Most Underrated Food Cities in the USA: Where to Find the New American Culinary Destinations

Over my 4 years of trying to complete 12 trips in 12 months, I have explored many cities around the United States. Which means… I have eaten many delicious meals in many cities around the USA! And let me tell you, this is a country that knows what good food looks like.

Coming from a major foodie city like Chicago, my standards for high quality foodie experiences are pretty high; but cities across the country live up to those expectations, thanks to a massive wave of urban (and culinary!) revitalization happening in all regions of the US. 

There are plenty of famous foodie cities in the US — New Orleans, New York, Austin, and San Francisco to name a few — while other cities struggle to gain a foothold among the culinary elites. Through my travels however, I have found that many cities actually do offer a similar level of quality and creativity in their cuisine. There are so many under rated foodies destinations with the US! Many of these lesser known culinary cities offer high-quality meals at a significantly lower cost with hidden restaurant gems that will absolutely blow your socks off. 

These are the most underrated food cities in the United States. You will find some of the most interesting new culinary scenes in the USA! 

Detroit, Michigan

The first city on my list of underrated food cities in the USA is Detroit, Michigan. Named one of the top destinations to visit in 2017 by the New York Times, Detroit residents are humble secret-keepers who have long known how awesome their city is. It is only in recent years that travelers like myself have discovered the deep culinary roots of this historic Midwestern city. 

A new wave of young entrepreneurs and chefs are pushing the boundaries of Detroit’s restaurant scene, while longtime mainstays continue to thrive on their loyal clientele, who after a few drinks might even spill about their favorite after-work food joints. There seem to be new restaurants popping up all the time, and on my last visit to Detroit, I managed to try two restaurants that had opened up within the last month. 

Starting with breakfast, the bright yet cozy Folk cafe in Corktown offers all-day healthy options, while the Detroit Institute of Bagels just down the street cranks out quick and tasty fresh bagel sandwiches with delightful cream cheese flavors.

For lunch, look no further than famed Green Dot Stables, a no-nonsense eatery that specializes in one thing—sliders. All sliders are served a-la-carte for $3-$5, ranging from a traditional beef slider to fried catfish to bologna to PB&J. Dinner options in Detroit are abundant, but I am personally a big fan of newcomer Grey Ghost and their new American share plates or the swanky downtown global cuisine served at Lumen.

Dallas, TX

The first of two Texan cities on this list, Dallas is the most underrated culinary destination in Texas. You’ll typically see Dallas’s culinary scene described as “up-and-coming” without many noteworthy spots, but after two visits to Dallas, I found that the city’s restaurant scene isn’t up-and-coming—it is up! 

You’re not going to stumble on an awesome foodie spot around every corner, but with a little bit of research and effort to find the gems, there are plenty of delightful restaurants, bars and cafes to explore in Dallas, Texas!

A wander through the Deep Ellum neighborhood offers foodies a bevy of delicious options, such as Pecan Lodge for BBQ, HIDE for avantgarde cocktails or Independent Bar + Kitchen for gastropub cuisine. One place you absolutely can’t miss is Emporium Pies. Between its two locations, Emporium is dishing up some of the best desserts in the city. 

Raleigh, North Carolina  

One of the few culinary traditions that is distinctly American is southern cuisine, yet its deep culinary traditions (and deliciousness) are often stereotyped as simply home cooking. It can be hard for people to see southern cuisine as upscale, but a crop of intrepid young chefs in Raleigh are taking on the challenge. 

Start with a quick baked good at Boulted Bread, which had the best croissant I ate in 2017. I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed the crispy, buttery and flakey croissant with a perfect ham and cheese filling. Next pay homage to the BBQ roots of North Carolina with a visit to the Pit. Referred to us by locals as the best BBQ place in the city, order the Double Combo which lets you try 4 different meats along with 4 different sides. All of the meat was incredible, but the highlights in my opinion were the chopped pork and fried chicken. 

Definitely the best meal I ate in Raleigh was at Death & Taxes by head chef Ashley Christensen. The open concept restaurant with a specialty for wood-fired dishes highlights and elevates southern cuisine while still retaining its distinct identity in dishes like roasted bone marrow, baked oysters, and fried chicken gnocchi. 

Finally, fulfill your sweet tooth with a bar of chocolate from Videri Chocolate’s flagship store & chocolate factory. You can go on a self-guided walking tour of the factory to learn about the bean-to-bar chocolate making process and Videri’s history. At the bar, you can sample a few different kinds of Videri’s chocolate or you can get a tasty drink made with chocolate like their sipping chocolate or mocha. 

Fort Collins, Colorado

Nestled along Colorado’s front range, Fort Collins has a reputation for being a college town with little more to offer a foodie traveler. But after spending 6 weeks at a job training in Fort Collins, I completely disagree, because I believe that Fort Collins is a really underrated culinary destination. With big companies like OtterBox and HP based in Fort Collins, there is a foodie clientele living here looking for great eateries to enjoy, many of which embody the Colorado culinary spirit!

The charming Jessup Farm is a great place to start when looking for something quintessentially FoCo. Restored and rebuilt on old farm property, Jessup Farm offers shopping, coffee, restaurants, and outdoor music during the summer. The Farmhouse is the main restaurant at Jessup Farm and serves up farm-to-table New American fare in a cozy and well-styled farmhouse. 

Another highlight for me is the high-brow cheese plate dished up at the Welsh Rabbit, whose sister-company allows patrons to buy the cheese to take home. Neighboring business Nuance Chocolate is an absolute must, where you can sample a single origin chocolate tasting flight. At $7.50 a pop, you want to make sure you choose your favorite flavor for the full-size bar to take home.

Kansas City, Missouri & Kansas 

The culinary scene in Kansas City has long been known for its barbecue prowess but little else until recent years. At the crossroads of the USA, Kansas City has a deep culinary history that has seen a recent revitalization from local residents reclaiming their food and restaurant scene. From famed BBQ to avant-grade new American cuisine, Kansas City offers a little something for any type of eater. 

I have visited Kansas City three separate times, and during each visit, there are newly opened spots to discover and fall in love with. 

If BBQ is what you’re after, there is no shortage of delicious spots to try. My favorite is Q39, a more upscale joint that offers classic barbecue dishes with rich and delicious BBQ sauces, including surprising seasonal flavors. A traditional local favorite is Arthur Bryant’s, which is often called the king of KC barbecue. Now infamous from “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” is the ‘grammable Joe’s Kansas City, whose Z-Man Sandwich piles pulled pork, cheese, and two onion rings onto a brioche bun will have you ready for a nap afterwards. 

Barbecue isn’t the only thing on the menu in Kansas City however, and its under-rated New American spots are worth the trip. Consider starting with brunch at the charming Happy Gillis, followed by a stylish yet affordable lunch at the Russell. You can end the day at one of the many delicious restaurants around the city, but a few of my favorites are Novel, Westside Local or Antler Room

Houston 

The sprawling mega-metropolis of Houston continues to grow year after year, attracting people from around the world. This diversity is visible in its global restaurant scene, which is one of the reasons I think it is an under-rated food city in the USA. You can take a tour around the world in one day with cuisines as diverse as Korean, Vietnamese and Polish!

The most famous local cuisines are definitely BBQ and Tex-Mex, which you can glimpse in my highlight video from Houston! 

Madison, Wisconsin

Madison is the place that taught me how to be a foodie, thanks to the blossoming food scene that is recognized throughout the Midwest as a cutting edge, ingredient focused city. There seems to be new (and great!) places opening up monthly. The best restaurants tend to cluster in the downtown Isthmus area, so it’s easy to explore many of them by foot or bicycle.

When it comes to brunch, the queen of Madison is definitely Sardine. I’ve never had a better crab cake then the ones there, and their ambiance is bar none in Madison. Lazy Jane’s offers a more chill breakfast atmosphere, or you can grab some bread to go at Madison Sourdough. Wisconsin is very proud of its cheese heritage, so you can’t go to Madison without trying some. Fromogination of the Capitol Square will make sure you sample some of the best from around the state.

For dinner, Mint Mark is the best in the city at the moment and its colorful Palm Springs inspired interior is unlike anywhere else in Madison. My favorite foodie dinner spot will always be Pig in a Fur Coat, whose pork laden fare single handedly changed my mind about nose to tail cooking. 

Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Mexican cuisine is not well-known outside of the American southwest, but its distinct flavors of new and old world are well-worth exploring. Santa Fe is one of the best (and most underrated!) cities for learning about and trying New Mexican cuisine. Now an icon of New Mexico, the famous Hatch chiles were originally brought by the colonial invaders in 1610. You’ll see green and red chiles on nearly every menu in Santa Fe.

A perennial brunch woman, I recommend starting any culinary adventures in Santa Fe at the bright and charming Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen. Their housemade kombucha and juice was delightful, and they’ve got fresh food like acorn squash egg in a hole or green chile omelette  to begin your day with something a little healthy. 

Most of the city’s best restaurants cluster around the downtown area. My favorite dinner in Santa Fe was at the refined New American restaurant Radish & Rye. I was a big fan of the corn chowder, fried green tomatoes and lamb chops, but they also have rock star cocktails! Other good dinner spots include Geronimo, Luminaria, or Sazon

Cleveland, Ohio

Like many other transitioning cities in the Midwest, Cleveland is a city that faces a lot of challenges; but locals have a palpable pride in their city which I felt from the second I arrived. One of the things they seem to be most proud of is their under-the-radar culinary scene which is dedicated to local cuisine and ingredients. 

Westside Market, the oldest indoor/outdoor food market in the city, is a perfect place to glimpse into Cleveland’s culinary roots.With more than 100 vendors, you can sample items ranging from cheese and meat to gyros and tacos. You can’t go to Cleveland without a stop at the delightful Mitchell’s Ice Cream, which is only a few blocks north of West Side Market. Their flagship location lets you watch the ice cream churning while you enjoy delicious flavors such as bing cherry chocolate chunk or campfire s’mores. 

For breakfast options, don’t miss the Cleveland Bagel Company whose housemade bagels are something special. Their flavors are simple but perfect and their cream cheese is SO good. Brewnuts is another good option, which combines cult favorites — beer and donuts. Their instagrammable interior is the perfect backdrop for their extravagant donuts, which range in flavor from Butterfinger to Strawberry Sprinkle, all with the option to add on a pint of your favorite craft beer. 

I discovered during my 2 trips to Cleveland that handheld foods are another local favorite. Swing by Slymans, a local institution, for one of the best corned beef sandwiches you’ll ever have. It is cheap and messy and totally worth it. Happy Dog serves up loaded hotdogs in a variety of unique and fully-loaded options. 

Did I miss any of your favorite underrated food cities in the US? Comment below with your most memorable meals from around the country!

Author: Megan Arz

I am a travel and food obsessed Midwesterner living in Chicago and dreaming of the world. I work as a full-time program manager for Greenheart Travel, but I am also committed to integrating the travel lifestyle into my every day routines. I am passionate about ethical travel, meeting new people, creating unique memories and eating local cuisine!

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