If you're looking for a town with culinary zeal, you don't have to head to a big metropolis. Tucked away in mountain towns, seaside hamlets and Midwestern cities lie hidden culinary gems, including upscale dining, local coffee shops and delicious microbrews. Food meccas like New York and San Francisco have nothing on these small city food scenes:
Despite only having 85,000 residents, Asheville is a city where bohemian, mountain and southern roots intersect. The cultural impact on Asheville's food scene results in a dedication to local and seasonal offerings that push the boundaries of the plate. Although Asheville is a haven for vegan and vegetarian diners (try The Laughing Seed Café or Rosetta's Kitchen), other eateries excel at preparing meat-centric dishes. At Seven Sows Bourbon and Larder, chef de cuisine Mike Moore tempts carnivores with dishes like pork tongue ragout and creative specials like local rabbit. Renowned chef John Fleer opened Rhubarb in downtown Asheville in October 2013. Influenced by foothills cuisine, Fleer's first personally owned restaurant reflects his passion for wood-fired cooking with wood-grilled lamb ribs and brick oven roasted oysters and mussels. If you want a creative cocktail, look no further than MG Road, where head barkeep Jesse Ratliff combines Indian flavors with traditional cocktail recipes. Other delicious dining experiences include Cucina24, Table, Cúrate and Early Girl Eatery for breakfast.
With rich Eastern European roots, Pittsburgh has long been a city dedicated to Old World tastes. And while old favorites like the pierogi, cabbage rolls and kielbasa still reign, a new wave of restaurants focus on what's fresh and local in western Pennsylvania. Butcher and Ryeoffers an indulgent menu that includes unpretentious Midwestern dishes with a modern twist. For example, executive chef Richard DeShantz's shepherd's pie is stuffed with tender beef cheeks and creamed peas, carrots and potatoes with a touch of horseradish. At Cure, chef Justin Severino works hard to keep close ties with area farmers to maintain locally-cured meats and in-season produce on the menu. Other newer restaurants making waves are Notion, Sienna Sulla Piazza and Bar Marco.
But it will be hard for newcomers to beat out Pierogies Plus, a veteran restaurant housed in a converted gas station that employs cooks who have been honing their pierogie-making craft for 30 years or longer. Pierogies Plus offers traditional styles stuffed with potato, cheese, sauerkraut and meat, as well as options that appeal to contemporary tastes, like jalapeño-potato, sweet cottage cheese and apricot.
There are scarcely more than 100,000 people living in Boulder, Colo., and five of them have earned the designation of master sommelier. For an expert food and drink pairing, visit Frasca Food and Wine, where a sommelier walks through the dining room nightly to offer thoughtful recommendations. Farm-to-table culture is alive and well in Boulder, thanks to Black Cat, as chefs Jill and Eric Skokan operate their own organic farm with humanely raised sheep, pigs, chickens, turkey and geese. You can also sample the flavors of Colorado at Salt and The Kitchen. While you're there, don't miss out on Boulder's award-winning breweries, Upslope Brewing (try the pumpkin ale when it's in season), Avery Brewing Company and Oskar Blues Brewery.
Ohio is rarely thought of as a food destination. But thanks to explosive growth in its restaurant scene (nearly 200 restaurants have opened downtown in the past 10 years), Cincinnati has lots of great dining options. After honing his skills in Rome, Chicago and Florence, Ohio native chef David Falk moved back to Cincinnati in 2001 to contribute to the food scene in his home state. Falk now runs three restaurants — Sotta, Boca and Nada — each of which reflect his international cooking experience and Midwestern upbringing in different ways. At Senate Pub, critically acclaimed chef Dan Wright offers an explosion of taste in his gourmet hog dogs. Try the Dan Korman 2.0, with spicy black bean-lentil sausage, mushroom pico de gallo, avocado, chipotle mayo and pickled jalapeño. If you're looking for an upscale watering hole, Obscuraoffers the best in craft cocktails, pressed coffees and loose leaf teas. Don't miss the Cosmowobbleton, a jellied version of the classic Cosmopolitan.
The Gateway to the West has earned a place on the map of great food cities. This designation is in part thanks to chef Gerard Craft, a James Beard Best Chef nominee and owner of Niche, which focuses on the elegant side of Midwestern fare with dishes like celery root soup and filet of beef with acorn squash. At Farmhaus, chef Kevin Willmann and his team offer up amazing creations with fish and market vegetables. Kevin Nashan at Sidney Street Café offers upscale menu items, like the Uni Boillabaise and Black Trumpet and Oyster Mushrooms, in an unpretentious atmosphere. Other picks for a delicious culinary trip include Sump for pour-over coffee, Mai Lee for Vietnamese, and Civil Life or Urban Chestnut for local microbrews.
Portland's small size of about 66,000 hasn't stopped it from becoming a major culinary destination. Seafood lovers can get fresh oysters at Eventide Oyster Co. and baskets of freshly gathered uni at Benkay. For a taste of local and foraged ingredients, try Fore Street, where the dining room is centered around a wood-burning oven, grill and turnspit. The menu at Fore Street changes daily, but hand-harvested scallops and island-raised lamb frequently make an appearance. If you're just passing through Portland, head to the East Bayside neighborhood for a one-stop culinary experience. The small area is home to Tandem Coffee Roasters, Bunker Brewing Company, 3Buoys Seafood Shanty and Grille, and Urban Farm Fermentory for alternative beverages like cider, kombucha and mead.
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