I'll get right to it: I like food. I like to think about it, talk about it, play with it, eat it, and share it. Sometimes I also like to write about it, which is where this post comes in. When you miss meal hours in campus dining services, when your co-op cancels dinner, or when you need to treat yourself, sometimes you need to head out. And in this college town, we've got a smorgasboard of good eats for cheap.
A few notes before we tuck in:
I began writing this post with the lofty recollection of the pervasive $5 lunch menu dancing in my memory. When I was a student here, several restaurants in town had extensive $5 lunch menus, and that really encouraged me to dine out at least once a week. Many of these meals would also give me a snack for later in the day - let's be real, late night - so I planned my dining out accordingly.
In the past few months, I've noticed a slight uptick in the cost of food items on menus in town, and while there are still many delectable options under $5, I upped the price cap of this post to reflect the small change. To be eligible for inclusion in this post, anything listed on a menu as 6.00 or less was fair game. I won't be listing ALL the sub-six dollar eats in town, but I will cover as many as I can endorse myself (or with input from others).
When it comes to tax: when dining in, there's a sales tax charged but when ordering takeout, there's no sales tax. I also didn't reference tipping, which, as a former food service worker I highly encourage doing (at least until we banish terrible pay practices in the food industry, but we're not exactly there yet and this isn't exactly the topic of this post - so, in short, please tip your food service providers).
In comparison to most major cities, Oberlin's restaurants are, on the whole, extremely affordable. Considering the localness of both the food provided and the money recirculating here in town, I think it's a great thing to dine here in town and consider it to be a part of a fuller Oberlin experience.
I've broken down the following plates by category, but don't feel limited by my classifications. (I'm a savory breakfast person and an omelet for dinner person and a cookies at all hours person... as I said, I'm just a food person.)
Here in Oberlin, we take our breakfast/lunch/brunch very seriously. This category includes straight-up brunch options, and menus that serve breakfast and lunch items throughout the day.
Black River Cafe's under $6 options include:
- eggs, homefries, and toast ($4.75 - though if you substitute a bagel for the toast, it's only a dollar more - this recommendation from one of our student designers, Sarah)
- a two egg omelet with cheese and one filling ($6)
- a single (plate-sized! traditional, cornmeal, or vegan) pancake ($3.75 - though you can add blueberries, apples, bananas, or chocolate chips for fifty cents each)
- yogurt and granola parfait ($5.50)
- crepes ($4.50 or $5.50 depending on the fillings)
- house salad ($5.75)
- soup of the day ($2.75 for a cup, $4 for a bowl)
- roasted red pepper sandwich ($5.75 - comes with a side of soup, salad, homefries, or fries)
- You can also put together a breakfast of your choice from the a la carte menu, where items range from a dollar to $3.75.
The webteam celebrates National Pancake Day at Black River.
Main Street Diner opens early and serves diner fare until 3pm. Your affordable under $6 options include:
- buttermilk, buckwheat, or gluten free pancakes ($4.09 for a short stack of the first two, $4.19 for the gluten free 'cakes)
- cinnamon swirl pancake ($3.75)
- French toast (short stack is $4.30, full stack is $6)
- egg plates (with toast, home fries, and meat, varying in price from $3.20 to $5.20 depending on the combination)
- biscuits and gravy ($2.45 for a small, $4.59 for a large)
- oatmeal or grits ($2.79 for a cup, $4.25 for a bowl)
- soup or chili of the day ($2.75 to $3.85 depending on the size)
- a grilled cheese sandwich ($4.99, though you can add bacon or tomato and keep it under six dollars)
Treehuggers Cafe is open lunchtime and afternoon, and their breakfast-y items are egg-cellent. For under $6, you can get:
- breakfast sandwiches of the egg, sausage (or veggie sausage), and veggie variety
- breakfast bowls - either quinoa and sweet potato ($5) or granola ($5)
- the fresh fruit and goat cheese crepe ($6) or basic crepe with lavender sugar and honey ($5)
The Feve serves an ever-changing brunch menu every Saturday and Sunday. Under $6 grub includes:
- a single fancy pancake (sweet or savory, flavors change weekly, $4.45 - add an egg to the savory cakes for an additional dollar)
- classic cakes (two pancakes, $5)
- a bowl of the soup of the day ($5)
- the basic breakfast of eggs, brunch potatoes, salad, and bread ($6)
- yogurt and granola ($6)
- steel cut oatmeal and fruit (cup $2.75, bowl $5)
A sweet cake: nutella raspberry pancakes.
Look at all the brunching! My savory cake in the foreground is the apricot bacon brie pancake. You can also spot the basic breakfast to the left of my plate as well.
The new restaurant Strange Bird has Sunday brunch only, which includes:
- steamed pork buns ($6)
- chilaquiles ($6)
- a classic breakfast of eggs, bacon/sausage, breakfast potatoes, and toast ($5)
My recommendations: The Feve's savory fancy cakes are, no joke, a reason to wake up on a Saturday or Sunday morning (my favorite is the asparagus and gruyere with a fried egg, and I usually mix a touch of hot sauce in with maple syrup as a topping). At Black River, If I'm feeling sandwich-y I like getting an English muffin, a fried egg, and bacon from the a la carte menu to make a breakfast sandwich, which adds up to $5, and upgrading to a croissant brings it to an even $6.
When I mentioned this blog post during one of our blogger workshops, I got two ringing endorsements for the cinnamon swirl pancake at Main Street Diner, which is apparently HUGE and feeds you forever.
I'm focusing solely on items and prices that are only on lunch menus in town for this section. Many of the options listed here are also available at dinner/late night, but depending on the spot, prices might be slightly higher.
Tooo Chinoise has a few lunch choices under $6:
- chicken fried rice ($5.50)
- curry, szechwan, sweet and sour, almond, and broccoli chicken ($5.99)
- veggie pad thai, lo mein, or fried rice ($5.50)
- green beans or broccoli ($5.99)
- veggie stir fry ($5.99)
Mandarin's lunch menu is almost entirely under $6, including:
- fried rice ($5.95)
- chow mein, lo mein, and mei fun ($5.75)
- mongolian beef, beef with broccoli, and pepper steak ($5.95)
- cashew, sesame, honey garlic, or curry chicken ($5.95)
- ma po, kung pao, sesame, or honey tofu ($5.95)
- egg rolls and spring rolls (less than $2), dumplings ($5.50), and soup ($2.25 to $5.95, depending on size and style)
Lorenzo's has a lunch deal for pizza by the slice for a cool three bucks.
Lupita's serves the Speedy Gonzalez for $5.99: a beef taco and the house enchilada with a side of rice or beans. I can verify that it's super fast!
While on campus, the Rathskellar in the Wilder basement is only open for lunch, and it's the fastest option during lunchtime. My favorite approach to dining here is also one of the most affordable: whether you eat in or take out, a one-time trip to the salad bar is under $5, and if you do unlimited salad and soup bar, it's under $6.
My recommendations: Rathskellar, hands down, because their variety of salad toppings and homemade dressing change daily and it's the closest lunch spot to the communications office - but for student folks, it's centrally located and easily accessible to all of you, too. At Mandarin, I head toward sesame or mapo tofu. At Tooo, I always get the szechwan green beans (or if I'm feeling noodley, the veggie pad thai).
These options are available for lunch and dinner with no price difference.
The chicken potstickers at Strange Bird are $6.
Lupita's appetizer menu during lunch and dinner price is almost entirely under $6 and the a la carte menu allows you to pair up tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tamales, beans, and rice for under $6.
Kim's Korean Grocery & Carry Out has $5 rice bowls for dine in or take out:
- bulgogi (beef with stirfried cabbage)
- spicy pork
- chicken teriyaki
- chicken curry or hot chicken
- chapchae (potato noodles with veggies)
- veggie, kimchee, and pork dumplings
- pork, veggie, chicken, or red bean buns
Kim's house soups - kimchee, miso, and seaweed - are $1.99 for a small, $3.99 for a medium, and $5.99 for a large.
Speaking of soup: Aladdin's has AMAZING soup. Perhaps the best in town (other than what comes out of my kitchen, of course):
- V-Nine, lentil soup, chili, or the magical len-chili are all hearty bowls of goodness at $3.75 (I do recommend adding feta or ordering a side of their house hot sauce, each add additional 65 cents).
- If you're not feeling soupy, consider the chicken curry rolled pita ($4.95)
And I would be remiss to not include the rotating menu of tasty soups at Decafe: $1.99 for the soup of the day (my favorite is the chicken pot pie soup, the wild rice soup, or the Italian wedding soup) or the house chili (vegan on days where the soup of the day contains meat, meaty on the days when the soup of the day is veggie).
My recommendations: Kim's bulgogi and chapchae are go-tos for me, and if I'm feeling down either because I'm sick or because it's cold and dreary out, I really enjoy the kimchee soup. I'm also deeply enamored with the hot sauce at Aladdin's, and will use any excuse to eat it on anything, which is usually their lentil soup with a side of pita.
The chicken curry rolled pita was recommended by Kasey, our editorial fellow, with the sentiment: "I'm not sure why it is significantly cheaper than every other sandwich on the menu, but it is under $5 and delicious." (I agree.)
According to my friend Dana over in the career center, the chicken soup at Lupita's ($4.99) will mend broken hearts and all sicknesses.
These options are available throughout the day for lunch and dinner, but after 10pm, these are the only options you'll have available to you.
The Feve, glorious spot for finger foods and bar fare, provides lunch, dinner, and late-night snacks (serving until midnight). Consider:
- a Nathan's hot dog and a side ($5)
- a three-piece chicken tender basket with a side ($5.25)
- grilled cheese with a side ($6)
- fried egg sandwiches with a side ($6)
Sides include fries, tots, a side salad, or hummus and pita, BUT for an extra dollar you can add a cup of soup or the daily bean. For the purposes of this post, you could only really add this to the hot dog to stay at the $6 requirement, but you can definitely get the soup of the day or the bean of the day as dishes on their own, too.
Agave, purveyor of choose-your-fillings burrito, taco, and nacho deliciousness, is open lunch, dinner, and late-night (serving til 2am). Consider:
- bean and rice burrito with sauces and toppings ($5.50)
- half nachos with your choice of toppings ($5, though it's worth adding guacamole for an extra dollar)
- two hard or soft tacos ($5.50)
- half-a-dilla with sour cream, guacamole, and salsa ($5.50)
- a side of rice and beans ($2)
- chips and guacamole and salsa ($2.75)
Agave serves until 2am.
My recommendations: At the Feve, Nathan's hot dog + fries + three dipping sauces (my favorites are the chimichurri mayo, coconut curry, and just right wing sauce) for my 'dog and 'tats clocks in at $6 (Sarah of aforementioned "Add the bagel to your BRC breakfast plate" fame recommends this too). At Agave, half nachos are totally where it's at (my favorite combo is house queso, shredded chicken, refried beans, rice, sweet potatoes, spinach, corn, and pickled onions with tomatillo lime salsa).
Call them snacks, call them meals at any hour, but sometimes you need noms at a less-traditional time. (Thanks, college, for teaching me that remembering to eat semi-regularly when busy/stressed/running around endlessly is vital, and that "dinnertime" can totally happen at 4:30pm or 10:30pm depending on the day.)
Hand-held goodness includes the filled croissants at Slow Train ($3.75) and of course bagels at The Local! You choose your bagel (plain, poppy seed, egg and cheese, cinnamon raisin, everything, and sesame) and then add a few cents more to get toppings (cream cheese, Nutella, butter, pesto, hummus, almond butter, caprese or cream cheese and pesto). Even the most expensive of these combos (the caprese) clocks in at under $5, and most of the options here round out at a little over $2.
Yes, all those beautiful boxes behind the counter are filled with bagels!
Sometimes you need some liquid sunshine, also known as a fruit smoothie:
- Decafe offers build-your-own smoothies with a variety of fruits and tasty liquids (chai, yogurt, Silk, and juice).
- Aladdin's includes an assortment of fresh fruit smoothies for $3.85.
- Treehuggers Cafe has fruit, veggie, and/or coffee smoothies, all for $5.
As a kid growing up, hummus was a staple in my house far before it was a popular please-all spread and dip (hippie parents + roots in the Mediterranean = go-to snack) but nowadays, it's everywhere, including all over Oberlin:
- Strange Bird has lemon hummus with warm naan ($6).
- The Feve serves a side of hummus ($2.75) or a full order ($6), both served with pita.
- Slow Train also serves hummus with warm pita, which I learned is supplied by the Feve ($2.50).
Speaking of the Feve, I would be remiss if I didn't include:
- french fries (small $3, large $4)
- tater tots (small $3.25, large $4.25)
It's also worth adding either dry seasoning for 25 cents (I like the Cuban and Megan) or roasted garlic butter for a dollar or adding a few dipping sauces to keep each bite exciting for 50 cents per sauce/three sauces for a dollar.
Most of the items at Cowhaus Creamery are under $6 (just how things go at an ice cream shop) but the cheapest and also the cutest item on the menu is the World's Smallest Sundae: a small scoop of vanilla, chocolate, or caramel sea salt ice cream with house whipped cream, hot fudge, salted peanuts, and a cherry is a cool $1.50.
It's the perfect amount of ice cream deliciousness I need! It's a Ma'ayan sized sundae!
My recommendations: When it comes to creamy drinks: consider an all-peach smoothie with half Silk and half chai (or half Silk and half grape juice) at Decafe and the strawberry smoothie at Aladdin's. Tanya made me try her Jumpin' Java smoothie at Treehuggers and I'd recommend that to anyone who likes coffee (sadly, though, not me). When it comes to hummus, I'm quite partial to the Feve's, which I like eating with a drizzle of Cholula while sitting there in the glorious ambience.
Okay. It's time to publish and figure out my lunch plans. One of each of the above, please!