Chicago is a world-class dining city, nailing everything from the heights of haute cuisine (Alinea regularly ranks as one of, if not the best, restaurants in North America) to the humbler, everyman fatness that comes from their triple (bypass) threat of deep-dish, Chicago dogs, and Italian beef. The level of Mexican cookery is also seriously underrated (and goes well-beyond Rick Bayless). To say that the rest of the state isn’t bringing QUITE as much to the metaphorical and literal table is an understatement, but it can lay claim to the horseshoe, a glorious open-faced sandwich of thick toast that's topped with the protein of your choice (hamburger patties, classically) and piled high with fries and an irresponsible amount of cheese sauce.
Look, there’s been so much waxing poetic about the cuisine of New Orleans over the years (both from within and from outsiders) that it gets to feel repetitive. You know all the buzzwords: Cajun and Creole, gumbo and jambalaya, po’ boys and crawfish étouffée, and so forth. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s all unspeakably delicious, which is why lesser versions of it constantly show up on menus around the country. Also, New Orleans may well be America’s finest drinking city, and we don’t just mean the shenanigans on Bourbon Street. Do yourself a favor next time you’re there and class it up for a few damn minutes while you enjoy a Ramos Gin Fizz at the Sazerac Bar.
3. New York
Even though the Big Apple only has mostly normal sized apples, it also has just a FEW other things going for it, from the advantages that come from being a major immigration hub for generations (the pizza’s just the tastily foldable tip of the iceberg) to the delicious results that come from waves of chefs flocking there to try and make it among the scores of Michelin-starred elites already doing their thing. New York’s also contributed quite handsomely to what you do in bars, from cutting edge cocktail innovations to so many beers (Ommegang, Brooklyn, Southern Tier) to, oh yeah, BUFFALO WINGS. Fresh Long Island seafood is spectacular. The bagels that NY expats won’t stop talking about really are that good. Say what you will about New Yorkers, although you’ll probably have a tough time since your mouth is full of their delicious food.
Everything is bigger in Texas. I know that because of T-shirts, but also because it’s true. Whereas most states have one style of BBQ -- maybe two -- Texas has four: East, Central, South, and West (Sorry, North). And these styles, particularly Central Texas, happen to be amongst our favorite barbecue in the whole world. There’s a reason that line is so long at Franklin, y’all. Texans invented their own style of cuisine (Tex-Mex), their own style of chili (no beans!), and the ballpark nachos (in 1973 at Arlington Stadium). There are famous cattle ranches like King in South Texas, which is bigger than all of Rhode Island. There are the big beer producers -- the Lone Stars and the Shiners -- but there are also the small ones, like Jester King and 512. There is Whataburger.
Aside from all that, you could make a damn compelling case that four cities (Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and, okay, maybe (!), Dallas/Fort Worth) are all destination-worthy when it comes to eating, with Houston and San Antonio only recently being given the props they deserve. Say what you want about the prolific talents of NYC, but once you get outside the boroughs, no one is exactly lining up to heap praise on the food/drink in Albany and beyond.
We didn’t want it to be California, friends. We wanted it to be some kind of off-the-radar spot like South Dakota or Texas, but we didn’t map the geography of this nation to favor the Golden State; God, or some kind of mapographer did. Let’s start first with some numbers. California has 80,000 farms; it produces HALF OF ALL US-GROWN FRUITS, NUTS, AND VEGETABLES. Half, friends. 50%. And you know about the wine, right? 800 miles of coastland with fog, wind, and rain to keep vines interesting, and all of that warm inland and hills to produce more of it than any other state. And who gives a sh*t if Paul Giamatti doesn’t drink Merlot? California makes 100 different varietals of wine. Have you ever heard of a Mourvedre?!? I have not, but those grape-stomping bastards make it. And we haven’t even gotten to the cities.
San Diego and its fish tacos and craft beers; LA with its innovative food truck culture (Kogi BBQ) and restaurants (Animal, Trois Mec, Baco Mercat); San Francisco with its Mission burritos and a food/drink culture second only to maybe NY in the entire country. But you know what puts it all over the top? The fact that you could take away those places, and it’d still have enough good food cities to be in the top 10. Oakland/Berkeley with its “anything SF can do, I can do cheaper and potentially better” vibe. San Jose and its cultish ramen from Santouka and Halu. Sacramento and those delicious burgers at the Squeeze Inn with that cheese skirt. Trust me, friends, it’s California on a knockout, and it ain’t even that close.
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s food/drink executive editor, and hopes to one day be allowed back into the Dakota region. Follow his attempts to acquire a dish towel line @KAlexander03.
Matt Lynch is a Thrillist senior editor who hopes Puerto Rico one day becomes a state and turns these rankings UPSIDE DOWN. You can follow the vitriol he's about to receive from Indiana at @MLynchChi.