Which Cities Have the Best Food Scenes in America? They're Not the Ones You're Guessing

Which Cities Have the Best Food Scenes in America? They're Not the Ones You're Guessing

Start sharpening those knives.

By Rose Maura Lorre

What makes a city a haven for the food-obsessed? If you consider criteria like the number of four-star restaurants, famous signature dishes, or even how long locals stand in line for such culinary curios as rainbow bagels and cronuts, then you’ll probably (and unsurprisingly) discover that places like New York, Chicago and L.A. gravitate to the top of your list.

But it seems the personal finance website Wallethub has a different definition of what makes a city a food destination. Using an exhaustive set of 21 metrics to measure gastronomic greatness—including the number of food trucks, cooking schools, butcher shops, craft breweries, farmers’ markets, coffeehouses, and food festivals per capita—they've just come out with a set of rankings of the best “foodie cities”in the U.S. The list isn't necessarily what you'd expect. It's dominated by small-to-medium-sized metropolises, with Orlando (Orlando!) taking the top spot. While the top 10 also features expected places like Portland (#2), San Francisco (#5) and Seattle (#10), those iconic food cities are crowded amid such arguably head-scratching entries as Tampa (#4), Cincinnati (#6), Salt Lake City (#8) and Richmond, Virginia (#9). Los Angeles and New York, meanwhile, find themselves respectively at #53 and #54, with Chicago way back at #70.

Portland's famous food-truck scene

While the list may read as blasphemous to many (and c’mon, do sales tax and the percentage of frozen-yogurt shops per capita really capture a place’s food spirit?), there’s something encouraging about the rankings’ democratic results. “Without question, one of the biggest food stories of the past decade or more has been the decentralization of ‘foodie’ culture and the basic ability to get smart, delicious food all over the country,” Brett Martin, James Beard Award-winning food writer for GQ and other publications, tells The Feast. “If you’re a young person interested in cooking or just eating well, you no longer have to go to New York or San Francisco—and in fact, you’d probably be crazy to, unless your goal was the absolute highest end of fine-dining. It is awesome that you can eat well in Cincinnati or Tampa.”

Seattle's Pike Place Market

Celebrity chef Michael Mina, who runs restaurants in three of the list’s top 10 cities, agrees. “Cities like New York and Chicago will always be destinations for amazing food. Those markets have such a depth of great dining at all prices and drive so much of the culture of food in America that they are in no risk of losing their status,” Mina tells The Feast. “That said, smaller cities are competing at a whole new level with fantastic restaurants and I'm really happy to say that you can always find something delicious and authentic in almost every city and small town.”

Take Orlando, for example, which has a burgeoning beermaking scene and a bevy of ethnic options along International Drive(or “I-Drive,” as it’s known locally). “Florida is really up and coming,” Mina says of the state as a whole, which has three cities in Wallethub’s top 10, including ultra-chic Miami (pictured at top) at #3. “It’s got all of the necessary ingredients to grow as a food destination. There is deep history, culture, sense of place, product, great chefs and a growing population of diners who are eager to dine well.”

Chef Michael Mina

Other top 10 spots, like St. Louis (#7), enjoy a tantalizing mix of nationally renowned chefs and local faves. In St. Louis, you can dine at your choice of four splendid restaurants helmed by the James Beard-anointed chef Gerard Craft, then head out for a frozen custard nightcap at the legendary Ted Drewes in South City, or enjoy a midnight “slinger” at one of the city’s renowned greasy spoons.

St. Louis-based chef Gerard Craft

Even the larger cities on the list prove you can’t stop reinventing if you want to remain relevant on the food scene. Seattleites will always have Pike Place Market, but other culinary destinations like Chophouse Row, an auto parts building-turned-food-marketplace, continue to crop up. And speaking of cropping up, let’s give props to these smaller cities for acting as feeders (pun intended) into the larger cities’ restaurant scenes. Portland’s super-hip Whiskey Soda Lounge, for example, was a spinoff born out of Thai eatery Pok Pok, which started as a food truck in Portland and now is a hot restaurant in...Brooklyn!

Photo courtesy of Pok Pok.

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