When a year comes to an end, it's human nature that we reflect on all that happened and then declare what was, in fact, the best. And when you're dealing with the best food and drink cities, determining the best can be hard. So we did it for you. We took a look at our food cities -- their history, contributions to food, trends, and icons -- and tossed them in a blender with a dash of our personal biases, then argued until we came up with the winners of the best cities for BBQ, burgers, beer, and everything else important. Then we went out for cocktails. In New York. Because they make the best ones.
Best Barbecue: Austin, TX
The world of barbecue in America is a large and daunting one, albeit deliciously so -- and plenty of states are in the running for having the best stuff out there. But the real epicenter of low-and-slow is Texas' capital of Austin, whose brisket is arguably the nation’s most alluring meat and whose beef ribs and sausage are almost as beautiful. They've got Franklin and John Mueller, plus newcomers like Terry Black's and Kerlin -- and while neighboring Lockhart comes in a close second with Kreuz and Black's, it just can't quite compete with Austin's general beefiness.
New York and Chicago might have it beat in the volume department (both in number of pizza joints and, y'know, just in general), but New Haven is the real king of the American pie. While it might not go for the funky toppings, or the artisanal ingredients, New Haven is elevated to its status by a small but elite cadre of no-nonsense, old-school coal-fired pizza joints. The crusts are charred and bubbly, the sauce and cheese are in perfect balance, and the quality of pretty much every joint in town is just that much better than the rest. Hell, they can even work with clams. That's saying something.
Data points to Orlando, FL as the city with the highest per capita fast-food density in the US. But screw data, because in practically nowhere else in the country but Dallas can you get In-N-Out, Whataburger, Five Guys, Jack in the Box, Burger King, Wendy's, McDonald's, Smashburger, Del Taco, Taco Bell, Waffle House, Chick-fil-A, and more -- all within city limits. (The list also includes Southern cult spot Raising Cane's, by the way.) The only downside is that the nearest Culver's is in Rockwall. But even that's just a 25min drive, dude, and that's nothing for a Butter Burger.
Best Burgers: Chicago, IL
California may have In-N-Out (and believe us, that's huge), but nowhere is more burger greatness concentrated in one town than in Chicago, home of Au Cheval,Kuma's Corner, Butcher & the Burger, Owen & Engine, Parts and Labor, and Leadbelly... to name a few. The city's storied past was basically forged in meat, and that legacy still endures today and probably will continue to endure for another hundred years, which is coincidentally how long it'll take you to try all of the good burgers there.
Alaska may be the home of the deadliest catches, and California may have excellent fish tacos, but for pure seafood dominance, no state does it better than Maine, and Portland is many a prolific fisherman's port-of-call. Take one look at the salty shores and equally salty people, and you’ll find a city that takes its seafood incredibly seriously. And nowhere is it more evident than in their lobster rolls. Even notoriously curmudgeon-y New Yorkers -- who are adamant about their own (inferior) variety of clam chowder -- have to admit that Maine makes the best damn lobster roll in America. Plus, Portland's got great oysters, and the freshly caught monkfish and cod taste like you're swimming with them.
We've waxed poetic about the virtues of Oregon's beer scene on a few occasions (like that one where we said it was the best state for beer in America... remember?!), and we're not backing down -- especially when we're talking about Portland as the best city for beer in America. It's got an obscene number of breweries -- more than 70 and counting, including 2014 additions like Ex Novo, Fat Head's, and BTU -- brew pubs, and beer bars packed into a place Kyle MacLachlan can circumnavigate on a bicycle in 15 minutes, and the quality of those places is higher than most other cities can dream of. Further cementing things: as of this year, there are more movie theaters with beer than without. And they often show Kyle MacLachlan movies.
Best Cocktails: New York City
Let’s be honest: the end of the 20th century was a dark, vodka-soda-filled time in America’s cocktail history. But, like a boozy breath of fresh air, Sasha Petraske opened Milk & Honey in 2000 on NYC’s Lower East Side. Its formula of a quirky (read: hard) reservation policy, limited seating, and incredibly exacting preparations of classic ‘tails has since been adopted throughout the city, with NYC staples like PDT, Employees Only, and Death & Co. influencing bartenders nationwide. Thanks to those early innovators, “the cocktail movement” is a phrase now nearly meaningless because the craft cocktail is so damn ubiquitous. Even so, the best cocktail innovators making waves in that scene are still here in NYC. The last few years have seen the debuts of places like Attaboy, the bar located in Milk & Honey’s old space. The place has no menu, but lets the guy behind the bar continue to experiment and please with the “Bartender’s Choice”.
San Jose might not have fared well in our recent food-based ranking of America's biggest cities, but there's no denying that the capital of Silicon Valley has become a major player in the ramen game... and we're not just talking the instant noodles techies slurp between Mountain Dew sips during late-night coding sessions. And while you'll have to dig through seas of strip malls to find them, encountering a few Jo-Ann Fabric riots is worth getting goods from joints like Orenchi, Santouka, Halu, or one of the other dozens of slurp-worthy spots.
Look, this one was not really a contest. In the grand landscape that is America's burrito scene (and it is sprawling nowadays), no city has cast a larger shadow than the indomitable San Francisco, with its gigantic Mission burritos, exceptional taquerias, and even more exceptional burrito-to-filling ratios. SF popped up a few times on the best burritos in America list, but, really, the list could have been completely filled by the city's goods.
Best Up-and-Coming Food City: Louisville, KY
The state of America's food scene is strong and growing stronger, not unlike some sort of BBQ-saturated Hulk. And leading the pack of up-and-coming food and drink destinations is Louisville, whose eats are so promising that we opened up an entirely new edition just to keep track of them all. Tradition runs deep here, but it's the recent embellishments on top of such classics as the Hot Brown, burgoo, Derby Pie, and others that really make Louisville worth watching. They're also innovating with brunch spots, burger joints, and Moonshine University. Which is exactly what it sounds like.
Los Angeles has every possible ideal condition for food trucks to thrive: throngs of hungry people roving the streets, an abundance of said streets, and a warm climate that makes waiting in line for food outside seem downright tolerable (sorry, runner-up Portland, but nobody wants to stand outside during a six-month downpour). And thrive these food trucks do; there are hundreds upon hundreds of them (the best of which we've listed here), and the street eats they peddle reflect the modern melting pot that is Los Angeles. You'll find everything from traditional tacos to Korean burritos, fried chicken, lobster rolls, gourmet ice cream sandwiches, and more.
Best Coffee: Seattle, WA
Seattle is a city that needs coffee. Just look at it -- it's saturated with rain half the year, and peeps spend most of their time indoors, plaintively staring out a window. But (slight) joking aside, there is no city that means more to the coffee scene than Seattle. It's basically the birthplace of the coffee culture -- with new places like Slate springing up constantly -- and gave the rest of us Seattle's Best and Starbucks -- the latter of which just opened a huge coffee roastery complex that looks straight-up like Willy Wonka's factory -- in addition to a list of independent coffee shops that's too extensive to actually write out.
Best Cheap Eats: Detroit, MI
Detroiters were a frugal bunch before the city fell on hard times, so even before the city went into recovery mode, it was one of the best places to expand your waistline with great food without shrinking your wallet. Hell, this is the town that invented the $5 Hot-N-Ready, possibly inspired by the low-price mindset of Caesar's hometown. There's a coney on every corner, and a 24-hour diner on every block. And since it was once the hub of the American dream -- meaning people from all over the world flocked here -- your palate can run wild: Greektown and Mexicantown serve up, well, Greek and Mexican food on the cheap. In Hamtramck, you can get your fill of Polish and Middle Eastern food. Soul food and BBQ are everywhere. Basically, it's a United Nations of food, and one where the first decree is that everybody should be able to partake, regardless of how much money they're packing.
Best After-Work Drinking: Washington, DC
During most happy hours across the US, the most important conversation you have is about Bob in accounting's stupid tie. Well, in DC, you'll still have that conversation, but the folks next to you might be chatting about, you know, world-changing policies and stuff. Which makes it even more important to keep them happy. Luckily, the city has about 1,000 options for happy hour, where you can grab everything from cheap beer to discount martinis, grilled cheese, oysters, and beyond. Regardless of what 'hood you're in, happiness isn't too hard to find (especially with this guide)... and, who knows, maybe you'll be able to beat Dick Cheney at Big Buck Hunter if you play your cards right.
As a city with no closing times and to-go cups at every bar’s exit, NOLA kinda has to have food to soak up all that booze when 4am hits... mainly so you can keep drinking. Luckily, the after-midnight options are seemingly endless in NOLA, from lowbrow fare like F&M’s alligator quesadilla or Avenue Pub’s Dump Truck Fries -- béchamel- and roast pork-stacked fries that pair surprisingly well with a rare sour in the wee hours at one of America’s best beer bars -- to highbrow plates at the Bouligny Tavern, where you can get bone marrow courtesy of a James Beard-nominated chef and pair it with your 1:30am Aperol Spritz. Also, you’re in the South, so you always have Waffle House 24/7, or you can keep it local at famous diners, like Clover Grill and Camellia Grill.
With its classic town square, football stadium that can house the permanent-resident population three times over, and claim of that fancy school in England as a namesake, Oxford is the epitome of a teensy college town. Yet, its students -- and population of 20,000 -- have five restaurants from John Currence, a James Beard-winning chef, ranging from the square's OG City Grocery to Big Bad Breakfast, a hangover-killer of a morning joint that consistently has a multi-hour wait. But Currence isn’t the only food magnate in town: Ajax Diner, also on the square, is a meat-and-three soul-food joint that has one of the best college burgers in the country and ladles out mac ’n cheese better than any Southern Mom out there. Taylor Grocery is another spot with a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet and ample knowledge of catfish and fried oysters. And if, despite all that fried food, you managed to forget you’re in the South, Ole Miss is home to the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group dedicated to chronicling and preserving the history and culture of Southern food.
Best Fried Chicken: Nashville, TN
It's no secret that fried chicken is having a bit of a moment. It's everywhere, from roadside stands to Brooklyn basements to greasy spoons to... RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!! That means that to truly distinguish oneself in the world of poultry, one must do something different. Enter: Nashville, whose signature hot chicken is one of the most intriguingly bold dishes out there, and is gaining some well-deserved attention as Nashville gains strength on the national food scene.
Adam Lapetina is a Food/Drink staff writer for Thrillist, and feels like going out and having a superlative bowl of ramen. Read his musings at @adamlapetina.