Feature

The Top 17 Food Cities of 2015

By Zagat Staff  |  December 15, 2015
Credit: Stateside

2015 proved that culinary innovation is booming in cities outside of the usual suspects like NYC and SF. With chefs spreading out to smaller markets across the country, food scenes are ramping up in more unexpected places. But which food town had the biggest growth spurt in 2015? For one final look back, we've asked editors around the country to make a case for the city they believe had the biggest year in food by examining at the caliber of new openings, award-recognition and national media attention had by each, be it their home turf or elsewhere. Click through to see the top dining towns of 2015. Did we leave out your pick? Tell us in the comments.

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  • Credit: Bracero Cocina

    No. 17: San Diego

    2015 showed that San Diego is ready to compete in the national food arena. Tacos — and some might argue they’re among the best in the country — still lead as the most sought-out food, but Baja cuisine has been making a big splash that will affect the far corners of the county. Javier Plascencia’s Bracero Cocina, which debuted this summer, leads the pack in the Baja movement, unveiling modern takes on rustic Mexican fare including dishes that hearken back to his childhood. Local chef Trey Froshee got into the taco act unleashing Galaxy Taco for the La Jolla crowd. And there’s been one highly, anticipated notable second act.

    Richard Blais and his team, who introduced Little Italy’s Juniper & Ivy last year, followed up with The Crack Shack, a casual, outdoor concept featuring chicken as the headlining ingredient making chef-driven fare affordable with no reservations required. The city on the whole has been put in the spotlight, being a location in this fall’s Top Chef season 13 along with San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Palm Springs. Further, San Diego’s own Chad White is among the contestants. Recent chef shuffles and departures, including White’s own move from San Diego to his hometown of Spokane, Washington, and a handful of restaurant closings proves that the city has some growing pains but there’s lots of room to move upward.

    —Darlene Alilain-Horn

  • No. 16: Miami

    2015 was an action-packed year for Miami’s culinary scene, showing an impressive evolution from a land of DJs and parties to a hot dining destination that is catching up to the rest of the country. Miami hotels were the new place to be for celebrity chefs this year, with all-star arrivals like Alex Guarnaschelli’s Driftwood Room at the Nautilus and Tom Colicchio’s Beachcraft at the One Hotel, while New York and Philadelphia food meccas also got their share of the Miami pie with new transplants like Stephen Starr's The Continental, TALDE and Quality MeatsHomegrown talent like Michelle Bernstein and Brad Kilgore have carved out a global culinary scene with a distinct Miami flavor, and international events like Art Basel are putting the spotlight on the food just as much as the art, with a slew of of innovative dinners and pop-ups by famous names like Dean & DeLuca.

    —Michelle Muslera

  • Credit: Westendorff

    No. 15: Charleston

    Charleston is the food capital that never quits. Every year, Chucktown gets a slew of innovative new concepts. 2015 was certainly no different. Jason Stanhope, executive chef of perennial favorite FIG, got his first James Beard for Best Chef: Southeast. The Indigo Road group, the team responsible for the Macintosh (helmed by three-time Beard nominee Jeremiah Bacon) opened Mercantile and Mash, inside the renovated Cigar Factory, the minimalist-industrial space that blends cafe/kitchen shop with a vibrant bar. Still, this year's design award goes to the Westendorff. The former hardware store turned upscale comfort-fare restaurant was covered in Architectural Digest. Another spot bringing the ambiance is 492, a place specializing in technique-driven small plates and impressive cocktails. On the other side of town (and the restaurant spectrum), modern soda shop Parlor Deluxe has been lauded by local papers and Food & Wine for its fun Americana menu featuring hot dogs, tater tots, waffles and sundaes. 

    Sara Ventiera

  • Credit: Ponce City Market

    No. 14: Atlanta

    After years of stepping up its culinary game, Atlanta has done nothing but continue to excel in the culinary realm. The upscale food halls Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market have breathed new life into neighborhoods; nationally acclaimed chefs are setting up shop (Sean Brock’s Minero, Jonathan Waxman’s Brezza); local restaurateur Ford Fry opened numerous upscale spots and is starting to expand further afield (to Houston and Charleston); multiple teams of chefs cooked meals at the James Beard House in 2015; and new ATL spots (Atlas, Himitsu, Revival) drew accolades from across the country. Visitors to town still ask about the fried chicken, and yes, Atlanta does that expertly, but the Southern food is so much more, and you can find all of it in the A. Capital of the South? It’s time to think bigger than that.

    –Christopher Hassiotis

  • Credit: Stateside

    No. 13: Seattle

    Home of oyster goddess (and 2015 James Beard nom for her spot The Whale Wins) Renee Erickson and so much nano-batch roasted coffee one could drown in it, there was much more to be giddy about when it came to food in Seattle in 2015. Not only did we make national news when we raised the minimum wage to $15 and a few restaurateurs implemented service charges, eliminating tipping and helping workers get a fair wage, but we stole Eric Johnson (Stateside) from NYC, Brandon Kirksey (Girin) from San Francisco’s Flour +Water and the Huxley Wallace Collective (Westward, Quality Athletics) straight-up robbed Chicago for their roster of new spots scheduled to open in 2016, bringing in Eric Rivera from Alinea, Jon Clark from The Aviary and Aras Dailide from Soho House.

    Chef couple Eric and Alex Pemoulie of Jersey City's Thirty Acres are also headed our way to open a sandwich shop, as revealed in a now infamous Grub Street rant from Mr. Pemoulie. Lastly, magazines loved us, naming Manolin as one of Bon Appetit​'s Hot 10 and Zoi Antonitsas (Omega Ouzeri), Garrett Melkonian (Mamnoon) and Eric Sakai (Restaurant Marron) getting nominated for Food & Wine's People's Chef.

    —Jackie Varriano

  • No. 12: Denver

    As Denver's culinary climate continues to soar, the Mile High City's restaurants and chefs –– as well as the foodies who live here –– are celebrating its gastronomic prowess. And so are national media outlets. Uncle, Tommy Lee's insanely popular noodle house, secured a notch on USA Today's roster of the top 10 ramen restaurants in the country, while Punch Bowl Social, Robert Thompson's playful restaurant and entertainment mecca, was named one of the 10 Breakout Brands by Nation's Restaurant News. Forbes.com recognized Jennifer Jasinski, the James Beard Award–winning restaurateur and kitchen magician who presides over Euclid Hall, Bistro Vendome and Stoic & Genuine, as one of the top 10 female chefs in the country –– and speaking of Stoic & Genuine, it was also named one of the "Coolest Train Station Restaurants" in the world by Travel + Leisure. Meanwhile, Bon Appétit singled out The Source, a European-inspired market for its "newer take on the classic artisan food market," while the Food Network named Avanti Food & Beverage, a collective food hall, one of Denver's must-visit destinations.

    In addition, several Colorado chefs and restaurants, including Dana Rodriguez (Work & Class); Alex Seidel (Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provision); Steve Redzikowski (Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn); and Frasca Food &Wine were all named as James Beard Foundation semi-finalists. And Redzikowski was also a Food & Wine magazine People's Best New Chef nominee. And while Denver's food scene is on fire, so is its cocktail culture. At this year's Spirited Awards, the Best American Cocktail Bar award was bestowed upon Denver's Williams & Graham, Sean Kenyon's sultry speakeasy. Esquire magazine waxed poetic about Williams & Graham, too, calling it a "meticulously crafted fantasy."

    Lori Midson

  • Credit: Bonjwing Photography

    No. 11: Minneapolis

    When Gavin Kaysen left New York City’s Cafe Boulud to open Spoon and Stable in his native Minneapolis, his welcome home gift included two 2015 James Beard nominations, New York Times coverage and Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year honors. Kaysen puts a French accent on American fare at his industrial-chic North Loop eatery, which starred in a summer Saveur feature calling Minneapolis “America's next great food city.” Over at Revival, a playful south Minneapolis destination that debuted this spring, Thomas Boemer channels flavors from his North Carolina childhood: think perfectly crispy fried chicken with sorghum butter biscuits and Southern sides. And, from former La Belle Vie talent Mike DeCamp’s refined coastal Italian fare at Monello to standout craft beer and food pairings at Surly’s Brewer’s Table (part of a new $30 million destination brewery and beer hall), 2015 marks the year that culinary dreamers reshaped the menu in Minneapolis.

    —Renee Brincks

  • No. 10: Philadelphia

    Over the past few years our neighbors to the north (we’re looking at you, New York) have been making the occasional day trip down and returning with tales of incredible sandwiches and magical fried chicken and donuts. This year those day trips turned into overnighters with the addition of Dizengoff in late 2014, a world-class hummusiya (that's also coming to NYC) and the James Beard–nominated Abe Fisher, a spot focusing on the vast and varied cuisines of the far-flung Jewish diaspora. Pizzeria Beddia, unassuming pizza spot nabbed the title “best pizza in America” from a certain well-read publication and our very own Marc Vetri joined forces with Urban Outfitters in an unprecedented partnership that’s going to bring his unique takes on Italian fare to a very national market. On a more grassroots level, this year saw the opening of South Philly Barbacoa, a stellar lamb taco spot that’s working to gain attention for undocumented restaurant workers.

    —Caroline Russock

  • Credit: Bret Redman

    No. 9: Dallas

    In a city known for great Tex-Mex food and a high per-capita roster of steakhouses, Dallas continues to raise the bar for innovative fare well beyond those two genres. 2015 saw a who’s who of rising-star and household-name chefs open new restaurants, most recently James Beard Award semi-finalist Matt McCallister’s much-anticipated Filament and Graham Dodds' post-Hibiscus eatery, Wayward Sons. James Beard Award–winning chef Tim Byres and exec chef Scott Romano are elevating the mall restaurant with The Theodore at iconic NorthPark Center. The team behind celebrated Boulevardier took up Lowest Greenville residency with Rapscallion, across the street from early-in-the-year newcomer Remedy, a contemporary spin on old-fashioned soda fountains. For a barbecue town like Dallas, it was fun to see 18th & Vine successfully bring Kansas City–style BBQ to the table with tons of accolades pouring in from critics and diners alike. Plus, the Austin invasion continued with notable favorites Uchi (from James Beard Award winner Tyson Cole) and Tacodeli proving that fanatical followings in the state capital can translate well to North Texas. All in all, it was a spectacular year for food enthusiasts in Big D.

    —Steven Lindsey

  • Credit: Kachka

    No. 8: Portland

    The birthplace of James Beard, Portland has a reputation to uphold as a mecca for chefs to showcase their talents. Of the 10 finalists for the Food & Wine People’s Best New Chef 2015 awards, five were Portland implants with kitchen roots in New York: Joshua McFadden of Ava Gene’s made kale salad New York Times–famous at Franny’s; Sarah Pliner of Aviary has trained with Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Aquavit and Aldea; Johanna Ware of Smallwares worked at Momofuku Noodle and Ssäm bars; and Justin Woodward of Castagna, also a James Beard 2015 nominee for Best Chef: Northwest, came from WD-50. Last but not least, Bonnie Morales worked at Craft before opening Kachka, a Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurant 2015 nominee acclaimed for its polished Soviet-style food. At Milk Glass Mrkt, another BA nominee, Nancye Benson is bringing her food-cart-famous cheddar biscuits to Portland's booming breakfast scene, and the French-inspired Coquine, open since July, is helmed by Katy Millard, whose resume includes Coi and top-rated restaurants across France.

    —Elaheh Nozari

  • Credit: April Dawn Storm/LiholihoYachtClub

    No. 7: San Francisco

    From Ravi Kapur’s Liholiho Yacht Club to Melissa Perello’s Octavia to Dominique Crenn's Petit Crenn, San Francisco’s 2015 was packed with high-profile restaurant openings, including US debuts from internationally renowned chefs, like Cala, Gabriela Cámara’s first foray into the country. SF newcomer Al’s Place won Bon Appétit’s title of Best New Restaurant, beating out top contenders like Cosme in New York and Dove’s Luncheonette in Chicago. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a concentration of exciting and invigorating restaurants in a single year,” the magazine’s restaurant editor gushed. At the 2015 James Beard Awards, the Bay Area took home some of the most coveted awards of the night (Jessica Largey for Rising Star Chef, and Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski for Best Chef: West). With plenty more openings on the horizon, the city’s restaurant scene shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

    —Susannah Chen

  • Credit: Broken Spanish

    No. 6: Los Angeles

    The LA food scene is more dynamic than ever with local chefs getting national accolades across the board (except for the James Beard Awards, which shockingly overlooked all of the local nominees for wins this year), and out-of-towners looking to cash in on the gorgeous weather, incredible seasonal offerings and most importantly, the hordes of hungry diners. We have no shortage of star power behind the stoves. Top Chef's Nyesha Arington keeps Venice happy with her contemporary California cuisine at Leona. LA's own Ray Garcia was recognized by Esquire as Chef of the Year for his soulful, contemporary Mexican menus at his duo of newly opened Downtown restaurants, Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria.

    Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo continue their hot-ticket domination with Jon & Vinny’s, an all-day ode to Italian-American cuisine, and with Ludovic Lefebvre, the French-Mexican chilaquiles and burritos at an all-day brunch spot, Trois Familia. And the scene is so sizzling, everyone not from LA wants to be here: Portland's Andy Ricker opened two Pok Pok restaurants in the burgeoning Chinatown neighborhood; the famed San Francisco Craftsman and Wolves patisserie, which was supposed to open this year, will land in Culver City soon, along with New York's meaty Cannibal butchery and restaurant. Last year the historic Grand Central Market was named a Bon Appétit Best New Restaurant for its collection of eclectic food stalls, which continue to wow with every opening, including newcomers like the Madcapra falafel counter and Ilan Hall's punny vegan ramen spot, Ramen Hood. Too much is never enough in LA. It's a big place, after all.

    –Lesley Balla

  • No. 5: Boston

    Boston, aka The Hub, attracted some big-league talent from around the country in 2015. First Daniel Boulud brought Bar Boulud to the Back Bay last fall, and then 2015 saw Mario Batali make a splash with his Seaport newcomer Babbo Pizzeria. Batali followed it up with the announcement that Boston would become the next city to receive his Eataly concept, signing a 20-year lease to open a three-floor, 44,000-sq.-ft food hall in Prudential Center. And this summer star chef Michael Mina announced that he would soon be opening an outpost of Pabu in Downtown Center. The attention is appreciated, but Bostonians most take pride in our hometown talent — like Tim Maslow (Ribelle, Strip-T's), named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs this year, three-time James Beard finalist Matt Jennings, whose Townsman (pictured) was picked by Esquire as one of the country's Best New Restaurants, and James Beard Best Chef: Northeast winner Barry Maiden, whose next move we eagerly await after the shuttering of his upscale-Southern joint Hungry Mother.

    Among the other Boston Beard nominees was Karen Akunowicz (Myers + Chang), one of two chefs representing our city on the just-debuted 13th season of Top Chef. (She's joined by former Craigie on Main chef de cuisine Carl Dooley, set to open The Table next month.) The 12th season of Top Chef, which stretched into early 2015, was actually set in Boston — giving millions of viewers a front-row seat at our city's culinary landscape. And this year saw no shortage of new openings — from Beard winner Susan Regis's open-flame-focused Shepard to Top Chef runner-up Tiffani Faison's adventurous Southeast Asian entry Tiger Mama — that we'd put up against bigger cities any day. And by the way, we're not slouching in the cocktails category, either: this year Boston's Eastern Standard took home Best American Restaurant Bar from Tales of the Cocktail.

    —Scott Kearnan

  • No. 4: NYC

    Sure, some chefs are fleeing and rents are through the roof, but NYC will always be the greatest food city in America, despite the rocky year that was 2015. As usual, NYC cleaned up at the James Beard Awards, with Michael Anthony (who opened Untitled in the new Whitney museum this spring) of Gramercy Tavern snagging Outstanding Chef; Christina Tosi of Milk Bar winning Outstanding Pastry Chef; Batard grabbed Best New Restaurant, and Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery named Outstanding Baker. But New York is a town that doesn't need award recognition to prove its greatness. Just look at the exciting new restaurants that opened this year: Danny Bowien unleashed a Vegas-caliber version of his Mission Chinese Food in a new souped-up space (read: Mylar ceilings and Twin Peaks–themed bathrooms) with an expanded menu from chef Angela Dimayuga; the creative Contra duo opened innovative wine-focused Wildair; and the Torrisi gang continues to open destination-worthy eateries like Santina and Sadelle's.

    In the drama department, you can't top Stephen Starr, whose eateries Upland and The Clocktower (pictured) are some of the most exciting places to eat (especially for out-of-town guests). Jay-Z and Beyoncé approve of the newest omakase sushi mecca Shuko, and Boston chef Tim Cushman gave it a run for the money with his transplanted O Ya. David Chang dominated the fast-casual circuit with his viral chicken sandwich at Fuku (and more recently, Fuku+) and the veggie-forward tasting menu at Semilla in Brooklyn was nominated for Best New Restaurant at the Beards. All in all, 2015 proved that NYC is still the food city that never sleeps.

    —Kelly Dobkin

  • No. 3: Washington, DC

    Never mind the fact that nationally known names like David Chang, Ed Lee and Richard Sandoval have all bet on DC this year. The city also boasts plenty of big-league hometown talent, including José Andrés, Mike Isabella, Carla Hall and Bryan Voltaggio — each of whom opened restaurants here in 2015. Perhaps more exciting, though, are the smaller places making food so intoxicating that diners will stand in line for hours just for a taste. (And Washingtonians aren't the only ones who think it's worth it.) You’ll likely start hearing about chefs like Aaron Silverman of Rose’s Luxury (pictured) if you haven’t already. His Capitol Hill spot was named best new restaurant last year by Bon Appétit, and he’s poised to open a fine-dining follow-up called Pineapple and Pearls any day now. Chef Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground opened Maketto earlier this year — an innovative blend of Taiwanese and Cambodian food, a serious cafe and urban menswear shop under one roof. Plus, we have two Top Chef contestants killing it this season. We could go on, but let us bottom-line it for you: if you still think DC is all about steakhouses and power lunches, you are squarely out of the loop.

    —Rina Rapuano

  • No. 2: Baltimore

    Baltimore won its first James Beard Foundation Award this year. Well, Spike Gjerde won the Best Chef: Mid Atlantic category, but a win for a hometown boy is a win for the town too. (Cindy Wolf of Charleston restaurant was also nominated.) At Woodberry Kitchen, which The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema calls “the Chez Panisse of our region,” Gjerde showcases the Chesapeake’s finest gifts, from Tilghman Island crabs to farmstead cheeses from Boyds, Maryland. Gjerde’s commitment to sustainability can also be seen at his other restaurants Parts & Labor (pictured, which opened last year), housed in a former car repair shop, and Artifact coffee shop. Speaking of coffee, Annapolis company Ceremony opened a location in Mount Vernon this summer in the same building as the new Mount Vernon Marketplace. Yes, the haute food hall has made its way to Charm City, and this one includes a Local Oyster stall, craft-beer counter Taps Fill Station and charcuterie from Cultured, among other artisanal goods. Other notable openings this year: former Top Chef runner-up Bryan Voltaggio's first Baltimore restaurant Aggio, Shake Shack, which arrived in February, and Azumi in the Four Seasons, where Tokyo native Eiji Takase has been serving umami-bomb Japanese tasting menus since November. We'd say Baltimore is winning. And if Brooklyn bakers Allison and Matt Robicelli’s move to Baltimore is any indication, the city might be a contender on this list next year too. They plan to open Robicelli’s in Charm City, which Allison told Brooklyn Magazine is “exactly like the Village was in the '90s,” in fall 2016.

    —Julia Bainbridge

  • Credit: Adam Milliron

    No. 1: Pittsburgh

    While hefty Italian bread sandwiches from Primanti Bros. remain musts on the Pittsburgh culinary circuit, as of late it’s an abundance of more refined food glories that Steel City is becoming known for. Consider the don’t-mistake-it-for-Brooklyn neighborhood Lawrenceville, where as of this year, locals now eat fried chicken and carrot slaw sandwiches for lunch at the Vandal, then jamón croquetas with leek-ash aïoli for dinner at Morcilla (pictured), chef Justin Severino’s low-key Spanish follow-up to Cure. Chaz & Odette, with its jerk pork and yam coulis, debuted in Shadyside, just as Station made its mark on Bloomfield with dishes like miso-poached apple. Downtown, well-known restaurateur Richard Deshantz opened täkō, serving chorizo and Wagyu short-rib tacos alongside newfangled tequila cocktails. Perhaps the most robust symbol of Pittsburgh’s ascent is the arrival of a retro-utilitarian Ace Hotel, home to acclaimed Brooklyn butcher Brent Young’s just-opened Whitfield. Bethany Zozula and pastry chef Casey Shively — who also did time in New York at Del Posto — are the stars of the female-fueled kitchen, turning out Americana-inspired creations like rabbit accompanied by semolina gnocchi and parsnip bread smothered in whipped Pennsylvania honey. With its geography straddling both the East Coast and the Midwest (likelihood of poaching more chefs from those areas = high), this town is poised for even more exciting things in 2016.

    —Alia Akkam