Back-to-School Dining Guide for Boston

Where to study, drink, eat cheap and splurge (on your parents' dime)
September 16, 2015
by Scott Kearnan

In case you can't tell by the increased crowds on the T, it's back-to-school season. And we're happy about it: much as we may gripe about the longer lines at Starbucks, the college scene is part of what makes Boston special and keeps our city energized and buzzing.

But we also know that new students in the Hub may not yet be learned on where to go and what to eat. With that in mind, here's a guide for bright minds at a few of our most populous colleges and universities, clueing you in on where to eat cheap, grab great beer, snag coffee on a study break — and request a reservation when mom and dad are footing the bill. 

Boston University

Cheap Eats: Thanks to the current revolution in food education, by now even college students have learned that cheap eats can still be quality eats. Witness the rise of food trucks, often dispensing legit great eats from deceptively humble rides. Such was the case with Mei Mei, the creative Chinese-American truck that spawned Mei Mei Kitchen, now doling delicious fast-casual near BU; its Double Awesome ($7.50, pictured), scallion pancakes with slow-poached eggs, pesto, cheddar and spicy ketchup, is a new icon. On the other side of Allston, visit the first brick-and-mortar from the Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese fleet, and snatch up a gooey Green Muenster ($6.50), with Muenster cheese, guacamole and bacon. 

Study Break: Welcome to New England, junior; you will discover our politics next November. In the meanwhile discover the awesome brews at Blue State Coffee, a small regional chain — with one outpost plunked right in the midst of BU — that has the notable social mission of donating a percentage of proceeds to customer-selected nonprofits. It's also worth the short jaunt to the closer side of Newbury Street to visit Trident Booksellers & Cafe, a charming indie book shop with a coffee bar that plays regular host to author readings, poetry slams, and things like that. 

Beer Me: BU students are lucky enough to be right between two bars with some of Boston's biggest beer lists. On one side of campus, there's Tex-Mex joint Sunset Grill & Tap (though you'll have to cohabitate with BC kids while downing suds from the 492-strong selection). On the other, there's Kenmore Square's Lower Depths, a cash-only hangout with 240 brews. (While you're there, chow down on a foot-long hot dog creation, like the "Boston Strangler," topped with mac 'n' cheese.)

When the Parents Pay: Because they'll want to get in the spirit of all things New England, this is the time to lure them to Island Creek Oyster Bar, and snag yourself an upscale seafood dinner at one of the top restaurants in the city. 

Emerson College/Suffolk University

Cheap Eats: Good news for lazy (read: hungover) college kids: Griddler's (pictured), the recently renovated burger joint just steps from several college buildings, just launched its own iPhone app that lets you order remotely — or even schedule an order for the future; you'll receive a message when it's ready, so you only need to stumble out of bed when it's absolutely necessary. (Oh, and those burgers? The build-your-own patty menu starts at just $4.25.) Bordering the other side of campus is Chinatown, home to plenty of cheap-eats options. But you'll want to get familiar with Gourmet Dumpling House, where the soup dumplings are hot, the lines long and the tabs low. 

Study Break: Why caffeinate at Thinking Cup? Because not only does the small local chain have fantastic coffee, but there's also a build-your-own grilled cheese menu that is creative gooey grandness. Also earning some coffee shop extra credit is Boston Common Coffee Co., where the beans are as much an attraction as the weekly changing array of donuts. "Doughnut Thursday" delights have previously included flavors like "vegan raspberry French toast," "chocolate jalapeño" and "cereal and milk." 

Beer Me: Handsome Downtown gastropub Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale has a huge hand-carved wood bar; grab a seat at the 30-foot behemoth and pick suds from over 80 varieties. For a casual, retro-chic vibe, head to the subterranean Silvertone Bar & Grill and snag a "Happy Meal." That's their term for beer-shot pairings, where you'll get a Miller High Life accompanied by one of several spirits, depending on your mood.  

When the Parents Pay: Now's your chance. Get a table at No.9 Park, the pricey landmark that launched the career of James Beard Award–winning restaurateur Barbara Lynch. Take note that the prune-stuffed gnocchi is now a legendary dish in this city

Harvard University

Cheap Eats: Harvard Square has changed a lot over the years. Once upon a time, the university was an Ivy League oasis in the midst of a quirky neighborhood packed with hole-in-the-wall joints that lured academics, tourists and punk-rock types alike. Now there's a more modern sheen on the area, but a few legends are still going strong. Witness: Mr. Bartley's, the iconic (cash-only) burger joint that has a long, regularly changing list of creative sandwiches that crib inspiration from politics and pop culture. (The "Fiscal Cliff" is topped with crumbled bacon, blue cheese and balsamic vinegar.) Then there's the 30-year-old Pinocchio's Pizza, never dwindling in popularity for its pies — especially since it's a rare spot to find Sicilian-style pizza in Boston. 

Study Break: It's survival of the fittest to score a seat at Darwin's Ltd., but you'll be glad that you did. Besides the coffee, which will keep you focused while poring over textbooks, there's an excellent selection of lunch-style eats. The same is true of neighborhood fave Crema Cafe, where the baked goods are to die for too. 

Beer Me: ​The recently renovated Cambridge location of Bukowski Tavern (pictured) is a must-go for its super-extensive brew selection (36 draft lines, with 100 more varieties available by the can and bottle). And you can piddle away some student loans trying to join the Mug Club: the tavern displays personal mugs for each patron who successfully sips through the entire list within six months. (Just kidding, don't do that.) Save money with the Hobo Special: a hot dog and choice of 40-oz. beer for $7.95. For universal inexpensiveness, head to Charlie's Kitchen where the burgers and brews are cheap — even in one of the area's most fun beer gardens

When the Parents Pay: Chef Tony Maws made a name for himself with Craigie on Main, but Kirkland Tap & Trotter, his newer, more casual but still pricey American near Harvard, is a multi-generational people pleaser. And there's good news for when mom and dad aren't in town: if you're 21+, show a valid college ID and score half-off small plates at the bar after 9 PM. 


Cheap Eats: Eat smart, even on a budget. MIT students are steps away from one of the area's most popular local chains, Anna's Taqueria. The Mexican fast-casual makes some excellent over-stuffed burritos — and since we know MIT types love coding, here's a tip: ask for the Cubio, an off-menu secret that weighs in at four pounds of meat, cheese, guac and more. Rather something a bit lighter? Hit up Clover HFI, the newest location of the local health-minded and veggie-driven fast-casual chain. It's also Cambridge's first 24-hour restaurant, so you can grab awesome bites — like the signature chickpea fritter (pictured, fried chickpea and pickled veggies with tahini sauce in a whole wheat pita) any time of day. 

Study Break: It might be better known for its pizzas, but hit the cafe side of Area Four for coffee and espresso drinks that'll give you the juice you need during midterms. (Plus plenty of tasty pastries too.) There's also Voltage Coffee & Art, a hip joint that where some talented baristas just might leave fine art in your foam

Beer Me: You'll want to get to Meadhall, a bi-level hangout with a 100+-tap bar drawing students and Kendall Square after-work crowds. Your other new favorite? Lord Hobo, where the expertly curated brew list is just as strong as the New American food. 

When the Parents Pay: It's all about West Bridge, which has some great outdoor dining space in Kendall Square, a stone's throw from MIT. The New England–French fare includes the now-famous Duck in a Jar: poached duck egg served (to be stirred) in a small mason jar with pomme purée, mushrooms and fried chicken skin. 

Boston College

Cheap Eats: As your first lesson, freshmen, get to know El Pelon Taqueria just outside campus, a fast-casual Mexican where plenty of cash-strapped BC Eagles come to nest. Why? We're talking overstuffed tacos, burritos, tortas and quesadillas that top out at $7.95. (Most are much cheaper.) Rather a homegrown American burger brand? The BC campus is a 15-minute walk from the first Boston-area location of Shake Shack (pictured) where regional specials include the Lobstah Shell Concrete ($4.50 single/$6.50 double) of vanilla custard, strawberry purée and lobster tail pastry shell from North End bakeries.

Study Break: Strangely, the BC area is sort of bereft of coffee shops. But just outside campus lines is Fuel America, a loosely retro, industrial-chic coffee-meets-body shop, igniting engines with strong espresso drinks, loose-leaf teas, baked goods and lunch sandwiches. Students serving their off-campus time at an Allston apartment, meanwhile, will want to hit up Refuge Cafe, a supremely hipster joint for light bites and java — including cool seasonal specialties like the honey lavender latte.   

Beer Me: Study up on one of Boston's biggest beer lists at Sunset Grill & Tap, a Tex-Mex hangout that lays claim to about 492 varieties. (We're talking 112 taps plus 380 bottles and cans of micro and exotic brews.) Be forewarned, it draws as many BU students too — but all Beanpot rivalries can be settled over brews. And though the sticky floors at Maryanne's are a BC rite of passage, we implore you: hop the C line and take it just a few blocks up from Cleveland Circle to The Publick House, which has one of the best-curated beer lists in the area. (And the monastic vibe sort of feels like drinking in Bapst Library. Bonus.) 

When the Parents Pay: When it's on mom and dad's dime, and you don't have time to drive Downtown, ask for a reservation at Besito, the high-end Mexican restaurant just outside campus. Here's where you'll find some delicious pumpkin flan, one of our Must-Eats for Fall

Northeastern University/MassArt

Cheap Eats: NU kids, get thee to UBurger, one of the local chains we love for its fresh take on fast food. A simple cheeseburger goes for $5.25, but we say splurge on the spicy Stunt Double Cheeseburger ($7.25), which heats up two patties with pepper jack cheese, jalapeños and banana pepper rings. For something Eastern-inflected, the competitive pricing at Symphony Sushi is music to the ears of any college student hankering for a few rolls. 

Study Break: Pavement Coffeehouse (pictured) is a casual hangout with plenty of table space for spreading out your midterm research. (Plus it sort of feels like the set of "Friends," which is exactly as you imagined college life to be.) Also nearby is Farmer Horse Coffee, specializing in Ethiopian beans, delish pastries and rotating art on the walls. 

Beer Me: The Huntington Avenue corridor is crowded with dive beers offering cheap suds. But for a neighborhood hangout with a great bar scene, Squealing Pig is a surefire bet when you want to mingle with those outside the immediate coed crowd. And it's worth the stroll to Mass Ave. to find Parish Cafe, which has 125 beers and — like its sibling establishment Bukowski Tavern — hosts a Mug Club encouraging guests to try them all.  

When the Parents Pay: It's mostly cheap eats in this 'hood, so make the 'rents reserve a spot at Bravo, the high-end restaurant inside the Museum of Fine Arts. There's alfresco seating, free parking in the MFA garage — and your parents will appreciate knowing that you spend so much time at an art institute. (You know, between beer pong tournaments.)  

cheap eats
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