From move-in day when I was trying to remember where I last left my keys to the day I graduated college, I distinctly remember asking myself everyday: Can I afford that?
It wasn’t just the hefty tuition. It was also my skyrocketing rent for a closet my landlord marketed as a “bedroom” and the monthly pass for the public transportation that brought me to my classes and three jobs. When I worked a late-night bartending shift, I had to Uber home. But I also constantly questioned: Can I afford that food? I wasn’t alone in that.
Food insecurity among college students was rampant before the pandemic, where a staggering 30 percent of all college students experience it at some point during their college careers. These students are more likely to have lower GPAs, lower attendance and completion rates, and are more likely to report indicators of stress and depression than their food secure counterparts. They are trying to stretch their dollars and frankly, sometimes meals take a backseat.
Yet, in Rhode Island, there are scores of restaurants where college students (and others) can find a proper, more affordable meal that’s still under $15.
Here are a few of the best cheap eats around every college campus in Rhode Island.
Nearby schools: Roger Williams University
THE BEEHIVE CAFE: Tucked in a historical section of Bristol is The Beehive Cafe, known for hearty breakfast options like butternut cornbread hash or fritters. For lunch, they serve chicken pot pies ($13), squash sandwiches ($14), and massive salads ($4-$12). They are open for dinner on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. 10 Franklin St., Bristol, 401-396-9994, thebeehivecafe.com.
BRISTOL SUNSET CAFE: This bring-your-own-booze spot serves espresso and simple foods like salad wraps, fried chicken sandwiches, and a shaved steak lunch plate. 499 Hope St., Bristol, 401-253-1910, bristolsunsetcafe.com.
COMMON PUB AND GRILLE: From $7 flatbreads to a fish and chips plate for just $11, this pub has quite a few selections that could fill you on a budget. Other items, like their heaping pasta dishes with various seafood, can exceed $20. On Fridays only, they serve a “meal deal,” which is a cup of chowder with three clam cakes and a plate of fish and chips for less than $14. 421 Wood St., Bristol, 401-253-9801, commonpubandgrille.com.
Nearby schools: New England Institute of Technology
SIMON SAYS CAFE: The double espresso shot in between classes is less than $1.50 while your lunch sandwich (with a choice of sides) is less than $6. There’s really no other place in the area with those prices. 96 Main St., East Greenwich, 401-884-1965, instagram.com/simonsayscafe.
CATHAY GARDEN: Their “Happy Lunch” specials include items like sesame chicken and chop suey, but each come with fried rice and a choice of soup for under $10. On Saturdays and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., they serve luncheon specials — each for $8.75 or less — that include fried rice and egg rolls. If you’re craving chow mein, they have 10 different variations, which are all between $7 and $11 — depending on the dish size. The all-you-can-eat buffet is $12.75 per person. 363 Main St., East Greenwich, 401-884-7776, cathaygardenri.com.
TIO MATEO’S & GREENWICH BAY GOURMET: Owner Ross DiSegna, a Johnson & Wales University graduate, purchased Tio Mateo’s & Greenwich Bay Gourmet, which is essentially two restaurants under the same roof, in 2015. Since then, they’ve earned numerous awards for their menu. On one side of the menu, you can order classic Mexican dishes like enchiladas and fajitas. On the other, options include a thanksgiving turkey dinner in a French roll, wraps, roast beef sandwiches on house-made focaccia, or fresh salads. 70 Cliff St., East Greenwich, 401-886-1973, tios-gbg.com.
Nearby schools: Salve Regina University and the Naval War College
MAMA LEONE’S PIZZERIA: Mondays are “beat the clock” days at Mama Leone. It starts at 5 and runs through 9 p.m. Here’s how it works: The time you call in your order is the price you pay. If you call at 5:01 p.m., then you’re paying $5.01. There is an additional $1.49 charge for pepperoni. Customers are limited to three pizzas per Monday; so $15.03 for the price of three pies? Count me in. 266 Bellevue Ave., Newport, 401-847-7272, mamaleones.net.
TIJUANA GRILL: Some of the largest burritos in Rhode Island are located at Tijuana, a tiny spot on Broadway in Newport, where you’re going to have to split this one in half. Save the rest for lunch the next day. 66 Broadway, Newport, 401-324-5320, tijuanaburritogrilltogo.com.
THE HUNGRY MONKEY: Until close at 2 p.m. each day, the Hungry Monkey serves breakfast and lunch only, and staples include the fish wraps ($11.95), chourico and pepper grinder ($8.95), and specialty 6-ounce burgers with fries ($12). If you’re brave enough one morning, they have “The King Kong Challenge,” where if you finish eating a 15-egg omelet in under an hour, then you win a free t-shirt and the omelet is on the house. Few have completed the challenge. 124 Broadway, Newport, 401-619-4433, hungrymonkeycafe.com.
MEGS’ AUSSIE MILK BAR: In Australia, a milk bar is typically a suburban social venue and snack bar that serves light refreshments, meat pies, fresh sandwiches, groceries, and newspapers. The traditional milk bar was in its heyday during during the 1940s through the 1980s. Megs’ is similar to one of those classic milk bars, but has recently committed to their own green initiative where they are only using reusable cloth green bags, mason jars, and encourage their customers to bring their own take-away containers and reusable straws for take-out. 111 Bellevue Ave., Newport, 401-619-4811, megsaussiemilkbar.com.
Nearby schools: Brown University, Johnson & Wales University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, and the Rhode Island School of Design
LA CREPERIE: For the last 25 years, Leslie Carnevale has been whipping up crêpes, Belgian waffles, and wraps with locally sourced ingredients right off of Thayer Street. If you’re looking for a healthier option, they serve 20-ounce smoothies with fresh fruit and natural juices for $6 each. 82 Fones Alley, Providence, 401-751-5536, creperieprov.com.
LOUIS FAMILY RESTAURANT: On the East Side of Providence, Louis’s has been a family-owned restaurant that dates back to the 1940s. It’s a no-frills diner where massive portions have drawn the attention of Food Network stars like Guy Fieri on his show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. They also have a solid breakfast where you can get eggs, toast, and homefries for less than $5. 286 Brook St., Providence, 401-861-5225, louisrestaurant.org.
SOPHIA’S CAFE: From empanadas and Dominican yaroas to protein shakes and juices, Sophia’s is a one-stop shop in between classes. They also serve traditional Latin and American sandwiches. 532 Manton Ave, Providence, 401-383-6252, instagram.com/sophiascaferi.
PROVIDENCE BURGER BAR: When you build your own burger, you could technically get it with the usual fixings (lettuce, tomato, red onion, house sauce, and pickles) for under $6. But the specialty burgers here, like the French onion ($9.25) with caramelized onions and Swiss cheese or the buffalo ($10.95) with coleslaw, bacon, and bleu cheese sauce, come with a side of fries. Burrito bowls can be made keto (all under $11) and they have $2, $3, and $4 menus at the bar. 161 Douglas Ave, Providence, 401-343-7272, providenceburgerbar.com.
SANDWICH HUT: Of all the massive sandwiches you could order and probably split with your roommate at The Sandwich Hut, not one exceeds $14. Pack in the protein with a steak and cheese, a chicken parm sub, or a meatball grinder. If you tend to skip meat, they have fancy grilled cheeses and MTPs (mozzarella, tomato, and pesto). 1253 North Main St., Providence, 401-272-2590, thesandwichhut.com.
TALLULAH’S TAQUERIA: For almost a decade, Tallulah’s owners Jake and Kelly Ann Rojas have been serving fresh tacos, burritos, tortas, bowls, and quesadillas in the Fox Point neighborhood. Their vast outdoor seating area typically draws both locals and students. 146 Ives St., Providence, 401-272-8226, tallulahstaqueria.com.
GARDEN OF EVE: Yveline “Eve” Bontemp moved from Haiti to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. She taught herself English by listening to a tape recorder and looking at an accompanying book. After graduating high school, she became a dietary aide at Berkshire Nursing Home in Providence. In 2017, she opened Garden of Eve, where she serves dishes that she remembers eating in Haiti as a child such as légume, black mushroom rice, curry chickpeas, oxtail, and fried plantains. 405 Harris Ave., Providence, 401-688-5166, gardenofevepvd.com.
EAST SIDE POCKETS: A fixture on Thayer Street for the last 25 years, East Side Pockets is a Middle Eastern counter-serve joint that serves falafel, kebab wraps, and oversized baklava slices. 278 Thayer St., Providence, 401-453-1100, eastsidepocket.com.
Nearby schools: Bryant University
THIRSTY BEAVER: This Rhode Island-based company has four locations, but their spot in Smithfield has rotating daily specials: Mondays are for $3 drafts, Tuesdays are for 50 percent off appetizers, Wednesdays are for loaded fry specials, and Thursdays are for $7 martinis. Burgers ($13-$14) are a half-pound beef patty. 45 Cedar Swamp Road, Smithfield, 401-349-4790, thirstybeaverpub.com.
THE BEEF BARN: After 50 years in business, the Beef Barn, owned by Marc Branchaud and Michelle Branchaud, is best known for roast beef is cooked low and slow for eight hours and then sliced throughout the day. The roast beef sandwiches are $4.75 while hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and steak plate are all less than $7. 200 Industrial Drive, North Smithfield, 401-762-9880, thebeefbarn.com.
Nearby schools: University of Rhode Island
AUNTIE’S KITCHEN: Led by owner Kathy Curley, Auntie’s Kitchen serves clean eating foods with colorful vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. Her dishes don’t have any additives or preservatives and she cuts back on serving excess amounts of salt and sugar. Breakfasts includes fruit salads, croissants, frittatas, açai bowls, and avocado toast. But lunch ranges from various soups, salads, fresh sandwiches, buddha bowls with rice and kale. 237 Robinson St., South Kingstown, 401-783-2800, auntieskitchenri.com.
EL FUEGO: El Fuego, which has won numerous awards over the years, has a secret special menu that can be found on the website’s homepage. Massive burritos are around $12 and specialty quesadillas range from $9 to $15. Bonus: From Mondays through Thursdays at 2 to 4 p.m. each day, they serve some burritos for just $5. 344 Main St., Wakefield, 401-284-3353, elfuegomexicangrill.com.
GANSETT WRAPS: A fast casual, healthier alternative, Gansett Wraps has menu items for those on paleo and gluten-free diets. The wraps themselves, which could include beef, turkey, chicken, or gyro, start around $8.50. Gyro and falafel plates range from about $12 to $14. Gansett Wraps has several locations from Narragansett, Middletown, Westerly and will soon open a location in North Kingstown. gansettwraps.com.
MEWS TAVERN: Most of the dishes during the day here are over $15, including their grinders. But from 10 p.m. to midnight every night, their late-night menu includes whipped feta dip with spices and herbs, various types of nachos, salads, baskets of fries, and burgers at affordable prices. 456 Main St., South Kingstown, 401-783-9370, mewstavern.com.
Nearby schools: Community College of Rhode Island and some New England Institute of Technology campuses
ENERJY: Enerjy serves various Mediterranean and Greek specials like spanakopita, pork souvlaki, lula kebabs, beet hummus, and gyros. They use extra virgin olive oil instead of corn oil and butter instead of margarine in all of their dishes. 400 Warwick Ave., Warwick, 401-474-7888, enerjyfood.com.
PLANT CITY X: An all plant-based, locally-owned fast food joint, Plant City X serves everything from salad bowls and burgers to “chik” sandwiches and mac and cheese. Bonus: Their fro-yo parfaits make for a delicious breakfast that tastes like a dessert, prepared with frozen coconut yogurt and fruit. 70 Centerville Road, Warwick, 401-737-1630, plantcityx.com.