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2nd Tier Cities: The best food & dining experiences?

Most would agree that NY, Chicago, NO, SF, LA, and Las Vegas Represent the upper echelon of USA food. Right? Whenever bests are discussed all conversation gravitates to these locations, it seems.
Surely the 6 listed above are not the only food centers?
So here's an alternate question- out and about in America, where are your best, your most unlikely and your regionally unique places, cities, regions?
What makes it Wonderful? A dish, cuisine, or cultural connections?
What are the best places in America's 2nd tier?

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  1. When it comes to “2nd Tier” cities (I like that term), I’d have to rate Phoenix in that mix. The dining scene is varied, and, due to its size and demographic, yields some great restaurants. Now, much of Phoenix would be viewed as a chain-food wasteland. Living here (or following CH reviews), however yields some great dining “finds.”

    While there isn’t a true regional cuisine, Southwest elements seem to creep into the repertoire of many of the chefs. Because high-end dining here got its start with the resorts, Wigwam, Biltmore, Hermosa Inn, Camelback Inn, etc., in the earlier days, with great chefs brought in to add glamor and also satisfy the tastes of the patrons from around the globe, a good base was formed. Many of these chefs moved into free-standing establishments, and other, more recent, resorts opened. Initially, it was the tourist trade and the capital behind the larger inns, that drove management to look to innovative food and to go beyond the staid dining formats offered. As the population grew and folk came in from all parts of the country (and the world), the popularity of the chef-driven restaurants took off.

    There are a handful of James Beard award winning chefs plying their trade in Phoenix now. Another few have recently left the area, but got their start (and their awards) in Phoenix. Other than Mexican (several states represented), New Mexican, American Indian (almost all the influences from the SW tribes), and a few others, ethnic food is not as varied, as in some of the cities that you mention, but that too is changing.

    Any given night, I have the choice of maybe three dozen great restaurants, and that’s without having to drive across Phoenix’s breadth. If one doesn’t mind a bit of a journey, another three dozen great spots come into play. You have to remember that Phoenix Metro is 500+ sq. miles, and growing hourly. The price ranges will vary from $ - $$$$$, but there IS great food in the Sonoran Desert.

    One change does seem to be afoot, though, as several of the high-end resorts are rethinking their destination restaurants. I’m not sure where this will lead, but a couple of great fine-dining spots have closed, or been re-fitted for less formal fare. Some of the chefs have stayed and opened their own spots, but some have migrated to LV, or NYC. It could just mean that the number of upper-end spots will diminish, and will be replaced with equally good, albeit more casual places. It could also indicate that the demographic has changed significantly, and that more “happening” places, with mediocre food, but great “buzz,” will take over. There has been a spurt in “see n’ be seen” restaurants, especially in the Scottsdale Area. I almost never see any good food reviews, of these, on CH. Still, their popularity seems to be increasing. I’m not sure what impact this perceived change will bring in five years. I might well withdraw my recommendation for Phoenix, as a 2nd Tier dining city.


    1. New York is the greatest food city in the country, possibly in the world.

      We LOVE Baltimore as well. We have spent a lot of time in the past five years in Baltimore, and found the variety and quality of the restaurants to be excellent. Especially for seafood lovers, crab, soft shell crab lovers in particular.

      The only problem we found in Baltimore is that restaurants are pricey for what they are ...often the same price as mid-level NY restaurants. That being said, there is a lot of variety and the quality is good.

      Our last stay of 5 weeks last summer was great. We hardly ever dined at home, and found great places to go again and again.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Fleur

        Baltimore eh? I guess that I've got to get out of Friendship Airport and explore the area, on our way to DC. Thanks for the H/U.


        1. re: Bill Hunt

          Check out the ZAGAT guide for the addresses.

          There is The Helmand great Afghan food

          Great seafood restaurants...one called Mommas, I believe

          An outstanding Indian restaurant in the Johns Hopkins area.

          We used ZAGAT and found at least 10 -15 really nice places.

      2. I'd suggest these two:

        - Portland (innovative use of ingredients and a focus on sustainable and local agriculture)

        - D.C. (the four stars are good, but talk up your cabbie for some great stuff from anywhere in the world you can think of - lots of stuff outside the usual neighborhoods - and include NoVa.)

        I'd also talk up Providence, which,while lacking the sheer number of restos, IMO, has more decent places per capita than any other small city in the US. Plenty of diversity in a small space, much of it CH-worthy.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Panini Guy

          Yes, I would second DC. Some of my favorite restaurants are there.


          1. re: Panini Guy

            I second Providence as a top second-tier city. Every time I go back to RI (from LA) to see my family I'm amazed at the number of quality restaurants there are relative to the size of the population.

            1. re: Panini Guy

              DC thirded. In the four months living there, I was delighted by so many restaurants. I really miss them.

              1. re: vorpal

                I'll nominate Memphis. In the past 8 or 9 years it has turned from a city solely based on its namesake bbq to one tht embraces fine dining of all stripes. BUT, even without the increased variety of restaurants I would add Memphis to the list. It is a food destination in itself, with arguably the greatest bbq tradition in the United States. Memphis does what it does(pig) as good as or better than any other city in the world, and it still has room for very high quality (if not amazing) contemporary restaurants ranging from French to Italian, Japanese, and New American.

            2. Don't overlook Cleveland if you are compiling a list. Naturally, there has been increased attention to Michael Symon's two local restaurant, Lola and Lolita, since he recently won the Next Iron Chef America competition, but there is SO much more here food-wise, and on a much more affordable scale than just about any of the towns listed above.

              Having lived here most of my adult life (I also lived in LA for a time) and having done a fair amount of travel for work to cities large and HUGE, Cleveland represents the best in terms of variety of cusines available for a city it's size and at a variety of price points given our population. Outside of the big, big cities, I haven't found anywhere that offers the variety that we have here, and at such affordable price points.

              We have a huge ethnic mix of people in Cleveland thus are blessed with a variety of authentic/traditional cusines from just about every corner of the globe. Due to our size, there may only be 1 or 2 of a particular cuisine (or, to clarify, 1 or 2 very good ones) but living in Cleveland, I could get great food every night if I had the money to dine out that frequently, and there are new restaurants opening seemingly every week. We have wonderful ethnic and neighborhood festivals of many varieties throughout the summer months that provide a great opportunity to sample a variety of cuisines from local restaurants. Due to our extreme promixity to some of the best farming country around, we have great access to locally raised, locally processed, high quality meats (all year) and produce (most of the year) that others pay huge premiums for. We have places like the Sausage Shoppe, which makes sausages and hot dogs so lean and tasty you would never go back to another product again. Sausage where there is a much higher percentage of meat instead of just fat and by-products.

              We have unique dining gems like Carrie Cerino's, where the ambience is just the way your grandma remembered it and an unbelievable mix of traditional Italian for the long time "regulars" juxtaposed with unique and changing specials from Norcia lentils, "blue" egg ravioli, berkshire pork, organic chicken and meat balls made from an ohio beef producer, not Sysco. We even have several local wineries producing some excellent table wines, not just the overly sweet stuff often associated with Ohio wines. Firelands makes a great cab, Viking has two really strong reds, etc. And Great Lakes Brewery produces some very, very good beers. We have fantastic farmers markets and our state's maple syrup products are awesome.

              Hungarian, authentic Chinese, German, Italian, Irish, Ethiopian, great bar food, pizzas, some of the best corned beef I've ever had, the best steaks I've eaten, high end dining to great greasy bar cheeseburgers, you can get just about anything you want here in terms of cuisine and it's usually at a much lower price than what you'd pay in a larger city.

              6 Replies
              1. re: rockandroller1

                I was going to mention Cleveland but your post is much better than mine could ever be. Friends that I have taken to Cleveland soon understand why I feel that the circle enclosed within a 1 mile radius of the WSM is a foodies paradise. I think the Cleveland visitors and convention bureau now owes you a free meal for your enthusiasm.

                BTW- Where is Carrie Cerinos?

                1. re: Kelli2006

                  aw, thank you so much! Yes, I'd love that free meal, but I wouldn't know where to choose for it. I was just contemplating today if I wanted one of those delicious cuban sandwiches from Leolai or if I wanted the greek pasta from Tastebuds (ended up at the latter).

                  Carrie Cerino's is in N. Royalton. It's about 10 minutes from the Pearl Rd exit off I 71 south, just past Bagley. www.carriecerinos.com Many people know them for their wedding banquets, but the restaurant (which is HUGE) is the real star.

                2. re: rockandroller1

                  Rock&Roll, what Hungarian restaurant would you recommend? Posted a request back in March when we visited and no one gave one. We live in Columbus and occasionally make it to Cleveland. Come from Hungarian background, would LOVE to sample dishes. Thanks!

                  1. re: Diane in Bexley

                    Hi! I recommend Little Budapest in Westlake. It's not much on ambiance but the food is authentic and service is friendly, feels like a small, family-owned place. It is on Center Ridge on the N side of the street in the shopping plaza that's across/diagonal from Stein Mart I believe.


                    1. re: Diane in Bexley

                      I'll jump in and add that Balaton on Shaker Square is also an excellent Hungarian restaurant. I haven't been to Little Budapest, so I'm not sure how it compares, but I will say the surroundings are a little nicer than Little Budapest's strip mall location, and you have the super bonus on Shaker Square of having Lucy' Sweet Surrender bakery just around the corner for luscious Hungarian pastries.

                      1. re: LeslieB

                        Great addition, Leslie; I've heard of it but almost never get to shaker so I didn't think to recommend it. I do agree about Lucy's Sweet Surrender though, another great suggestion!

                  2. charleston
                    minneapolis/st. paul

                    1. Does Berkeley count? Or is it just included in the SF category? Actually since I moved to the East Bay from SF, I think the food is better in Berkeley. And the Mexican food in Oakland next door is better than what SF serves.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: rworange

                        For the purposes of this thread, I think the East Bay fits the definition just fine. A different attitude and viewpoint, don't you think? I'd agree with your evaluation too.

                      2. Okay, I'm going to nominate San Diego, CA. Over on the CA board one of the favorite past times is taking pot shots at dining in San Diego, but it's not really as awful as many people think and in reality is actually quite good and getting better each month. Here are my reasons why I think San Diego offers a great dining/food experience

                        - In a word...breakfast. It's hard to get a bad breakfast in San Diego. And it's not expensive
                        - It's home to Chuao Chocolatiers some of the best specialty chocolates around http://www.chuaochocolatier.com/
                        - World class uni is harvested right off the coast of San Diego. ( http://www.catalinaop.com/ )
                        - Beer, craft and otherwise. San Diego is home to numerous award winning micro and mid size breweries turning out fabulous award winning beer.
                        - The vaunted Chino Farms is located in San Diego. Mere mortals can shop there too if they're willing to fork over the $$$ for remarkably good produce.
                        - If you want your meal with a view there are choices in all price ranges where the food is good to very good (sometimes even excellent) and the view spectacular
                        - While the farmers markets in SD aren't as large or as diverse as those in Santa Monica or San Francisco, they are a pretty good - if not pricey - place to find locally produced goods. Looking for a white zapote? New Zealand spinach? or local macademia nuts? You can find that and more at a farmers market in SD
                        - An increasing number of restaurants with a commitment to sustainable agriculture and locally sourced products
                        - A thriving Asian enclave in Kearny Mesa with numerous small (and not so small) stores, shops and restaurants serving the community and not serving dumbed down Asian food.
                        - Can you say Carne Asada Burrito. It's like nothing else, leaves a Mission burrito in the dust and has been know to cause locals to swoon and has been the stuff of dreams for San Diegans far from home and in need of a CAB fix.
                        - And speaking of Mexican food, there are probably more taco shops and taqueria's per square mile in San Diego than anywhere else in the world, including Mexico. And most of them are really pretty darn good. But, alas, for sitting right on the border (SD and TJ are really just one big city now) the non-taco shop Mexican food is lacking. It can be found but takes as while and usually requires a foray into some dicier neighborhoods
                        - Fine dining has not typically been a strength in San Diego but it has improved dramatically over the last 5 years with numerous new restaruants committed to providing a top knotch dining experience. There is still lots of room for growth in this segment, but it is clearly and quickly evolving.
                        - The annual temperature is 72*, it's rarely very humid, it's rarely very cold. It seems, unforutnately, we are prone to fires on occasion and only about 8% of the residents can really afford to buy a home, but what are a few flames and few dollars when you get to live in America's Finest City with a diverse and emerging food community :-D

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: DiningDiva

                          You are so right about Mexican food in the San Diego area. I still miss the El Tigre market and the pateteria next door to it.

                          I'll go with your assesment that San Diego has improved over the past few years. It's been three years since I've lived there. At that time other than Chino Farms, the farmers markets I visited were a major disappointment (compared to SF area). Apples were 'red', 'yellow' or 'green' and all produce was like that. I missed my named heirloom produce like duck's toungue lettuce, etc.

                          You are right also about it being a great area for breakfast. There were some excellent artisan bakers in the area too.

                          1. re: rworange

                            I had the best chile relleno ever about 15 years ago in San Diego. I absolutely cannot recall the name of the place, but it was great.

                            1. re: rworange

                              I'll definately miss the wierd subtropical fruit growing community in vista...while SD farmers markets might not have the diversity, I don't remember being able to find local macadamias, passion fruit, guavas, and citron up north!

                          2. Maybe this belongs in the "3rd Tier", but I would submit Milwaukee, Wisconsin, especially when you talk about "hidden chow". I continue to be amazed at the wealth of outstanding chow there and as I drive around (including this past weekend) it seems like every streetcorner has a place that looks like it could be a chowhound treasure trove. Especially in the hole-in-the-wall category. And the city goes completely unrecognized in chow circles.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: MSPD

                              YUM Custard!! Agree Milwaukee is great for good home cooking chow. We used to live in Chicago North Suburbs, equidistant to Milwaukee and loved the German/Eastern European influences.

                              1. re: MSPD

                                I just kind of made up the term because any "best of" list on here always gravitates to the Biggest cities and everything else in America gets lost or ignored. I figure lots of places have a dish or two, an ethnic community in their backyard, or a whole cuisine that doesn't get it's due outside home base.
                                Milwaukee has always been intriguing.
                                Really cool answers so far.

                              2. There are restaurant destination cities like NYC and NOLA. There are many lesser known cities that either have a strong local traditional cuisine, or a wide variety of types of restaurants.

                                As a Crab and Lobster lover, the entire Eastern seaboard is a destination restaurant... from Lobster shacks, roadside Quahog stands, to fancier Seafood restaurants.

                                1. I have to agree with Charleston and now even Greenville. No one has mentioned Philadelphia with a wealth of quality big name restaraunts and small neighborhood gems. I also have to agree with a previous post about Baltimore and its numerous Italian, and seafood retaraunts. And, if you throw in Annapolis it gets even better.

                                  1. Personally, i think Seattle has generally better restaurants than any of those "first tier" cities...i know these are feuding words, so let me clarify...sure, it doesn't have anywhere close to the incredible variety that NY or LA do (i lived in both NY and LA for many years and have dozens of favorites in each)...but i can't think of a single NY or LA restaurant that's as good overall as Harvest Vine in Seattle, or even as consistently comfy and reliable as Matt's In the Market...in Seattle, it's incredibly easy to get great food served with fresh local ingredients and without attitude...so in Seattle, while i can't get Dan Tana's Caesar salad like in LA nor NY Noodletown's 4am salt-baked squid, i'd have to say my dining experiences there are far more consistently wonderful...

                                    And if you go a couple hours north, Vancouver is even better...

                                    1. My 2nd tier votes go to:

                                      Minneappolis/St Paul
                                      San Diego

                                      Excellent eats!

                                      1. I was very pleasantly surprised by Tucson's food scene when we visited a year ago. Many good restaurants, and chow-worthy food stores for a small-mid sized city.

                                        The chile rellenos, chicken mole and the Indian fried bread taco still have me dreaming.

                                        1. I'd like to resurrect this thread to see what you all think are the best '2nd Tier' American cities for food in 2014. Have things changed much since 2007?

                                          If I were to guess at a current list, it would probably include many of the cities already mentioned here: Portland, Seattle, Atlanta, Austin, Philadelphia, Cleveland. But I wonder if Pittsburgh and Denver haven't become great 2nd tier food cities too at this point. And how do Houston, Boston, Detroit and Portland, ME measure up?

                                          I really enjoy visiting more manageably-sized US cities these days, and would love to know where the really great food is.

                                          3 Replies
                                            1. re: sandylc

                                              I think that would make St. Paul a second-tier, second city.


                                            2. re: ninrn

                                              the best meal i had this year was at Kanella in Philadelphia (i live in NYC)...

                                            3. Asheville, NC and Charleston, SC. The depth and breadth of restaurants in both cities is amazing for their size.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: carolinadawg

                                                I've heard such great things about Asheville, NC, and expected there would be some great Southern food there, but it sounds like it's even better than that. Hope to visit.

                                              2. Not Seattle, don't bother coming here, all we have is McDonalds, and it rains every day. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, they'd be lying.

                                                6 Replies
                                                1. re: EatFoodGetMoney

                                                  Trying to prevent a wait at your favorite spot?

                                                    1. re: EatFoodGetMoney

                                                      Just wait till the pot tourism gets into full swing.

                                                      1. re: EatFoodGetMoney

                                                        There is already a wait at my favorite spot...The Five Point.

                                                        1. re: jpc8015

                                                          Funny you say that. I went there for the first time a few weeks ago. Got a massive chicken fried steak, delicious would be an understatement. No wait when I was there, but I had a super late breakfast at like 2 pm that day.

                                                          If you like chicken fried steaks you might try the one at Cheeky Cafe next time you're up here. Somebody posted a pic on CH and I went there 2 days later to get it, definitely did not disappoint.

                                                          1. re: EatFoodGetMoney

                                                            I have had the chicken fried steak at the Five Point. I got it with a side of poutine and plenty of beer. I typically go before I head to a Seahawks game so the place is pretty packed with fans.

                                                  1. Neither Houston or Philadelphia would like to be considered 2nd tier cities but people in NYC, LA and CHI would definitely place them there

                                                    Houston has great diversity of culture, - Deep South African American, Texas BBQ, Asian, Eastern and of course both Mexican and Tex-Mex along with a broad array of other restaurants - the variety is outstanding - especially for casual dining - living there exposed me to so many different cuisines

                                                    Philadelphia - in the last 5 years just WOW there is so much happening so many new places opening up- being an affordable city helps - its not as expensive as NYC to get off the ground and take some risk and the region is excellent for farm to table with very high quality meat and produce and in particular dairy. Too much good food to try it all.

                                                    1. Especially for a city with a population of only about 50,000, Portland, ME has an amazing food scene. Not just the terrific local seafood -- which would suffice -- but an overall commitment to food excellence. Lots of good craft beer too.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: masha

                                                        I started thinking this might be the case, when I was trying to research restaurants in Portland, OR on the Internet and kept finding great-looking restaurants Portland, ME.

                                                        The food in Portland, OR, was incredible, as most of you probably know already. Maybe the best city I've ever been to for freshness, variety and value.

                                                      2. Okay,
                                                        First off:
                                                        World class cities: NY, SF, LA
                                                        Second Tier Cities: Philadelphia, Chicago...

                                                        I think Pittsburgh does pretty well for what it's got, but it's at least 3rd tier (marketing logic for rollouts) and at most 5th tier (finance rulz all).

                                                        4 Replies
                                                        1. re: Chowrin

                                                          Well, I think there's a difference between 'world class' and '1st tier', but I'll amend my quest to be for 'non-1st-tier US cities with great food & food culture'.

                                                          If finance rules all though, Chicago's definitely first tier, and Houston, Dallas and DC are, too. -- All of them trump San Francisco in GDP and Philly nearly matches it.

                                                          1. re: ninrn

                                                            If finance rules all, then London and NYC are everything,
                                                            then slot in Hong Kong and Vancouver...
                                                            Chitown's down in Third Tier (majorly influential, but not "worldwide superpower").
                                                            [and that's pure finance, not GDP.]

                                                            Most anyplace you can go that isn't the empty quarter (OK/KS/NE/WY) is going to have something excellent, if there's enough people to support it. now, you may not like the excellent you're gonna get....

                                                            Ex: Pittsburgh's fantastic, out of this world with eastern european cooking -- but if you want Hispanic (Mexican/Borderland) cooking, you're much, much better off hitting ... well, anywhere else.

                                                            1. re: Chowrin

                                                              This is good, Chowrin. You're making me define my terms and clarify the vision. What do you think of these parameters?:

                                                              A sub-1st-tier US or Canada city where there's not just some good stuff to eat (pretty much any city will have something good to eat), but:

                                                              >> There are at least three instances of a cuisine, a foodstuff or a restaurant that's as good or better than you can find in a 1st-tier city.

                                                              >> There's a significant level of diversity in restaurant and other ready-to-eat offerings, and of these, say, at least five cuisines are represented at an "excellent" level. (I wouldn't limit 'cuisines' to just 5 different cultures' cuisines; I'd count superb charcuterie, superb steak, and great molecular gastronomy as separate categories, for example.)

                                                              >> There is something great going on with local food.

                                                              >> There is something at least interesting going on with local wine/brew/spirits (even at a grassroots level).

                                                              >> The people there have a pride in their food culture and a spirit of adventure about food.

                                                              >> There is some degree of value for money.

                                                              >> That the city has a solid farmers' market system or some other widely accessible direct-from-farm-buying options*

                                                              >> That there's enough food enthusiasm that it holds at least one or two worthwhile food events annually*

                                                              >> And that you can learn something about food, cooking or eating there that you can't really learn elsewhere*

                                                              *= points I fear might be going too far.

                                                              Interested to hear what other Chowhounds' criteria for a great non-1st-tier food city might be. (Should this be another thread?)

                                                              1. re: ninrn

                                                                Glad you enjoyed my nitpicking. ;-) Why not make it a new thread?

                                                                Austin (with their BBQ) fits, Pittsburgh doesn't (though we do have some really fine stuff, I'm not sure we've got three purveyors of "wow, that's freaking excellent" in any one category -- maybe something slavic).

                                                        2. I'm putting in a vote for my town, Cincinnati. Cincy's always been a serious food location. For a long time three of the Mobil guide's five-star restaurants were located here. But there's also Cincinnati chili (an acquired taste, I'm told). Plus a vibrant local restaurant scene, in core downtown, Over-the-Rhine on downtown's north edge), the neighborhoods, and across the river in Northern Kentucky.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: jmckee

                                                            I have always...always, wanted to try real Cincinnati chili.

                                                          2. I gotta put in a plug for Kansas City. It probably wouldn't exactly be anyone's first idea of a dining destination but ... there are a lot of very good chefs here getting investment and producing a very heart-of-america form of fine food, which is informed by our amazing produce and an emphasis on local producers and midwestern classic dishes. Chefs Colby Garrelts (bluestem, Rye) and Celina Tio (Julian, others) for example.

                                                            Also the best barbeque on the planet. Really. And a very large hispanic population, the effect of which is starting to be quite evident in the food here in general.