To be a great food city, it helps to have a large body of water nearby, a classic dish or three, and a population with a fondness for drink.
Those are among my impressions after spending more than 60 days on the road this year, visiting more than a dozen destinations, then measuring them against a set of standards — for creativity, community and tradition, among other criteria — to come up with a Top 10 list of America’s Best Food Cities.
Not every trip produced fruit. (Maybe next year, Nashville and Seattle?) And there were plenty of surprises on the journey. I can’t wait to eat in Houston again, but New York let me down, at least for the present.
Let the debate begin! But remember: I didn’t just parachute into these cities, try a few bites and fly home. Before rating my subjects, I ate, drank and shopped in 271 restaurants, bars, food stores and farmers markets.
The first and smallest of the cities I surveyed, Charleston roots almost as hard for the future as it does for its oh-so-rich past. Expect to find some of the latest food fashions sprinkled among the abundant low-country treasures — which benefit from ingredients a stone’s throw away — but not, for the most part, polished service. Think farm-to-table is new? Charleston, home to ace chef Sean Brock of the beloved Husk and cookbook maven Nathalie Dupree, has been a subscriber seemingly forever. It may lack culinary representation from around the world, but what’s wrong with serving the best shrimp and grits on the planet?
Defining moment: Craggy golden fried chicken, succulent shrimp and a heaping helping of hospitality at soul food purveyor Martha Lou’s Kitchen.
Best twist on tradition: Shrimp and masa grits with chili sofrito at Minero, a Mexican retreat from Charleston chef Sean Brock.
9. Washington, D.C.
No town delivers better Indian food, access to a more sumptuous countryside inn, finer Spanish tapas or a more thrilling avant-garde experience than the nation’s capital.
Call me biased to put the city I know best, and longest, on a list of the country’s top food draws. But initially, at least, my attachment was a disadvantage the area had to overcome: I am, after all, as familiar with its weaknesses as with its strengths.
Only after I auditioned a dozen other candidates could I stand back and take stock of a market that, while low on tradition, was big on community and variety at all levels, including locally grown, socially conscious fast-food concepts with national ambitions. (Go, Beefsteak and Sweetgreen!) Celebrity chef José Andrés summed up the Washington scene, 2,000 restaurants strong, when he said, “We are not one thing, but so many things at once.”
Defining moment: Sitting in Barmini, the futuristic lounge created by Andrés, where I watched some cocktails change color.
Best charcuterie: At the Partisan, a roster of 30-plus meats are arranged under descriptive headings, as if they were wines. The meaty marvels include a “bright” bresaola cured with a Thai treasure chest of spices.
8. New York
The dirty little secret among some food writers? They’d rather eat in places other than New York right now. Count me among them after spending 11 days there this past August and September, with the daunting goal of putting a dent in a city that counts 45,000 restaurants, 200 cuisines and some of the biggest names in the business.
As a serious observer of the scene for more than 25 years, I went in figuring I’d be using up my annual allotment of exclamation points. I left scratching my head and wondering whether New York is resting on its considerable laurels. Seven hundred dollars for an undistinguished omakase at Masa? Nine hundred bucks for dinner for two at Eleven Madison Park, where the most exciting part of the night was watching a sommelier open a rare bottle of wine with heated tongs?
Oh, there were plenty of heady moments, too. Sushi Nakazawa proves a Japanese gem, Le Bernardin remains my favorite four-star, and when I munched on a $3 hot dog at Gray’s Papaya, amid exhaust and a mass of people, all seemed right with the world. But sometimes more is just — more.
Defining moment: Being lectured to not take photographs at the klieg-light-bright Masa — before I even sat down.
Best hybrid: Shalom Japan in Brooklyn specializes in Jewish-Japanese. Okonomiyaki with sauerkraut and pastrami, anyone?
Great Everyman food? Check. (My weakness: hot dogs “dragged through the garden.”) Fine dining on par with the country’s best? Chicago can claim that distinction, too. Innovation and accessibility propel the Windy City’s food scene, second only to New York’s for the recognition it has received from the prestigious James Beard Foundation (more than 40 chef and restaurant awards).
Chef Rick Bayless sets the Mexican standard in the country, at all price points, with a fleet of first-class eateries, while Grant Achatz of Alinea, which serves fruit-flavored balloons for dessert, pushes the molecular envelope to the moon. If some global flavors are only nominally represented, prime steaks and top-notch tacos are, like frigid winters, a given here.
Defining moment: Grazing my way through the menu at the groovy Parachute, a mom-and-pop that serves showstoppers including bibimbap with Spanish mackerel and preserved lemon.
Best fast food: Xoco — “little sister” in Aztec — shows what happens when a top chef (Chicago’s Rick Bayless) goes casual: The café’s peerless hot chocolate relies on cacao beans from Tabasco that are roasted and ground in-house.
Armchair diners know Philadelphia for its cheesesteaks, Reading Terminal Market, good Italian reputation and BYOB restaurants: plentiful tradition, in other words. “Philly is very aware of its image as a blue-collar town,” says Don Russell, known to readers of the Philadelphia Daily News as Joe Sixpack. “No drink evokes that better than beer.”
Small wonder he counts 50 or so breweries in the area. Scratch that workingman surface, however, and you’ll encounter riches including ambitious vegetarian restaurants, contemporary Jewish standard-bearers and neighborhoods not previously known for their eats — funky Fishtown and East Passyunk — growing more delicious by the season. (For a taste of today’s Amsterdam, check out the cozy Noord Eetcafe.)
Defining moment: Falling head over heels for the vegan menu at the elegant Vedge restaurant, featuring a whole roasted carrot transformed into a marvelous meatless “Reuben.”
Best vegan: V Street in Philadelphia celebrates meatless versions of street food from around the world — jerk trumpet mushrooms, carrot asado salad — plus ace cocktails.
The city I knew the least surprised me the most. Houston, where have you been all my (food) life? Your best Vietnamese cooking returns me to Saigon, and some of your Chinese menus rival those I’ve dipped into in Beijing. As for Mexican, the seafood-themed Caracol and Cuchara, staffed by female chefs from different regions of Mexico, set the pace. Meanwhile, locals of all persuasions gather around the city’s signature: not fajitas, but Asian-Cajun seafood boils.
Few food scenes enjoy the easy, Texas-size camaraderie found in the country’s fourth-largest city; the chef of the popular Underbelly goes so far as to promote the competition by sharing a list of his favorite eats with his customers. As one discerning palate put it, “If L.A. and New Orleans had a baby, it might be Houston.”
Defining moment: Sampling the region’s barbecue renaissance at Killen’s Barbecue, where the sides match the peerless smoked meats — and weekend waits are eased with gratis beer.
Best bargain: The modest ECK Bakery in Houston sells ultra-flaky, super-silken custard-filled Chinese pastries for a buck per treat.
4. New Orleans
“We’re a small city with outsize appetites,” writer and photographer Pableaux Johnson told me over one of our several meals together in New Orleans, shortly before the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Talk about understatement! Joie de vivre and a reverence for tradition were constant companions everywhere I went in the Louisiana port town: Guy’s for cayenne-spiked pork chop po’ boys, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz for snowballs (in 100-degree weather!), Galatoire’s for the best lunch of my entire year. Is there a single dish anywhere that’s more hallowed and more accessible than red beans and rice in New Orleans? I think not.
Defining moment: Friday lunch (edging into dinner) at the dowager Galatoire’s. “No one gave me the hat memo,” a newcomer to the ritual whispered to me as we entered a sea of suits (and Sazeracs).
Best host: JoAnn Clevenger, the warm, wise and witty presence at the cozy Upperline in New Orleans, makes a strong case for human cloning.
3. Los Angeles
Name a part of the world you want to taste, and Los Angeles probably offers it somewhere on its sprawling map. Better yet, large groups of people who appreciate the food of their heritage support restaurants that don’t have to simplify their cooking for anyone.
That said, diners here are receptive to mashups; the filling on your tostada might mingle big-eye tuna, sea urchin and furikake, Japan’s answer to salt and pepper. The only destination to be covered by a Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times, the city is a year-round Garden of Eden, bursting with produce and seafood that are the envy of the country, found not just at celebrated farmers markets but also in grocery stores of distinction.
Defining moment: Meandering through the glorious Hollywood Farmers’ Market on a Sunday morning and wishing I had a kitchen back at my hotel.
Best shopping: The Hollywood Farmers Market combines some of the country’s finest produce with star sightings.
2. San Francisco
With the possible exception of New Orleans, no American city obsesses more about food — buying it, cooking it, eating it, talking about it — than my former stomping grounds on the West Coast. Trends, including open kitchens and communal tables, often originate among the hilltops; arguably the first pop-up in the country is Tadich Grill, born as a coffee stand for gold miners in 1849. Easy access to fresh-grown everything makes cooking at home a pleasure, although the cutting-edge restaurant scene, fueled by some of the country’s most progressive chefs, provides plenty of competition for appetites.
The best food hall in the country? The Ferry Building Marketplace. The cook most responsible for changing the nation’s palate, or trying to? You have Alice Waters of the groundbreaking Chez Panisse to thank for the lush greens in your salad. Argue all you want about how precious the scene can be — the Twitter Market, a millennial favorite, is ripe for parody — but you have to appreciate a city where even airport concessions are the envy of much of the rest of the country.
Defining moment: Dinner at the hushed Quince, which bakes breads to accompany specific dishes and employs a staff member whose sole job is to clean the restaurant’s fragile stemware.
Best cookbook store: Want an autographed copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child? Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco has it, along with 2,000 or so other titles.
“Everything you see on ‘Portlandia’? It’s kind of true,” a friend said during my swing through the city that I’d most want to move to if I didn’t already have the job of my dreams.
I relish the abundant quirks: lines for (stellar) breakfasts, even midweek, and strip clubs inclusive enough to offer vegan fare. And I applaud the sense of pride demonstrated even by fast-food operators, foremost Burgerville, which rolls out raspberry milkshakes and Walla Walla onion rings in the summer. But most of all, I love the ingredients here — 300 kinds of truffles, berries so delicate they don’t leave the state — and what a small contingent of talented chefs does with them.
One of the scene’s few missing ingredients: fine-dining establishments. “Portlanders prefer places where they feel comfortable in their hiking boots and fleece,” says Michael Russell, the restaurant critic for the Oregonian. Personally, I’d pick first-class farmers markets or some of the country’s trailblazing Asian retreats (hello, Pok Pok!) over a place that charges triple digits for dinner.
Admittedly, I picked summer to visit, when Portland’s flavors are peaking. But superb coffee, wine and bread — crucial building blocks of any gastronomic destination — know no season. And it doesn’t hurt that everyone, fellow customers and servers alike, is Minnesota Nice. In one week, I never once heard a car horn.
Defining moment: At New Seasons Market, one of my favorite grocery stores anywhere, I asked an engaging clerk about what looked like bullet-shaped blueberries, at which point he introduced me to honeysuckle fruit from Siberia.
Best breakfast: The inevitable line outside the southern-accented Screen Door in Portland is partly explained by the restaurant’s buttermilk fried chicken stacked on a sweet potato waffle.