It’s true. With a very diverse population living here year-round and the addition of an almost equal number of college students from every corner of the US and beyond from September through May, there is a need for an equally diverse array of restaurants. And by no means does this need go unfulfilled!
Having spent a fair number of years outside of Ithaca before making it my home, I can honestly say that I have never experienced a village, town or city with as many different options for dining co-existing in peace and harmony. Most larger cities I have visited specialize in some type of regional cuisine which is easy to find all over the city, and though each restaurant may offer subtle variations on the theme, they are all relatively the same. The regional fare, along with the staples of chain restaurants (of both dine-in and take-out varieties), dominates the local landscape and at times helps define the culinary stand-point of the city (Chicago has the deep-dish pizza, Philly has the cheesesteak, New York has the thin-crust pizza, etc.). Ithaca, on the other hand, cannot be defined; there are far too many locally owned and operated restaurants that specialize in a multitude of styles of cuisine, and each does it so well that no single type of food dominates the culinary landscape.
I believe that the diversity of the restaurants in Ithaca reflects quite positively on the cultural diversity of the population as well as the general open-mindedness of both the residents and the student populations. For so many different restaurants to survive, let alone thrive, in such a (comparatively) small town is incredible and it is only fair that I do my part and patronize them as often as possible (much to the chagrin of my wife, who thoroughly enjoys cooking and eating at home). I also must thank some of the restaurants in town for helping broaden my gastronomical horizons and helping me to become more than the provincial eater I was as a child and even as teen. It was not until I came to Ithaca as a freshman at Ithaca College that I really began to eat outside my “comfort” zone of typical American fare and Americanized ethnic foods.
Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t good old-fashioned American food here, too! Nor is there a marked absence of chain restaurants – both do great business, to be sure, but as variety is the spice of life, I’d recommend taking advantage of the tasty opportunities that Ithaca presents. There are adventures awaiting you just behind the door of a local restaurant – most are extremely affordable and all are well worth it! Please allow me to share some of my personal adventures with you (they will sound more adventurous to some of you than others – bear in mind that I lived a very sheltered culinary life for quite some time…)
- Just a Taste Wine and Tapas Bar – Located downtown on Aurora St., this one tops the list because from the moment I walked in for the first time it was my favorite. Tapas, if you’re unfamiliar, is a Spanish tradition of ordering small plates of a large variety of food and sharing them around with your friends (though oftentimes in Spain, the tapas come free with wine). This is a great place to start if you are a less-than-adventurous eater because you can order a variety of items without committing to a large plate of something completely unknown to you. This was the site of my very first experience with Brussels Sprouts (kryptonite to most children) and I was instantly hooked (so much so that I actually planted a large crop of them in my garden this year). I also find I experiment more and more with seafood here, as I’ve never been a huge fan of fish and/or shellfish, but it allows me to try things I wouldn’t want to approach in my own kitchen. They use many local products, from meats to veggies, beers and wines, which always makes you feel good about supporting the local economy and the freshness of the food.
- Taste of Thai – Located on the Commons or on Meadow St., this was the site of my first real taste of thai (pardon…that was a horrible, cheap turn of phrase). Before my first experience there with my wife and a couple of our friends, I was mainly scared of the names of the dishes – I have a huge fear of mispronouncing something and either making a fool of myself, offending someone or worse yet, ordering something completely different out of ignorance! Thankfully, my fellow diners and the congenial waitstaff were more than happy to aid me in choosing a dish (and ordering it correctly). One feature that hooked me in was that with many dishes, there are different spice levels, from a comparatively mild one to the tongue-melting five (I exaggerate…it is only tongue-blistering). There are several great Thai restaurants in Ithaca, but Taste of Thai was my first experience and shall always hold a special spot in my heart (or stomach).
- Viva Taqueria – On Aurora St., across from the eastern end of the Commons, you’ll find some of the freshest, tastiest Mexican food around. There are several different Mexican restaurants in Ithaca, each providing a different, yet still authentic, style of Mexican food, but Viva remains a local favorite. With huge, flavorful portions and equally fantastic margaritas, it’s hard to go wrong.
- Sangham – Located in the Center Ithaca building on the Ithaca Commons, Sangham is a great choice if you enjoy tasty, affordable Indian food without a huge time commitment. I have been to Sangham with one of the pickiest eaters I know (also one of my best friends) and he said it was one of the best meals he’d ever eaten – he has since developed a slight Sangham addiction.
- Benchwarmers – Also conveniently located on the Commons, I’m including this one on my short list to assuage anyone who may think I have a grudge against good ol’ American food…and because I do love to eat there! Benchwarmers is a sports bar, with over 25 televisions, pool tables and darts, and fantastic food, from appetizers through desserts. My personal pick would have to be the Full Court Press (an enormous chili burger) and onion rings…but be warned – you should be hungry if you’re going after this one!
If you are familiar with Ithaca and its restaurants, please comment on this post with any additions you’d like to make – I am only one man with one stomach! You may have noticed that all of the restaurants that I highlighted are located on and around the Commons (which, for any out-of-towners reading this or visiting, is at the center of the downtown and is a pedestrian shopping area) – the reason for this is that I am indecisive on a good day, and the Commons makes my lunch and/or dinner decisions easy. There are over 25 restaurants within a quarter mile of the Commons and a wide variety of styles are represented therein, so it’s always easy to just park downtown and wander around until something really jumps out and grabs me!
For a complete list of restaurants in Ithaca, searchable by type of food and/or general location, please click here.