We may not all live to eat, but we certainly do have to eat to live — or, in this case, to travel. The food may not be the driving force for your next vacation, but it certainly enhances the overall experience, serving as a window into the heart and soul of a city or town.
What better way to illustrate our nation’s diverse cultural heritage than by rounding up the best foodie cities from sea to shining sea? Whether it’s poke bowls in Kauai or crawfish in New Orleans, there’s something on this list for everyone (and every palate). Read on for your guide to the best food scenes in the United States — or, rather, the United Plates.
1. Key West, Florida: This American paradise formerly known as The Conch Republic may no longer boast ample conch shells on its shores, but it serves up the tasty shellfish at its bars and restaurants throughout Key West. Sign up for a Key West Food Tour to enjoy a conch-tactic afternoon enjoying key lime pie (another local specialty), endless rum cocktails, and some authentic Cuban cuisine. Cuba is closer to Key West than the nearest Walmart, after all, so you would be remiss in not reaping the culinary benefits of such proximity. Speaking of key lime pie, stop by Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe for lessons in creating this signature tropical confection of the Keys. Stay at The Perry Hotel Key West, not only to enjoy its beautiful poolside marina (boasting yachts from all over the world), and sophisticated interior design (with plenty of Hemingway references for the literary lover), but also to dine at Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar. Like many of the local haunts throughout the Keys, this restaurant also boasts spectacular live music. Another can’t miss spot? The Stoned Crab. Order the crab (obviously), but ask after the turtles: The Stoned Crab keeps two large turtles as pets, and they’ve been known to participate in local marathons. Only in Key West.
2. Breckenridge, Colorado: This Colorado ski paradise may be famous for its vertical ski terrain and charming town square (not to mention its lively nightlife), but we’d argue the town’s food deserves just as many well-deserved accolades. Stay at the Mountain Thunder Lodge for slopeside access and easy accessibility to all of the bars and restaurants in the charming downtown area of Breckenridge. Check out The Living Room for some waffles and omelets before strapping on your skis and heading out for a day on the lifts. For apres, the Breckenridge Distillery is a happening spot in town to meet up with friends (and it’s also the site of the world’s longest shot-ski, performed annually at the Ullr Festival). But, even amongst this stiff competition of ski and apres ski activities, it’s truly the dining in this mountain town that stands out. Order the cheese platter at Relish, and relish in the enchanting view. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist). The dining room overlooks the twinkling and festive Blue River Plaza. A dinner at Aurum is also the perfect way to end a long day on the slopes. Order the milk and cookies for dessert: You deserve it.
3. Nashville, Tennessee: From fried chicken in cast iron frying pans to pimento cheese atop pimento cheese atop more pimento cheese, the Nashville food scene is not for the weak of stomach. The food coma is worth it, of course. (Isn’t it always?) We recommend Merchants on Broadway or Lockeland Table in East Nashville for a signature taste of each neighborhood. Also not to be missed? The food program at Holston House in downtown Nashville, which boasts to-die-for shrimp and grits at TENN in the morning and terrific (not to mention terrifically strong) craft cocktails at Bar TENN at night. When James Nixon sang about the Nashville Blues, he may have been referring to his food hangover — if you don’t return from your trip well-fed and satisfied, you really only have yourself to blame.
4. Austin, Texas: From one country music Mecca to another, our runner-up city is the popular bachelorette destination of Austin, Texas. The food in this city is marked by an experimental attitude while still honing heritage cuisine such as Tex-Mex. (When visiting Austin, always order the tacos). While Austin is now home to an increasing number of fine dining options, the food truck culture still persists in the laid back Texas city (and that we are most fond of, personally). Whether it’s Gourdough’s Big Fat Donuts operating within a vintage Airstream or Paperboy serving Texas Hash from a stationary trailer, there’s no doubt that the food culture in the city is helping to Keep Austin Weird.
5. Kauai, Hawaii: This island is home to some of the best delicacies around: poke bowls, shave ice, mai tai, ahi everything. We recommend going to Pono Market and checking out the truck for Wailua Shave Ice on a sunny afternoon (and when is it not sunny?) Order a poke bowl at the Pono Market and feel lightyears ahead of the freshness and wellness trends running rampant in LA.
6. Christiansted, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands: This is the foodie home of the burgeoning Virgin Islands food movement; and of course, everyone’s favorite dish: conch! St. Croix is the place to be for the experimental (and always fresh) cuisine. If you’re in St. Thomas, dine on the waterfront near Yacht Haven Grand, part of IGY Marinas, for prime people (and yacht) watching. But if you’re renting a villa on the other islands, you can always reserve one of the legends at Oasis Private Chefs. We recommend Chef Shaibu.
7. New Orleans, Louisiana: After our jaunt to the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, we’re back in the Dirty South for our next selection, the inimitable city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Despite the city’s plentitude of other amusements (Bourbon Street, anyone?), the food still manages to steal the show. We recommend Couvant for a classic French brasserie experience in the newly opened boutique hotel, The Eliza Jane, located just two blocks from the iconic French Quarter. Additionally, the Cajun and Creole influence is apparent to this day in the food consumed daily, everywhere from the French Quarter to Midtown. Plus, you know you’ve got your favorite dishes too. Even if your taste buds skew more to fried dough than crawfish, a beignet is a must-order during your trip. If you didn’t wait in line at the Cafe Du Monde for hours on a Sunday morning, did you even really go to New Orleans?
8. Las Vegas, Nevada: Of course, the city where everything that happens ends up on Instagram Stories is also on our list of the best foodie destinations. An influx of new chefs is arriving in Sin City on a near-daily basis. Notable chefs from all over the country have chosen Vegas as their latest hotspot. The new Park MGM, for example, is home to both Eataly Las Vegas, the Nevada outpost of the popular Italian marketplace, and Best Friend by Roy Choi, a bodega with a secret entrance from LA’s food truck pioneer. The food, like everything else in Vegas, is over the top.
9. Charleston, South Carolina: Ranked the best city by Travel and Leisure in 2018, this charming town can count their food scene as just one of its many attractions. From quaint date-night restaurants to hole-in-the-wall cafes, the food here is not to be missed. Check out the wood-fired Sewansecott Oysters above and book your flight now!
10. Reno, Nevada: We recommend signing up for a Reno Food Tour to check out all the city has to offer, and be sure to keep an eye out for the street art while you’re making your way through the Reno streets. (Visit ArtSpotReno for more artistically inclined details). Speaking of art, the brunch at the French-inspired Chez-Louie in the Nevada Museum of Art is a must-do. Order the avocado toast, (it’s perfection), before heading to the galleries upstairs for a moving collection of contemporary and modern Native American art, among other attractions. Also, be sure to check out one of the famous all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants before your flight home.
11. St. Lous, Missouri: Another underground pick, St. Louis is home to St. Louis-style BBQ, which is either slow-smoked in a pit or grill fueled by wood or charcoal. A not-to-miss specialty is St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, so leave your diet restrictions at home.
12. New York, New York: Thanks to tiny apartments and overbooked schedules, New York may be a city that relies on Seamless, but it requires each meal to be spectacular. How could it not be in the greatest city in the world, when everyone wants what they want it and they want it now? If you’re into the latest and greatest, check out The Hoxton, the newly opened boutique hotel in Williamsburg, and book a reservation at Klein’s (order the cocktails, they’re sinfully delicious). We also recommend visiting Chinatown for a taste of Asia in Manhattan.
(Photos via Getty)