Food, glorious food! When you go on vacation, the culinary scene is no small consideration. Die hard foodies will travel some places primarily for the restaurant fare. You expect good food in cities like San Francisco, New York, New Orleans and Charleston, just to name a few. But as the nation becomes more obsessed than ever with food—think of all the cooking shows and magazines devoted to cuisine—truth is, there’s plenty good eating in some of the unlikeliest places.
Here are some of the under-the-radar foodie havens.
When you think of Kentucky, what likely comes to mind is Louisville and the Kentucky Derby. But put Lexington on your must-eat-there list. There are more than 120 locally-owned restaurants, including unexpected, international cuisines like Asian-fusion, South American, Sri Lankan and Caribbean. Lexington also features the state’s first indoor Aquaponics Farm (Food Chain), the Donut Trail, and six-time James Beard nominee chef Ouita Michel’s Honeywood. For more than a decade, folks in Lexington have enjoyed Sav’s Grill & West African Cuisine.
Mamadou “Sav” Savané grew up in Guinea, West Africa and learned cooking from his mother and sisters. His bowls of rice smothered in rich African sauces like “Peanut Goat” and “Mafen Veg” are favorites.
Since last year, one place to be seen and eat is the Lexington Distillery District. Not only are there a slew of restaurants, but the James Pepper Distillery and The Burl, a new live music hall. Lexington was early to get in on the food hall craze. It opened the state’s first one two years ago. The Barn features all-local, all-independent restaurateurs. Feast on pasture-raised chicken, Greek street, Japanese ramen and much more.
San Diego, California
San Francisco and Los Angeles get most of the buzz for California cuisine. But San Diego is no ugly stepsister. In fact, recently San Diego received the first Michelin star for one of its restaurants, Addison. What makes San Diego special? It’s a melting pot of culture from around the globe. One of the newest “it spots” is Fort Oak. Co-owner and chef, Brad Wise, is behind the good grub. He’s got cred, like recently cooking at the James Beard House last fall. Fort Oak is hip indeed. It’s located on Fort Stockton Drive at a former Ford dealership with historic significance to the exclusive San Diego neighborhood. The bar is housed in the original car dealership’s showroom while the dining room and chef’s kitchen are located on the ground floor of a new contemporary high-rise building by noted architect Jonathan Segal. Signature dishes include Goat Milk Cavatelli with charred broccoli, fennel sausage, truffle, soft herbs and grana di capra; Opah Belly Pastrami Toast with gribiche, mustard seed, pickled shallots, herb salad and egg yolk caviar, or try Chicken Fried Quail with cornbread, cabbage, local beans, red-eye gravy and dates; and Local Duck with heirloom beans, duck sausage, carrots, vadouvan, chervil. The mood is set with a vast, open kitchen. You’ll have the honor of watching your fine meal prepared over an open fire, 7,000-pound grill.
You know Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis, but these days, the food scene is the talk of this small town. One of the culinary stars is Mitch McCamey, who trained under James Beard Award-winning chefs. Word is he returned home to Tupelo to put his mark on Mississippi, and Southern culinary trends. Food gurus predict his restaurants and concepts will make Tupelo a competitor. His Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen (KOK) in downtown is the place for cocktails and wood-fired barbecue. The Neon Pig Café is McCamey’s eatery for award-winning smash burgers made to order on the grill and great local beer. Other popular places include Clay’s House of Pig and Blue Canoe.
Tybee Island, Georgia
The cooking is legendary in Atlanta and Savannah, but don’t dismiss little Tybee Island. From fresh-caught low country boils to seafood caught from the shores of Tybee Island the eating is good. If you fancy low country boil, check out The Crab Shack, a dockside restaurant overlooking Chimney Creek and the Atlantic Ocean. Enjoy crab legs, boiled shrimp, corn, potatoes, sausage and crawfish. Locals love Coco’s Sunset Grille for its calming view and signature dishes like Lazaretto steamed shrimp. At the Deck Beach Bar and Kitchen, it’s all about the fish and chips.
Bet you didn’t know Tucson was the first (and only one of two today) UNESCO designated City of Gastronomy in the United States. You’ll taste things there that you can’t anywhere else on the planet—cholla buds, chiltepins, mesquite flour and more. You would expect great Mexican food from this southwest locale, but that’s just part of the story. Take for example, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails—James Beard Award winning chef, Janos Wilder offers innovative farm-to-table cooking with global influences and killer cocktails. Then there’s Welcome Diner, a southern-tinged, southwestern located, farm-to-table American fare diner where they scratch cook with the finest local ingredients.
But don’t skip the classic El Charro. Established in 1922, El Charro Café of Tucson, Arizona is the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family. Featuring traditional Northern Mexico-Sonoran style and innovative Tucson-style Mexican Food. Legend has it that the chimichanga was created at El Charro.