The small college town of Lawrence, Kansas, is a food-lovers paradise, no matter your age.
Growing up near Lawrence, most of my memories there revolve around food. As a non-traditional Journalism student at the University of Kansas in the 90s, I would rush from class to get home to my young children, but not before making a quick stop for a slice of pizza from Papa Keno’s Pizzeria. The slices were advertised as being as large as your face but were actually much larger. Luckily the slices are cut into crisscrosses making numerous tiny diamond-shaped slices. Although I was craving typical college fare, this was elevated pizza utilizing ingredients such as artichokes, feta, shrimp, and other unique (to me) toppings. The pizzeria is still in its original location.
Later, whether my tastes matured or the city grew with the dining trends, the restaurants continually cultivated excellence. My mother had moved to Lawrence so each week I would visit and we would seek out her favorite bakery for bread (a tie between Wheatfields Bakery for their warm, chewy roll with cranberries and pecans, and 1900 Barker for the airy and moist on the inside, crusty exterior European-style bread). The next stop was Alchemy Coffee and Bake House for a cup of their pour-over coffee, a brewing technique that felt like it took forever for a small cup but was well worth the wait inside the small space. For a special dinner out we would try one of the progressive and always flavorful restaurants on this list.
Here, in no particular order, are seven can’t-miss restaurants in Lawrence, Kansas -- most of which have outdoor dining with heaters for chilly Kansas winters.
1. Ramen Bowls
The broth is made fresh each morning at Ramen Bowls, so arrive early -- once it’s gone, the restaurant closes. The miso and tonkotsu noodles are house-made as well and include vegan and gluten-free options.
The ramen bowls are both traditional and modern versions such as the Hakata Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen with thin noodles, pork bone broth, pork belly, spinach, braised egg, scallions, and nori; or the Loaded Kimchi Ramen, a huge serving of thin noodles, chicken broth, pork belly, two braised egg halves, spinach, Napa cabbage, scallions, fried leeks, and nori. In addition to a number of ramen bowls, the edamame, wontons, eggrolls, gyoza, and even a Spam Musibi are delicious as well.
2. The Cellar Door
The competition for bakeries in Lawrence is fierce, so you know the newest cafe to open must be good to take on such a large endeavor. Come hungry to The Cellar Door so you can taste the variety of sweet and savory treats at this breakfast, lunch, and barista bar.
Although you’ll find traditional breakfast favorites such as a breakfast sandwich or burrito, the unique creations are a delight you won’t want to miss. For breakfast or lunch, try The One With Chicken Schnitzel; chicken is brined overnight and then breaded and fried and served on a jumbo English muffin with red cabbage slaw and green peppercorn mayo. Be sure and grab a loaf of sourdough or one of the delicious cakes to go.
3. The Mad Greek
Although Lawrence is ripe with new restaurants looking to make a footprint in this foodie town, many local favorites such as The Mad Greek have been serving the community since 1988. The current owners, Deb and Theo Tagtalianidis, purchased the restaurant in 2014, adding their own flair to the already popular menu with the addition of Theo’s family recipes from Northern Greece, where they both are from.
Start with a traditional Greek starter such as the Tour of Greece with a hummus sampling, spicy feta, melitzanosalata (eggplant), and tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber) dips and is served with pita bread. Or go for a showier starter and order the Saganaki (Flaming Cheese), a hard, aged, imported Greek cheese that is pan-fried and flamed at your table and served with pita bread. For the main course, the Souvlaki Dinner is a gluten-free option of two Kabobs of marinated and charbroiled pork tenderloin served with rice pilaf, Greek-style green beans, tzatziki sauce, and pita bread. And, of course, the perfect sweet ending to a Greek dinner is the flaky, sweet and sticky, Baklava.
4. The Basil Leaf Cafe
The Basil Leaf Cafe space is small and intimate, making you feel like family at this locally-owned cafe. The food is authentic Italian and made from scratch. The small dining room is earthy and woody and holds some high-top chairs and bar eating areas and tables. The seats aren’t terribly comfortable, but the food makes up for it.
If you’re really hungry, order the 7 Layer Lasagna, layered with ground chuck, a five-cheese blend, and both marinara and alfredo sauces. It’s delicious and over-the-top rich and satisfying. For a lighter option, order the Caprese Salad and the Pan Seared Salmon served with risotto and asparagus. A glass of vino from the ever-changing wine list is always in order when dining at The Basil Leaf Cafe. The weekday lunch special is just the right size and includes a side house or Caesar salad and half a lunch entree portion for $9.99. The Fried Calamari sided with two sauces -- marinara and basil ranch -- and the Tiramisu are also local favorites.
5. Merchants Pub And Plate
At Merchants Pub And Plate, you’ll find a local focus in the owners and chefs, TK and Emily Peterson, as well as the foods they choose for the menu. Seeking out seasonal and local ingredients, plus 30 craft beers on tap, wine options, and seasonal, hand-crafted cocktails, the menu reflects its Lawrence roots. The menu is dietary restrictions friendly and has symbols to note whether an option is gluten-free, dairy-free, contains animal products, or can be modified to fit particular needs.
For a fresh and delicious brunch, share an order of the Rabbit and Apple Sausage with tempura sweet potato, drunken cherries, and rosemary aioli. Then try the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, or go meaty with the Fried Pork Chop served with maple whipped sweet potatoes, creamed greens, apple chow chow, and hot honey.
Special events include a Chef’s Table Dinner and Private Craft Cocktail Classes. There’s even fun and quirky merchandise you can purchase, such as one of their vintage black or purple t-shirts that announce, “Eat Your Damn Brussel Sprouts.”
6. Lawrence Beer Company
Lawrence has its fair share of breweries, and Lawrence Beer Company aims to enhance the food and beer community with its offerings. Visit the original location in East Lawrence or the smaller outpost in West Lawrence with a 14-foot stone fireplace on the patio.
If you savor the flavor of a dark beer, try the River Rat, a 6.2% ABV oatmeal stout. For a fruity flavor, the Raspberry Edel is a 5% ABV Berliner Weisse.
Choose from the elevated bar food options of burgers, fried pickles, charcuterie plate, fish and chips, and more -- favorite bar fare with fresh and inspiring additions. One creation that’s a must to try is the Waffle Fries Basket with dijonnaisse and pimento beer cheese. As if that wasn’t rich enough, you can add chili and cheese for a few extra dollars. Or try one of the gorgeous salads such as the Baby Spinach with sweet peas, sauteed mushrooms, bacon, blue cheese, and a tart dressing with a Stout Chili or the soup of the day.
7. Free State Brewing Company
In 1989, Free State Brewing Company opened as the first legal brewery in Kansas. Through the years, their microbrews have won awards. You can sample their craft beers at the brewery, but you’ll also find them served at bars and stores throughout the region.
They’re known for their flagship beers -- Ad Astra Ale, Copperhead Pale Ale, Oatmeal Stout, Yakimaniac IPA, and Stormchaser IPA -- but also their seasonal brews and small-batch brews. One small batch available year-round is the Old Backus Barleywine Ale. At 10% ABV, it packs a punch with a sweet malt foundation and fruity overtones with a balanced hop finish.
Pair one of their brews with lunch or dinner at the restaurant. The Catfish Po’ Boy, Kielbasa and Apple Kraut, Pulled Pork Barbecue Meal, and more, all beg to be sided with a craft brew.