There's nothing we love more than eating our way through a fantastic food city, indulging in the Michelin-starred hot spots and local haunts that put our chosen destination on the global map. But from Rust Belt fine dining to seafood shacks down south, there's more to this country than blockbuster cities and their tourist traps.
We've sussed out the 27 most underrated food and drink cities in America, so the next time you find yourself waiting two hours for some big name brunch, remember this list.
Move over, Portland. This vacation town at the foot of snowy Mt. Bachelor should be your new culinary obsession. For drinks, there's Deschutes Brewery, 10 Barrel Brewing and sour pros Crux Fermentation, as well as the Stihl Whiskey Bar, a low-key joint with a 200+ bottle list for all your après-ski or après-golf needs. Chow's got everyone's favorite farm-to-table brunch, while 10 Barrel's original brewpub has lunch covered with hand-tossed pizzas and an elk burger topped with havarti, onions glazed in hard cider and maple-pepper bacon. The Old St. Francis School, a sprawling 1936 schoolhouse that's been transformed into a boutique hotel, complete with four bars and restaurants on-site (not to mention a soaking pool and a movie theater, as if you needed yet another reason to visit), is your one-stop shop for dinner, drinks and everything else.
Though often overshadowed by bigwigs like Atlanta and Savannah, charming B'ham is decidedly on the up and up when it comes to world-class cuisine. Chris Hastings's gorgeously appointed Hot and Hot Fish Club leads the pack, of course, with its Southern spin on flavorful seasonal fare (banana pudding doughnuts? Yes, please), but just as key to the city's food prowess is SAW's BBQ, pitmaster Mike Wilson's homey smoke shack with several locations and a mean pulled pork sandwich. French-inspired fine dining institution Highlands Bar and Grill and FoodBar's effortlessly hip, farm-to-table vibe only add to the city's burgeoning scene. For booze, get your kicks at menu-less cocktail haunt The Collins, at Carrigan's Public House's industrial-chic downtown digs, or at Good People Brewing and Avondale Brewing's fully loaded taprooms. They don't call it Magic City for nothing.
An approachable college town with an alternative vibe and booming bar scene, Bloomington has a shockingly vast culinary lineup featuring James Beard Award semifinalist Daniel Orr's Caribbean-tinted FARMbloomington alongside some of the most authentic Tibetan food this side of the Himalayas, thanks in part to longtime resident, the late Thubten Jigme Norbu, a former IU prof and—get this—the Dalai Lama's baby brother. Nightlife is also huge, with options ranging from wild undergrad go-tos like Kilroy's to chilled-out beer bars like The Bishop, teeming with grad students and townies bopping to top indie music acts (more than 10 record labels call B-Town home, including big names Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar). To round it out, award-winning craft breweries including Function Brewing, Bloomington Brewing Co. and Upland Brewing (both of which also operate ridiculously popular brewpubs) pump out top-quality suds for locals and transient musicians alike.
We know what you're thinking: There's more to Idaho than overstuffed spuds? In the hot Linen District of Boise, there's the The Modern, a retro-cool boutique hotel with an inviting patio bar known for craft cocktails and local wine and beer, as well as a casual yet elegant new American restaurant helmed by James Beard Award semifinalist Nate Whitley. Chandlers is full of romance (and grass-fed filets), while locavore haven Fork's grown-up kid food and hearty Northwestern staples are the stuff of comfort food dreams. Idaho's nearby wine country is not to be missed, either, with highly acclaimed vineyards like Sawtooth Estate Winery and Ste Chapelle. And, curiously enough, Boise is home to the country's largest Basque population, whose traditional food, drink and vibrant culture flood the streets of the restaurant-lined Basque Block.
Sawtooth Winery's vineyards, Boise area | Photo: Courtesy of Sawtooth Winery
The Green Mountain State truly has the whole package: farm-fresh produce and cheese, nationally renown beer and cider, and plenty of hiking, skiing and kayaking to burn it all off. Start your day with biscuits and gravy or hash purples (shredded and fried beets and carrots) from The Skinny Pancake. Later, stroll down Church Street for coffee and shopping, or, if you're visiting in the warmer months, get lost wandering around the Burlington Farmers' Market's colorful bounty and follow it up with dollar oysters at Misery Loves Co.'s popular happy hour. For dinner? A crisp, cheesy wood-fired pie from American Flatbread is what you want.
A dynamic college town with a big appetite, Charlottesville is racing to join America's elite culinary cities, especially as Virginia's viticulture, led by Barboursville Vineyards and its celebrated fine dining institution, Palladio, continues to garner notice. Its beverage scene isn't too far behind either. On the more sophisticated side, try Fleurie's delicate and beautifully plated tasting menus, Mas Tapas' sustainably sourced Spanish small plates, or the multifaceted C & O. Littlejohn's overstuffed sandwiches keep the town's many students happy, and The Virginian has been drowning them in beer (and cheer) for nearly a century.
America's rock-and-roll capital is awash in smoky BBQ, Neapolitan pizza with pristinely blistered crusts, James Beard-approved fine dining, red-sauce joints and decorated chefs behind the wheel. For fall-off-the-bone pork ribs paired with a beastly bourbon list, look no further than Mabel's BBQ, where chef Michael Symon does his thing. If it's white-tablecloth fare you seek, follow chef Jonathon Sawyer on a 12-course journey through northern Italy at Trentina or secure a table at Zach Bruell's similarly swanky Ristorante Chinato. Pizza is the name of the game at everyone's favorite, Citizen Pie, and Great Lakes Brewing has been steadily cranking out critically acclaimed brews since 1986. This is one city you just have to see to believe(land).
While Houston might be the "next big thing" and Austin the reigning champ, few other Lone Star-ers show more culinary promise than Dallas-Fort Worth. But before you complain about the sprawl, think about what all that space allows: areas with their own distinct flavors, like trendy Deep Ellum and blossoming nearby Plano; a diverse array of immigrant communities boasting spots like authentic Tex-Mex joint Avila's or pho master Peja Krstic's Một Hai Ba; and, obviously, the room to develop Texas-sized projects, like Legacy Food Hall, a star-powered dining and entertainment mega complex featuring Top Chef alum John Tesar's Knife Burger, Roots Chicken Shack from fellow TC alum Tiffany Derry and an on-site brewery called Unlawful Assembly. Elsewhere, Downtown's CBD Provisions, with its pig's-head carnitas and cocktail program helmed by booze legend Christy Pope (Little Branch, Milk & Honey), is killing it, and the tasting menus at fine dining stalwart The Mansion are always on point. Saddle up, partner.
This corner of the Research Triangle beats out its sister cities when it comes to food. The doughnuts at Monuts make an unparalleled breakfast (or lunch or dinner), while the seasonal pies at Scratch are everyone's go-to dessert. Come evening, you'll want to take in the sunset from the Durham Hotel's 3,000-square-foot rooftop bar or, depending on the season, catch a ball game at the famous Durham Bulls stadium, which even houses a pint-sized brewery. And about that beer: Carve out a day to visit breweries like Fullsteam and Durty Bull for just a small sampling of the area's proud beer scene, or grab a bottle while taking in local jams at the Pinhook. If making like a local is your thing, don't miss Saltbox Seafood Joint, tapas favorite Juju and, most importantly, some old-school North Cackalacky 'cue at Backyard BBQ Pit.
Saltbox Seafood Joint's picnic area, Durham | Photo: Courtesy of Saltbox
Grand Rapids, MI
Unless you're a tried-and-true hop head, you're probably unaware that Grand Rapids, an unassuming dot on Michigan's western edge, is actually one of the Midwest's most legit culinary cities. Beer is king, with craft pioneers Founders, New Holland and Bell's all within driving distance, as well as locals like Brewery Vivant (whose taproom, stashed in a converted chapel, also cooks up a mean poutine) and Harmony Brewing, with its robust stouts and homemade sausages. The Winchester owns brunch, with hangover destroyers like braised beef Benedict, gooey breakfast nachos and a Bloody Mary hash skillet, a heap of life-giving vegetables, covered in Manchego cheese and finished with "Bloody Mary jus" and a sunny egg. And if you absolutely must get your wine fix, go to Reserve Wine & Food, a brasserie with a boatload of vino (many of which are available by the glass) and dishes that run the gamut from cacio e pepe to pork belly served with a curious combination of kimchi fried rice, pears and a poached egg.
While everyone was busy looking at Charleston, this upcountry South Carolina town was steadily coming into its own. Restaurants from acclaimed chefs like the sustainable and locally driven Anchorage are joining classics like American Grocery, where the octopus is tender enough you'll laugh at the thought of a knife. Greenville's craft beer scene also rivals that of any big city, with tons of brewery-meets-hangout spots like Quest and Birds Fly South. For great cocktails, take note of the downtown's first speakeasy, Vault & Vator, the brainchild of American Grocery greats. Make sure to schedule a stop into GB&D, where the burgers and fried chicken are just as juicy and tempting as promised.
To outsiders, Honolulu might seem like all beaches and big waves, but the capital of Hawaii is home to a vibrant and growing food scene that covers the map from big bowls of saimin noodle soup—Hawaii's answer to ramen—at Sekiya's Restaurant & Delicatessen to innovative fine dining. The newly opened Senia, led by two Per Se alums, and the acclaimed Mud Hen Water, which melds traditional Hawaiian ingredients with international influences, are both well worth a trip off the resort. Chinatown's Tchin Tchin Bar's wine list beats those sugary beachfront piña coladas, and Bar Leather Apron, with its beautifully executed and regionally influenced cocktails (see: matcha old-fashioned), is about as swaggy as it gets when it comes to downtown nightlife. We sure hope you saved up those PTO days . . .
Bar Leather Apron's matcha old-fashioned, Honolulu | Photo: Courtesy of Leather Apron
Jersey City, NJ
As borough after borough ups its restaurant game to Michelin-starred levels, it's no wonder things are beginning to pop off a stone's throw across the Hudson River. With soaring views of New York's southern skyline, JC's enticing options, including sophisticated Italian plates at Battello's wedding-worthy waterfront digs, White Star's sinfully delicious burger and an outpost of Top Chef alum Dale Talde's eponymous Asian fusion stunner, routinely draw naysayers into Jersey's welcoming arms. Sweet treats can be found at Milk Sugar Love, NJ's favorite scoop shop, and if liquor is quicker, try cocktail dens The Archer and Dullboy, which regularly shake up signature stunners loaded with artisanal spirits, fresh juices and house-made tinctures. Take that, Manhattan.
Louisville's laid-back spirit and exceptionally nice residents are nothing short of seductive—so much so that in 2002, chef Ed Lee up and moved there after falling in love with the place on a summer road trip. Several James Beard Award nominations later, Lee is still wowing the masses at his flagship 610 Magnolia, which offers contemporary Southern fare with East Asian accents like xiao long bao and togarashi-spiced catfish. Over at Decca, Lee's fellow Top Chef alum, Annie Pettry, is cooking up new American wonders like crispy salmon with beluga lentils, charred frisée, ras el hanout and Marcona almonds. Casual lunch questers can't get enough of the country ham sampler platter at Garage Bar, a former mechanic shop with a sunny patio. After all is said and done, you'll find many a Derby City dweller winding down over Mexican hot chocolates and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies at Please & Thank You. Off to the races, travelers!
A course from 610 Magnolia's tasting menu, Louisville | Photo: Dan Dry Photography
Bluff City has perfected the art of low 'n' slow, and its unique Mississippi Delta location means that when it comes to great BBQ, almost anything goes, from dry to wet, spicy to sweet. Central BBQ's signature pulled pork nachos—tender meat tossed with crunchy corn chips, dripping with shredded cheese and topped with a peppery, tangy sauce; sour cream; fiery jalapeños; and chopped onions—is a mouthwatering bowl of epic proportions. Rendezvous BBQ has dry rub mastered, as evidenced by its fall-off-the-bone ribs. There's excellence beyond the pit, too, including old-school refinement at McEwen's and upscale Creole fare at Restaurant Iris. And if you need a beverage to wash it all down, you've got craft breweries like Wiseacre and High Cotton, as well as Downtown's prized haunt Earnestine & Hazel's and the newly reopened Paula Raiford's Disco, the most raucous (and mind-blowingly awesome) dance club in the state.
Milwaukee's come a long way since the days of fizzy light lagers and bratwurst—not that there's anything wrong with that—but the midwest's day in the culinary sun is finally upon us, and Brew City is first in line to receive its accolades. Thanks to the relatively low cost of living, talents chefs like James Beard-nominated chef Justin Carlisle and his refined, tasting menu-focused Ardent are showing up on Mil-town's shores by the dozen. On the flipside, expertly charred slabs of wet and dry aged beef line the menus of trusted haunts like Carnevor and 5 O'Clock and the flawlessly spiced, spoon-tender corned beef at Jake's Deli has been working hungry Wisconsinites into a tizzy since 1955. Before you dine, you might want to whet your appetite with a tiki-themed wonder at At Random or a Prohibition-era tipple at Bryant's, which opened as Milwaukee's very first cocktail bar back in 1936. Cheers to that.
With its network of hidden culinary gems, diverse makeup and chilled-out ethos (literally, brrrr), the Mini Apple is Midwest's sneakiest sleeper hit. Quality booze is vital in a town as cold as this one, and between a thriving beer and liquor scene (Surly Brewing Co. and Tattersall Distilling top the list) and stupid-good cocktail bars like Uptown's Volstead’s Emporium, it certainly delivers. Cool kids can be found sobering up over brunch at HauteDish, where corn dogs share a bill with ramp pistou, and Bloody Marys come topped with cured sausage and a Buffalo wing. A slightly more polished set sips rosé and enjoys two-time James Beard nominee Jim Christiansen's indulgent yet rustic tasting menu at Heyday. Get to know the city's largest immigrant community at Safari Restaurant, a casual joint showcasing Somalia's amazing cuisine. And we can't forget: the almighty Jucy Lucy, stuffed with molten cheese and served hot off the griddle at Matt's Bar. Not even negative-40-degree windchill could keep us from this American classic.
The tasting room at Tattersall Distilling, Minneapolis | Photo: Courtesy of Tattersall Distilling
New Haven, CT
You don't earn the title of the Greatest Small City in America without first delivering a good meal . . . or five. Sure, you've heard of Frank Pepe Pizzeria's famous clam pies, and rightfully so. But you'd be a fool to skip out on New Haven's lesser-known offerings, like Ethiopian food at Lalibela, authentic Northern Italian at Skappo or Northern Chinese originals like tender Mongolian beef-stuffed chun bing at Junzi Kitchen's outpost near Yale's campus. For the true Elm City experience, channel your inner college kid by heading to Alpha Delta Pizza and ordering yourself the monstrous Wenzel—a Buffalo chicken sub best consumed after midnight (there's even an app for that, in case you need some assistance). And like any good university town, bar options run wild, whether you're sliding into a tall booth for a fancy cocktail at 116 Crown, doubling down on draft beer at Cask Republic or sipping on bespoke gin and tonics with the in crowd at Ordinary.
Little-known fact: Omaha's palate stretches far, far beyond the world-famous steaks that bear its name. In fact, one of Omaha's most noteworthy restaurants, Isa Chandra Moskowitz's Modern Love, boasts a strictly vegetarian menu, focusing on internationally influenced veggie-fied comforts like oyster mushroom banh mi and seitan gyros. For carnivores, there's quality meat to be found, including lamb chop crépinette and braised pork belly at the Boiler Room, and homey pulled pork slathered in mustardy slaw at Kitchen Table. The Berry & Rye shells out high-end tipples in a gorgeously renovated historic setting, Upstream Brewing brings all the suds to the yard and, for those lucky enough to track it down, intimate speakeasy Wicked Rabbit will set you up with one of the best cocktails in the state. (Hint: Look inside the Looking Glass Cigars & Spirits shop.)
Don't let Pittsburgh's gruff Rust Belt veneer fool you; this is one hell of a food town. And famous, french fry-stuffed sandwiches notwithstanding (oh, how we adore you, Primanti Bros.), there's actually way more to the Burgh than carbo-loaded street food. Among the city's many culinary treasures are The Commoner, a downtown gastropub with a penchant for perfectly seared steaks and a well-honed drinks list; Butcher and the Rye's rustic, hearty lineup (ahem, smoked lamb neck with marinated feta and mint chimichurri); and the artfully composed neo-Italian tasting menus at James Beard Award nominee Justin Severino's Cure. For drinks, Hidden Harbor's tiki-with-a-twist approach always makes for a festive (and delicious) night out, and Grapperia consistently wows with its library-like selection of Italian liqueurs and grappa-spiked cocktails. Steel City strikes again.
A charcuterie platter at Cure, Pittsburgh | Photo: Adam Miliron
Located just 60 miles north of Boston, Portsmouth is a hub for beachgoers craving fresh seafood at spots like the eclectic Jumpin' Jay's Fish Cafe and hop heads making a beeline for The Portsmouth Brewery. And if you're not convinced Portsmouth is the new Portland, know that not one but two area chefs were selected as James Beard semifinalists for this year's Best Chef Northeast. With a résumé that includes The French Laundry and Per Se, nominee Matt Louis showcases adventurous comfort food like rabbit served with rye pasta purses, cherry marmalade and soda-spiked ricotta at Moxy. Fellow award contender Evan Mallett helms Black Trumpet, a Latin American bistro with an ever-changing menu featuring creative combinations like spicy pork belly and empanada noodle soup, as well as a particularly delectable mountain paella. This is New England at its prime.
Providence may pale in comparison to its bigger, badder brother, Boston, but its exciting, growing restaurant scene makes it a sure bet for one of New England's top culinary destinations. Currently, the scene revolves around chef Ben Sukle, a finalist for 2017's James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast, who owns and operates three local game changers: The Dorrance, an elegant tribute to the region's seasonal cuisine; Oberlin, an approachable neighborhood wine bar with a killer raw bar; and the ambitious Birch, a modern American outlet with just 18 seats and a terrific tasting menu. And for post-dinner drinks, pay a visit to the Eddy, a cozy, dimly lit cocktail bar whose bevy of talented mixologists rival anything those suspender-clad New York City boys have to offer.
Salt Lake City, UT
Part outdoorsman's oasis, part college town and (large) part Mormon mecca, SLC continues to discreetly hold its own as one of the West's greatest dining destinations. And despite its teetotal reputation, there's no shortage of exceptional bars, breweries and distilleries for those who do imbibe, namely award-winning high-octane specialists Epic Brewing, whose Southwestern- and Native American-inspired brewpub collab with Provo's Black Sheep is worth the trek from Temple Square. Other highlights include eco-friendly Uinta Brewing, Wasatch Brewery's cheekily titled favorites like Polygamy Porter ("Why have just one?") and top-shelf whiskey from nearby Park City's High West Distillery. For a bite between boozing, head to the acclaimed Current Fish & Oyster or make like a local at one of the city's seven Crown Burgers locations, a low-key fast food joint with a giant menu and an even bigger cult following. And if you find yourself with a few extra bucks to burn, head to the hills for a rich venison chop or a hulking prime rib eye at the upscale yet approachable Handle in Park City.
San Antonio, TX
Coming in right alongside little brother Dallas, Alamo City is an equally important stop for anyone gearing up to eat and drink their way through Texas. Take advantage of the state's ample cattle country at Bohanan's Prime Steaks, an OG upscale staple with more awards than you can shake a finger at, or reserve a highly coveted seat at Mixtli's chef's table, where lucky diners make their way through a progressive Mexican tasting menu prepared by Rico Torres and Diego Galicia, both of whom made Food & Wine's 2017 Best New Chefs list. Alternatively, you could always keep it casual with a bagful of meaty tacos wrapped in fluffy, deep-fried corn tortillas (the city's signature snack) at Henry's Puffy Tacos, or drop into the historic Pearl Brewery, a sprawling network of approximately 2 zillion shops, restaurants and bars sure to please any palate.
Scottsdale strikes a keen balance between the serene beauty of the mountains and all the comforts of a multicultural, metropolitan city. Start off with brunch on Virtù Honest Craft's breezy patio, where diners indulge in bowlfuls of pork ragù with mascarpone polenta and fried eggs, and expertly curated a.m.-appropriate(ish) cocktails. Later, liven it up at Diego Pops, whose neon signage and pineapple wallpaper will suck you right in and whose Brussels sprout nachos will forever change the way you chip and dip. Thirsty? Breweries abound, including the stellar Goldwater Brewing Co. and Sip Coffee & Beer House, which serves a tasty breakfast burrito. Oh, and if you need an activity to break up all that eating and drinking, make the trip out to Taliesin West, the unforgettable school Frank Lloyd Wright built from the sand up. (Still hungry? Book a "Behind the Scenes" tour for the chance to have tea and snacks inside the compound's vibrant dining room.)
Saint Louis, MO
STL's roots run deep, balancing long-standing traditions like Ted Drewes famous frozen custard (the inspiration behind Shake Shack's now-ubiquitous concretes) and Imo's classic thin-crust pies oozing with buttery Provel cheese, with the bright, forward-thinking horizon embodied by eco-focused newcomer Vicia. The city's contributed so much to the food world over the years, chief among which is toasted ravioli, a crispy, breaded version of the boiled stuff reportedly invented by accident at Mama Campisi's on The Hill, STL's red-sauce-heavy Little Italy. And we can't mention the Lou without talking beer: Anheuser-Busch and its Clydesdales are still the big man on campus, but craft outlets like Schlafly, Perennial and Urban Chestnut are nipping at its heels.
The open hearth at Vicia, Saint Louis | Photo: Greg Rannells Photography
St Pete-Clearwater, FL
Skip Miami's touristy shores and opt instead for a trip down to this bustling bayside town that just happens to be the Sunshine State's best-kept secret. There's fish, of course, from Jimmy Buffett-worthy seafood shacks like Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish and Frenchy's Original Cafe to the Opal Sands Resort's Italian-inspired gems at Sea-Guini or refined local catches at the the coral-hued Don CeSar hotel's award-winning Maritana Grille. Beyond the sea, look for upscale Italian and an excellent wine list at Cafe Ponte, artfully executed global fare at the Birchwood hotel's dimly lit Birch & Vine and fantastic specialty cocktails complemented by an even better view upstairs at the hotel's lively Canopy Rooftop Lounge. Trust us, you won't miss South Beach one bit.
Pack your passport—and an appetite—as we hit the world's hottest culinary destinations on and off the grid all month long. Now Boarding: your next trip to paradise.
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