James Madison University has wonderful campus food, even ranking No. 7 in dining across the U.S. However, there are times when a needed visit off-campus can add some variety to a college student’s diet. There are many great locally owned businesses in Harrisonburg, Virginia, that every JMU student must try.
1. Magpie Diner
Magpie Diner is the most loved brunch spot in town by James Madison University students. Opened in 2020, the converted tire shop turned into a sleek, minimalist diner complete with checkered floors and white countertops. Magpie became a local favorite quickly after its opening, charming patrons with its twists on modern breakfast classics and fresh bakery items. Their menu highlights seasonal and local ingredients, meaning there’s always something new to try out of their rotating selection.
Despite what may be assumed from their popularity and aesthetic, Magpie is highly affordable with perfect, filling portions. Returning diners can always count on their staple a la carte options (the pancakes are a must) and fresh squeezed orange juice. The cinnamon swirl French toast, morning buns and Southern poutine are all standout dishes at Magpie. Everything at Magpie Diner is bright, fresh and delicious — the best start to any morning.
This family-run food truck sells the best authentic Mexican cuisine in the Harrisonburg area. The cash-only establishment has a small menu with no wrong choices, from packed burritos and tacos to quesadillas and traditional Mexican sandwiches known as tortas. You can add variety to your meal by choosing your own meat, with a vegetarian option available for all items. The spicy pork adobada is a knockout and complements the fixings of a burrito wonderfully, though all their protein options are perfectly seasoned and tasty. They have added outdoor seating to sit and enjoy your meal, and even call-ahead orders if you’re in need of a quick lunch to-go. Tacos El Primo is the kind of food spot you could never only have once; it always takes you back for more and more. Don’t forget to ask for a side of red salsa, as the fiery add-on takes the meal to the next level.
This no-fuss concept is perfectly executed by Grilled Cheese Mania, a one-stop shop for grilled cheese and soup. While they’ve perfected the classic grilled cheese, they have an endless number of cheese, meat and bread combinations on their menu for more adventurous eaters. All items have fun and memorable names, including their daily specials that guests wait for weekly. The Sweet Mucci, a breakfast-inspired grilled sandwich served on two glazed donuts, is one of their more out-there sandwiches, while the “Triple Lindy” (containing cheddar, Monterrey jack, spinach and bacon on sourdough bread) is more of an elevated version of a classic. Grilled Cheese Mania is accessible to everyone thanks to the laid-back, cozy atmosphere and humble ingredients.
They also offer food for people with dietary restrictions by including vegan and gluten-free options on the menu. Their crafted sandwiches are certainly the main event, but their sides and dips deserve praise as well. Cheesy, starchy and delicious, Mikey’s Mac and Cheese is the ultimate comfort food. The Becca’s Tomato Soup is also one of the best on the market and pairs perfectly with any sandwich. If you need some cheesy goodness, Grilled Cheese Mania is the place.
Whether you’re looking for a good date-night spot or just want a sit-down meal with friends, Bella Luna is always a hit. Serving artisan pasta, appetizers, salads and sandwiches, the restaurant offers plenty of light Italian fare to choose from. Their star, however, is their delectable wood-fired pizzas that are the ideal personal portion. Cured meats or fresh veggies toppings add dimension to the charred, crisp crust and the perfectly acidic tomato sauce. All the wood-fired pizzas can be customized to your preferences, whether you create your own or order off the set menu.
While the dim lighting and wood beams, along with select sophisticated flavors featured on the menu, provide some upscale vibes, Bella Luna is overall relaxed. They have ample seating and can accommodate all sizes of groups, making them a great option for family visits. If you’re getting sick of the delivery pizza that is a college staple, Bella Luna will have you falling in love with pizza all over again.
Billy Jack’s is the epitome of a college-grub spot. With burgers and sliders, wings, “redneck nachos” and even donuts, there’s a lot to love at Billy Jack’s. One of their signature items, called “sticky nugs,” are glorious breaded-chicken pieces tossed in the sauce of your choosing. Their fries pair nicely with any meal and can be loaded with any toppings you wish. Their menu is centered on small, shareable plates, which allow guests to try a little bit of everything on a college budget. For those of age, Billy Jack’s has beer on tap and cocktail happy hours. While Billy Jack’s makes great late-night elevated bar food, they serve all day including weekend brunch, making them a great choice for any time. Billy Jack’s has a very casual vibe, and the cluttered, decorated walls add to the easygoing atmosphere. Billy Jack’s is a James Madison University must-see for a reason — everyone leaves happy and full.
If you ask any JMU student what the best dessert in town is, they are likely to say Kline’s Dairy Bar. Established in 1943, Kline’s has been serving up delicious frozen custard to the Harrisonburg area for decades. With a few locations across town, each Kline’s has a weekly special flavor and seasonal treats. Featuring warm apple dumplings with ice cream in the fall and the best fruit milkshakes featured in the summer, Kline’s can be enjoyed any time of year. They have many sprinkles, topping and hot fudge/caramel additions to make any order your own. However, nothing compares to their classic vanilla and chocolate flavors, which prove simple and splendid. Any meal in Harrisonburg can be followed by some Kline’s as dessert. Whether you’re a waffle cone or a cup fan, you’ll love Kline’s Dairy Bar no matter what.
While James Madison University provides great meal options to students, exploring the eateries off-campus can help make the most out of your time in Harrisonburg. Alums visiting their school, current and prospective students and even tourists making a quick stop can all appreciate the grub around the JMU campus.