Best US Cities for Foodies

February 21, 2013 by

Food, Drink & Travel, North America, Things to Do

Ask any farmer, ask any city-slicker, ask really anybody – they’ll all tell you the same: it’s the small things in life that matter. From appreciating place settings in your friend’s home, to spending time with the family, there is little else that seems worthwhile when we take time to signify the small stuff. And from these appreciations the hallowed culture class that is the ‘Foodie’ is born.

The Foodie, with an insatiable appetite for the finer things, knows what the finer things are all about. The nuance of flavor in a generations-old mole sauce, the unbearable lightness of crème fraiche, the pacifying subtleties of a well-made brick roux – these are the things worth living for, am I right? They can take a trip from being sort of “meh” to “remember that time when?” If you’re in the market to eat and drink your way through some of the best cities in the US, then this article is for you.

So enough with the amuse bouche – let’s dive in, shall we?

New Orleans

Acme Oyster House

Acme Oyster House. Photo credit: Kimberly Vardeman via Flickr.

A long time runner in most people’s repertoire’s of cities “I would love to visit if I had time,” the truth of the matter is that visit you must, especially if you’re a food lover. New Orleans is a vibrant and perpetually fun city that has an astoundingly rich history and a diverse culinary tradition. Regis Philbin, famously understated this well-known fact by saying, “You get a taste here in New Orleans that you don’t get anywhere else in the country.”

From gumbo to po-boys to crawfish etouffee to jambalaya to boiled crawfish and blackened catfish, the list of interesting and unique tastes goes on for miles and is truly unlike any other in the world, let alone the country. Add to this a history of Spanish, French, and Afro-Caribbean culture and historical influence, the architecture and ambiance of New Orleans are enough to create an entirely different experience for those who come. Chefs like Emril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, John Besh, and Susan Spicer all call the area home, and have gone into the workforce spreading the word of New Orleans’ great cuisine.

If you go, head down to the French Quarter to check out some local favorites like Café du Monde (800 Decatur Street) for a beignet breakfast alongside chicory coffee, Acme Oyster House for some oysters and seafood gumbo, or Galatoire’s for some signature southern soul and French cuisine. Uptown has its own selection of fabulous restaurants (Jacques-Imo’s, Ninja, and the Columns Hotel come to mind), easily accessible via the famous Street Car. Also consider taking some time to learn how to cook like a New Orleanian in a cooking class.

Browse New Orleans food tours and read more about the top places to eat and drink in New Orleans

San Francisco

Chorizo burrito from La Taqueria

Chorizo burrito from La Taqueria. Photo credit: rick via Flickr.

You’ve heard it: “Oh, I left my heart in San Francisco!” Check again – you left your stomach there too. The Huffington Post recently reported that, according to real estate giant Trulia, San Francisco, moreso than any other city in the nation, has the highest number of restaurants per capita. While New Orleans had the most bars per capita (God bless ‘em), San Francisco takes the cake when it comes to eating. Not that eating and drinking are separate – far from it – but in this instance we’re looking at the best places to appreciate the delicacies that make a place great – and San Francisco has plenty of them.

So San Francisco has plenty of restaurants, but does it have good restaurants? Yep. You guessed it. But San Francisco makes the list not because it has numerous restaurants that are also good restaurants, but because of the absolute fascination bred into seemingly every San Franciscan to actively hunt some of these delicious edibles. The resident food-truck craze being a perfect example. From burrito joints down in the Mission, to Michelin-rated fine dining at places like Kokkari, to the food-truck Mecca of sorts (Off the Grid), San Francisco has got to be on any food-lovers Greats list.

Book a San Francisco food tour

Stock Island, Florida

Hogfish Bar and Grill

Hogfish Bar and Grill. Photo credit: Cayobo via Flickr.

Florida? Yep. Though often regarded as something of a culinary enigma, Florida’s proximity to the sea and Cuban influence makes for a tantalizing mix of ethnic foods and more traditional seafood fare. Head South to the Keys for some sleepy beach-town ambiance, beautiful sunsets, and always electric Key Lime Pie.

And while Key West has the majority of good eats in the Keys, Stock Island is just next-door and can be seen as Key West’s less rowdy neighbor, also boasting some doggone-good hogfish and pinks (pink shrimp, that is). Add to this a mix of southern soul food and beachside living and you’ve got dining, relaxation, and dreamy delectability all rolled into one southern shore. For seafood, head to the Hogfish Bar & Grill and try the Killer – fresh hogfish, a pastry crust, melted Swiss cheese, and Lord, I think there are mushrooms in there.

Next door there’s the iconic Key West itself, and for the best view in this entire tiny island, head to Louie’s Backyard where this Zagat-rated restaurant boasts arguably the best hand-picked locally sourced food on the island. For a Cuban treat, head to Havana 1 on 1101 Truman Ave in Key West, where portraits hang on pastel walls and the air is filled with a fun and lively ambiance.

Book food tours throughout Florida

Portland, Oregon

Le Pigeon

Le Pigeon’s beet salad. Photo credit: Enobytes Wine Online via Flickr.

Portland, for all it downplays it, is really a refined city. A young, funky, nature-loving and hip town tucked away in the rainy Northwest, Portland is the diamond in the glistening, mossy rough you’ve been looking for. Given just one visit to this town and armed with adequate know-how, you’ll see a foodie paradise – really, there is no praise high enough for this wonderful gourmand gush of a town. While Chicago and San Francisco are pumping out chefs with verve and fervor, the list of available real-estate in big cities with a penchant for good food was dwindling – until, that is, that chefs turned their hungry eyes on Portland.

While the word spreads, population densities remain relatively low and potential real-estate readily available, and some of the best chefs in the nation are heading to Portland. And some of the best deals can also be found here as well. A walk downtown will garner all sorts of tucked-away treasures touting true deals wrought from hand crafted excellence at amazing prices, like, for example, $4 happy hour martinis and hand-shaved ice in your Manhattans.

While here consider heading down to Le Pigeon where chef Gabriel Rucker was recently awarded a James Beard award, Brasserie Montmartre for some French cuisine, and the Veritable Quandary is a great brunch spot full of history. Also, Bamboo is a great sushi spot and certified sustainable.

Read more about Portland’s foodies

Charleston, SC

Hominy Grill

Hominy Grill. Photo credit: Dennis Yang via Flickr.

This southern city of plantations, charm, hospitality and soul makes for some good ambiance and darn fine eatin’. Charleston residents are particular about their food, and like any good southerner, demand only the best when it comes down to chow-time. Head down to East Bay Street to find a promenade of fun shops and a bevy of nice restaurants, but be on the lookout for Slightly North of Broad (aka SNOB) on 192 East Bay Street, rapidly gaining fame for local organic ingredients and cozy intimate ambiance. The Hominy Grill is another great spot, and for dessert and maybe a drink, head to City Lights coffee shop (141 Market St) where wine is offered alongside carrot-cake.

Chicago

Chicago pizza

Chicago pizza. Photo credit: Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar via Flickr.

What makes Chicago a food-lover’s paradise? Plenty. Aside from the famous Chicago-style pizza we have all loved from birth, there’s a plethora of great restaurants, world-class chefs, original ideas, and the fast-becoming-famous hash phenomenon that makes this city appetizing. That’s what a city of three-million (the third largest city in the U.S.) food-lovers will do for you.

Any Best-Of list can offer you a selection of restaurants that do something special and that make the city a nice stop to visit, but what continually makes Chicago a great city for food lovers is the innovation and the creative use of traditional ingredients which lend themselves to something truly unique. Though the aforementioned hash might be a traditional staple, you’ll find creative applications all over town, like, for instance, the Duck-Heart Hash at Au Cheval, or some of the area’s barrel-made beers.

Book a Chicago food tour

Manhattan

Mamoun's Falafel

Mamoun’s Falafel. Photo credit: MattHurst via Flickr.

This is sort-of a “no-duh,” if I can put that into print, because it’s the financial center of the world, as well as the hub of, well, a lot. Manhattan is where the big cats come out to play and, of course, this world-class city has some world-class dining. You needn’t bother wondering. If you’ve got a hankering, check this town out for its eclectic variety of five-star foods – just don’t expect the servers to be, y’know, polite.

For rocking Chinese, head to Prosperity Dumpling where the dumplings and Dim Sum will make you a believer. On 119 MacDougal you’ve got Mamoun’s Falafel, which, let’s be honest, anyone who knows what a great falafel tastes like, knows the trip is well worth it. Then there’s the Gastro Bar which is famous for its Mediterranean twist on Tapas, and makes for a fun city atmosphere.

Try local specialties on a New York food tour

Houston

Houston food truck

One of Houston’s food trucks. Photo credit: femme run via Flickr.

Everything’s bigger in Texas. Or so they say anyway. What they really mean is that despite the Texas heat, these tenacious Texans have, through will power and business prowess, made mountains out of cattle ranches and oilfields. And lo, the culinary tradition comes to Houston. From food trucks to celebrity chefs, Houston has made a name for itself as a foodie town, particularly if you love BBQ (and who doesn’t). If you’re headed to Houston, consider taking part in the local food-truck craze and find your favorite eats at RoamingHunger.com, where you can spot your food truck on a map any time of the day. Popular favorites are Bernie’s Burger Bus and Oh My Gogi! BBQ.

More traditional sit-down and dine establishments to rave about are Reef for Vietnamese, and Lankford Grocery for old-fashioned Americana and tasty burgers. Be sure to bring an appetite… and a napkin.

Santa Fe, NM

Coyote Cafe, Santa Fe

Coyote Cafe. Photo credit: Richard Swearinger via Flickr.

Santa Fe’s been on the map for quite a while as something of a cool escape town, but Santa Fe gets the respect it deserves for being a foodie haven for basically redefining Tex-Mex. If it’s iron skillet fried, peppered, spicy and served with a side of maize or tortillas, chances are you’re in Santa Fe enjoying some of the region’s local flavors. Listen for the “red or green?” question often – it’s a popular way to inquire as to your desired choice of chili relleno sauce. Also worthy of note is the blossoming tequila scene here. Long gone are the days of Jose Cuervo Gold being the be all and end all of this agave gold. If you get the chance, try some specialty tequilas while you’re in the area – many places even offer tastings.

Try the Coyote Café with its cool adobe architecture and its repeatedly celebrated menu and wine pairing options for a fun night out. Restaurant Martin is also quite worthy of a meal, where the Progressive American Cuisine is as award-winning and the eponymous chef (semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award).

Denver, CO

This mile-high city is also a young city dedicated to dining well. Though some may claim that all a place really needs to be a foodie town is good restaurants, this isn’t so. What makes a city a great foodie city is a dedicated following of those that appreciate the chefs’ efforts. You’ll find that here in Denver. Known for its lack of pretension and an easy, friendly ambiance, Denver is fast becoming a hotbed of great restaurants. Try, for example, Fruition Restaurant where the new American cuisine is matched only by the small and cozy ambiance. It’s a bit pricey, but the potato-wrapped oysters are worth it. ChoLon Asian Bistro puts a new spin on classically tasty food with a great reputation for excellent service. What could be better?

Chapel Hill, NC

Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen in Chapel Hill

Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. Photo credit: Ivy Dawned via Flickr.

Wrapping up the Best US Cities for Foodies list is North Carolina’s Chapel Hill. This city has developed quite a following as a foodie hotspot. Known for its locally sourced food and a near-fanatical “locavore” population, Chapel Hill has foodies who know not just what they’re eating, but what chef made it and what farmer grew it – now that’s loving your food. To see what this charming southern town has to offer your taste buds, head to Front Street, where all the activity is happening, then head over to The Lantern, which is a popular local spot. Talullas offers tantalizing Mediterranean, and Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen (1305 E Franklin Street) is doing their bit to keep biscuits and gravy firmly on the repertoire as a southern breakfast favorite.

 – Hudson Hornick

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