Lemon sorbet at Mixtli in San Antonio. (Photographer: Caroline Hatchett)

Want to Try the Most Exciting Food in America? Leave New York City

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Still think the most interesting dining scene is in the Big Apple? Fugheddaboudit! It’s so-called second cities that are leading the charge when it comes to culinary innovation in America.

So, what’s a second city, anyway?

The locations selected here traditionally have been overshadowed by a larger metropolitan neighbor. (These spots are all east of the Rockies; most cities on the West Coast don’t have the same sense of culinary rivalry.)

Philadelphia

The City of Brotherly Love is a delicious affair

A decade ago it would have been inconceivable that Manhattan East Side real estate would be advertised for its proximity to Queens. Then came the announcement of Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters, in the outer borough. Equally incredible would be the idea that New Yorkers would covet any Philadelphia food beyond a cheesesteak. Yet Philly has a scene that is outpacing the Big Apple’s for several reasons. First, rents are cheaper (see sidebar). And New York’s new minimum wage law mandates $15 an hour for employers of 11 people or more, while Philadelphia’s minimum wage is $7.25. Such economic realities are incentives for enterprising chefs who once would have felt the need to make their name in Manhattan. Another, less-heralded reason is Pennsylvania’s archaic BYOB laws: Liquor licenses are prohibitively expensive in Philly, so restaurants have had to make their food notable because they can’t make much money on liquor. Meanwhile, local chefs have gained a national profile. Michael Solomonov, chef and co-owner of Israeli restaurant Zahav, was named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation; Stephen Starr, another longtime local legend, was awarded Outstanding Restaurateur.

Want to Try the Most Exciting Food in America? Leave New York City

La Colombe, one of the country’s premium coffee chains, started in Philly in 1993. It now has cafes nationwide and sought a $1 billion valuation in 2018. Twenty-five years ago, founder Todd Carmichael scouted a few East Coast cities including New York, Atlanta, and Miami with $100,000 in travelers checks in his hand. He got a meeting with Governor Ed Rendell, who said he’d back the project. “Could I have gotten a meeting with the governor and started my company with $100K in New York?” Carmichael asks. “No way.”

Want to Try the Most Exciting Food in America? Leave New York City

The Checklist

Irwin’s Upstairs
Located on the top floor of a former vocational school, this hard-to-find spot features graffiti on the walls, views of the city, and quirky Mediterranean shared plates like lamb kofta two ways.

Palizzi Social Club
This recently renovated 101-year-old venue specializes in expertly made classics including Caesar salad and egg yolk-filled ravioli. Its history is inescapable: Even the drinks are named for past presidents of the club.

Lokal Hotel
The Philly-based mini hotel chain promises rooms outfitted like stylish apartments and “invisible service”— with no staff. The newest location is in trendy Fishtown.

Suraya
Highly anticipated when it opened in 2017, Suraya revealed intriguingly spiced dishes and a bakery counter. Now this Lebanese restaurant with a light-filled outdoor garden and a market selection of specialty foods and goods has become a staple in Fishtown.

The Bourse
Set in an 1890s Beaux Arts building that used to house the commodities exchange, this food hall serves local delicacies like sandwiches from South Philly’s Rustica Rosticceria and cocktails by Bluebird Distilling.Irwin’s Upstairs

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San Antonio

Remember more than the Alamo in chili con carne’s birthplace

When it comes to food, San Antonio’s reputation used to be defined by Tex-Mex. But over the past decade, the south central Texas city has broadened its culinary appeal to challenge its more famous foodie neighbor Austin. Much of the credit goes to the Pearl, the former brewery that’s been developed by billionaire Christopher Goldsbury. The 22-acre location opened in 2008 and houses 19 food and beverage spots. Opening in January is Savor, a restaurant from the Culinary Institute of America that will be a training ground for aspiring chefs. “When we started with three culinary operators, even that felt risky,” says Elizabeth Fauerso, the Pearl’s chief marketing officer. “San Antonio did not have a reputation for supporting chef-driven restaurants.” Now it’s also home to Hotel Emma, a 146-room property with a grocery kiosk, Larder. “It’s still wide open here,” says native Charlie Biederharn, co-founder of Bakery Lorraine, which has five locations in San Antonio.

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The Checklist

Bottling Dept Food Hall
Built on the original site of the Pearl brewery’s bottling department, San Antonio’s first food hall features local vendors such as Maybelle’s Donuts, the latest hit from the co-founders of the popular pastry shop Bakery Lorraine.

Clementine
Opened in early 2018, this Castle Hills spot features updated Southern cooking. Try the country-fried quail with pickled peppers and spicy mayo.

Mixtli
Offering a “progressive culinaria” tasting menu, this Mexican restaurant is located in a converted rail car inside “the yard” in Olmos Park.

Alamo BBQ Co
A collaboration between the Two Bros. BBQ Market and the local empire-building chef Jason Dady. The specialty here is Texas-style barbecue in the form of smoked beef brisket and sausage.

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Minneapolis

Sophisticated cuisine without the big-city pretense

“Twenty years ago, most restaurants were chains or corporate,” says Ann Kim, chef and owner of Young Joni. “There weren’t lots of smaller, chef-driven spots.” Today, with 18 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the area, Minneapolis chefs have discovered the more “sophisticated” palates of well-traveled executives, says New York transplant Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable Restaurant and Bellecour. Minneapolis has added people, too—about a quarter million new residents since 2010—but the cost of living has remained lower than many Midwestern metro areas, including Chicago. Neighborhoods beyond downtown have become destination-worthy as well: North Loop is the most happening, but Uptown, Linden Hills, and Lowertown in neighboring Saint Paul all have thriving dining scenes.

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The Checklist

Bellecour
Before Gavin Kaysen’s tasting menu venue Demi opens in February, revisit his French restaurant in suburban Wayzata.

Young Joni
Ann Kim’s simply prepared wood-oven pies at Pizzeria Lola put her on the map, but her buzzy North Loop restaurant adds more exotic ingredients to pies—Spanish chorizo, La Quercia prosciutto—to pair with cocktails including sarsaparilla and caipirinhas.

Grand Cafe
Jamie Malone has lovingly reimagined this local favorite. She kept the name but put her own spin on its classic French fare.

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Indianapolis

On the fast track to fine food

Its name may still conjure images of car racing, but Indianapolis, just three hours south of Chicago, is taking its own victory lap when it comes to imaginative and innovative food. That success is due in part to public and private partnerships ushering people to foodie destinations including Fountain Square and Broad Ripple Village. The 16-mile Monon Trail and the 2013 opening of the Cultural Trail were two of the milestones that connected residents of the northern suburbs to downtown dining.

Want to Try the Most Exciting Food in America? Leave New York City

Other fundamentals such as a low cost of living, a business-friendly climate, and supportive leaders contribute to the city’s development, says Isaac Bamgbose of Hendricks Commercial Properties LLC, the developer behind the BottleWorks food hall, office, and residential complex in the Massachusetts Avenue Arts District. “There’s a vibrancy here to grow and do better than the past,” he says.

Meanwhile, major companies such as Salesforce.com Inc. and Roche Diagnostics have expanded in the city and tapped an eager workforce coming out of area universities, helping stem a brain drain to the coasts. Couple that with the city’s expertise as a sports host, and there’s a guaranteed number of regular international tourists flooding hotels and restaurants.

The result is a fertile food environment: Neal Brown makes stellar cocktails and “bar food” every night at Libertine Liquor Bar, and his most recent project is the popular omakase spot Ukiyo. The city’s premier restaurateur, Martha Hoover, has expanded her Patachou empire into five concepts and 14 locations. Meanwhile, Jonathan Brooks upends traditional Midwestern dinner at his neighborhood restaurant Beholder; his Milktooth, on the other hand, reinvents the basic brunch of pancakes, eggs, and bacon. “I was shocked by the local and national enthusiasm,” says Brooks. “Chicken livers and uni for breakfast? People embraced it.”

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The Checklist

Beholder
Jonathan Brooks’s ode to Midwest ingredients is defined by his imaginative preparations.

Ukiyo
A Japanese-inspired, reservation-only bar from Neal Brown that also serves ramen and Kappo-style (i.e., small) plates.

Oca
Indianapolis’s charcuterie experts Smoking Goose offer up high-end hot dogs (think currywurst topped with crab slaw) inside Sun King Brewing.

Inferno Room
This hip Polynesian-inspired cocktail bar in Fountain Square is from Ed Rudisell, one of the city’s most inventive restaurateurs.

Public Greens
The latest from Martha Hoover’s team serves seasonal salads and plates of fresh veggies including produce that is grown on-site.

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Asheville

A hub for craft beer gets a reputation for memorable food

On the face of it, Asheville has a few things in common with celebrated neighbor Nashville: great music, notable art galleries, and a food scene that is dramatically raising its profile. But while the “Nash-vegas” moniker took hold of the Tennessee capital, thanks in part to restaurateurs from other cities expanding there, North Carolina’s Asheville was forging its own reputation. For a while it was the craft beer that drew travelers—the city consistently ranks as one of the top three in the U.S. for beer drinkers—but now it also has destination restaurants. Katie Button, an alum of El Bulli in Spain and a protégé of José Andrés, will inaugurate Chow Chow, a food festival that focuses on local vendors, later this year. Until then, check out her bagel shop, Button & Co., which uses locally milled grains for an Ashevillian take on the New York classic. Fig and sorghum is a seasonal flavor blend you won’t find at many bagel shops.

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The Checklist

Highland Brewing Company
In its 40-acre space, the city’s original craft brewery has a rooftop deck with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and solid beers including Midnight Summit, a vanilla milk stout.

Early Girl Eatery
Everything is made from scratch at this all-day breakfast staple on Asheville’s Wall Street. A second location is on the way in hip West Asheville. The Early Girl eggs Benedict with fried green tomatoes, local country ham, and herbed fromage blanc is deservedly famous.

Asheville Tea Company
Calling her offerings the city’s “other craft brew,” owner Jessie Dean showcases tea cooking classes and unique blends at her new pop-up shop in West Asheville.

French Broad Chocolates
Known for bean-to-bar creations and superb drinking chocolates, this factory has a new cafe and creamery.

Hotel Arras
In the iconic former BB&T building downtown, this boutique hotel is opening this spring and will offer 128 guest rooms and suites, plus an extensive local art collection.

Want to Try the Most Exciting Food in America? Leave New York City

Richmond

The buzz outside of D.C. is all about butchers and brews

Coming home to Richmond wasn’t an easy choice in 2012, says Brittanny Anderson. But the James Beard-nominated chef, who trained at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York’s Hudson Valley, now has two restaurants: Metzger Bar & Butchery and Brenner Pass. It’s called the “boomerang”—in which young entrepreneurs move home after cooking elsewhere—and one of the hallmarks of the food scene here. Less than three hours from Washington, the Virginia capital has a low cost of living and top-tier universities as additional draws. Patrick Phelan, co-chef and co-owner of tasting menu joint Longoven, says he found it prohibitively expensive to open a restaurant in bigger markets, so he boomeranged back. “I was hungry to get to an environment where I knew my neighbors,” he says.

Want to Try the Most Exciting Food in America? Leave New York City

The Checklist

Longoven
A dinner series pop-up transformed into a tasting menu destination by three friends. Dishes include cauliflower with oyster cream and roasted pheasant.

Brenner Pass
A rare take on the cuisine of the Alps, including mortadella schnitzel sandwiches.

Vasen Brewing Company
The Scott’s Addition neighborhood staple prides itself on sustainable beers.

ZZQ
Authentic barbecue by Texas transplant Chris Fultz and Alex Graf gets a brick-and-mortar home after years as a food truck.

Alewife
Lee Gregory’s first solo project takes on sustainable Chesapeake Bay seafood.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Rovzar at crovzar@bloomberg.net, James Gaddy

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