The shorthand (and not wholly inaccurate) view of Chicago's food scene is that it excels primarily at two things. You have the waist-expanding everyman comforts embodied by its holy trinity of deep-dish, Chicago dogs, and Italian beef. Then there's the boundary-pushing fine dining, a reputation that took hold with Charlie Trotter and has continued with the innovative work of Grant Achatz with Alinea and Next. But for most locals, the real excitement lies somewhere between these two extremes, in an ever-expanding roster of chef-driven deliciousness that can provide a sublime gustatory experience without the sticker shock that comes with entering a temple of modernist cuisine.
The impossible-to-overhype burger at Au Cheval, Rick Bayless' bar-raising tortas at XOCO, the deceivingly indulgent Fat Rice at... Fat Rice... indeed, New York-based Thrillist employees have actually been driven to anger after noticing that the delectability of their just-consumed meal outstripped the price tag to an extent they couldn't even fathom back home. One could argue more Chicagoans are eating well than ever before (and a cursory glance around the average CTA car would seem to confirm this). That's just one of many reasons that the average local wouldn't trade this place for anywhere else -- even in February.
2. New York City
It's an easy call, putting New York in first place on a national ranking. It doesn't really even matter what the ranking is for, frankly -- NYC is always a pretty safe bet when you're talking superlatives. However, as 8.5 million irritable New Yorkers have likely already noticed, the city is slotted not in first place, but in second. This was not an easy call (especially since we're headquartered here), but we think it's the right call. Here's why:
New York's restaurant industry is three things: high-stakes, historic, and downright enormous. It is arguably (by all means argue, as long as you're cool with being wrong) the nation's main stage for chefs & restaurateurs to prove their skills proficient and their concepts bankable. The turnover is severe, but for each nine-month flop there's a Sardi's, a Keens, or a Balthazar growing alongside the city, weaving themselves into its cultural fabric. In NYC, Michelin stars are hardly news, and three-hour waits for pizza are de rigueur. If you can make a Cronut here, it will go pretty much everywhere.
Look at the track record of food innovations over the past two centuries. NYC has brought you egg creams, black & white cookies, dry-aged steak, coal-fired pizza by the slice, cheesecake, the dirty-water dog, Manhattan clam chowder, and Dinkins-knows what else. The Five Boroughs are a fount of food creativity.
Borough by borough, Gotham rates. Queens alone has more ethnic enclaves than most cities have total, including: Chinatown & Koreatown in Flushing, Little India in Jackson Heights, and Little Manila in Woodside, plus growing West Indian & Greek populations. Not a month has gone by in the past decade that someone -- everyone -- wasn't heralding another Brooklyn neighborhood as the cultural hotbed of the world; you'd better believe restaurants like Maison Premiere, Roberta's, Fette Sau, Talde, and Mile End had something to do with that. Manhattan is... well, what's there to say? It's choked with haute-cuisineries and holes-in-the-wall from Blue Smoke down in Battery Park City to Per Se in Columbus Circle to Red Rooster in Harlem. The Bronx has Arthur Avenue, a cradle of Italian-American tradition. Staten Island has some of the best pizza you've never heard of, and overall, the city has some of the best pizza you definitely have heard of.
If that sounds like a resume befitting the #1 spot, well, you're right. It very well could be. But when we looked across the country, there was one city whose culinary tradition was just as historic, just as dense, just as varied, just as vaunted as New York's, but that rarely got the limelight Gotham always does. And so, we give you our pick for America's best food city of 2014...
1. New Orleans
Population: 1,189,866 (MSA)
New Orleans is a city drenched in its cuisine, rooted in the culture of setting a pot of gumbo on the front porch and inviting over the masses or throwing a street-wide crawfish boil on a muggy spring day. Its seasons are centered, not around the calendar, but around food, which is arguably easy to do when your seasons have more 90+ degree days than below 70, but it's even easier when January 6th kicks off Mardi Gras/king cake season, Christmas means epic Reveillon feasts, fall ensures a few alligator sausages in the Superdome, summer brings the first taste of sno-balls and the annual closing of Casamento's, and spring starts with the first crawfish boil. Its food pride extends inexpressibly beyond those signature dishes that everyone knows: its crispy, golden-fried oyster po’boys, award-winning fried chicken platters, and piping-hot beignets. Oh, also their spicy, blackened redfish, rich gumbo, and even richer crawfish étouffée. And don’t forget those buttery pralines or the smoky jambalaya or the Monday night-staple of red beans & rice.
This might be the point when you’re wondering if there are good restaurants in the city, not just a rabid fanbase of hungry locals. Well, hate-reading New Yorker, the answer is yes. Five of the oldest restaurants in the country are here and still serving, and they aren’t just boring standbys that should’ve closed their doors long ago: Commander’s Palace is helmed by a James Beard-winning chef, while Antoine’s is still awing with its never-been-revealed recipe for oysters Rockefeller, which they invented (yep, you’ve only eaten fakes elsewhere). And new(er) guys like Donald Link’s fish-to-tail Peche, John Besh and Alon Shaya’s pizza-haven Domenica, and Philip Lopez’s incredibly inventive Square Root, one of the best restaurants in America, keep things inventive. It would be an unmitigated task to start naming all of the tiny Creole, Cajun, Vietnamese, and Italian spots that fill in the huge gap between the new all-stars and the grand dames, but that’s why New Orleans visitors have created quite the cliche when they return from a visit: you could eat all day, all week in New Orleans and never get a bad meal or fully grasp the cuisine melting pot that fills the city.
Oh, and perhaps it’s worth noting that New Orleans does all that with an actual population of 343,829... without its MSA, the city wouldn't have been even close to large enough for this list.
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Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist Food & Drink, and really can't believe New Orleans is so small. Please address all complaints, compliments, and death threats to @dinfontay on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat.