Here at 14850 Dining, we like to say that Ithaca and its surroundings have the most restaurants per capita of any area in the United States. We’re not surprised! But we’re pleased to say that food in this area excels in quality and variety, not just quantity.
Every year about this time, Ithaca’s population swells with thousands of new and returning students, who’ll call Tompkins County home for the next several years. And, every year about this time, we know people are looking around and wondering where to eat. We have some thoughts on the matter.
Start the day right with Breakfast!
Your mom asked us to remind you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. We’re happy to report that Ithaca is very good at breakfast, so you have no excuse for not getting a proper start to your day.
Of course a diner is a good place to look for breakfast, and Ithaca’s diners don’t disappoint. At the Lincoln Street Diner, in the Fall Creek neighborhood, try the Ziffy omelet, named for the former owner and stuffed with ham, bacon, onions, peppers, cheese, and homefries. Sausage gravy is optional, but how could you skip it? Maybe a short stack of blueberry pancakes, or an inexpensive breakfast sandwich.
The Sunset Grill on South Hill offers housemade corned beef hash, and if you’re lucky, the Bomber Plate Special is on the board when you stop in. It’s the Ithaca breakfast answer to Rochester’s “garbage plate,” featuring scrambled egg with ham, bacon, sausage, cheese, and gravy. Breakfast is available anytime they’re open.
For a weekend brunch, fancy things up a little at the Carriage House Cafe, with a spectacular pear compote stuffed French toast. Get a side of the apple chicken sausage. Or try brunch at the Crystal Lake Cafe at Americana Wineryat the start of an afternoon of winery tastings.
Pizza is King
What kind of pizza do you consider “real” pizza? Depending on where you’re from, what you find in Ithaca may not match your definition of pizza, but there’s lots of good pizza to be found anyway.
The uncontested winner of the “Best Deep-Dish Pizza” award is always going to be The Nines, on College Avenue in Collegetown. Their square deep-dish pie will feed 2-4 people (share some appetizers, like the infamous corn nuggets, and one slice per person is enough) and features such unusual toppings as breaded and fried eggplant, spicy chicken, and sliced meatballs, along with the usual items.
Sal’s Pizzeria offers what’s likely closest to New York City pizza. It’s not an exact match, but this first-generation Italian-American learned with the best. Excellent sauce and a crisp crust keep Sal’s at the top of the list, and they also offer good wings, lasagna, and more.
Papa John’s makes one of the best traditional, round pizzas in town, thanks to a focus on fresh ingredients despite their chain status and their surprisingly affordable prices. I’ve always been a fan of the garlic dipping sauce and hot peppers that come with each pizza, and the slices-and-soda lunch specials are a good deal.
Another favorite among the traditional, round pizzas, is from Napoli Pizzeria, at the foot of the East State Street hill in the Gateway building. Napoli’s roots go back decades in downtown Ithaca, and they know how to make their pizza. Napoli also has by far the best wings in town.
Speaking of wings, we once again have a new source of tofu “wings” in town (Geppetto’s, which pioneered the concept around here, closed several years ago) at Luna Inspired Street Food. It’s an oddity at an eatery that otherwise focuses on pork belly, bacon, tenderloin cheesesteaks, and actual chicken wings, but vegetarians and vegans will find an impressive variety at both their Collegetown and Restaurant Row locations. If you’re vegan, you might also appreciate the soy “cheese” available at Pizza Aroma, near the Commons on Cayuga Street.
Ithaca’s known for its vegetarian cooking, and with good reason. Even people who’ve never been to Ithaca have a Moosewood Cookbook or one of its sequels, and this downtown eatery nearly lives up to the resulting reputation. They’ve recently revamped their menu, and offer a Salmon Cake as a sandwich or with brown rice, a Classic Tofu-Walnut Burger, spicy stir-fry, big salads, and lots more.
Purely vegan offerings are available at Ten Forward, opened this year by the owner of the plant-powered Star Truck. There are even vegan “milkshakes!” Find them above Autumn Leaves Books on the Commons.
There are of course lots of other vegetarian options in town, even at omnivore restaurants, such as veggieburgers at many burger spots and of course Ithaca’s huge collection of Asian eateries. The best veggieburger in town is at the Bandwagon Brewpub.
Ithaca’s offerings span the Pan-Asian spectrum
While we’re on the subject of Ithaca’s huge collection of Asian eateries, we certainly have lots of buffet options, from Spring Buffet and Main Moon in Ithaca’s southwest to the lunchtime-only buffets, like Friends and Pho in Cayuga Mall in the northeast.
Sushi has landed everywhere, from the Chinese buffets to the supermarkets and campus cafes, but we’ve found the freshest, tastiest, and most creative sushi options lately at Sumo, which is the place to go for hibachi or teppanyaki, the Japanese steakhouse style that’s cooked right in front of you. If you like quantity as well as quantity, the all-you-can-eat Japanese menu at Capital State Kitchen is a great deal.
Ithaca’s also known for its variety of Thai food. When you want to economize, Little Thai House on Dryden Road in Collegetown has already-ready, delicious, and fresh Thai take-out (or eat it there) for just six bucks and change for a full plate. And Taste of Thai Express, in new digs in the west end, offers great variety at reasonable prices, and delivers.
Bowls are Big
There’s nothing strictly new about soups or salads or noodles in a bowl, but there’s a trend toward bowl-focused eateries, and Ithaca has two brand new ones. Pokeland at the foot of the Seneca Street hill serves up Hawaiian-style poke bowls with raw tuna atop your choice of fresh vegetables, including healthy hits like avocado and seaweed. Or if raw fish isn’t your thing, you can have cooked tuna or chicken, or marinated tofu. Down in Ithaca’s southwest, CoreLife Eatery offers poke as one of their fresh build-your-own-bowl options, along with a huge variety of other “green bowls, grain bowls, and broth bowls.”
Face it, if you’re a college student, your biggest concern is combating those late-night munchies, in the wee-morning hours between McDonald’s closing at 11pm and the dining halls opening at 6am. You’re in luck!
If you want food to show up wherever you are, don’t wait too late. Late-night delivery peters out around 1:30-2:30am at places like Papa John’s Pizza, Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, Wings Over Ithaca, and Jack’s Collegetown Grill. The aforementioned Luna is open until 1:30, as well. Ithaca’s even lucky enough to have Ithaca To Go, a delivery service that covers a couple dozen restaurants that don’t do their own delivering.
If you don’t mind venturing out, or if you’ve missed that last 2am delivery, try the Shortstop Deli on West Seneca Street, a couple of blocks west of the Commons. They’ll always make sandwiches and subs, and there’s usually some soup, chili, or macaroni & cheese available. It’s also a convenience store if you need to stock up on soda and chips, and the coffee’s fresh. Shortstop is also the only place you can get Hot Truck subs made to order 24/7, so when the legendary Stewart Avenue food emporium is closed, hop on down the hill for a T-Sui or a PMP Pep. (When it’s open, get your sub from the real Hot Truck.)
The other food truck near the Cornell campus is Louie’s Lunch, dating back nearly a century and serving up burgers, fries, subs, wraps, and plenty more. Off campus, the food truck selection is expanding, with the Good Truck offering locavore tacos and the Circus Truck blending fast and fancy with made-to-order pasta dishes and other Italian food, plus breakfasts, burgers, sandwiches, and more.
Local is Big Around Here
Speaking of locavore fare, the Ithaca area has a great selection of locally focused eateries. Agava near East Hill Plaza offers southwestern fare made with sustainably grown or raised local food.
A Fancy Night on the Town
What’s the occasion? Whether your parents are taking you out to dinner while visiting campus, or you’re looking for a nice night out with your sweetie, Ithaca has several upscale restaurants to fit the bill. Downtown, pay a visit to Just a Taste to sample and share a variety of tapas, lots of wines by the glass, and Ithaca’s finest chocolate soufflé, guided by expert servers who know their offerings even though they change daily. Also downtown is one of our favorites, Mercato Bar & Kitchen, offering top-notch dinners with an Italian flair.
In Ithaca’s northeast is the Heights Cafe, with good food and good service that almost match the prices. Hazelnut Kitchen a few miles up the lake in Trumansburg. And Hazelnut has a frequently changing menu featuring seasonal preparations of lamb, duck, and lots more.
It’s always important to have something to eat before writing this stuff, but I’ve just made myself hungry anyway wrapping up the latest incarnation of our annual welcome feature. I hope I’ve given you an appetite, too. Go enjoy one of the Ithaca area’s fine eateries, perhaps trying something you’ve never had before, and tell them you heard about them here.