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4 Great Foodie Cities

Here are four cities that aren’t known for their food scenes — but ought to be.

A collage of American food.

Editor’s Note: This article was planned in a prepandemic world — when restaurants, art museums, and state parks were all open — but it’s full of great ideas for a post-pandemic trip.

Whenever I start searching for my next travel destination, I don’t look for landmarks or monuments — I focus on food. I pour hours (yes, really) into researching local food scenes and dining cultures. The most appealing coffee haunts, grain-alternative bakeries, and lunch spots inspire my wanderlust (and taste buds).

Though years ago I had to hunt zealously to locate gluten- and dairy-free menu items, I can now find a good meal with fresh ingredients most anywhere.

These four cities offer surprising gastronomy that will entice any palate.

Soul Food

Birmingham, Ala.

“Bham,” as it’s locally known, lies in the heart of the South, which means you’ll find plenty of Southern hospitality and food that feeds the soul.

“Birmingham is unique because you can feel that soul, and you can’t fake it,” says restaurateur Will Haver, a Bham native.

Farm-to-table isn’t a trend here — it’s how they’ve always sourced and prepared their food. Yet a number of local chefs have recently invested in farms to raise ingredient sourcing to the next level.

Beyond garden-fresh produce, the food culture is diverse. There’s an array of food styles to choose from, including James Beard Award–winning meals (Highlands Bar and Grill), global eats (Zoës Kitchen), and salad bowls and smoothies (Blueroot Company and Greenhouse Cafe).

“We’re pretty spoiled in Birmingham, because there’s a lot of great food,” Haver says.

And more restaurants are catering to diverse dietary preferences, he adds. As chefs become more knowledgeable about prepping different foods, they’ve become better equipped to accommodate individual needs.

Suggested Itinerary:

Work up your appetite at Lake Martin, about 90 minutes outside the city, where you can hike, mountain bike, or kayak. Then refuel with fresh Mexican fare at Taco Mama.

Cap off your meal with a visit to Golden Age Wine, where the vintners let natural fermentation do the work. If you still have room, add a cheese plate — it’s a tasty complement to your pét-nat.

Finish the day by sampling handcrafted beers at Avondale Brewing Company while enjoying live music in their greenspace — kids and furry friends welcome.

Rock-Star Dining

Cleveland

When you think of “the breadbasket of America,” as wine expert Sean Cathcart describes his hometown, you may conjure up ideas of hearty lunch-pail food. But here, corned-beef sandwiches and bratwursts have evolved into banh mi bowls and mushroom beignets.

Critics have touted Cleveland’s wide array of eateries as “unexpected,” but high-quality food is now more the norm than the exception since young chefs have diversified the field of dining options. Many of them have launched their own sustainable restaurant concepts, even taking it a step further by focusing primarily on sourcing. Some have opened their own butcher shops or bought farms.

“Agriculture is a huge part of the Midwest — not just the economy but the culture as well,” says Cathcart. As a result, regionally sourced ingredients are nothing new to Clevelanders.

Housemade charcuterie appear on most menus across town, as if in homage to the culture’s farming roots. Sustainability isn’t so much a trend but a way of life; chefs are dedicated to nose-to-tail cooking.

And though menus tend to be heavy on animal protein, vegetarian dishes are worth exploring. They allow the quality of their plant-based ingredients to shine.

Suggested Itinerary:

Before embarking on your culinary food tour, explore the city with a jaunt on the iconic 87-mile Towpath Trail. With options that include birding, biking, and horseback riding, it offers something for everyone.

If it’s raining, head to the free Cleveland Museum of Art, where you can view a version of Rodin’s The Thinker, or learn some music history at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

When you’re ready to recharge, C-town’s farm-to-table mainstay, the Flying Fig, can satisfy any dietary need and appetite.

Or try Banter, a nod to the Forest City’s Polish roots. Folks can choose a craft beer or fine wine from their globally curated bottle shop and then enjoy a house-made sausage or an eclectic poutine — black-bean brat and gluten-free bun options available!

Bayside Treats

Traverse City, Mich.

Like the grand food cities in southern France, in northern Italy, and at the tip of Japan, Traverse City resides on the 45th parallel. And it offers small-town charm with big-city food clout.

Along the shores of Lake Michigan, “TC” features a unique landscape and a climate that produces wonderful food, including tart cherries and grapes. “The landscape has attracted money,” says Scott Swanson, a local restaurant-industry veteran. “And the money has attracted some amazing food and chefs from all over the world.”

Nestled between fresh water and farmland, the city has cultivated a farm-to-fork cuisine that takes full advantage of the region’s bountiful harvests. Restaurants would “be silly not to,” says Swanson. Vegetarians, pescatarians, and the gluten-averse will all find something to enjoy.

TC’s distinctive terroir has fostered a dynamic wine (remember those grapes?) and cider scene. At 2 Lads Winery, sustainable farming methods and gentle handling techniques produce eco-friendly, cool-climate reds.

Meanwhile, St. Ambrose Cellars has attracted buzz for its eclectic mix of handcrafted libations. It was founded by beekeepers who turned to making mead, then wine and cider, and finally beer. Pair your adult beverage with live music, disc golf, bocce ball, and brick-oven pizza.

Suggested Itinerary:

Rent a boat or a stand-up paddleboard to explore Grand Traverse Bay, Boardman River, or one of the nearby lakes. For a slower-paced adventure, check out the popular Sara Hardy Farmers’ Market for local cherries and other prized produce.

When hunger calls, stop by Fire Fly on the riverfront for a cocktail or sushi roll with a view. Then make your way to The Cooks’ House, a favorite local spot. With only 26 seats in its minimalist dining room, the small space allows you to focus on all the flavors from land and lagoon.

Peak Eats

Salt Lake City

There’s no shortage of activities for outdoor enthusiasts at the crossroads of the West. Within 30 minutes of downtown Salt Lake City, you’ll find five world-class ski resorts and hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails.

Thankfully, this city is an après-ski afterthought no more. In recent years, it’s created a booming food scene, actively recruiting chefs from culinary schools in Los Angeles and New York. Famished skiers and hikers can now choose from a range of sustainably sourced, locally grown, and housemade delights.

The swift uptick in dining options across this traditionally carnivorous-forward town features a uniting theme: real food.

“Our chef-driven restaurants switch up menus to support in-season ingredients,” says Ryan Roggensack, founder of Salt Plate City. “Many grow their own vegetables and source from ranches around the Intermountain West.”

This commitment to purveyors that respect the integrity of the ingredients they source is generating plant-based entrées that will even appeal to meat eaters.

Suggested Itinerary:

Before heading out into nature’s playground, check out the Rose Establishment bakery for one of many freshly made tartines (on gluten-free bread if you wish) and a housemade cashew-milk latte.

After exhausting yourself at nearby Antelope Island State Park or Snowbird Ski Resort (open year-round), nosh at one of the city’s modern American cafés. Handle Salt Lake (HSL), along with its original Park City location, offers mainly organic small plates, including veggie options, like a vegetable tartare and sunchoke tostada.

At one of Roggensack’s favorite spots — the SLC Eatery — the chef creates fresh takes on familiar favorites. For example, a rhubarb-amaretto glaze elevates humble chicken thighs.

Top off your day with a visit to Brewery Row, where you can pick from a number of charming taprooms.

This originally appeared as “Hidden Delights ” in the May 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

is an Experience Life audience-development manager.

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