There are so many restaurants in Lincoln, NE, that it’s often hard to choose one as a favorite. In my opinion, what makes The Watering Hole special is its grilled wings. I rave about them pretty much anywhere I go. The place used to be a complete dive bar, but doesn’t look like one now after renovating a few years ago. Despite the physical updates, The Watering Hole never lost its charm. Good food and plenty of beer are enough to make this anyone’s favorite stop, whether that’s for a Friday lunch or a game-day meal.” (Photo: Yelp/Fidel M.)
Favorite spot: Sunrise Biscuit (1305 E Franklin St, Chapel Hill, NC; 919-933-1324, sunrisebiscuits.com)
Felder says: “For someone who hates traveling, I’ve been to enough places in my corner of the south—from Columbia and Athens, to Knoxville and Blacksburg—to put together a guide to college-town eats. But for me the stand-out spot is found at home near UNC. Sunrise Biscuit in Chapel Hill is just a dope restaurant that crushes the biscuit game. This isn’t an eat-in locale like some places; this is sit-in-your-car-in-the-morning wake-up grub where you can get biscuits that are as big as your head. It’s the perfect start to a day, the perfect way to end a hangover, and just perfection in general.” (Photo: Yelp/Al P.)
Favorite spot: Mike’s Grill (418 N Main St, Blacksburg, VA; 540-951-7391, mikesgrillblacksburg.com)
Lanza says: “Whenever I’m in Blacksburg covering the Hokies, I make it a point to eat at Mike’s Grill. Their humongous hand-pressed cheeseburgers, hospitality, and authentic small-town ambiance won me over as an undergrad at Tech.” (Photo: Facebook/Mike’s Grill)
Favorite spot: Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery (207 E Washington St, Ann Arbor, MI; 734-222-4095, bluetractor.net)
Axelrod says: “By far the best restaurant I’ve encountered during my travels as a sportswriter has been the Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery in Ann Arbor. They brew their own excellent craft beer in house, but it was the vast barbecue selection that put it over the top for me. I went with the barbecue mac and cheese, which was the best version of the dish that I’ve ever had. It’s got a great atmosphere and plenty of TVs, making it the type of gem you hope to find during a short trip.” (Photo: Facebook/Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery)
Favorite spot: The Tap (101 N College Ave, Bloomington, IN; 812-287-8579, thetapbeerbar.com)
Mattioli says: “Everyone who visits Bloomington is told to go to Nick’s. It’s a rite of passage. I get it. But where do you go if you’re past the college-party vibe? The Tap is a more upscale and less frenetic place without feeling too bougie. The bartenders are super helpful and very passionate about beer, so they are thrilled to give you plenty of recommendations, which is helpful because the The Tap has 50 beers on draft and their selection changes every day. I’m not even a beer drinker and they managed to find one I went home raving about—that’s great customer service. Also, you’ve got to try the Tap fries, because the four dipping sauces—beer cheese, Parmesan garlic aioli, sun-dried tomato pesto crema, and chipotle ranch—are on point. (Photo: Facebook/The Tap)
Favorite spot: Half Fast Subs (1215 13th St, Boulder, CO; 303-449-0404, halffastsubs.com)
Kaufman says: “This is an optimal pre-game spot that’s only a short walk from Folsom Field, the University of Colorado-Boulder’s football stadium. It’s your typical college town dining establishment: Scribblings and art line the the wall, as do TVs. Order a 14-inch Italian, which is packed with Italian sausage, pepperoni, green peppers, and marinara sauce, and also snag a 32-ounce personal pitcher of Long Island iced tea. You’ll leave well fed to say the least.” (Photo: Twitter/Half Fast Subs)
Favorite spot: Mosley’s BBQ & Provisions (525 S. Gilbert St, Iowa City, IA; 319-338-1419, Facebook)
Jacobi says: “It would be a travesty to visit Iowa and not partake in its pork, and Mosley’s offers the best in town. The place is packed with communal tables, there’s a large selection of beers and signature cocktails if those are your thing, there’s a patio for the seven months of tolerable outside weather, and you can watch the pitmasters do their thing at the open kitchen counter. The Mosley (which is a pulled-pork sandwich with Carolina mustard sauce and cole slaw), collard greens, and bacon mac and cheese should be your go-to dishes.” (Photo: Facebook/Mosley’s)
Favorite spot(s): Blue Sky Cafe (22 W 4th St, Bethlehem, PA; 610-867-9390, theblueskycafe.com)
Rubenstein says: “On my college football podcast, The Solid Verbal, we cover the biggest teams and games, but we have a huge soft spot for college football’s secretly most intriguing conference, The Patriot League; and thus, my favorite Patriot League-area establishment is the Blue Sky Cafe. Next to campus, the Blue Sky Cafe has huge, fresh, tasty breakfast plates in a comfortable, relatively low-key atmosphere. It’s everything you want from a college town restaurant. If you desperately need your hangover to get soaked up, order their gargantuan pancakes or french toast. I normally don’t endorse big, sweet, doughy breakfasts, but my goodness does the Blue Sky do them correctly.” (Photo: Yelp/Kevin R.)
Favorite spot(s): Pueblo Viejo (taco cart) (907 E 6th St, Austin, TX; 512-373-6557, Facebook)
Rubenstein says: “Austin has the best food in a college town, largely because it’s not actually a college town, but rather a city with great food that happens to have a huge university. You know about the great barbecue in Austin, and you probably know about the great Mexican food, but you probably don’t know about random taco carts like Pueblo Viejo, which is on fabled 6th St, just on the other side of the interstate in a random parking lot of food carts. It’s open late on the weekends and you get a much more relaxed environment hanging around the cart than you would on the much louder parts of 6th St. Get any of the various breakfast tacos (chorizo! bacon! it’s all happening) on fresh corn tortillas (made literally across the street at a tortilla factory) and go on your merry way.” (Photo: Yelp/Daniel R.)