From Buffalo to Birmingham, veteran chefs highlight surprising foodie cities

CNN
January 03, 2020 - 8:51 am
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J. Fusco/Visit Philadelphia via CNN

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By Stacey Lastoe, CNN

(CNN) — No one needs convincing that New York City is one of, if not the, best food city in the United States. Few would argue about Chicago, Portland (Oregon, though Maine is not too shabby either), San Francisco and Los Angeles making the definitive list.

Las Vegas, too, has been a leader in the food and drink scene for some time now, and Washington, DC's culinary chops have proven reason enough to visit the capital city.

But what about Buffalo? Birmingham? Louisville?

Other cities around the US, including Denver, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, should be on every food lover's radar, according to big-name chefs at the Food & Wine Classic culinary event in Aspen, Colorado, which took place in June.

Sneaky good food

Man of many hats -- restaurateur, television host and food writer to name a few -- Andrew Zimmern is super into Birmingham, Alabama.

Sure, he's a fan of Miss Myra's Pit Bar-B-Q and Frank Stitt's well-regarded spots -- Chez Fonfon and Highlands Bar & Grill -- but Zimmern insists there's more to the Southern city than well, its Southern food roots.

The city has "gone from hot to blazing hot," he says.

"There has been a development underneath all the well-known restaurants there that has just bubbled up and exploded. I find Birmingham a very exciting town to eat my way through," Zimmern says.

Zimmern likens Birmingham's current rise to recent food trailblazing cities Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine.

Geoffrey Zakarian, a chef and owner of restaurants in New York City, Miami and Atlantic City, also praises Birmingham's growing culinary cred.

Buffalo, New York, is another city Zakarian is excited about.

From The Dapper Goose for perfectly balanced cocktails and small bites that change with the seasons to southern-focused Toutant and Japanese gastropub Dobutsu, Buffalo may well be New York's second city, but it's a worthy one at that. (Full disclosure: This author is from Buffalo and can't argue with it being a sneaky good food city.)

Young and hungry

Canadian food writer and cookbook author Gail Simmons loves Philadelphia and Denver. Of the latter she cites "tons of young, innovative chefs."

Indeed, Beckon's pre-paid dinner ticket setup for just 17 guests each night is one of Denver's most creative dining experiences.

Annette, located about seven miles from downtown Denver in Aurora, is worth the trek for visitors staying in the heart of the city. Open for dinner and weekend brunch, Annette's owner and chef Caroline Glover is committed to quality, farm-fresh ingredients.

Minneapolis, the US's answer to Nordic Europe (sort of), has had a thriving food scene for years and is finally getting national attention for it.

Chefs understand the recent hype.

Ashley Christensen, who has a restaurant empire in Raleigh, North Carolina, says she fell in love with Minneapolis during her first visit.

"It's one of of those cities that is so uniquely its own. There's a lot of pride from the people who live there. And that feels very, you know, I connect with that. It feels a lot like the place that I live in the sense of how we all feel about it."

Christensen can't wait to go back: "Everyone is making this delicious, heartfelt food and I found that to be a consistent vibe across our experiences in Minneapolis."

One of the city's most popular restaurants, Spoon and Stable, is upscale but not stuffy, and exudes a cozy, chic feel.

Created by James Beard award-winning chef/owner Gavin Kaysen, Spoon and Stable is housed in an old horse stable and has a menu reflective of its Midwestern seasonal sensibilities and Kaysen's French background. The results are sublime.

Young Joni, hip and cool without being a scene, features chef Ann Kim's wood-fired pizzas, vegetables and other phenomenal bites in a large, airy space.

Brick and mortar

Hugh Acheson, of Iron Chef Canada fame and a chef/restaurateur in Georgia, is also enthusiastic about the evolving food scene in the United States.

"Everybody went to the big cities and now they've gone back to where they're from and are really building these brick and mortar places that are showing off the truth of what is really American food, which is such a big topic," Acheson explains.

Take Louisville, Kentucky, for example. It's got high-brow and low-brow offerings and also a steakhouse called Le Moo with a drag show brunch, where you can order a huge bowl of cereal. It's a steakhouse that doesn't take itself too seriously -- at least on Sundays.

Alex Guarnaschelli, executive chef of Butter in NYC, nominates Louisville.

Foodie Trisha Siegelstein, a Louisville native but long-time New Yorker before recently returning to her hometown, would have to agree.

"Louisville has always been a foodie town in my opinion. If a restaurant is not good, it closes. There is a lot of choice here and a lot of competition."

Sometimes there's a wait for a table. Cajun spot The Seafood Lady draws big crowds and long lines, but, says Siegelstein, "it is WORTH IT."

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