Cinder house
Cinder House in St. Louis, MO | Greg Rannells
Cinder House in St. Louis, MO | Greg Rannells
Travel

15 American Cities That Secretly Have Great Food Scenes

Let your stomach book your next road trip.

Certain cities, you visit for the food. Others, you visit despite the food. The old guard of Important Food Destinations, you know: the San Franciscos, the Chicagos, the New Orleanses. So who are the up-and-comers -- the places whose culinary reps should be rising fastest? We put the question to dozens of veteran travelers and found some surprising answers. Some of these spots are out-of-the-way, mid-sized towns; others are big cities where some combination of abundant talent, great farms and fishing, and respect for traditional food have made them bona-fide dining destinations.

We guarantee you’ve passed through at least one of these towns without thinking twice about the food. Next time you visit, though, take a moment to stop and smell the s’mores burger.

wrench and the rodent
Wrench & Rodent | Lucid Impressions Photography

San Diego, California

Once maligned, it’s a hotspot for fresh-sourced ingredients and world-class street food.
Some years ago, a cranky food critic passing through named San Diego the "worst food city in America." Once there may have been a shred of truth there, but it was hyperbole then, and nowhere close to the truth today. Restaurateurs have realized that San Diego, surrounded by farms and ocean, offers abundant high-quality ingredients, and local joints like The Red Door, Trust, and Campfire have taken to working directly with farmers, ranchers, and fishermen to produce fantastic, environmentally responsible dishes.

One of the best restaurants in the United States is here: The James Beard-winning Addison at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar. But if you still want to just grab a fish taco and a craft beer, this is also the place to do it. Cali burritos -- the kind with carne asada and French fries -- are a staple for surfers and practically everyone else. (Lolita's Taco Shop is a good place to start your burrito exploration.) And as a bonus, San Diego’s sister city in Mexico, Tijuana, is having its own food renaissance. You can literally walk across the border and find yourself neck-deep in some of the best street tacos Mexico has to offer.

If you have just one meal: Head up to Oceanside to eat at Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub for fanciful, non-traditional sushi made with sustainable fish. It's one of the best sushi joints in the entire country, so ask for the omakase and allow yourself to be wowed. -- Jackie Bryant

cinder house
Cinder House | Greg Rannells

St. Louis, Missouri

Middle America doesn’t mean middle of the road when it comes to eating out
A visit to The Gateway City is about more than just riverboat gambling and scootering around the Arch. Likewise, the St. Louis food scene goes far beyond the stuffy steakhouses and fried comfort food you might associate with one-note Midwest dining.

Admittedly, you don’t get many Midwestern plates filled with vegetables -- unless they’re deep fried and coated in Ranch, perhaps. Yet Vicia, a veggie-forward fine-dining spot in the Cortex tech hub, is a rising star serving purple-top turnip tacos, hearth-grilled peppers, and scrambled eggs with smoked tomato.

And then there’s brunch. Go hipster with shrub cocktails on the side at Retreat Gastropub, feast on bacon and goat cheese crepes at Rooster, or have a sweet treat at Half & Half. For world-class pastries, quiches, and macarons, the answer is Nathaniel Reid Bakery.

If you only eat one meal: Innovative James Beard Award winner Gerard Craft is leading the St. Louis food revolution. His latest project is Cinder House on the rooftop of the Arch-facing Four Seasons, where he recreates his own childhood favorites, once served by his Brazilian nanny. Expect gluten-free, gooey cheese bread, and feijoada packed with smoked pork and braised beef. -- Sean Cooley

Buffalo, New York

Legacy restaurants coexist with new international flavors
Get your stretchy pants ready: A weekend in Buffalo means you’re gaining at least 5 pounds. This is a legacy dining town, where the best restaurants have stood the test of time (locals remain loyal to worthy establishments for 30, 40 years or more). So, if you’re a newbie, you better be damn good. Leading the pack is Toutant for elevated Southern cuisine (mmm… buttermilk fried chicken), and the The Black Sheep, where local produce forms simple, homey dishes like whole roasted beet, chicken-fried chicken livers, and peach gnocchi. The oldies are still thriving of course though, and there’s none better than Chef’s Restaurant, which has been plating up tangy parmed pasta since 1923.

At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo welcomed waves of German, Polish, Italian, and Irish immigrants -- and you can taste their impact in the superlative pierogi, pizza, and red sauce joints across the city today. But for modern Asian and South American cuisine, head for the West Side Bazaar and gorge on donburi bowls at Thang’s Family Restaurant, the pernil combo at Kiosko Latino, and mutee soup at Rakhapura.

If you have just one meal: Make it a hot dog. Not just any hot dog, but the mildly spiced, crispy-cased, charcoal-grilled Sahlen’s sausage at Ted’s Hot Dog. Better still, Ted’s grills indoors (unlike almost anywhere else on the planet), so you’ll get a warm respite from the winter chills. -- Nicole Schuman

Olympia, Washington

The quiet capital of the state is also a seafood paradise
Anchored by a year-round farmers market, Olympia reflects the field-to-fork ethos of Seattle and the cart-based creativity of Portland, without the big-city price tags (at least not yet). There’s a fancy food hall, which gathers some of the city’s greats into one location, just a few blocks from the market. The Bread Peddler bakes pastries that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris, while Sophie’s serves local-milk ice cream in flavors like Olympia Fog (black tea, rose petals, and vanilla).

Even at the top end, your cash goes a long way -- go for $6 happy-hour negronis at Dillinger’s, an upscale bank-robbery-themed bar set in a historic building (you can drink in the vault). You can afford to experiment too: Get an organic brew at Olympia Coffee Roasting, and try food-truck fare at Assyrian Nineveh or its Latin American lot-mate Arepa.

If you have just one meal: The mix of a Mexican-American chef and the wares of a second-generation oyster farmer make for unique dishes and unmatched quality at Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar, at the food hall. -- Naomi Tomky

Aurora
Santa Fe Farmer's Market | Kerry Sherck/Aurora/getty images

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Pretty much everything you love, done the best it can be done
Every day in Santa Fe can be Christmas: Red chile sauce and green chile sauce slathered side-by-side on your enchilada, burrito, or chile relleno like a piquant Yuletide fiesta. Originally sourced during Columbus’ voyages into the Caribbean, chiles arrived in Santa Fe when the Spanish founded the town in 1610, and some of the recipes you’ll find at local landmarks like La Choza and the Shed are almost as old. Because these restaurants -- and other longtime favorites like Tia Sophia’s, Palacio Café, and the Pink Adobe -- serve pretty much the same classic New Mexican fare in comfortably low-key surroundings, they compete by being meticulous in everything they make, slow-braising, fire-roasting, and generally pouring love into every tortilla and refried bean.

Between Santa Fe, Taos, and nearby Albuquerque, Southwestern food culture runs deep, and chefs not only respect the old ways but update them with locally sourced grains and meats. The local booze community, led by Bosque Brewing Co. and Santa Fe Spirits, is producing wonderful stuff, too. Some say the margarita was invented in Santa Fe, and 60-year-old Maria's New Mexican Kitchen holds the flame, with more than 200 varieties listed on their eight-page menu.

If you have just one meal: New-school sensation Eloisa eschews the standard Santa Fe palette of purples and pinks for a sleek black-and-white space inside the Drury Plaza Hotel. Here, local-born, world-traveled chef John Rivera Sedlar modernizes the town’s traditional cuisine with such studied, loving finesse that dinner feels like an evolutionary inevitability. And if you’re in town in the fall, be sure to grab a sack of fresh-roasted pinon nuts from a vendor at Santa Fe Plaza. A snack dating back to prehistoric times, pinon is the true taste (and scent) of Santa Fe. -- Jonathan Zwickel

Honolulu, Hawaii

Traditional ingredients and new techniques
Hawaii was once the butt of culinary jokes, thanks to its Spam obsession and bowls of plain, gloopy poi. But then came poke, the local style of raw fish salad that became the mainland’s hottest food trend. And now, there’s a new wave of Honolulu restaurants weaving traditional ingredients into forward-thinking, modern cooking. Seriously, some restaurants wouldn’t be out of place in Copenhagen or Los Angeles.

At the James Beard semi-finalist restaurant Senia, Noma-style minimalism meets Hawaii’s tropical breadbasket, producing dishes like grilled octopus with Chinese sausage and XO sauce, and an ahi starter that strikes a balance between nigiri sushi and avocado toast. Neighboring The Pig and The Lady does the same, with strong nods to Vietnam: There are noodle bowls made with market vegetables, and a Hanoi-style egg coffee with Kona dark roast. At MW Restaurant, the miso-butterfish “arancini” are a Hawaiian seafood classic transformed into Italian antipasti.

If you have just one meal: Nowhere fuses traditional ingredients with new techniques better than Mud Hen Water, where renowned local chef Ed Kenney serves bananas like loaded baked potatoes, with curry and peanut toppings. -- Naomi Tomky

passenger coffee
passenger coffee | MarisaAlbrecht.co

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

An inventive, international array of flavors fed by Amish farms
Two hours’ drive west of Philadelphia, you’ll find this town of 60,000... but only after passing the farms (many of them Amish) that are putting produce on your tables here and feeding the constant, eclectic farmers markets that swarm the conspicuously quaint Downtown. No less an authority on hipness than, the, uh, New York Post has dubbed Lancaster “the new Brooklyn,” but that misses wide. If anything, Brooklyn would envy this much farm for its farm-to-table restaurants, and at such low prices for high-end dining.

Maybe the finest embodiment of Lancaster’s culture and terroir resides at slow-food champion Maison, the tiniest sliver of a restaurant (with fewer than 10 tables and an open kitchen) on the ever-animated Prince Street. Order the handmade burrata, featuring crusty bread swimming in a burst pillow of gooey cheese. The seasonally changing gnocchi, studded variously with hen of the woods mushrooms or snow peas and ramps, has a fan in no less than Alton Brown.  

Lancaster has also been defining itself as a specialty coffee city: Hit up cafes and roasters like Square One, Prince Street Cafe, or Passenger Coffee for the real deal. At cocktail hour (whenever you define it), swagger into Pour to browse its rapidly revolving seasonal cocktail menu.

If you have just one meal: Scarf down the duck truffle pizza at The Pressroom Restaurant and Bar or the Svenska Pannkakor (Swedish pancakes) at On Orange. Chase it with a Go Big or Go Rob at Pour. -- Sammy Nickalls

Rooster & the Till
Rooster & the Till | Skyler June Photography

Tampa, Florida

Daring to go far, far beyond the famous hole-in-the-wall Cuban sandwich joints
Tampa is turning its blue-collar heritage to its advantage, with a wave of adventurous new restaurants celebrating its history and reinventing its cuisine. Chefs -- as well as residents -- are finally stepping out of their comfort zone. Case in point: The epicenter of foodie talent is smack dab in a neighborhood once notorious as a “don’t walk there at night” zone -- Seminole Heights.

Better still, most of the innovators are hyperlocal, and grew up just blocks away from their new eateries. Take James Beard semi-finalist Ferrell Alvarez. He proved his culinary chops with the Rooster + The Till diner, and has now transformed an abandoned 1950s store into Nebraska Mini-Mart, a social-hub snack bar for shuffleboard and street food (hello, Pig Mac). Andrew Tambuzzo is from a family of butchers, and his new restaurant The Boozy Pig (opening later this year) will pride itself on using every last bit of the animal in its farm-to-table fare.

Out-of-towners are catching onto the new movement too, like James Beard-winning chef Anne Kearney. In the coming months, the Ohio native will open her own signature restaurant at Armature Works, a former street-car warehouse converted into a buzzing food hall.

If you have just one meal: Hemingway’s deservedly won Best Cuban Sandwich in Tampa, but even better is the ropa vieja tostones and fire-water chicharrones. Wash it down with their homemade sangria, and thank us later. -- Elizabeth Newman

Bluebeard
Bluebeard | Myles Gause

Indianapolis, Indiana

Wander just beyond the sporting industrial complexes and find the Midwest at its best
Don’t get stuck in Downtown Indy. The site of many a Colts game and NCAA Final Four is cluttered with chains, which is where far too many visitors settle for basic, Midwestern meat-and-potato fare. (Can’t get out of Downtown? At least hit up Napolese for pizza, or get a great burger and vegetarian food at Mesh.) Truly, though, the worthwhile surprises here mostly lurk well under the radar, in the surrounding neighborhoods. Chefs are investing in abandoned and rundown buildings, fixing them up, and creating a thriving food culture in areas locals once avoided.

Just a 15-minute walk from the Pacers’ home arena is Milktooth, one of the city’s most beloved brunch spots, built into an old garage. Head here for Dutch pancakes with farm-fresh berries, bacon as thick as a baby’s arm, and expertly roasted coffee. Down the road you’ll find a couple of darlings of the food and beverage scene. Bluebeard offers small, medium, and large plates to share, changing seasonally with the local ingredients; it’s best to order a lot of little plates. Across the street sits hotel-in-name-only Hotel Tango, a distillery with some of the proudest, and most well-versed bartenders around. Their garden-inspired and fruit concoctions are works of genius, applying robust seasonal flavors to shake up the old standards.

If you have just one meal: Eat at Bluebeard. This hot spot doesn’t take reservations, and they really don’t need to. They are always packed thanks to their farm-fresh menu that is ever-changing, depending on what the chef finds at the market. -- Keryn Means

Sacramento, California

Unbeatable access to America’s most abundant agricultural region
Mark this down for your next West Coast road trip: Sacramento’s food scene is primed to blow up. No longer does Sac need to be regarded as the place where Chris Webber busted his knee or where Arnold Schwarzenegger once did his govern-ating. Nope, it’s California’s new food hub, and a hotbed that won’t require a Silicon Valley bank account like SF, or the patience to wait in line two hours for an egg sandwich like LA.

Surrounded by farming communities, Sacramento’s standard of fresh produce and raw ingredients is unbeatable. Combine that with nominally cheap rent rates and you’ve got the recipe for luring elite hungry chefs to build their flagship dining concepts. This is the case for Canon’s Michelin-grade chef Brad Cecchi, who returned to his hometown in East Sac to evolve his own localvore menu, far in distance but not in style from Napa or San Francisco. Inside the unpretentious and unassuming ranch house, no dish exemplifies Cecchi’s approach like the uber-tender grilled octopus splayed on a green garbanzo bean salad, with hibiscus, pineapple, and poblano purée -- a rich, but not overly lavish share plate.

Sacramento may not be getting the national accolade or “hot list” buzz (yet) but it’s standard of produce and raw ingredients is unbeatable and it’s knock as being an inland cowtown is misguided.

If you have just one meal: The ever-rotating chef's counter at Midtown restaurant Localis displays an impressive range of hyper-seasonal dishes from quail egg sauce gribiche to locally sourced beef cheeks to foraged mushrooms. -- Sean Cooley

Chattanooga, Tennessee

A mountain town hitting the culinary heights
When you’re a small city two hours from Nashville and Atlanta, it can be hard to get the attention you deserve. Chattanooga flies under the radar but keeps a lot up of aces up its sleeve -- its outdoorsy, affordable, and a dammed delicious place to spend a weekend. Start with back-to-back meals at restaurants by James Beard semifinalist Erik Niel. His charcuterie is aged in-house at Main Street Meats, and he sources cheeses and beef from Tennessee farms. Then, it’s on to Easy Bistro & Bar for a Southern style brunch -- order the bacon omelet, tomato pie, and buttermilk biscuits. Another James Beard contender is Daniel Lindley, who cooks up rustic wood-fired pizzas and handmade pastas at Alleia.

If street food is more your speed, head to the Chattanooga Market, where you’ll find the Filipino pop-up bakery Calamansi Cafe, among food trucks serving Mexican, Salvadoran, Greek, Vietnamese and Korean, to name a few. No trip to Chattanooga is complete without a heaving plate of fried food of course -- go to Champy’s Fried Chicken or Uncle Larry’s for catfish and greens. Wash it all down with a pour-your-own craft beer at American Draft -- not only do they have two dozen on tap, but it’s inside a century-old train car at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. All aboard, beer nerds and model-railroad hobbyists!

If you have just one meal: Go to newcomer Whitebird, which has river and sunset views at the foot of the Walnut Street Bridge. Chef Kevin Korman oversees a menu sourced almost exclusively from the Tennessee River Valley. Must-try dishes include the signature “whitebird” roasted chicken with a honey and tea lacquer, and his take on Chattanooga’s famed moon pie, a gooey graham cracker and marshmallow confection.  -- Tim Ebner

Sparrow + Wolf
Sparrow + Wolf | Sabin Orr

Las Vegas, Nevada

Neighborhood dining that outshines the Strip
Everyone knows about the celebrity chef restaurants on the Strip, but the best of Vegas dining (including many of the hottest new restaurants) is actually away from the tourist corridor. The Downtown Arts District, Southeast Valley, Summerlin, Henderson, and the country's most underrated Chinatown all have their share of authentic, innovative, and more affordable menus that don't require final approval from a committee of hotel executives.

In many cases, chefs are taking what they learned on the Strip and developing personalized concepts of their own. Jamie Tran incorporates her Vietnamese heritage into contemporary cuisine at The Black Sheep, Brian Howard takes a no-rules approach to wood-fired cooking at Sparrow + Wolf, and James Trees is mastering house-made bread and pasta at Esther's Kitchen. Dan Krohmer, on the other hand, went from catering meals for Metallica, to opening Other Mama, influenced by his travels in Japan.

If you have just one meal: Visit District One in Chinatown, where Khai Vu's signature whole-lobster pho is ready to replace the tired shrimp cocktail as the town's iconic seafood staple. -- Rob Kachelriess

Telluride, Colorado

The little town with big foodie ambitions
Telluride is no Aspen, and that’s part of its charm. But aside from low(er)-key slopes with some of the best snow in North America, its food scene is booming. In town, start with a binge down the picturesque streets, making stops for short-rib enchiladas at Floradora Saloon, elk and wild boar sausage at local favorite Smuggler Union, and Detroit-style slices at the always lively Brown Dog Pizza. Wash it all down with drinks on the rooftop of the historic Sheridan Opera House.

But it’s the food scene in Mountain Village that has really taken off, with excellent options just off the gondola. Go to La Piazza Del Villaggio for authentic Italian, Siam’s Talay Grille for contemporary Asian fusion, and Tomboy Tavern for shrimp tacos on the patio. Don’t let the starched tablecloths at Allred’s put you off; its million-dollar views make it a must, not to mention the roasted rack of Colorado lamb.

If you have just one meal: Take an unforgettable journey by snowcoach up to Alpino Vino, the highest fine-dining restaurant in North America, for gourmet Italian in a romantic wood chalet. Why yes, you will have extra wine -- you’re not driving, remember? -- Jay Gentile

Scottsdale, Arizona

Chefs like it for the same reason as the snowbirds -- tons of sun, for year-round fresh produce
Below the surface in this resort-heavy desert town is a group of young chefs embracing the region’s ancient and local crops. Take Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen, where chef Adam Sheff’s dishes feature tepary beans, part of the Native American diet since pre-Columbian times, and I’itoi onions, brought to Arizona in the 17th century by Spanish missionaries (now grown at Crooked Sky Farms). You’ll get hot sauces in glass beakers, and enjoy the view of the pool outside -- yep, it’s at a resort.

The area’s five growing seasons keep farmers markets running year-round. Head downtown to the Old Town Farmers Market for apples, tamales, free-range beef and eggs, cider, and honey. At the veggie-centric FnB, try the goat cheese-stuffed hatch chiles with peruano bean-tomato relish, and mains like halibut with tepary beans, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes finished with tarragon mayo; the dishes’ ancient grains come from nearby Hayden Flour Mills. Or try Gertrude’s, on the grounds of the Desert Botanical Garden, which serves ancient grains and Native American ingredients in dishes like the anasazi bean and quinoa salad.

If you have just one meal: It’s not ancient but it is infamous. The Stetson chopped salad at Cowboy Ciao has a dedicated local following. Find it as well at Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. -- Jennifer Mattson

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