Thanks to impressively burgeoning food scenes, these five U.S. cities are morphing into unexpected culinary destinations worthy of any foodie’s attention.
America’s smaller cities may boast of having one or two dishes that are an indelible part of the local culture — St. Louis toasted ravioli, Cincinnati chili, Buffalo, N.Y., chicken wings — but increasingly, sophisticated travelers are going out of their way to visit such cities for the breadth of their gastronomy, from dazzling new sushi bars to bustling gastropubs. The chefs in these restaurants are usually young, trained in big-city kitchens by master chefs, and eager to boost their hometowns’ food scenes with their energy and individuality. Here are five U.S. cities now emerging as food towns all on their own.
Greenville’s visionary city fathers have changed this once-sleepy textile town into a dynamic attraction for major corporations like BMW, Michelin and General Electric — good neighbors who have poured money into the arts and charity, leading to a thriving cultural scene. In turn, more than 100 restaurants have opened along Main Street alone, including the highly successful Dark Corner Distillery, which makes Appalachian moonshine with names like Hot Mama and Tiger Fire.
Roost, next to the downtown Hyatt, serves soil-to-city cooking in a sleek, wood-paneled dining area with an open kitchen that puts the talent of chef Trevor Higgins on display as he turns out breakfast, lunch and supper. While menu offerings change seasonally, an ideal day would begin with Carolina shrimp and milled grits, or biscuits in a sausage gravy; midday offerings might include a Carolina oyster po’boy sandwich; and at night, maybe you can lap up the generous plates of beer-laced barbecue, bacon-wrapped meatloaf and warm chili queso fondue.
In a similar vein, American Grocery Restaurant has garnered national attention from Saveur and The Boston Globe for chef-owner Joe Clarke’s modern take on the kind of food his grandmother made him while he was growing up in Spartanburg, S.C. That means grilled grouper with Carolina black rice, beets, turnip greens and brown miso butter; confit of rabbit with horseradish gnocchi, wild mushrooms, arugula and sauce moutarde; and the surprisingly popular braised beef tongue with charred onion spaetzle and a smoked tomato cream. Meanwhile, wife, partner and sommelier Darlene Mann-Clarke stocks one of the city’s best wine lists of small estates.
Set at the base of Liberty Bridge, which spans the tumbling falls that cut through Greenville, Passerelle Bistro (passerelle is French for “footbridge”) is a casual new spot where chef Teryi Youngblood, now cooking in town for more than 17 years, has adapted beloved French classics to South Carolina taste. You might begin with a blue cheese-celery terrine and pâté with apricot mustard fruits, cornichons and cashews on a crusty baguette, or splurge on a big bowl of mussels scented with saffron or basquaise. Seasonal cassoulets include a steaming amalgam of lamb and andouille sausage, veal osso buco, white beans and Swiss chard.
Restaurant 17, just outside of town in Travelers Rest, within the luxurious Hotel Domestique resort, is one of the most ambitious new restaurants. In a dining room covered in 50 shades of gray, chef Adam Cooke proves himself a master of international cuisine, ranging from house-made charcuterie and artisanal cheeses to plated wonders of global cuisine like Alabama grass-fed hanger steak with twice-cooked potato Macaire, rosemary carrots and luscious black garlic-foie gras bordelaise (the menu changes almost daily).
Dark Corner Distillery
241-B N. Main St.
220 N. Main St.
American Grocery Restaurant
732 S. Main St.
601 S. Main St.
10 Road of Vines
Travelers Rest, S.C.
Kansas City, Missouri
Although Kansas City is justly famous for its down-home food — barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s, burgers and shakes at Winstead’s, fried chicken at Stroud’s — veteran chefs like Celina Tio, who has two new restaurants in town, the Collection and The Belfry, and Jonathan Justus of Justus Drugstore in nearby Smithville, have inspired a new generation who can take chances with a far more sophisticated crowd than they had even five years ago.
One of the most welcome comebacks is Bluestem, which chef-owners Colby and Megan Garrelts closed on its 10th anniversary in order to give the eatery an overhaul. Now back in business, the Garreltses have given the place a fresh look and expanded the kitchen for a better work flow — and so Megan can experiment with innovative ideas like pastry tasting menus. Colby, a 2013 James Beard Foundation winner for Best Chef in the Midwest, is re-energized to produce five-course meals that include seasonal favorites like English pea soup with crème fraîche, pink peppercorns and blossoms, and sautéed bay scallops and crawfish with a bite of chorizo, pole beans and pattypan squash.
Voltaire, which the local 435 Magazine has called “enlightened,” is Wes Gartner’s new global-cuisine restaurant in West Bottoms (in addition to his Moxie Catering). With its long brick-walled room and spacious banquettes, the place is built for comfort, but Gartner’s unique flourishes are evident, even in a humble item like five-spice-rubbed baby back ribs that he smokes with Asian black tea. He even serves a cherry-wood-grilled kangaroo loin with juniper-blueberry juice, and a chicken leg made into a succulent confit with Gorgonzola and pear risotto. The menu changes weekly, so be prepared to be surprised.
Ryan Brazeal, chef-owner of Novel, prefers the term “Novel American Cuisine” to the outdated “New American Cuisine.” And, as a veteran of a highly eclectic New York kitchen, he’s applied all he learned to his own restaurant, located near the Crossroads Arts District in an old shingled house with a wrought iron gate. There’s Asian influence in dishes like Brazeal’s duck-neck dumpling with hakurei turnip, foie gras and black vinegar, and his carrot soup with kaffir lime, coconut and charred eggplant, but the soul of the Midwest is manifest in his pig-head pie with chicken liver and spicy mayo.
1532 Grand Blvd.
106 W. Main St.
900 Westport Road
1617 Genesee St.
815 W. 17th St.
Over the last 10 years, the once crestfallen Providence, ever in Boston’s shadow, has enjoyed a true renaissance that capitalizes on its historic, architectural and ethnic strengths. Part of the revitalization is due to the fact that the Providence River was diverted and development was encouraged along its banks. Regardless, with picturesque Newport just a half-hour away, the city has become a deservedly popular tourist spot. Within Providence’s downtown Arcade — America’s first enclosed shopping center, dating to 1828 — the new Rogue Island Local kitchen & Bar has caught on fast as a gastropub, drawing on local ingredients and craft beers from sources within 75 miles of the restaurant. Area craftsmen also appended the interior’s stunning 19th-century brickwork and exposed timber with reclaimed wood. Chef Ryan Bassette brings an Atlantic Coast sensibility to a menu that includes innovative dishes like carrots roasted in hay with a parsnip-horseradish foam; pork belly cured in coffee, with sweet-potato hash and an apple-cider gastrique topped with a poached egg; and brown-sugar pound cake with poached pears, “walnutella” and Triple 8 bourbon-caramel ice cream. On the menu, he pays thanks to providers with wonderful names like Buffoni Poultry Farm, Rhody Milk, Aquidneck Honey and Yacht Soda, and you could spend several evenings doing flights of spirits with thoroughly American labels like Sons of Liberty, Bully Boy, Privateer and Thomas Tew.
Also downtown, in the Biltmore Garage, is Figidini Wood Fire Eatery, whose name means what it says: Everything made here comes out of a fiery beehive oven, beginning with a truly authentic Neapolitan pizza. It’s small, cramped and loud, and people flock here happily to wait for a table (no reservations). Co-owners Frankie and Kara Cecchinelli have a good pedigree: Frankie’s parents opened a wood-burning restaurant in Waltham, Mass., 30 years ago, then another on Cape Cod, and the present generation of Cecchinellis is committed to that heritage, expanding on it with oven-grilled dishes like boneless chicken thighs with garlic, rosemary, kale and black pepper, and a skirt steak with Gorgonzola cream and grilled tomato. There’s even a pizza with sweet potato, goat cheese, caramelized onion and mozzarella, which shows just how far pizza has come while retaining a strong link to the past.
Birch owners Benjamin and Heidi Sukle grew up drinking Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer, and they say they want to grow their restaurant “from the roots up.” Ben graduated from Providence’s Johnson & Wales University before heading to Europe, where he studied at the Michelin two-star Copenhagen restaurant Noma. Nominated by The Providence Journal as the only chef among “11 [people] to watch in 2011,” he’s risen to the honor, capturing many of today’s culinary styles, including a farm-to-table agenda and an eye for beauty of the plate, with dishes like Vermont lamb with roasted celeriac, creamed chicory and nasturtiums, and a rhubarb opera cake with sweet woodruff and toasted almonds.
Newport is worth a journey of its own, and the venerable Castle Hill inn has a new chef, Louisiana-born Karsten Hart, who has brought the restaurant at this elegant 24-room inn well into the 21st century. His menu (which changes every four to six weeks) is a fine mix of New England, American and European cuisines, with a substantial wine list to back it up. You might begin with a complementary amuse of butter-poached lobster with fennel cream and cracker crumbs. Rhode Island oysters come with a clementine granita and a touch of fresh wasabi, while pan-roasted fluke swims in a rich oyster stew with red flannel hash, wilted spinach and shaved fennel. Finish things off with a fried apple pie with bourbon-laced caramel vanilla ice cream and a lush brown butter crumble.
Rogue Island Local Kitchen & Bar
65 Weybosset St.
Figidini Wood Fire Eatery
67 Washington St.
200 Washington St.
Castle Hill Inn
590 Ocean Drive
Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara is a requisite stop on the beautiful drive along the Central Coast, not only for its Spanish architecture, Botanic Garden and Mission Santa Barbara, but — especially since the success of the movie Sideways — also for its wine-trail tours to estates like Firestone, Foxon and Fess Parker. And where there is wine, there are fine restaurants.
Everyone in the city is thrilled at the reopening of the historic district’s Wine Cask, which, back in 1981, epitomized the region’s laid-back-but-serious California style of cuisine. Owners Doug Margerum and Mitchell Sjerven sold the restaurant in 2007, but when it foundered, they bought it back, bringing the place up to contemporary snuff as part of what they call the “modern diner” movement. Still, it retains its Northern Cal elegance in the Gold Room, with its huge fireplace and its outdoor patio draped with a retractable sailcloth.
Ingredients pour in from the local farmers markets, allowing chef David Rosner to turn out stunning but simple dishes like a lobster-and-leek terrine with saffron gelée; crispy, skin-on salmon with smoky lentils, parsnip, bacon, salmon roe and tarragon emulsion; and rosemary-crusted ahi tuna with sunflower-seed risotto, grilled asparagus and cherry-tomato confit.
For windswept elegance in a grand style and a panorama of the Pacific Ocean, Bella Vista, set within Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, is a prime choice. Executive chef Alessandro Cartumini sets one of the finest Italian menus on the West Coast, carefully inspired by the state’s cornucopia of local ingredients and backed up with a deep wine list rich in Santa Barbara labels. Kobe-style meatballs come with oregano-scented peperonata and San Joaquin cheese; pastas are all made daily; and the sauces always follow the seasons, as with pennette primavera with spring vegetables, parmesan and California olive oil. Line-caught white sea bass is nestled in a wild mushroom ragù with peas and pickled ramps.
When The Lark opened last August, everyone was looking forward to it. Named after a Southern Pacific Railroad Pullman train — not least because it debuted in the historic Santa Barbara Fish Market building — it brought more than a little cachet to the surrounding arts-and-surf-shop neighborhood, which was in real need of a first-class, serious restaurant. With 130 seats (including a community table), it’s a big place, and food is served family style. Executive chef Jason Paluska’s highly seasonal cuisine ranges anywhere from broccolini roasted in a cast-iron skillet and dashed with walnuts, cucumber yogurt and a shot of chili flakes to a shared platter of whole grilled branzino with Spanish chorizo, spiced chickpeas, artichokes, fennel, crisp Meyer lemon and a lustrous almond romesco.
Wine Cask Restaurant
813 Anacapa St.
Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara
1260 Channel Drive
131 Anacapa St.
Austin locals will be the first to tell you their motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” which means it is a city of young people — university students, professionals, Dell techies — who enjoy the eccentric and the cutting-edge. This most definitely applies to its music scene, and in turn, these days, it also means a demand for an evolving restaurant scene.
Larry McGuire and Thomas Moorman’s first seafood restaurant, Perla’s, was a big hit, and now they’ve made everyone even happier with the opening of Clark’s Oyster Bar, a long slip of a bright-white room with tree-shaded outdoor tables. There are indeed fat oysters, but the small kitchen also turns out an array of exquisitely fresh seafood, including a hefty lobster roll and a velvety New England clam chowder.
Uchiko is the much larger version (with a more extensive menu) of head chef Tyson Cole’s Uchi, which many consider one of the finest sushi restaurants in America. Cole, who trained for more than a decade with sushi masters in Tokyo and New York, says that his cuisine at Uchiko is “playfully multicultural, mixing the Japanese tradition with tastes that inspire me.” You’ll get his point with the Cool Tastings of sushi and sashimi, like yellowtail sashimi with Thai chili and orange, and the Hot Tastings of chicken with sweet rice, banana leaf and Thai chili vinaigrette. In its size and gregarious ambiance, Uchiko is pure Texas and as global as any restaurant in the West right now.
For the big fine-dining splurge, part owner and Executive chef David Bull’s Congress is unsurpassed, receiving the Austin American-Statesman’s first ever five-star review. Bull has refined what he sees in Texas as a “unique melting pot of people, ideas and ingredients — German cooking, cowboy chuck-wagon food, Italian, Native American and an increasingly strong influence of Asian cuisine,” evident in dishes like his charred salmon belly with chive tapioca and blood orange, and carpetta (goat) with a grape mostardo, almond and amontillado sherry. Dinner is offered as either a three- or seven-course meal, but to taste the true breadth of Bull’s cooking, go for the seven.
1400 S. Congress Ave.
Clark’s Oyster Bar
1200 W. 6th St.
4200 N. Lamar Blvd.
200 Congress Ave.
John Mariani has been Esquire Magazine’s food and travel columnist for 30 years. He is the author of 12 books, including How Italian Food Conquered the World, and is publishing his first novel, The Hound in Heaven, this fall. He lives in Tuckahoe, N.Y.