Are These the 6 Most Underrated Food Cities in America?By Jay Gentile
Sure, everyone knows you can find plenty of good food in New Orleans or Charleston. And it’s no secret that big cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco boast world-renowned food scenes of their own.
But some of today’s most exciting culinary discoveries can be uncovered in America’s midsize cities, where up-and-coming food scenes are flourishing thanks to overcrowding and overpricing in many of America’s more traditional food capitals.
With that in mind, we round up six of the most underrated food and beverage cities in America, from Birmingham, Alabama, to Providence, Rhode Island, where a wide range of culinary treasures are just waiting to be discovered by the adventurous traveler. Bon appétit!
As always, check for travel restrictions or closures before planning your trip.
Asheville, North Carolina
Famous for its booming live music and craft beer scenes and nestled in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville seems to overflow with an embarrassment of riches. Yet, oddly, its food scene largely fails to attract the same level of attention.
Asheville’s adorably walkable downtown offers a range of edible options, from Southern comfort food staple Tupelo Honey and the bustling Spanish tapas emporium Curate (located in a 1927 bus depot) to classic hot spots like Blackbird Restaurant (upscale American) and Cucina24 (Italian).
The alarmingly fun downtown district is also packed with a bevy of bars and music venues, including the famous Orange Peel, while you can also brewery hop (Asheville has some of the highest numbers of breweries per capita in America) on a colorful bus with live bands playing via LaZoom Tours.
Outside of the downtown, head to the booming River Arts District to sample the glorious barbecue delights of the insanely popular 12 Bones Smokehouse, a rare tasting room outpost from Colorado craft beer king New Belgium Brewing Co., and surprisingly good tacos at indie music venue The Grey Eagle.
Meanwhile, Gan Shan Station (located in a former gas station) is serving up hip Asian fusion in a residential section of North Asheville, while the hip West Asheville neighborhood is home to the awesome yet unassuming restaurant The Admiral. Like most spots in Asheville, it’s not trying to show off — housed in a nondescript cinder block building and quite liking it that way. Afterward, get weird with a cold drink at the unclassifiable Odditorium.
This criminally overlooked city located between Chicago and Louisville is much more than just a stopover for refueling between the two more famous food cities. Indianapolis is a hidden delight for the senses, but visitors are encouraged to get out of the more tourist-friendly downtown to experience its most interesting culinary highlights.
Located in Indy’s hip Fountain Square district, Bluebeard (named after a novel by Indy native son Kurt Vonnegut) is a bustling, award-winning spot located inside a renovated 1924 factory warehouse serving up contemporary farm-to-table American cuisine made for sharing. Just down the road, the uber-popular “fine diner” Milktooth continues to impress with its inventive, rotating takes on classic breakfast and lunch staples.
Meanwhile, over in the more residential historic district of Herron-Morton, a cute little 21-and-over restaurant named Tinker Street has been turning heads with a diverse menu ranging from pad thai to Korean chicken and waffles (not to mention one of the best burgers in the city.)
For booze, Indy’s got you covered. Try the sunny outdoor patio at the beer-hall-styled hangout Rathskeller; the cool, veteran-owned distillery Hotel Tango; or the playful urban winery Easley Winery (where daily wine tastings are just $5), as well as a bevy of awesome dive bars such as Dorman Street Saloon, Melody Inn, and Red Key Tavern.
You can even grab booze from the outdoor beer garden at Newfields and walk around the beautiful, 152-acre art gallery/botanic garden campus with drink in hand. For lunch, hit the local-friendly Workingman’s Friend, a cash-only, old-school diner offering a true slice of local Indy life.
Denver many be getting all the attention these days as one of America’s hottest and fastest-growing cities, but just 45 minutes north of the city, the laid-back mountain town of Boulder is quietly unfurling one of the top dining scenes in the country.
Northern Italian food mecca Frasca Food & Wine continues to lead the charge (recently winning a 2019 James Beard Award for outstanding service), while nearby OAK at Fourteenth and Black Cat round out downtown’s holy trinity on the more upscale side of things.
While downtown’s Pearl Street is an absolute delight for dining, people-watching and strolling, Boulder’s true charms can be found a bit further afield at spots like the bustling butcher shop/restaurant Blackbelly Market, laid-back Nepalese favorite Sherpa’s Restaurant, or the rustic Chautauqua Dining Hall, located at the foot of the picturesque Flatirons rock formations.
Despite trending more upscale in recent years, Boulder (home of the University of Colorado) remains largely a hippie-flavored college town at heart, and that vibe can be felt most intently in University Hill (known as “the Hill”), where classic spots like The Sink sling cheap yet satisfying eats.
Drinking options in town range from breweries like Avery and Upslope to the sunny patio at Mountain Sun and the dark basement dive that is the infamous Sundown Saloon. Catch a view of the mountains on the rooftop of West End Tavern or hit popular German-style beer hall Bohemian Biergarten and, if you have time, a 30-minute trip into the mountains to the unbelievably adorable Gold Hill Inn restaurant will be one of the best decisions you’ve made in a long time.
While Charleston gets all the accolades in foodie circles (and rightly so), Savannah is content to fly under the radar with a food and beverage scene that rivals any city of its size. This ridiculously fun city of around 150,000 shares many things in common with Charleston (located just two hours north), from its scenic coastal location to its array of historic attractions, but tends to be on the more affordable side compared to its more famous northern neighbor.
Start your culinary exploration at The Grey, a local institution serving upscale takes on Southern classics inside a former bus station. Meanwhile, you’ll feel right at home at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room and The Olde Pink House, two excellent examples of Savannah’s famed hostess culture.
Yet Savannah’s drinking scene is where the city really excels, offering everything from the miniature Bourbon Street vibes of the River Street district to a relentlessly charming historic downtown, where you can walk around with open booze in your hand a la New Orleans.
The bar options here are endless, from the dive bar charms of The Rail Pub and the infamous Pinkie Masters to the more fancy cocktail vibes of the sexy Circa 1875. Whether you’re mingling with a diverse cast of characters at the American Legion Post 135 bar or peeping sweeping views of the river at the more touristy Rocks on the Roof, one thing is for sure: People in this city like to have fun.
Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is a city full of surprises. Rhode Island’s compact capital city packs a lot of action into just 20 square miles, including one of the highest concentrations of restaurants per capita of any major U.S. city.
Melding a strong Italian influence with a classic New England vibe, a number of ethnic eateries, and a healthy student population as the home of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (in addition to Johnson & Wales University, one of America’s top culinary schools), the densely populated and highly walkable city is a food-explorers dream.
Italian food options are almost too many to mention, led by the iconic Al Forno (where the pizza is to die for) as well as the Southern Italian–inspired Enoteca Umberto. You can also build your own tacos at the popular Tallulah’s Taqueria, shuck oysters by the sea at Matunuck Oyster Bar (about 45 minutes from the city but worth it), grab standout Peruvian fare at Los Andes, or revel in some old-school East Coast street food (i.e., hot dogs) at Olneyville New York System.
For drinks, The Eddy is a top-of-the-line mixology bar and the East End is a sexy spot for some late-night whiskey, while more divey options include the hipster karaoke-centric Ogie’s Trailer Park and neighborhood hang The Point Tavern. Breweries in this rising craft beer town include Long Live Beerworks and Providence Brewing Company.
You may not know much about Birmingham, but know this: People here like to eat. Boasting one of the most exciting and inventive food scenes in America, B’ham is in the midst of a major culinary renaissance fueled by a number of talented young chefs who are moving back home from larger cities, lured by the affordability and creativity of Alabama’s largest city.
Most conversations about the food scene in Magic City (not be confused with Miami, the other Magic City) start at the legendary Hot & Hot Fish Club, chef Chris Hastings’ longtime local institution (which is moving into a new space this fall). Equally as famous is the French-inspired Southern cuisine at the award-winning Highlands Bar & Grill, located in a historic Spanish revival building in the city’s hip Five Points South neighborhood.
Yet B’ham’s culinary scene is as diverse as its citizens, from the soul food delights of Magic City Grille and the legendary barbecue of SAW’s to the shockingly good Thai food served out of a suburban gas station at Blue Pacific at Hoover Food Mart.
Cheap eats are nothing short of a delight here, with offerings ranging from Hot Diggity Dogs and Sam’s Super Samwiches to Asian street fusion served from an Airstream parked behind a local bar at Hotbox at Parkside.
The city’s brewing scene is also on the rise with a number of options, including Good People Brewing and Avondale Brewing, while the city’s menu-free cocktail emporium The Collins is also not to be missed. Just tell ’em what you like, and they’ll make it for you.