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It’s mid-morning, and the town of Elon is alive and buzzing as a group of 20-somethings stroll into the Oak House Coffee Shop and Bar. Inside, professors hold court over

Madison County Championship Rodeo

It’s mid-morning, and the town of Elon is alive and buzzing as a group of 20-somethings stroll into the Oak House Coffee Shop and Bar. Inside, professors hold court over

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

It’s mid-morning, and the town of Elon is alive and buzzing as a group of 20-somethings stroll into the Oak House Coffee Shop and Bar. Inside, professors hold court over

A Guide to Exploring Elon

It’s mid-morning, and the town of Elon is alive and buzzing as a group of 20-somethings stroll into the Oak House Coffee Shop and Bar. Inside, professors hold court over pastries, and regulars are laughing in line as they wait for freshly brewed coffee and iced caramel macchiatos.

“We like to joke that we’re where Cheers meets Central Perk,” says owner Phil Smith. “We know your name, we know your drink order.”

Formerly the assistant university Chaplain at Elon University, Smith “retired” and opened the Oak House in the fall of 2014. “I still take my share of confessions,” he jokes. “This town is small enough that we get to know everybody, but the young people who come through, grow, develop, and graduate are a big part of why this town works — and why it’s fun.”

Elon is a small university town that has transformed over the past 15 years into a lively main-street community. A handful of dedicated downtown business owners make it a destination for food and shopping, and the students give the town its vibrant hum. Read on to learn why folks are eager to explore Elon.



The Oak House Coffee Shop and Bar

At night, the Oak House transitions from coffee house to cozy bar with beer flights and wine tastings. The rotating 12 taps offer at least eight craft brews from North Carolina breweries and four from breweries around the country.

“It’s the place people go when they want to have a conversation,” Smith says. “It’s not loud, it’s not painfully quiet. A good chill hang out.”

Wine lovers will enjoy a diverse selection from their substantial bottle list. Check their website for upcoming events and free beer and wine tastings.

At night, the Oak House transitions from coffee house to cozy bar with beer flights and wine tastings. photograph by The Oak House Coffee Shop and Bar

 

Get Outdoors

Green thumbs and nature lovers may already know that Elon University is a designated botanical garden. The 656-acre campus is consistently ranked in the top five in the “Most Beautiful Campus” poll by Princeton Review, and it only takes one visit to know why. Brick paths lay the way for the Campus Tree Trail, where visitors discover more than 180 tree species among myriad gardens all designed to encourage and sustain wildlife and pollinators.

“Elon University is an amazing partner to the town,” says Downtown Development Administrator Kathleen Patterson. “Besides being beautiful, the university brings the culture of a big city. You can attend Broadway level productions, speaker events, and more. Football games, baseball games, all the sports you can want. And the students give it a feeling of something happening everywhere.”

From campus, hikers and bikers can also hop on the greenway connecting Elon to downtown Burlington or venture to the nearby Haw River Trail. Beth Schmidt Park and Lawrence Slade Park, both featuring playgrounds and walking trails, are within five minutes of downtown.

The 656-acre campus of Elon University is a designated botanical garden and is consistently ranked in the top five in the “Most Beautiful Campus” poll by Princeton Review. photograph by Elon University

 

Stay at the Inn at Elon

Spend the night in the heart of the University botanical garden at the Inn at Elon. The four-star, 80-room boutique hotel is the perfect location for attending campus events. Hop on a complimentary bicycle to explore the University, the town, or the greenway. On site, relax outdoors by the fire pit in the courtyard and dine at The Mark, the Inn’s upscale restaurant. An added bonus: All profits from the Inn help fund student scholarships.

Relax by the fire pit in the courtyard at the Inn at Elon, a four-star, 80-room boutique hotel. photograph by Elon University

 

Boutique Shopping

Simply Oak Boutique is the spot for clothes and accessories, as well as specialty candles offering unique fragrances like “Mom’s Kitchen” and “Sunday Brunch.”

“Our customers shop here because they know they’re going to find something different,” says owner and Elon alumna Melissa Troutman. “We feature fine jewelry and candles from local North Carolina artists, and Southern sophisticated women’s clothing that you can wear from day to night.”

For Elon University and Greek gear, custom tees, hats, and accessories pop into All that Jas. Don’t miss the etched drinkware collection and other gift items.

 

Foodies Delight

There’s no shortage of places to eat in Elon. “Whatever your tastebuds can think of, we have it,” Patterson says.

She recommends trying the chicken and waffle tacos at Tangent and hitting up MaGerk’s Pub and Grill for Philly-style cheesesteaks. Visit The Root for salads, sandwiches, or wraps, and head to The Mediterranean Deli for a spectacular selection of rotisserie meats, salads, falafel, and baked goods.

Head to The Mediterranean Deli for a spectacular selection of rotisserie meats, salads, falafel, and baked goods. photograph by The Mediterranean Deli

 

Other eateries worth checking out:

Pandora’s Pies
Directly across from campus, dip into Pandora’s Pies for a slice at a college pizza joint with farm-fresh ingredients.

“Every Thursday, there’s a farmers market in downtown Elon, so we have direct access to seasonal ingredients,” late owner Lincoln “Linc” Franchell told us.

Sold by the slice and by the pie, there are some creative and tasty pizzas to try. Porky’s Little Ditty dares you to try pizza topped with North Carolina pulled pork, while Green Eyes piles pesto with herb-roasted eggplant, arugula, tomatoes, and cheese.

Dine out on their patio and watch for the new outdoor gathering space coming soon to the corner of West College and North Ransom.

Directly across from campus, Pandora’s Pies has some creative and tasty pizzas to made with farm fresh ingredients. photograph by Pandora’s Pies

 

Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream
Ask any Alamance County native what their favorite ice cream spot is and they’ll direct you to Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream. College student demand is responsible for Smitty’s wildly popular Brown Sugar Oatmeal flavor, a staple on the rotating menu of ice creams, sorbets, and frozen yogurts.

“Everybody knows Smitty’s,” says restauranteur Yasin Chellappa, who recently bought the 18-year-old shop that serves up sweets in Elon, Burlington, and Graham. “We want to keep the tradition. We’re locally owned and source our fruits and other ingredients from local farms when we can.”

They also offer new plant-based ice creams and vegan options. No matter what type of ice cream you choose, there will be incredible flavors like amaretto cherry chip, mango kulfi, and Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie.

 

The Fat Frogg
Head to the Fat Frogg for upscale pub food, live music, and a great bar. Owned by adjunct professor and former touring musician Jason Thomas, the Fat Frogg has a great event space and a relaxed, casual vibe.

“It’s a nice gathering spot,” says Thomas. “Elon’s a tight-knit community and we’re glad to provide a place for people to drink, hang out, and host fund-raisers.”

The hefty food menu has something for everyone, but the Dirty South Burger — with pimento cheese, bacon, a fried green tomato, and jalapeño relish — is the most popular burger for good reason.

After dinner, take a stroll.

“With students from all over the U.S. and the world, university events, and all the different food options, you get big city culture in a small town,” says Peter Ustach, an Elon graduate and developer who sits on the downtown advisory board. “Just walking around Elon makes you feel young and alive.”

This story was published on May 18, 2021

Alice Manning Touchette

Alice Manning Touchette is a writer and editor living in Raleigh.