Bacterial metabolism plays a fundamental role in gut microbiota ecology and host-microbiome interactions. Yet the metabolic capabilities of most gut bacteria have remained unknown. Here we report growth characteristics of 96 phylogenetically diverse gut bacterial strains across 4 rich and 15 defined media. The vast majority of strains (76) grow in at least one defined medium, enabling accurate assessment of their biosynthetic capabilities. These do not necessarily match phylogenetic similarity, thus indicating a complex evolution of nutritional preferences. We identify mucin utilizers and species inhibited by amino acids and short-chain fatty acids. Our analysis also uncovers media for in vitro studies wherein growth capacity correlates well with in vivo abundance. Further value of the underlying resource is demonstrated by correcting pathway gaps in available genome-scale metabolic models of gut microorganisms. Together, the media resource and the extracted knowledge on growth abilities widen experimental and computational access to the gut microbiota.