Image: State & Lemp, Boise
A by now unavoidable pattern seems to have developed over the least few years, where the “draw” of just about every American city is being pitched as its “super hot food scene.” The same buzz phrases are employed by each: “innovative young chefs” are making “locally sourced cuisine” that draws on “regional traditions” but with “a new twist.” (In some cases this means nothing more than a fussed-over grilled cheese sandwich topped with a few “local” nettle leafs.)
This all comes amidst much misguided blather about how “food is the new rock & roll” and “chefs are the new artists.” Yet let’s be clear: April Bloomfield‘s wonderful restaurants will always send you home very well fed – but her pan seared skate with saffron aioli is definitely not Björk’s Biophilia. As for food being held up as art, Jason Farago’s 2014 BBC story slaps that one down with relative ease. (“When a chef like [Ferran] Adrià is acclaimed as an artist, or when organic obsessives wax rhapsodic about the cultural virtues of turnips, it says we expect less from art than we used to.”)
Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ, Cincinnati
The more mundane truth is that American urban centers are gentrifying at a lightning pace (South Park even did a brilliantly incisive episode about it); and where there is gentrification, there are new restaurants hoping to attract the gentrifiers’ cash. It is, in a sense, the logical conclusion of the “Brooklynization” (or “Portlandization”) of…everywhere.
Now, for our part, BlackBook does not at all abide NYC-LA centrism; and we have enthusiastically promoted the many virtues of the likes of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Oakland, Ottawa, and so on.
So, is it simply much too easy to engender a food scene? For greater elucidation on the subject, we present here a loose, eye-opening list of the cities whose “food scenes” have been showered with rapturous column inches of praise from the “elite” press. And don’t worry – should that be enough to get you to book the next flight to Boise, St. Louis, Des Moines…we’re pretty sure a “lifestyle” hotel has just opened in each.
Earlier this year Vogue (yes, Vogue) insisted that Boise (yes, Boise) is “having a culinary renaissance, with creative young chefs, artisans, brewers and even winemakers.” If we’re being honest, we’ve never actually seen a bottle of wine from Idaho. But it’s definitely a thing.
The “Must” Restaurants: Mai Thai, State & Lemp
In 2015, Zagat ranked Steel City as the absolute No. 1 foodie destination in America. Who are we to argue with Zagat? (Hipster bonus: Pittsburgh now has its own Ace Hotel.)
The “Must” Restaurants: Butcher & Rye, Union Standard
Butcher & Rye
Back in 2014, Time Out noted that “the Gateway City’s food scene has quietly established a reputation as a home to a wide variety of sophisticated, locally soured fare [and] craft beer.” And one of the city’s signature eats is something called gooey butter cake. Yum.
The “Must” Restaurants: Nixta, Olive + Oak
Olive + Oak
The Atlantic urged readers in 2014 to “do the most hipster thing possible”…move to Des Moines. By 2016, Politico had decisively confirmed the city’s cool cred – and the New York Times was going on enthusiastically about the culinary treats that awaited last year’s GOP Caucus goers.
The “Must” Restaurants: Alba, Saison Kitchen + Pub
Saison Kitchen + Pub
It’s not your father’s beer and cheese lifestyle anymore, is it? In December 2016, Eater focused on 11 of the city’s restaurants that were “garnering some serious buzz” in a piece on “the hottest openings of the last 12 months” in Mil-Town. N.B. Milwaukee in December is actually pretty bloody cold.
The “Must” Restaurants: Red Light Ramen, DanDan
The Chicago Tribune in 2016 pointed to (what else?) an urban renewal program that has turned Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood from something of a blight into “a hub of the city’s culinary scene.” Isn’t it always the way?
The “Must” Restaurants: Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ, Quan Hapa
Charlottesville, Bloomington, Greenville, Grand Rapids…
The Tasting Table 2017 list of America’s 27 most underrated food cities included all of these. Yes. there are actually twenty-seven cities in the US that have yet to be given their proper due in honoring their culinary magnificence and hotness.
There’s banana pudding doughnuts in Birmingham, tagarashi-spiced catfish in Louisville, Mongolian-beef-stuffed chun bing in New Haven, oyster mushroom banh mi in Omaha and (we kid you not) rabbit served with rye pasta purses, cherry marmalade and soda spiked ricotta in Portsmouth – all of which have apparently been criminally under-reported and shamefully under-lauded.
For the record, though, we did check – and from what we can tell, Waco, Texas doesn’t have much of a food scene. Yet.
Terra Square Farmers Market, Grand Rapids