What makes a great food city?

November 29, 2020 | The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema dishes on America's best food cities (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON — He flew, he ate, he conquered — and then he assessed.

This past year, Washington Post Food Critic Tom Sietsema embarked on a cross-country journey to more than a dozen destinations in search of the America’s best food cities. He sampled shrimp and grits in Charleston, bit into barbecue in Houston, and munched on muffulettas in New Orleans.

Taking into consideration each city’s restaurant offerings, as well as service, shopping, creativity and community, Sietsema ranked his experiences and published the results.

It’s no surprise that the culinary giants (Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles) made the top 10 list, but some cities surprised even Sietsema — including his hometown.

“I wasn’t sure until I had traveled to at least 10 cities that Washington would be on there too,” Sietsema says. “Washington is a city that I know very well, and that was initially a disadvantage because … I know its weaknesses as well as its strengths.”

But D.C. did make the list at no. 9, just ahead of Charleston — and it did so for a few reasons.

Sietsema says in the last few years, the District has emerged as a “really important food city.”

“It certainly helps that we have a president and a first lady who like to eat out a great deal; they help bring recognition to the city. But we’ve also got a lot of chefs coming in from out of town, we’ve got local chefs who have been on the scene for a while who are sort of stepping up their game, and then we’ve got a few things that are really unique to us,” he says.

Take for example, the modern Indian offerings at Vikram Sunderam’s Rasika, as well as the beyond-the-plate mentality of chef-activists, such as José Andrés, who lectures at Harvard and heads up humanitarian efforts.

“We’re a city of 2,000 restaurants and about 650,000 people, and I think for our size market we’re really doing some remarkable things here.”

And while Sietsema acknowledges that unlike other top food cities, D.C. lacks a “signature dish,” he says that’s no reason to dock points.

“As one chef told me here in town, ‘We’re not one thing, we’re many things,’ and I think that’s so true. We’ve got many different cuisines represented here, and we are a small market, of course, but we do have a little bit of everything from around the globe.”

New York gets knocked; Philly gets praised

Another surprise on the list is New York’s ranking at no. 8. One might expect a city with so many Michelin-star restaurants to land a bit closer to the top.

Sietsema says outside of D.C., he spent the most time — and the most money — in the Big Apple and its boroughs, but was underwhelmed.

“I just felt like this was not New York’s year,” he says. “The dirty little secret among a lot of food writers I know is that New York is sort of resting on its laurels right now, and other smaller markets seem to be working harder at being better.”

Philadelphia, on the other hand, excited Sietsema — but not with its cheesesteaks and Italian subs.

“It has some of the best vegan and vegetarian food in the country,” says Sietsema, who dined at the upscale Vedge restaurant and its casual counterpart V Street.

“I’m a carnivore, but I love it when people treat vegetables with the same respect that they accord meat,” he says.

Portland defeats all

Sliding in just ahead of San Francisco, Sietsema awarded the “best food city” title to Portland. “On every point, expect for fine dining, they just hit it out of the ballpark,” he says.

One reason he found Portland so tasty is because it has some of the best ingredients with which to work.

“It’s like the streams and the mountains and the forests are just this big pantry that they can get great fish and seafood from, some of the best mushrooms in the country … berries so fragile that they never leave the state,” Sietsema says.

It’s also a city that’s perfected the “building blocks” of a great food community — wine, coffee and bread — and is one that’s big on breakfast.

“Because there’s not one industry there, like there is in a lot of other cities, people have more time for breakfast,” Sietsema explains. “You know, a lot of creative types might not have the money to spend on food, so they take breakfast really, really seriously out there.”

Find the full list of rankings and read Sietsema’s review of each city in The Washington Post.

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