From Champaign to Chicago, West Lafayette to Washington D.C., I travel the Big Ten circuit every year with one purpose: to watch basketball.
But from November to March, this 14-town jaunt becomes my sprawling second home — one in which I need to land good food, good drinks and, heck, a good time between all of the wins and losses. Along the way, I’ve discovered some delightful food finds, hidden gems and seriously memorable meals — some tucked away in tiny college towns, others in the hearts of metropolises.
What happens in Chicago this week, when the teams these cities host go head-to-head in the Big Ten Tournament — the league’s annual precursor to the NCAA Tournament — will play out on the court.
But the winners and losers of the cities and their culinary scenes? That’s a different game altogether — and it’s been playing out in dining rooms from here to the Atlantic Ocean all year. In our bracket (note that for our purposes, we created our own seeds), we crown the foodie champion of the Big Ten. And in this competition, the top dogs might surprise you.
1. Washington, D.C. University of Maryland (College Park, Md.)
When Maryland joined the conference ahead of this season, some were annoyed (by the expansion, the travel, the movement to the East Coast). Me? I was ecstatic. The university is just 15 minutes by car from the nation’s capital, and the extra trip to the East Coast meant an abundance of fresh seafood, an extremely varied culinary landscape and — frankly — championship-worthy meals. At Kapnos, on the first of the year, I eagerly devoured what wound up being a meal that has lasted as one of my favorites. Consider sitting at the chef’s table, in front of all the action, and start with one of the savory spreads on pita or crudité at this Greek gem on 14th Street. The spiced baby goat, roasted on a spit in the open kitchen, is incredibly flavorful. The braised octopus with capers and lemons is tender and perfectly balanced. Others worth trying? Creative pastas at Red Hen in the Bloomingdale neighborhood and the Korean bibimbap at Mandu in Chinatown. Go with an appetite.
2. Columbus, Ohio Ohio State
Minneapolis, along with Big Ten schools Northwestern (just outside Chicago) and Maryland (just outside D.C.), bring sizable cities to the conference’s travel circuit. Still, Columbus smashes that elite lineup with a fun, varied and yes, exciting food scene. First, there’s Harvest in the German Village, which has some of the best pizza outside of New York City I’ve eaten — I love the kale Caesar with toasted hazelnuts and the goat cheese pizza with sopressata. Attached to the restaurant is Curio, an approximately 300-square-foot cocktail bar that opens in the evenings and promptly gets packed. Order a twist on a classic libation from one of the talented bartenders and a ’za from next door — they’ll bring it over. In Short North, I hang out by day at One Line, a third-wave coffee shop, and by night at Mouton, an artsy cocktail and wine joint in a highly Instagrammable setting (just check out their website).
3. Minneapolis University of Minnesota
It’s amazing how much my adopted home has changed since I arrived here less than five years ago. Eli’s Food & Cocktails, where I consume house-cured pastrami sandwiches by the dozen, and Tao Natural Foods, where I indulge my healthier side with fresh juices and big salads, have both been there forever. But my two favorite dinner spots — Burch in Lowry Hill and Borough in the Warehouse District — have gone up under my watch. The former brands itself as a steakhouse — and those cuts are a worthy focus — but churns out so much more. The marlin crudo packs more flavor into a piece of raw fish than seems possible. The sides — you won’t find your standard baked potato and asparagus here — are anything but predictable. And the pizzas? They take me to New York, with toppings like roasted olives and octopus gracing a perfectly spiced tomato sauce. At Borough, the way to go is small plates: the parsnip soup with smoked duck and grapes, the terrine that incorporates both duck and venison with chestnuts, Dijon and magic. It’s exciting, and molecular gastronomy at its tastiest.
4. Bloomington, Ind. Indiana University
While making the hour-plus drive along the wooded two-lane highway from Indianapolis International, it’s hard to believe Bloomington holds anything other than a sleepy university campus. Instead, the “gateway to scenic southern Indiana” boasts a flush farm-to-table community, rife with gems such as Feast — a cafe with freshly baked breads, crafted sandwiches and salads and a stellar retail wine selection — and Finch’s, a charming Mediterranean-American brasserie with a wood-fired oven and an artisan beer list. Fifty miles outside the clutches of foodie Indianapolis, Bloomington has established its own travel-worthy culinary identity and might make it to the championship game, if not for tough matchup Columbus.
5. Madison, Wis. University of Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s capital holds two of my top-five Big Ten restaurants beyond Minneapolis. So since I’m often there for two nights and covering a game for one of them, I like to hit up Graze for appetizers: The pickle board is great to share, with kimchi, daikon, cauliflower and beets joining the typical cucumbers and carrots. The bone marrow is a plate that I dream about all year; its buttery contents are mouthwatering when spread with pickled shallots on Graze’s home-baked gluten-free bread (the best I’ve tasted). Then, I’m off to Nostrano, which just happens to be one of my favorite restaurants in the country. A tiny rustic dining room is almost as pleasing to the senses as the food — almost. The small, Italian-focused menu hasn’t disappointed me yet. The most alluringly simple cauliflower soup — no oil, no cream — I consumed on my last trip is perhaps my favorite dish yet.
6. Chicago Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.)
Can one really conquer Chicago? When I’m in the Windy City for only a couple of days, I don’t even try, choosing instead to stick to a few neighborhoods and the wealth of options they offer. In Lakeview, the Q — a barbecue and bourbon mecca — is almost always my first stop with friends. Here, the brisket is in the spotlight, but load up on their spicy, slightly burnt Brussels sprouts and the bacon-loaded baked beans. If you haven’t gotten your fill of brown liquor, head over a few blocks to Delilah’s, a dive bar on the edge of Lincoln Park with 400-plus whiskeys you won’t want to water down with ice. Or go classier, at Barrelhouse Flat, where Pimm’s cups and rum swizzles can be sipped from velvet-upholstered chairs. Downtown, the Purple Pig lovingly prepares just about every part of the, you guessed it, pig — from crispy ears with kale to braised balsamic tails and everything in between. But don’t tell Bloomington that Chi-town can’t be conquered. Why not? Because the little Indiana city that could just took it down.
7. Ann Arbor, Mich. University of Michigan
A Squared, as the locals call it, definitely feels like a college town, but it captures the best meaning of that phrase: Its vibrant downtown houses cheap eats and local institutions, dive bars and spirited cocktail emporiums. No matter what, make it to Zingerman’s Delicatessen, a tradition in those parts. These days, Zingerman’s has grown into an empire that includes a bakery, a creamery, a coffee roaster and more. Their Roadhouse, remaking classics like macaroni and cheese and the ubiquitous corn dog, is worth a visit. Get the fried chicken (gluten-free), which is every bit as buttery as you’d hope. When you’re done, you’ll need to wet your whistle. Alley Bar serves Sazeracs alongside picklebacks (whiskey chased by pickle juice). Mash hosts live music with no cover charge in an exposed brick basement serving up boozy smashes on oversized cubes.
8. Iowa City, Iowa University of Iowa
The closest Big Ten school to Minneapolis is worth the frostbitten drive for the comfort food and booze alone. The state’s fifth-largest city doesn’t have the culinary rep of Des Moines and Ames, but it’s home to my two favorite delis on the league circuit and a whiskey bar that doesn’t disappoint. First, make a stop at Mama’s and get the spicy, melty capicola or the roast beef with onion jam and horseradish mayo. Or head to Nodo, for the ham and mango melt. Then proceed directly to Clinton Street Social Club. The food in the Prohibition-esque atmosphere is good, not great (think white anchovy Caesars, charcuterie plates and gastropub-style burgers), but the whiskey list is prime and includes a pair of locally distilled varieties: Cody Road and the popular Bulleit.
9. State College, Pa. Penn State
When you get to Happy Valley, you’ve almost surely endured a long trip: multiple flights, and perhaps a stunning drive through the Alleghenies, along the Susquehanna River. The hilly downtown is crowded with early 20th-century architecture and enticing restaurant fronts. Unfortunately, the culinary landscape doesn’t quite match, creeping into “boring” territory. Make the most of what you can: Sit and mull the cold mornings at Callao Cafe with an oversized mug of coffee and a steaming savory crêpe. And if you’re headed to a game, stop beforehand at Carvers Deli, where you can choose a sandwich named after whatever team you’re rooting for. It’s hiding inconspicuously in a strip mall, one that gives no hint of the gifted smoking, braising and brining that’s happening inside.
10. Urbana-Champaign, Ill. University of Illinois
I’ll give Champaign this: Its residents are loyal and enthused about their town. That includes the mayor, who offered to give me a private tour of the city — after he heard me give the town a negative review during an interview with Illinois coach John Groce. That adventure hasn’t happened yet, and I’m still searching for variety here, but in the meantime I’ve found enough to get by in a two-day span. Cold pints are downed with tapas at Radio Maria. Cafe Kopi fills light-drenched rooms with honest sandwiches and salads, and Maize Mexican Grill impressed me with its super-fresh ingredients and inspired versions of chalupas and queso fundido. Still, the flashes of intrigue are no match for in-state powerhouse Chicago, which runs past its underdog neighbor.
11. Lincoln, Neb. University of Nebraska
Nebraska’s capital has changed in the past year, with the new $180 million Pinnacle Bank arena infusing restaurant and retail life into the Haymarket neighborhood of downtown. Still, Lincoln has a long way to go. Sebastian’s Table has a seductive atmosphere, with bookshelves creating nooks in the loft-style building — but go for a glass of wine, not the food. For a satisfying dinner, order the spicy lamb vindaloo at the Oven, an Indian restaurant with a full bar. Or drive an hour-plus to the beckoning Omaha instead, for the Boiler Room in the beautifully restored Bemis Bag Building. Avoli Osteria creates modern and unpretentious twists on Italian food, Lot 2 has those juicy Nebraska steaks, but a whole lot more, and Berry & Rye’s bartenders will hypnotize with their cocktail skills.
12. East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State
With Ann Arbor an hour away, it’s tempting to just stay there (and I have on several trips). But if you’re bound to East Lansing, the key is to go international. University of Michigan’s rival town doesn’t have the same quaint streets or candlelit windows, but it does boast a world of food options. At Altu’s Ethiopian Cuisine, get the lamb stew or the spicy ground peas and beef, which was particularly flavorful, over rice and with collard greens and cabbage on the side. Gam Ja Tang has traditional Korean food with all the fixings. Taste of Thai makes a respectable pad thai.
13. West Lafayette, Ind. Purdue University
Unlike much of the state, options run thin in this corner of Indiana. Green Leaf has Vietnamese that is worthwhile, and Scotty’s Brewhouse doesn’t mess up sandwiches and typical American fare. But if you’re so inclined, Indianapolis — an undervalued Midwestern culinary scene — is just over an hour drive away. If you’re flying out of Indianapolis International anyway, consider spending an evening in writer Kurt Vonnegut’s hometown and check out Bluebeard for the raw oysters, the roasted cauliflower and whatever else they have on their ever-changing menu — one that fed me my favorite meal this season, a flavorful lobster salad on New Year’s Eve. Afterward, hit up Ball & Biscuit or Libertine for something stirred, poured or shaken.
14. Piscataway, N.J. Rutgers University (New Brunswick, N.J.)
Maybe this town should be scratched since Rutgers just joined the league, and Minnesota hasn’t yet traveled to its New Jersey campus. While hardly hearty competition for favorite D.C., I’ve heard that Piscataway is a charming college town inspired by its location just outside the Big Apple. The options in the New Brunswick area range from American barbecue to Italian, from Cantonese to Pakistani — and seemingly everything in between. If all else fails, head to one of the five boroughs themselves: New York City is hypothetically an hour away, not accounting for the traffic.