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Nov 17, 2007 06:38 PM

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 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. 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