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

bbqboy Nov 17, 2007 06:38 PM

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?

  1. Bill Hunt Nov 18, 2007 02:49 PM

    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. f
      Fleur Nov 18, 2007 04:21 PM

      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
        Bill Hunt Nov 18, 2007 06:44 PM

        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
          Fleur Nov 21, 2007 01:12 AM

          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. p
        Panini Guy Nov 18, 2007 07:48 PM

        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
          Bill Hunt Nov 18, 2007 07:59 PM

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


          1. re: Panini Guy
            cookie monster Nov 18, 2007 08:52 PM

            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
              vorpal Nov 19, 2007 06:53 AM

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

              1. re: vorpal
                notgreg Nov 19, 2007 07:14 AM

                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. rockandroller1 Nov 19, 2007 07:44 AM

              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
                Kelli2006 Nov 19, 2007 08:08 AM

                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
                  rockandroller1 Nov 19, 2007 09:16 AM

                  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
                  Diane in Bexley Nov 19, 2007 01:14 PM

                  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
                    rockandroller1 Nov 19, 2007 01:44 PM

                    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
                      LeslieB Nov 21, 2007 03:49 PM

                      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
                        rockandroller1 Nov 21, 2007 04:37 PM

                        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. s
                    soupkitten Nov 19, 2007 08:01 AM

                    minneapolis/st. paul

                    1. rworange Nov 19, 2007 08:11 AM

                      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
                        bbqboy Nov 19, 2007 08:18 AM

                        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. DiningDiva Nov 19, 2007 09:15 AM

                        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
                          rworange Nov 19, 2007 09:32 AM

                          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
                            LeslieB Nov 21, 2007 03:51 PM

                            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
                              Jeters Nov 21, 2007 04:05 PM

                              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. MSPD Nov 19, 2007 12:45 PM

                            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
                              Diane in Bexley Nov 19, 2007 01:15 PM

                              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
                                bbqboy Nov 19, 2007 02:04 PM

                                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. f
                                Fleur Nov 21, 2007 01:18 AM

                                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. k
                                  krandy21784 Nov 21, 2007 04:22 AM

                                  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. s
                                    Simon Nov 21, 2007 06:04 AM

                                    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. Cookiefiend Nov 21, 2007 09:03 AM

                                      My 2nd tier votes go to:

                                      Minneappolis/St Paul
                                      San Diego

                                      Excellent eats!

                                      1. notmartha Nov 21, 2007 11:43 AM

                                        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.

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