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It's been awhile since I graduated from NCSU. Longer than I care to admit. And in the time since I left the Triangle and returned earlier this year, Raleigh has done a lot of growing up. There are many great new eateries downtown, and more on the way. What hasn't changed, however, is the number of really good places to eat near campus. But don't let the chains deter you, and for goodness sake, stop eating the cafeteria food.
Take heart, there are some really great spots not too far away. Remember, as the great Julius Hodge once said, "When we're hungry, we eat!"
If there's a place you love that I haven't hit, make your voice heard in the comments!
Best Coffee Shops
Cup-a-Joe is a Triangle institution. And with good reason. Their coffee is awesome, their baristas are talented, and they play excellent music. Plus both locations (Hillsborough Street and Mission Valley) have plenty of space to spread out and study. I suggest having a cup of black coffee so you can experience how delicious coffee can be.
Global Village Organic is another great coffee and study spot. The location is super convenient and their espresso are hard to beat. As a bonus, you're pretty likely to get a nice design on your latte. The line in the morning can be long, but moves pretty quickly.
For my money, Chuck's, located downtown, has the best burger in the city. The beef is coarse ground and the patties are griddle fried to a juicy perfection. They come in two sizes and the 8-ounce is big enough to share. Go get the Dirty South. Right now.
Char-Grill has been in the same location on Hillsborough Street since the '50s. They still cook their famous rectangular Hamburger Steaks over a charcoal grill, which gives the burgers a fantastic flame-kist flavor. And the fine folks who work there still wear little paper hats. It's like a delicious trip back in time. They're open late and make for a great stop on your walk back to campus.
MoJoe's Burger Joint offers a huge selection of toppings to put on your burger. Customize it anyway you please, but I'm a fan of the grilled jalapenos. And if you're feeling brave - or reckless - order the Hall of Fame. Finish it and you'll get your picture on the wall.
Yes, it's a chain. But Cook-Out is cheap, it's really good, and it's open late. You can get a delicious quarter-pound burger, hush puppies, and a corn dog (yes, corn dogs are a side item) and gigantic sweet tea for less than $5 at 3 a.m. Oh, and they also have over 30 flavors of milkshake.
Two Guys Pizza and Hot Box Pizza are quintessential college pizzerias. The pizza is decent and the beer is cheap. Don't stray too far from a standard slice of cheese and you really can't go wrong. But be forewarned that you can't get single slices after 2 p.m. from Hot Box, just whole pies. And while both of these spots will do in a pinch, for truly excellent pizza, head to either Lilly's Pizza or Moonlight Pizza.
Lilly's offers truly gourmet style pies made from fresh local and organic ingredients. They make a lot of vegetarian friendly pizzas, but they don't neglect the carnivores. Lilly's is in Five Points, which is a bit of a hike, but it's well worth the trip.
Moonlight Pizza is another local joint that produces quality pies. Their toppings are fresh and interesting. I generally prefer a crispy thin crust, but Moonlight's light and flaky crust is quite tasty. Plus they have a great bar.
Pullen Place focuses on making straightforward sandwiches with local and seasonal ingredients. I really enjoyed the simplicity of the deli sandwich with turkey and fresh tomatoes. The shop is located inside Pullen Park, so it's a perfect place to grab lunch, throwdown a blanket and enjoy these warm days while they last.
While not really a traditional sandwich place, Neomonde's pita sandwiches are out of this world tasty. I highly recommend the lamb shawarma, but its hard to beat a falafel sandwich with Neomonde's crispy, fresh-made falafel and a generous dollop of hummus.
Sadlack's, like Neomonde, has been in the same spot for more than 30 years. They offer a wide range of hot and cold sandwiches, all of which are good. So if you can't make up your mind, just order the "Shut up and eat it." The chef will make you whatever she feels like and, well, you get the idea. But if you want to experience the food and the history, you'll have to hurry. Sadlacks is moving soon to a yet-to-be-determined location
Best Place to Impress a Date
If you have a date and don't have a car, David's Dumpling and Noodle Bar is a great place to head. It's super close to campus. And if your date isn't into noodles and dumplings, David's offers a stir fry menu that won't break the bank. But seriously, if your date isn't into dumplings, you may want to reconsider the whole thing.
Irregardless, another Raleigh spot with a 30-year tenure, is also a short walk from campus. The chefs at Irregardless create a new menu daily based on what fresh ingredients they can procure. And they excel at making everything exciting. Want to seem really sophisticated? Irregardless is also a great spot for live jazz.
Caffe Luna is a great date spot downtown. They serve traditional Italian pastas and entrees, and they do them well. The portion sizes are pretty big, so get a pasta dish to share if you're aiming for that classic Lady and the Tramp scene. You'll also have good after dinner options: catch a show, the symphony, or just head out to the bars.
Best Cheap Eats
Along with Cook-Out, Armadillo Grill is the spot I would always head to when I was running low on funds, but still wanted something tasty and Tex-Mex. Armadillo makes their own tortillas and, despite the low cost, uses excellent ingredients. You can order as few or as many tacos as you please and get out with your belly and your wallet still full.
Best Ice Cream
NCSU has had a creamery for something like 50 years, but you could only get the ice cream once a year at the State Fair. However, now that the Howling Wolf Creamery has opened up in the D.H. Hill Library - and having eaten the food on campus for a number of years, I'm shocked to say this - you need not even leave campus to find the absolute best ice cream in Raleigh. I'm a sucker for the plain vanilla.
Loco Pops is somewhat of a Triangle phenomenon. As you might imagine, they make paletas. But, like a surprising number of places on this list, Locopops uses fresh ingredients and dreams up some truly unique frozen pop flavors. There are two lines of paletas, one uses cream and one uses water as base. They have some regular flavors and are always rotating in new creations. If you're a cream person, try the Mexican Chocolate. If you're more of an agua type, you can't go wrong with the Raspberry Hibiscus.
Best Dive Bar
Although the stairs to Mitch's Tavern are steep and a little treacherous, especially on the way down, it's one of my favorite spots in Raleigh. During the day it's a quiet place to study and get lunch. In fact, if it weren't such a great bar, the Turkey Reuben would have landed Mitch's in the best sandwich category. But night it gets raucous and there is always a fantastic drink special. It's dark, the art is...eclectic, and the wooden booths are filled with the etchings of college kids from since the place opened. So if you haven't ventured up the stairs next to Global Village, do so as soon as possible.
I'm a huge fan of the greasiest of greasy spoon diners and Finch's is just about the best I've ever been to. It's amazingly cheap and still really good. And, as an added bonus, they serve Livermush, which you rarely find outside of a very small part of western North Carolina. It sounds weird, but order and you'll be hooked.
And while it's certainly not a greasy spoon, Porter's does have a great bunch. This is especially true if you're on campus. I'd go for the shrimp and grits, or perhaps the Porter Benedict, which substitutes English muffin for pork chops. And if you're of age, the Bloody Marys are nice and spicy.
But, if you're looking for a truly delicious brunch (or any other meal) Poole's Diner is you're best bet. It's not cheap and the chalkboard menu changes depending on what is available, but you can always count on an absolutely out of this world meal. The place is small and the line can get long, so get there early. Get the mac and cheese, or Macaroni au Gratin, as it's called at Poole's. You won't regret it.