There are 50 states. All of them nifty. And each with its own unique flavor. As a site dedicated to unabashed love of food cities, we know more than most that not all cities are cut from the same culinary cloth. We also know that some states are home to more great food towns than most countries thrice their size. But what's the best, most essential, go-to food city for each and every state?
Well, we'll tell you. Using our roster of nationwide editors and writers and probably a couple of hobos, we diced our weird-shaped melting pot 50 ways and identified the best overall food city in each state. Some choices are painfully obvious (Rochester, NY FTW!), while others are contentious as all hell (maybe Cali will finally split in two). Will this cause civil wars? As long as there are burgers, we're OK with that.
Birmingham's culinary landscape reps the Deep South with the force of 1,000 crimson tides -- and it's not all fried green tomatoes these days. Rising in tandem with its music and art cred, the Magic City's restaurant scene truly has something for everyone, whether it's white tablecloth award-winners like Hot and Hot Fish Club, Cafe Dupont, and Highlands Bar & Grill, date-worthy burger joints (Chez Fonfon will change your life, no joke), wood-fired pizza and craft beer at Post Office Pies and Slice, food trucks galore, or piles and piles of fall-off-the-bone barbecue (see: Miss Myra's, Jim 'N Nick's, Saw's). We hear the secret's still in the sauce, though.
Let's be honest: Juneau isn't just one of America's best small food cities. It's Alaska’s best, period. It could have been a contender based on seafood spot Tracy's King Crab Shack alone. That joints like The Rookery Cafe, Panhandle Provisions, the hyped In Bocca al Lupo, and fine-dining destination SALT exist in a place just as notable for smaller mom-and-pop shops, like breakfast fave GonZo, just adds more proof that even a town of 33,000 can bring a world-class touch to its food game.
Step aside, Phoenix, your little compadre Tucson has officially emerged as Arizona's top dining destination -- and I'm not just talking about the abundance of Sonoran hot dogs (though, truth be told, they're game-changers). Located in the Southwest's deep south, the Old Pueblo has long been a crossroad for many different cultures, making the city of just under half a million an ideal place to stuff your face.
James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder pays homage to his city's diverse roots with his Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, where multi-ethnic cuisine is prepared with locally grown (as in, from a garden around the way) ingredients. Offering over 25 fusion-friendly tamales at any given time, Tucson Tamale Company's sunny patio also tops the list (especially after a few daytime Tecates). Serial Grillers, a semi-terrifying food truck serving sandwiches, salads, and inventively topped pizza worth facing your fears for, is a cult favorite (of course). And for a slightly more refined taste of Tucson, pop into the eclectic, family-owned Cafe à la C'Art inside the Tucson Museum of Art, book a table at the legendary, Iron Chef-led Primo at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass, or try the Coronado Hotel's timeless Coronet. Phoenix is great. But Tucson, well, that's how you rise.
Arkansas: Little Rock
Northwest Arkansas -- which includes the cities of Fayetteville (go Hogs!) and Bentonville (go... Walmart HQ?!) -- has been enjoying population growth in the last few years and the opening of restaurants that naturally accompanies said growth. But Little Rock is still the king of the state's food scene, and if you thought it was all Southern-fried cuisine down there, allow us to present a few counterpoints: food trucks like The WunderBus, a farm-to-food truck serving up brats, and the Paleo-friendly Beast. A beloved yearly Jewish food extravaganza that takes place in a stadium. A dominant restaurant group that successfully opened a restaurant with "Ark-Mex" cuisine. And the requisite food blog that covers it all. And congrats to us for making it the whole way through the write-up without mentioning Bill or Hillary. Ah, crap.
California: San Francisco
With apologies to the fish tacos and Cali burritos of SD, and the Dodger Dogs, Apple Pan burgers, and French dips of LA, and that one place in Sacramento that gives you a giant thing of burnt cheese with your burger, San Francisco still wears the food princess tiara in the Golden State. Is it a shock that chefs almost unconsciously cite NYC and SF in the same sentence when they discuss going to a city to learn how to really cook? Is it strange that, despite its relatively middle-of-the-road population size (13th in the country behind Austin and Jacksonville), it is the most restaurant-dense city in America and routinely cleans up at national Beard Awards?
Should we start name-dropping now? How about the internationally lauded food at Al's Place, State Bird Provisions, and Mission Chinese? Insanely good pizzas from Del Popolo, Tony's, and Flour + Water? The best burritos in the world at La Taqueria and El Farolito? Crazy-delicious baked goods everywhere, including kouign amann at b. patisserie (which basically started a national kouign amann trend, despite the fact that no one can pronounce it)? Can we stop asking rhetorical questions now and move on to another state?
There are plenty of nationally lauded eateries in mountain towns like Aspen (Element 47 at The Little Nell) and Vail (hey look, James Beard nominee Kelly Liken has a new restaurant), but the scene in Denver is unrivaled at this point. Denver-famous chefs headlined restaurants like Euclid Hall, TAG, and Osteria Marco -- all of which attracted crowds, and rightfully so. LoDo was the flashpoint in recent years, but nowadays, there are so many neighborhoods with top-notch restaurants, it's hard to keep track, which is a pretty good problem to have. The food scene has never looked brighter, with newer additions ranging from the tender meats at Brider in LoHi, to the flavor-packed Chinese food at Hop Alley in RiNo, to an upscale seafood joint in Stoic & Genuine. That last restaurant's in LoDo, proof that even a stalwart Denver 'hood is improving its offerings.
Connecticut: New Haven
Pizza is the star of the show here in the Elm City, with an entire street dedicated to Italy's finest. The longstanding rivalry between Wooster St mainstays Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and Sally's Apizza is widely documented, with generations of locals swearing by one of the two thin-crust destinations (but never, ever the other -- go Pepe's!). Nearby Modern Apizza also has a dog in the fight, providing hungry Nutmeggers with perfectly crisp pies since 1934 (it was more modern back then). And, honestly, each is worth a visit.
Beyond the pizza wars, New Haven is also known for Louis' Lunch, an age-old haunt that claims to have straight-up invented the hamburger, cooking its proprietary, strictly ketchup-free patties on the same custom-made vertical cast-iron grills since 1878. Recent gentrification has led to a slew of fancy new gastropubs -- Prime 16 being a clear standout -- and every hungover college student reps The Pantry as the city’s No. 1 breakfast joint.
So sayeth our resident Delaware native, Lee Breslouer: "I grew up in DE, and spent most of my time in Newark. Wilmington might as well have been another planet, and a boring one at that, which is the exact word Robin Williams used to describe the town when he stayed there to film Dead Poets Society. But now it's a planet I don't mind visiting, as the food scene has grown quite a bit since those days. From popular breakfast/lunch spots like De La Coeur Cafe, to seafood-heavy joints on the Riverfront like Harry's and Big Fish Grill, to, of course, Italian favorites, from the fresh, modern takes of Capers & Lemons to the old-school red sauce meccas like Mrs. Robino's."
Oh, we could have shouted out St. Petersburg, or Winter Park… or gone contrarian and said Tampa. But come on. Calling out anything but Miami -- where every celebrichef has a joint, Cuban food is the best you can get anywhere except Cuba (and arguably better than Havana), and seafood's a way of life -- would be like saying Limoges has better food than Paris.
Atlanta's food scene is a big, heaping, delicious mess. Seriously, between the city's endless sprawl, enormous and extremely diverse population, and deep, deep regional roots, figuring out where to eat in the Big Peach is about as easy as decoding Desiigner -- but 100% worth the effort. Start with what you know: TV. The city is home to an eye-raising number of talented Top Chef alums, including Kevin Gillespie -- whose Gunshow takes Asian fusion to an entirely new level -- fan-favorite Richard Blais, who was the man behind FLIP Burger Boutique until he ditched ATL for the West Coast, and Season 13's Wesley True, current executive chef at sustainable seafood joint The Optimist.
Beyond the Padma-pleasers, there's seasonal Southern at Miller Union, buttery biscuits at Home Grown, artisan bagels (yes, bagels) at The General Muir, upscale sushi at Umi, late-night date-night eats at Octopus Bar, Mexican-Korean fusion that actually really works at Hankook Taqueria, and, of course, enough BBQ joints to feed Sherman's army. Even with a formidable contender in Savannah, ATL is the clear winner.
Hawaiian food's one of the most unsung American cuisines, probably because half the people from the mainland who visit are content to just eat poolside burgers instead of getting down on the incredible BBQ, poke, seafood, plate lunches, and clashing flavors of indigenous Polynesian food flecked with Japanese and Portuguese influences. And while you can get some killer loco moco at small stands all over the island, Honolulu is the place to go for a taste of everything, from malasada donuts at Leonard's Bakery to legendary kalua pork at Ono Hawaiian Foods, plus insanely fresh sushi at Kunio.
Chinatown's becoming its own animal, with holes-in-the-wall shelling out pho, sushi, dumplings, and dim sum, while hipper spots like The Pig & the Lady (Laotian fried chicken!), fancy gastropub Livestock, and pan-Asian-fusion expert Lucky Belly are becoming the norm. With new places popping up almost daily and old-school spots in every nook and cranny, the beaches might have some competition for putting the "destination" in paradise. Kidding. Food and the beach can be besties.
Smaller towns like Coeur d'Alene and Idaho Falls aren't without their charms (oh, and Wallace has a badass bordello museum!), but Boise's the clear-cut winner by virtue of housing restaurants like the great Italian eatery Cafe Vicino, BBQ spot Goodwood, Mediterranean fare at Mazzah, the state's best burger at Boise Fry Co. (now a mini-chain), huge steaks at Chandlers, and oh, so much more. There's an incredible beer scene on the rise as well. Also working in Boise's favor: the presence of people.
Let's just say that Rockford isn't likely to get a Michelin guide anytime soon and Kankakee doesn't have any restaurants that are routinely ranked among the top handful in the world. But for serious, Chicago measures itself against the world's other great food cities, thanks to a combination of rib-sticking populist creations (see: deep-dish pizza, Italian beef) and the aforementioned innovative fine dining. But there's just as much excitement to be had in the robust middle ground between cheap eats and paycheck-erasing tasting menus -- the Portugal-meets-China, Macau-inspired magic of Fat Rice, the incomparable burger and other indulgences at Au Cheval, the trendsetting pork perfection of the Publican… certain Chicago streets boast more show-stopping restaurants than other major American cities… so it just isn't a fair fight.
When you get a backhanded, condescending Bon Appetit profile likening you to Brooklyn, you know you've really made it as a food city. But Indianapolis' food scene really HAS exploded in recent years, giving an exciting edge to complement the enduring excellence of standbys like the landmark St. Elmo Steak House. There's Asian soul food and Tiki Sazeracs at Marrow, incomparable, innovative brunch at Milktooth, and boundary-pushing small plates at the Libertine that stand up to the equally (if not more) impressive cocktails. Jerry Gergich may have love for Muncie, but Indianapolis' resume is simply too much for any other Hoosier city to compete with.
Iowa: Des Moines
It could be tempting to give Iowa City the nod on the strength of its college-town charm and the undeniable gluttonous glory of the Hamburg Inn No. 2, or maybe tip it to Decorah solely on the strength of Toppling Goliath (beer counts as a food, right?!). But Des Moines isn't just the capital in a governmental sense. Smitty's can compete with anywhere in the state when it comes to turning out a quality pork tenderloin sandwich (in Iowa, that's some fierce competition). Any city would be lucky to have a burger joint as simultaneously excellent and, well, damn fun as Zombie Burger. Lest you think everything's super heavy, you should check out the refined farm-to-table sensibilities of Table 128. Fine, yes, it still serves donuts, but in this case those "donuts" are jalapeño and cheddar fritters covered with Parmesan snow, sweet corn, and Sriracha aioli.
Yes, believe it or not, Lawrence residents DO occasionally take a break from obsessing over the Jayhawks to have meals. And when they do, they're eating well. Any city would be lucky to have The Burger Stand at the Casbah as its go-to dog-and-burger joint (in fact, Topeka DID get an offshoot, but gotta respect the original). Free State's pushing 30 years as a brewpub slinging food that stands up fine on its own and isn't resting on its beer-laden laurels one bit. You'll also find a refined, Asian-influenced tasting menu at Cafe Beautiful (which really is beautiful) and elevated European flavors (along with a standout brunch) at 715. OK, enough eating: when do the Jayhawks play?
The ever-changing Louisville is so much more than bourbon and fried chicken (not that there's anything wrong with fried chicken... we suggest Shirley Mae's as a starting point). Not that it's all bonnets and cummerbunds, though. On the contrary, Louisville's new class of culinary masterminds is a refreshing blend of low and highbrow, places where approachable, technically sound cuisine meets well-designed, laid-back settings. Gastro and brewpubs are a go-to here, with Holy Grale (set in an historic church) and wise-guy haven Against the Grain leading the pack. Dressed up picks include Jack Fry's for genteel dining (though don't even think about a reservation anywhere near Derby Day), Proof on Main at the boutique 21c Museum Hotel, and Corbett's, a New American spot stashed in a massive mansion. And if all this change has your head a'spinning, don't worry -- you can still soak up some old Kentucky flavor at Bambi Bar, a beloved roadhouse where local bourbon and juicy burgers reign supreme.
Louisiana: New Orleans
So there's Arnaud's, and Antoine's, and Cafe du Monde, and Commander's Palace, and Central Grocery, and that whole mingling of French, Spanish, Creole, Italian, Native American, Cajun, and Chinese cuisines into their own thing. You know what? We already said that this is the best food city in America. So, um, sorry Lafayette. You're still delicious. But, well... we kinda have to geaux with our gut.
Surprise, surprise: Portland has really good shellfish. Boiled, steamed, plopped into a creamy stew, slurped raw, or drenched in mayo, Portland's abundance of fresh aquatic life is just one of the reasons it's Vacationland's best. If your world revolves around oysters (like mine), check out Eventide Oyster Co., a seaside seafood mecca with approx. 1 zillion different types of bivalves along with rich stews and life-changing lobster rolls, not to mention killer craft beer and cocktails. Slab is where it's at for deep dish, where light, pillowy pies cradle fresh, savory toppings. Hugo's and Fore Street have Portland's fine(ish) dining scene on lock with seasonal menus teeming with local ingredients and presented with the utmost precision. And only a true dummy would skip out on a visit to Duckfat, a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop with belly-pleasing paninis and mind-numbingly delicious Belgian pomme frites fried in -- take a wild guess -- duck fat.
As tempting as it is to select Baltimore solely for those scenes in The Wire where Avon eats lake trout, or Bunk and McNulty eat crab from local joints, B-more is going to have to stay an underrated food city in 2016 as well, because Annapolis is the top food city in the state. If you don't go to MD and eat seafood, you might as well not go at all, and Annapolis has the very best crab spots (and basically anything else you want to eat from the ocean) in Cantler's and Carrol's Creek. What might be surprising to outsiders is the breadth of cuisine available there, from brick-oven pies at Vin 909, to modern Thai at Lemongrass, to Latin flavors at Sin Fronteras and El Toro Bravo. Baltimore, we're sorry. But being a bridesmaid has its perks...
Despite the fact that both Cambridge and Somerville have some serious chops, (West) Springfield has the greatest burger spot in THE WORLD, according to writer-at-large Kevin Alexander (who obviously wrote this), Worcester has many adorable lunch cars, and Hyannis has this one place with pretty good chowder, there was not huge competition in the Bay State. Boston, with its gloriously distorted accent and highly irrational sports fandom, is a food powerhouse, with nationally lauded chefs like Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park, Menton, Drink, SO MANY OTHER GOOD PLACES), Ken Oringer & Jamie Bissonnette (Toro, Coppa), and Tim Cushman (O Ya), many of whom have gone on to open successful spinoffs in NYC, much to the chagrin of New Yorkers.
You can eat the greatest oysters in the world at Island Creek Oyster Bar, Row 34, and Neptune Oyster; have ridiculously delicious (and underrated) chowder at Ned Devine's, Summer Shack, Barking Crab, and yes, Legal Sea Foods. Get involved in the North End cannoli wars at Mike's and Modern (the correct answer is Mike's, dammit), eat shockingly good pizza at Santarpio's, Picco, Locale, or Galleria Umberto, and even indulge in the Northeast burrito cult that is Anna's Taqueria. Point being, if there is a national food dance, Boston is the only gal from Mass getting an invite.
Michigan: Grand Rapids
Detroit is great, but its overall food scene is more the sum of its metro area (Ferndale, Hamtramck, Dearborn… not Taylor), so that seems a bit of a stretch when naming the best proper food city. And while we've been on Traverse City's jock for a while now, that seems a bit disingenuous, considering the size. Grand Rapids, though, has been making a huge mark on the Mitten, rising as the state's best beer city and it's finest place to eat, thanks to fine dining on pan-Polish/German/Latin cuisine at the farm-fresh UN of eating that is Grove, Euro-flecked beer/food-obsessed Green Well, Mediterranean-inspired comfort food and breakfast courtesy of Marie Catrib's, duck-confit nachos at the gorgeous Brewery Vivant, and so, so much more. The whole "being a beautiful city" thing is icing on the cake. Oh shit, that reminds us: get a cake at Cakabakery.
It's so upsetting when siblings fight! And to be sure, you could go back and forth on whether Minneapolis or St. Paul takes the crown when it comes to Minnesota's best eating, and while St. Paul is certainly not without its standouts (The Happy Gnome is a world-class beer bar with food that lives up to the suds), in the end, Minneapolis is the twin that's in it to win it. Take a visit to Surly's massive BBQ-slinging taproom and you may never want to leave. Butcher & the Boar is as carnivorously glorious as the name suggests, and Spoon and Stable was one of the best damn restaurants to open in America last year). Plus, it's rare to have the opportunity to visit the birthplace of an American classic, but you can seize it in Minneapolis when you amble into Matt's Bar and put away a cheese-oozing Jucy Lucy at the place that claims to have invented it. There's a debate around that, but not one around how delicious it is.
Oxford, MS: home to Ole Miss, ole Faulkner's Rowan Oak estate, buckets of ole antebellum charm, and a grand ole food scene that moves from down-home country classics to refined farm-to-table cuisine with typical college-town ease. Townies, tourists, and students converge at Ajax Diner for soulful late-night eats then bump elbows the next morning over giant, flaky biscuits at Big Bad Breakfast. Upscale Southern cuisine makes City Grocery and McEwen's musts for parents and profs, and enjoy world-famous catfish with a side of local lore at the 100+ year-old Taylor Grocery & Restaurant. Mississippi's a state with great restaurants scattered in the most unlikely of places. Oxford, well, that's just good ole one-stop shopping.
Missouri: Kansas City
All apologies to Jefferson city, but this is pretty much a two-horse race between Kansas City and St. Louis. While St. Louis definitely has its ample charms -- from its unyielding love of frozen custard to… just about everything super-chef Gerard Craft does -- Kansas City gets the nod, not only on the strength of being one of the true pilgrimage-worthy barbecue cities in America, but also because of everything else it brings to the table. Like steak! Get yourself a bone-in filet butchered on-site at Anton's and know meaty happiness. Or if you're seeking a little more refinement, there's Beard-nominated white-tablecloth fare to be had at Bluestem. However, even it has a much-lauded fried chicken offshoot in Rye. You're going to eat a lot of meat here and be really happy about it.
Missoula's bigger. Billings is too… but who wants to go to Billings? (We kid, it's very nice/industrial.) But our hearts, and our stomachs, remain in Bozeman. Maybe it's that delicious buffalo burger at converted freight house Montana Ale Works, or the state's best pizza at the hippie/cowboy/tourist spot Cosmic (though some have argued we're wrong and Tarantino's is the best… hey, that's just more fantastic pizza). Maybe it's the Irish-ish pub fare at Bacchus (get the curry fries), or the farm-fresh and rustic finery at Plonk, or the high-end Italian at Emerson Grill. Or the surprising wealth of ethnic cuisine. Or maybe it's just all those steaks.
We'll let you make your own Omaha Steaks jokes. Instead, we'll just say that Omaha has great steaks at places like 801 Chophouse, Kobe, Farmer Browns, Johnny's, Mahogany Prime… hell, we could do this all day. This is also the birthplace of the Reuben (sorry, New York, but we'll send you a postcard from Crescent Moon), and the home of the legendary Dinker's burger, burger-topped pizza at La Casa, and so, so much more. And yeah, there's seafood too. But come on. Those steak jokes aren't gonna write themselves. Your move, Lincoln.
Nevada: Las Vegas
We were originally going to say Tahoe. Then we thought about Reno. And then we decided we're not assholes, but debated making a joke about buffets... but come on. We're better than that. So is Vegas... and if you need us to tell you it's more than shrimp cocktail and getting side-eyed by a guy named Lefty, well, maybe Reno is all you deserve. We hear the buffets are nice.
New Hampshire: Portsmouth
If New England were a family, New Hampshire would be the quiet cousin who always shows up to family functions, but keeps to himself and sometimes makes your girlfriend feel uncomfortable for no reason. And of New Hampshire's cities, Portsmouth's like the quiet little sibling to Manchester and Concord. But sometimes it's the quiet ones hiding the biggest secrets, and Portsmouth's is that it's the state's best food spot. It's not the quantity here -- though for a city of less than 22,000 it's pretty well fed -- but more the diversity of great and classic food, including James Beard-nominated bistro Black Trumpet and Americanized tapas at the Beard-nominated Moxy (this place has more Beards than a Seattle coffee shop). Korean fried chicken is king at STREET, brunch is immaculate at The Friendly Toast, and Portsmouth Brewery has mussels soaking in a broth made from its fine blonde ale. Oh, yes, seafood. There's a lot of that. It's on the water. "Someday you'll be working for your little brother," we imagine Old Mama New Hampshire saying to Manchester when it's being a dick. Luckily, there's always a dishwashing position open in Portsmouth.
New Jersey: Jersey City
Sitting in the long and daunting shadows of Manhattan's weirdly phallic skyscrapers, Jersey City is easy to overlook. As a native, um… New Jersian?... JC was always a punchline. A place where your sweaty uncle might live with his second wife, a destination reserved for catching trains and maybe scoring some illegal substances when your guy is out of town. Now, it has transformed itself into the Garden State's premier dining town. American/Spanish bistro Marco & Pepe can hold its own with any bougie-ass NYC eatery. Roman Nose has piping-hot pizza even Brooklynites can't snub their potentially Roman noses at. Oh, you want views? Waterside eatery Battello has a better view than anything in the big bad city. Because you can actually see the big bad city. It's no surprise chefs are ditching the high rents and crazy pressure of New York, and hopping on a PATH to open new restos in Jersey City. Like Jersey's own Frank Sinatra said, "... the best is yet to come."
New Mexico: Santa Fe
It pains us physically, in our hearts and souls, not to choose Albuquerque for this honor. We sung its praises in a story on food cities for Thrillist previously. We also shouted, "It's misunderstood!" from the internet rooftops. While its food scene is certainly noteworthy (Los Poblanos is a game-changer), Santa Fe has just too much good stuff to be ignored, and a lot of it has to do with green chile. So it bears mentioning the green chile cheeseburgers at Santa Fe Bite, the green chile enchiladas at Horseman's Haven, and the green chile-rubbed pulled pork sandwich at Dr Field Goods Kitchen. If Southwestern food isn't your thing, you're wrong, but there's still standout American cuisine at Restaurant Martin and Joseph's, and a restaurant with food so fresh, nourishing, and delicious that senior staff writer Lee Breslouer once visited three times in 48 hours: Sweetwater.
New York: New York City
We thought, debated, and argued about choosing another New York city, over New York City and its unparalleled, otherworldly, expansive, inventive, and ever-evolving food scene. Oh wait, no we didn't. We aren't going to apologize about the most obvious choice on this list.
North Carolina: Asheville
This North Carolina mountainside oasis has long been lauded as one of the country's best beer towns, but rest assured that Asheville's culinary scene has never been far behind. Looking for Southern comfort? Check out Tupelo Honey Cafe, HomeGrown, and the "aw shucks" adorable Early Girl Eatery for melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, steaming-hot fried green tomatoes, and plenty more. Rhubarb crushes the farm-to-table game, tapas kill it at chef Katie Button's phenomenal Cúrate, and ribs fall right off the bone at Luella's Bar-B-Que. But wait -- pizza? South of the Mason-Dixon? Clingman Ave's All Souls Pizza has you (and your nice white shirt) covered.
North Dakota: Fargo
Contrary to what you might believe, it's not all lutefisk and Midwestern niceness in North Dakota. Fargo's long served as a hub for great food, from the game-changing bison burger at upscale HoDo and divier patties at Sickies Garage (get the grilled-cheese burger), to the next-level, high-end steaks and BBQ at Spitfire and fine dining at Mezzaluna. Vinyl Taco has the fancy taco trend on lock. Taphouses are popping up everywhere. There are underground hipster dining clubs, too. Have we been wrong about this lutefisk thing all along? Our world has just come completely undone.
Look, we know people in Ohio like to argue about which city is the best. But with respect to Cincinnati, Cleveland never dumped a bunch of chili on a plate of spaghetti (we kid, we kid… not about that being gross, we just think Cincinnati has a great food scene too). But Cleveland's food scene is just unparalleled in Ohio, and has been since West Side Market opened its doors in 1840, unleashing its meats (and gyros) on the city.
But while classics like Seti's and Polish café-style classic Sokolowski's and deli Slyman's remain institutions, Cleveland's also got some of the most exciting new ventures, with food very much playing a role in the city's revival (beer is helping too!). Greenhouse Tavern is on point with next-level, butcher-centric cooking (seriously, the pig head's amazing), Michael Symon's redefining burger culture, Crop has set up a sprawling and fancy mainstay in an old bank, and Bar Cento's got charcuterie and fancy pizza on lock. Comfort food has mutated thanks to Melt and Happy Dog. Alley Cat has NOLA-caliber oysters. Lago brings Italy to the Midwest. The best restaurant in Cleveland is a different place every day. And with newcomers cropping up on the regular, Cleveland's making a move toward a destination rather than a town that happens to have great food.
Oklahoma: Oklahoma City
There's a common misconception that Oklahoma's all about fast food (it ranks 29th for us in that dept.), but the state's actually rich with signature dishes ranging from fried catfish to BBQ to the onion burger, a thing of simple beauty that Oklahoma gifted the world. OKC brings the Thunder (ugh) on all fronts. Those onion burgers are at their best at Sid's, Tucker's, Johnnie's, and Bunny's. BBQ? We're partial to Swadley's and Iron Star. Pho's long been big (try Pho Lien Hoa), but ramen's on the rise too, with Tamashii Ramen House being the current champ. You can get your oyster fix at The Drake -- landlocked-ness be damned -- but don't leave without getting down with some beef… the most common move is the legendary Cattlemen's, one of the most beloved steakhouses in a region where saying that about the wrong spot might get you shot. If it was good enough for the Duke, it's good enough for us.
Oh, we could have picked Bend or Ashland or something, but contrarianism is soooooo last week. Plus -- as anyone who's lived there, thought about visiting, or watched Portlandia will tell you -- this is one of America's best food cities. When half of a city's food carts (there are around 700) could trounce 95% of the state's other cities' best restaurants, well, there's not a ton to elaborate on.
Da 'Burgh. Steel Town. City of Champions. City of Yinzers. The three rivers of Pittsburgh -- Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio -- converge to create a fertile culinary landscape of down-home (or dahntahn) meals, and when combined with a new wave of high-end restaurant seeping into the scene, you're looking at a food city like no other. If you think Pittsburgh is just a Rust Belt dinosaur with nothing to offer but soggy pierogies, you've clearly never heard of spots like Sonja Finn's game-changing Dinette in East Liberty, comfort-chic Meat & Potatoes, or almost-famous breakfast mini-chain Pamela's (try the crepe-esque flapjacks), or any of Justin Severino's joints in newly booming Lawrenceville. You want Italian? Chef Joseph Tambellini serves one of the best meatballs in the entire country in his cozy, under-the-radar resto. This city puts heaping mounds of French fries on its sandwiches. Its main competition in the Keystone State has cheesesteaks and a statue of Stallone... that's a tough call. But hey, Rocky's thing was coming in second place, so no hard feelings.
Rhode Island: Providence
If Providence's notoriously corrupt, mob-tied local government tells us anything, it's that this town has some kick-ass Italian food. Not to be crass, but sometimes good pizza is well worth the occasional political scandal, and boy oh boy, is this pizza good. Rhode Island's signature pies come grilled on both sides before the addition of sauce and toppings, producing a smoky, perfectly crisped thin crust. Since a pizza tour is the best way to explore any city, start with Al Forno, a cozy red sauce joint that claims to have invented the style, then stop into Bob & Timmy's for its famous four-cheese pie before finishing up with LaSalle Bakery's cheese-less pizza strips (another PVD original). Beyond the pizza (does anything else really matter, though?), roving, sunglass-sporting art-school kids can be found sucking down cocktails at North, sharing tapas at Bacaro, or gorging on secret sauce-smothered dogs at Olneyville New York System, then later recovering over a short stack of buttermilk hotcakes at Nick's on Broadway. Odds are they're probably already cooler than you, so just follow their lead.
South Carolina: Charleston
As anyone who's set foot in River City knows, Charleston is a Grade A foodie town that seamlessly merges Southern hospitality with modern cuisine. Many top restaurants err on the side of jacket-and-tie, but that doesn't mean that this American dining capital doesn't also serve up some less chichi eats. Make a beeline for the airy, Southern retro-meets-modern slick Butcher & Bee (or the slightly fancier Two Boroughs Larder if you have a few extra bucks) and scarf down a few wallet-friendly sandwiches at the picturesque How Art Thou cafe on nearby James Island. Of course, it's really the seafood that shines in Chucktown, from briny oysters at The Ordinary to Husk's cornmeal-dusted catfish and FIG's tender take on locally caught porgy. And when it comes to breakfast, even a 2011 visit from Guy Fieri can't keep us from Early Bird Diner, where biscuits & gravy, honey-drenched chicken & waffles, and the requisite shrimp & grits send me right into a bleary-eyed, calorie-induced state of bliss.
South Dakota: Sioux Falls
There's great food in Spearfish, Rapid, Deadwood, and probably in some one-horse town you've never heard of where they cut amazing steaks off a still-breathing cow, but Sioux Falls is the only city that has, you know, a food scene. Minervas (with its salad bar and amazing steaks) is a legend. Parker's Bistro has fine dining (and, yep, more meat), M.B. Haskett is a deli that could fit right in in New York, and CH Patisserie is one of the country's finest bakeries. South Dakota might be the most underrated state in the union. And Sioux Falls might just be the most overlooked food destination, especially if you just see it on the highway en route to finding out what the hell Wall Drug is.
Before you force-quit your browser in outrage: no, we have not forgotten about Nashville and its hot chicken, the foodie trend that's been creeping its way out of its Southern hometown with a fiery fervor. But -- hot take -- Memphis is special, a place where Mississippi Delta soul meets nostalgic Southern charm, home to Elvis' peanut butter, banana, and bacon combo and the only professional baseball stadium where hot dogs aren't the most popular snack (it's BBQ nachos, by the way, and they're amazing). Memphis' pork-heavy barbecue wars will make you want to enlist immediately.
Take your pick from Central BBQ, Bar-B-Q Shop, Three Little Pigs, Charles Vergos' Rendezvous, or Interstate Bar-B-Que, and then defend it to the death. Beyond the 'cue, Tennessee chain Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken gives new meaning to finger-lickin' good, the Pancake Shop is Southern brunch done right, and Memphis hipsters flock to burger-and-beer joints Huey's and Earnestine & Hazel's for cold brews, greasy eats, and late-night hangs.
What do award-winning barbecue, pillowy donuts, and 24-hour tacos have in common? A) They all rule, and B) each is at its very best deep in the heart of Texas -- or, you know, at least in Austin's liberal, college-town heart. I recently had a friend fly down for SXSW and I'm pretty sure he spent 99% of his time indulging his inner fat kid and maybe 1% of it actually seeing shows, so I'm going to trust his authority when he recommends Gourdough's as Austin's top donut joint, Salt Lick BBQ in nearby Driftwood (a suburb that he literally walked to in 90-degree weather -- the food is that good/dude is that nuts) for brisket rivaling the famed Franklin Barbecue (minus the line), and Torchy's for the most extensive (and best-tasting) taco menu in town. Rumor has it that Obama lunched at Torchy's on a recent visit, downing the Democrat (shredded beef, avocado, queso fresco, cilantro, and onions on a corn tortilla), the Independent (fried portobello, refried beans, corn, queso fresco, avocado, and aioli on a flour tortilla), and the Republican (jalapeño sausage, shredded cheese, pico, and poblano sauce on flour) in one sitting -- now that's reaching across the aisle.
Utah: Salt Lake City
For a city that gets teased for its temperance, Salt Lake City certainly is an indulgent town (it's also, you know, an actual city in Utah, so there's that), and we're not just talking about its world-class beer scene. These folks can eat. They've been doing it since 1930 in Ruth's Diner, getting down on gigantic biscuits and pulled pork Benedict. They do it at R&R BBQ -- where burgers come topped with pulled pork, smoked sausage, fried jalapeños, Jack cheese, and sauce – and at high-end, pan-Euro, farm-to-table favorite Pago. Thai and tapas? Waffles & Frites? Red Iguana's legendary Mexican? Temperance, it seems, done left SLC and got replaced with elastic waistbands.
Believe it or not, there's a lot more to Vermont's most populous city than Ben & Jerry's (though, let's be honest, that's a hard one to beat). In fact, this outdoorsy college town has been touting the locavore lifestyle long before Fred and Carrie got in on it, with environmentally friendly cuisine topping menus everywhere from New American bistros to upscale Chinese joints. Speaking of upscale Chinese (which most definitely exists, by the way), Burlington's A Single Pebble has been melting minds and filling bellies with innovative, relentlessly authentic Asian fare since 2002. Hen of the Wood is the pick for creative, responsibly sourced eats in a ridiculously well-designed space (seriously, check out the geometric wood-paneled ceiling). And City Market is every crunchy, Teva-clad Vermonter's one-stop shop for farm-fresh produce, exotic cheeses, cream-top yogurt, grain-fed meats, and yeah, bins and bins of bulk granola.
Richmond might be the most criminally overlooked American city according to a certain website staffed entirely by geniuses, but I'm going to do my best to make sure it's not overlooked within the confines of this paragraph. L'opossum's website has an unavoidable James Beard Award logo slapped on its page, which makes sense considering it has a butter-poached lobster mac & cheese with Swiss chard and a white truffle mornay cream. Damn! Speaking of famed chefs, Top Chef Masters' Bryan Voltaggio plates loads of comfort food at Family Meal and there are two locations in which to eat Peter Chang's Szechuan delights. Other must-visits for Virginians and tourists alike are The Roosevelt, which we lauded as one of the best restaurants in the South in 2015, and the savory + sweet pie experts at Proper Pie.
What, did you think we were going to say Bellevue when Seattle is arguably one of America’s best restaurant cities, period? And after all it did for tossed salad and scrambled eggs? There are probably more great restaurants within two blocks of Pike Place than most cities have on their entire grids… and the locals don't even set foot near there. Greatness here gets greater the further you go above sea level.
West Virginia: Morgantown
Before you snobby city-dwellers write off the whole of West Virginia as dirt-road hollers, dusty coal mines, and Mountain Dew, get yer ass down to Morgantown for some lip-smacking local cuisine and a damn good time. Morgantown is a sneaker hit among the South's finer food destinations, a place where flaky, golden-brown biscuits come with every meal, locally harvested ramps are a springtime staple, doughy pepperoni rolls are a late-night Godsend, and chili-topped slaw dogs rule every cookout.
The tried-and-true college town is home to a shocking number of quality Italian joints, and local spots Oliverio's, Stefano's, and Puglioni's are each worth their weight in baked ziti. If you're itching for burgers, BBQ, and/or beer, hit up Atomic Grill, Table9, Mountain State Brewing Company, or Tailpipes for your gut-busting fix. And if all that doesn't change your mind about the Mountain State, consider this: local gem Cafe Bacchus throws an exquisitely detailed annual Titanic Dinner where gussied-up guests feast on recipes from the actual Titanic's last supper (and no, the iceberg wedge did not make the menu).
You could certainly make an argument for Milwaukee here and in no way be off-base -- indeed, Milwaukee's the state's major metropolis and without a doubt has a destination-worthy food scene. But there's a certain hippie college-town energy to Madison that seems to breed good eating at every turn. You'll find everything from a decades-old fine-dining institution in L'Etoile (whose chef won a James Beard Award in 2012, lest you doubt its continued relevance) to hearty pasties at Teddywedgers that'll make any Upper Midwesterner's heart sing/clog. The pizza at Ale Asylum lives up to the beer, which is no easy feat, and the brats and curds at State Street are always there to hug your insides with meat and dairy fat.
It might seem weird that Jackson recently hosted a reunion for super-lauded chefs who cut their teeth (and probably their fingers) working in the town of about 10,000 full-time residents, but this is indeed the country's most sparsely populated state, and Jackson's a destination. That means insane New American fare at Trio, steaks at the extremely iconic Snake River Grill, fine dining at the futuristic The Kitchen… the list is just staggering, and that's before we get into the ski dives and the Thai Me Up/Melvin Brewery, which was doing beer and Asian food way before Portland. Maybe it's the mountain views. Wait, no… it's probably because people love mountain views and skiing alongside great food. That means more deliciousness for everybody. Get better at drawing the tourists, Gillette!
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