TIME Travel

These Are America’s Best Food Cities

Take your pick from street food to specialty gourmet markets and high-end restaurants

Whether they were craving French fusion, peanut-butter-and-kimchi sandwiches or the perfect piece of fried chicken, Travel+Leisure readers ranked the cities that make their mouths water.

When she’s visiting Los Angeles, Las Vegas restaurateur Elizabeth Blau—recently nominated for a James Beard award—does not concern herself with A-list seating at restaurants. “The first time I went to Gjelina,” she says of the acclaimed Venice café, “we got pizza and salads in the to-go area, then ate them while sitting on milk crates in the alley. It was so good.”

No surprise, Blau says that she plans her trips around restaurants, bakeries and markets, though many Travel+Leisure readers would attest that you don’t have to be a restaurateur to travel by your stomach. As part of the magazine’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 38 cities for qualities like walkable streets, historic appeal and art galleries—which, for some travelers, are just pleasant time-killers between meals.

Readers also ranked the 10 most crave-worthy features of a city, from the relatively low-cost indulgences of street food, coffee and bakeries to specialty gourmet markets, wine bars and high-end, chef-driven restaurants. (And throwing in plenty of burgers, pizza, craft beers and sandwiches.)

Among the winners—some perhaps boosted in the polls by their enthusiastic locals—we found a number of James Beard winners and nominees, as well as some fabulously creative twists on classics: “hot chicken” in Nashville, bison tartare in Minneapolis and pickle tasting plates in Chicago.

Sometimes, though, the simplest tastes are the most memorable—like the fresh, warm bread Blau once had at L.A. bakery Superba. “We only had crumbs in the bag by the time we left,” she says. “We had to go back and get more to bring home on the plane.”

 

  • 20. Seattle

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    D. Hurst / Alamy

    Readers ranked the city near the top for its food markets—no surprise, since the iconic Pike Place Market is a must-stop for many visitors. Locals, however, increasingly go to Pioneer Square for their gourmet cravings–like the fresh oysters at Taylor Oyster Bar and the specialty market at London Plane, which offers warm biscuits, croissants and Caffe Umbria coffee in the morning, and a wine bar in the evening. To continue your classic Seattle coffee-tasting tour, go to nearby Zeitgeist, which positioned itself early on as a heady Starbucks alternative, and which ups the hipster ante with movie screenings and exhibits by local artists. Readers, meanwhile, deemed the Gore-Tex-clad locals as both nerdy and athletic.

  • 19. San Francisco

    19-san-francisco
    Richard Seagraves

    How did the legendary hub for cutting-edge cuisine, great wine and strong coffee fall so far down the list? Maybe readers just expect so much from the city now—or perhaps they suffered a little sticker shock (it also ranked near the bottom for affordability, and readers deemed the locals a tad aloof). But Bay Area folks have earned the right to some ’tude: In fall 2014 Michelin awarded stars to a record 40 restaurants in San Francisco—including Benuand Saison, which both received three stars. To get an up-close look at everyday gourmet living, browse the vendors of Ferry Building Marketplace (like the wild mushrooms at Far West Fungi), or go behind the scenes with chefs through Avital Tours. To experience the great local wines without road-tripping to Napa, check out Bluxome Street Winery in the SoMa district.

  • 18. San Diego, California

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    Luis Garcia

    This sunny SoCal city gave our nation fish tacos, but also ranked highly with readers for brunch. Two great spots worth getting up for are in North Park: Waypoint Public, which offers a breakfast pot pie and morning-friendly beers (like an Austrian Grapefruit Radler), andStreetCar Merchants, which specializes in fried chicken and doughnuts. And while San Diego food snobs have given North Park much love in recent years, there is increasing buzz in Little Italy, home to New-American Juniper & Ivy, the oysters at Ironside, and the hotly anticipatedBracero Cocina, where chef Javier Plascencia will pay tribute to the history of Mexican farm workers. The city won the survey for nice weather, and also ranked well for clear people-watching.

  • 17. Dallas

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    Joy Zhang

    These sports-loving Texans tend to be meat lovers, ranking highly in the survey for both their barbecue (like Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum) and burgers (like the Sugar Burger with jalapeno jam, candied bacon and grilled peaches at Turtle Creek’s Rodeo Goat). But they also clean up nicely for brunch, like the green-chile-short-rib scramble or the banana-cream-pie French toast at Oddfellows in the Bishop Arts District. To keep abreast of the city’s up-and-comers, go to Trinity Groves, a 15-acre food hall in West Dallas that features permanent pop-up Kitchen LTO, which rotates in a new chef every few months. (The current chef offers a New American menu featuring chicken-fried ribeye). Readers’ favorite way to burn calories in Dallas was dancing in the well-ranked nightclubs.

  • 16. Louisville, Kentucky

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    Michael Ventura / Alamy

    For years, the Kentucky city has been famous for its cocktails—as in, its bourbon—as well as the Kentucky Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and Mornay sauce, first created at The Brown Hotel. You can find variations all over town, like the Hot vs. Brown Fries (fries covered with melted beer cheese, roasted turkey, bacon and tomatoes) at Sidebar at Whiskey Row, on Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. Giving bourbon a run for its money, though, Louisville also scored in the top 10 for its craft beers. Newcomers like Against the Grain offer creative brews—try the rye amber ale Attila the Hen, or the bourbon-inspired Bo and Luke Ale—alongside homey fare like a “pork and beans” made of Andouille sausage, sauerkraut and brisket baked beans. For retail indulgences, readers were most impressed with the city’s antique shops and flea markets.

  • 15. New Orleans

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    Chris Granger

    As a testament to the eclectic charm of the Crescent City, New Orleans won the survey for both fine dining and sandwiches. The former is embodied in grand dames like Brennan’s—the recently renovated birthplace of Bananas Foster—and newer spots like seafood-rich Balise(headed by Chef Justin Devillier of Le Petit Grocery), located in the city’s oldest French settlement. To fully appreciate the city’s most noteworthy sandwich, the po’ boy, try the roast beef and shrimp on French bread at Parkway Bakery & Tavern, or the glazed Pork Belly Poboy at Killer Poboys, located in the back of Erin Rose Bar, just off Bourbon Street. New Orleans also won the survey for festivals (often, just another chance to eat), like the Creole Tomato Festival and the Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival.

  • 14. Philadelphia

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    Michael Persico

    The cheesesteak is almost as iconic in Philly as that big cracked bell, but the city’s high-ranking street food is not always so “street:” consider the $120 cheesesteak at Barclay Prime on Rittenhouse Square, made with Wagyu beef, foie gras and “truffled cheese whiz.” Indeed plenty of the city’s hottest cuisine strays from tailgate fare: Israeli eatery Dizengoff, on Sansom, has a rotating menu of hummus variations, while Charlie Was a Sinner is an all-vegan bar in Midtown Village. To experience the top-5 ranked pizza—and be part of the city’s brotherly love— go to Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Center City, where you can get a slice of the signature white pizza and kick in an extra $1.25 to buy a slice for a local homeless person.

  • 13. Chicago

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    John Gress/Corbis

    T+L readers tend to have a one-track mind when it comes to eating out in Chicago: the epic deep-dish pizza, found at mainstays like Pizano’s. But the Windy City also scored well for its chef-driven delights, like Dove’s Luncheonette from James Beard Award winner Chef Paul Kahan, which does Southern-meets-Mexican fare (say, buttermilk fried chicken with a chorizo-verde gravy). Pickling is still hot in the city—places like Owen and Engine and Big Jones do pickle-tasting plates—but readers also loved getting pickled themselves, as it were, in the city’s bars. One new watering hole, The Brass Monkey, in the Fulton Market District, embraces disco and ‘70s kitsch with Harvey Wallbangers, spiked Tang and a perfected, TV-dinner-style salisbury steak. The city gives you plenty of chances to walk it off, ranking highly for walkable streets and world-class parks.

  • 12. Austin, Texas

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    Wynn Myers

    The brainy hipsters in the Texas capital exude a unique brand of snobbery—an angsty nostalgia for the way the still-growing city used to be (even if they only moved here last month). These days, even newcomers can relive one of the city’s Tex-Mex classics, Taco Flats, since it has just been reborn on Burnet Road (and pronounce the street like a local: Burn-it). The city’s high-ranking barbecue has both old and new presentations: the traditional platters at Ironworks and Salt Lick, or the new, dare-we-say nostalgic style, served on butcher paper, at zeal-inspiring Franklin Barbecue. The city also won the survey for its ever-expanding supply of food trucks, like Down Home Diner in Hyde Park (try the Blanco hot dog, topped with peach salsa) and Kerlin BBQ, an East side trailer, which sells fresh kolaches, the addictive Czech pastries. You can always dance away the carbs: the city ranked near the top for its live music and festivals.

  • 11. Nashville

    Nashville ranked at a respectable No. 5 in the barbecue category, perhaps by straddling the line between the Memphis and Carolina styles. But the city has one food genre all its own: the hot chicken. This fried chicken with a serious kick—and often served on white bread—may also be the reason the city also ranked so highly for sandwiches. To eat the classic, go toPrince’s Hot Chicken Shack, then for comparison’s sake try Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, the relative new kid that offers a heat range from the not-hot “Southern” to a “Shut the Cluck Up,” washed down with a Coke float. The city also ranked well for coffee—like the pour-overs and coffee sodas at downtown’s Crema Coffee Roasters—while the caffeinated locals impressed readers by being friendly.

  • 10. New York City

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    Alice Gao

    The Big Apple may have ranked at the top of the survey for being expensive, but readers’ two favorite cuisines—fine dining and pizza—are proof that there is still a wide range to the city’s price spectrum. To dine alongside the city’s savvy foodies, go to the Lower East Side’s Dirty French, in the Ludlow Hotel—where classics get global twists, like duck a l’orange with Morroccan spices—or the Smyth Hotel’s locavore Little Park, from James Beard winner Andrew Carmellini. The latest pizza place to enter the fold is Marta, in the Martha Washington Hotel, which does Roman-style pizzas like a classic margarita or the veggie-friendly Cavolini, topped with Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and pickled chili. To occupy themselves between meals, readers embraced the city’s high-ranking bookstores and luxury boutiques.

  • 9. Los Angeles

    Readers applauded Angelenos for always staying on trend, ranking them for being fashionable, hip and head-turningly hot. These days, the ahead-of-the-curve gourmands are eating in Chinatown, which is seeing a revival thanks to the rice bowls at Chego, the noodles at Ramen Champ and the blueberry-jasmine cones at Scoops artisanal ice cream (which also features a Cognoscenti coffee cart). And while L.A. has long been a leader in the fancy-burger movement, it still embraces its charbroiled roots. Case in point: Cassell’s Hamburgers, originally from the ‘50s, was recently reborn in Koreatown’s Hotel Normandie.

  • 8. Portland, Oregon

    These quirky Oregonians could easily be accused of embracing a liquid diet, ranking in the survey’s top five for its thoughtfully brewed coffee, craft beer and wine. To eat and drink in harmony, check out newbies like Coopers Hall, which has 44 taps of wine, beer, and cider paired with steak frites or croque-monsieurs; or BTU Brasserie, which boasts of being the nation’s first Chinese brewpub, with small plates of modern Chinese washed down with a rice lager. Or, try Kachka, a Russian restaurant opened by a James Beard nominee, where you can imbibe Eastern European wines, Baltic lagers and kvass, a beverage made from black and rye breads. Portland’s cuisine might be so adventurous thanks its open-minded locals, who ranked as highly quirky but also polite.

  • 7. Cleveland, Ohio

    The rust belt city offers some old-fashioned, even old-world, charms. Readers ranked it at No. 5 for its rich food halls, like West Side Market—with spices, baked goods and delis—which dates back to 1912, when it catered primarily to the city’s immigrants. Today, you can also still tuck into great Polish cuisine—like chicken paprikash, bratwurst, pirogues and stuffed cabbage—at Sokolowski’s University Inn, a James Beard American Classic award-winner now in its third generation of family ownership. Still, you don’t get into the top 10 by living completely in the past; Cleveland also delighted readers with its trendy street food and bars (like Happy Dog, where hot dogs come with vodka sauerkraut or Bloody Mary ketchup) and upscale, New-American spots like Lola Bistro, run by Iron Chef Michael Symon.

  • 6. Albuquerque, New Mexico

    The patron saint of this Southwestern city’s food scene has long been the fire-roasted green chili, which pops up on the local fry-bread tacos and cheeseburgers (like the classics at Monte Carlo Steakhouse and Liquor Store), or can be made into a sauce at your table at legendary spots like El Pinto. The city also ranked highly for its coffee: if you can’t come in late March for the annual Chocolate and Coffee Fest, you can always sample the city’s pine-nut-accented brews at the New Mexico Pinon Coffee Company. These New Mexicans got props from readers for being athletic; you can join local foodies on the chile, brewery or winery tours offered by Routes Bicycle Rentals & Tours.

  • 5. Minneapolis/St. Paul

    The Twin Cities clearly offer a calm haven for savoring your meal: readers ranked the cities highly for feeling relatively quiet, clean and safe. The nerve center for Minneapolis food snobs, though, is the North Loop’s Spoon and Stable—helmed by the former executive chef at NYC’s Café Boulud—where you can get heartland twists on fine dining, like bison tartare. If your taste runs to the quirky, check out Gyst, which celebrates “the art of fermentation” through sandwiches (like grilled cheese with spicy kraut, or peanut butter with kimchi) and house-made “kombucha,” a fermented sweet tea. Meanwhile, if you’re a burger purist, the local Juicy Lucies—with the cheese melted inside the patty, like the standard-bearers at the 5-8 Club and Matt’s Bar—belong on your bucket list.

  • 4. Atlanta

    The Georgia hub scored big points for keeping its Southern fare au courant. It ranked highly for diners, for instance—like the upscale Buckhead Diner, which does Kobe beef hot dogs, Niman Ranch pork chops and a veal-and-mushroom meatloaf. You can’t go wrong, though, with the classic fried chicken, followed by peach cobbler at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, an institution since 1945 (when female-owned eateries were dubbed “tea rooms”), and where today a hostess still offers back rubs at your table. The city also ranked well for its 21st-century food halls, likeKrog Street Market, where you can nosh from vendors like charcuterie The Cockentrice and the small-batch chocolates at Xocolatl. The city makes it easy to create your own tea-room vibe back at home: according to readers, Atlanta excels in antique and home decor shopping.

  • 3. Kansas City

    Readers may associate Kansas City primarily with its classic barbecue (the city beat out Memphis and all the Texas cities in the survey for ribs and such this year), but the city is more than just burnt ends. It also ranked fifth for fine dining—like Bluestem, helmed by a 2013 James Beard winner, and The American, which Beard himself helped open in the ‘70s. To taste the city’s newest takes on barbecue, try Cleaver & Cork, in the Power & Light District, which was launched by the folks behind artisanal butcher The Local Pig. Eating well in Kansas City need not involve a huge investment, either; it won the survey for feeling affordable.

  • 2. Providence, Rhode Island

    Ranking highly in the survey for its pedestrian-friendly streets and cool architecture, the Rhode Island capital makes it easy to work up an appetite. The city also landed at No. 2 for its legendary street food—like Haven Brothers, which serves lobster rolls, fries and shakes next to City Hall until 4 a.m.—and the local “grilled” pizza, perhaps topped with spicy soppressata at downtown’s Bacaro. To see why the city won the survey for bakeries, go to the Scialo Brothers Bakery, which first opened in 1916, and order one of the beloved sfogliatelle—a seashell-shaped cookie made with paper-thin layers of dough and sweet cream. The locals, meanwhile, won the survey for seeming geeky.

  • 1. Houston

    The business-travel hub staged a Texas-sized upset this year, winning the food category by offering an irresistible combination of refined tastes and downhome comfort. The city ranked at No. 1 in three separate food categories: burgers, brunch, and specialty food shops (likeRevival Market, where local gourmands stock up on artisanal cheeses, charcuterie and house-made pickles and jams). Houston also knows how to break free of American-style convention: one hot new place, Dak & Bop, does Korean-style fried chicken with spicy sauces, paired with blackberry chili margaritas. Speaking of burgers, though, it’s hard to leave town without enjoying one of the old-school, mustard-laced big boys at Lankford Grocery, or the acclaimed 3-oz. sliders at Little Bigs in the Museum District, which also offers a respectably long wine list—after all, the city ranked at No. 3 for vino.

    Read the original list HERE.

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