These days taking a trip purely for the sake of gastronomic pleasure is almost as common as jetting off for a beachside vacation. Some cities that are obvious choices for such culinary pursuits — New York, Chicago, San Francisco — receive the bulk of the food media’s attention. But there’s a vast landscape of underrated areas with thriving foodie scenes that are just waiting to be explored. Here are five tasty destinations to visit now:
Quirky in an almost hippie way, Portland is one of the most exciting places to eat right now. This is the place to experience chef-driven, farm-to-table cuisine day after day and for a significantly lower cost than what you’d pay in bigger cities.
The area’s rich agricultural history provides a wellspring of produce for local chefs, many of whom build relationships with farmers to grow special ingredients. Restaurants are smaller — many no more than 50 seats — and are more apt to experimentation due to lower overhead costs and an adventurous consumer palate.
Try Langbaan, run by three native Thai chefs, for Thai prix-fixe, or Paley’s Place by chef Vitaly Paley, a James Beard Award winner and recent victor on Food Network’s Iron Chef America. Visit Coquine for neighborhood French cuisine by chef Katy Millard, then head to Ataula by chef Jose Chesa for modern Spanish tapas. When you want to take a break from restaurant dining, make sure not to miss Nong’s Khao Man Gai. Owner Nong Poonsukwattana has that casual restaurant and two food carts in Portland — prepare to be blown away by her khao man gai, a Thai version of Hainanese chicken.
Where to stay: Book the Bed & Breakfast package at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Heathman Hotel, and you’ll get to select your mattress type from the bed menu, and receive daily continental breakfast for two, overnight valet parking, fitness center privileges, plus complimentary tickets for a cruise on Lake Washington and free bike rental, too.
About an hour and a half north of San Francisco, at the juncture between the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley wine making regions, there’s a magical little town called Healdsburg. Although it spans just over four square miles, size doesn’t matter here. The restaurants deliver beautiful, farm fresh delights in a big way. Small plates light up the table at establishments such as chef Shane McAnelly’s Chalkboard, Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar and Bravas Bar de Tapas, where you’ll want to order several items to share over a bottle of local pinot noir or chardonnay.
The pasta dishes are incredible at the perennially packed and highly regarded Scopa by chef Ari Rosen. Cocktails, created using area fruit and vegetables and adorned with edible flowers, have a big wow factor at Spoonbar. And breakfast is an absolute pleasure in James Beard Award-winning The Shed. Other highlights include the fact that there are more than 100 world-class wineries (such as the French chateau-inspired Jordan Winery) within minutes of town. Bonus: Most restaurants will allow you to BYOB with a small corkage fee.
Where to stay: Book the Gourmet Getaway package at Hotel Healdsburg, which includes one night’s stay, a five-course chef’s tasting menu dinner for two at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, daily gourmet breakfast and valet parking.
Bolstered by a strong economy and an ethnically diverse population, our nation’s fourth-largest city currently boasts more than 8,000 restaurants, making it a gastronomic playground where you can find everything from obscure mom-and-pop gems selling Ethiopian food to James Beard Award-winning talents (Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly) and Four-Star deliciousness (Quattro inside Four Seasons Hotel Houston).
You can wander for days through whole neighborhoods dedicated to specific ethnic cuisines and still barely make a dent. Visit Little India, where you’ll want to try Himalaya or Maharaja Bhog. Chinatown encompasses restaurants from Vietnam (try Pho Dien), China (go for Cantonese at Fung’s Kitchen) and Malaysia (order roti canai at Mamak). Koreatown has spots like Dadami, which does trays of sashimi and serves live octopus. There’s also a Middle Eastern area in the Westchase community.
Satisfy other roving appetites with fantastic sushi at Kata Robata and MF Sushi, Greek food and an all-Greek wine list at Helen Greek Food & Wine and some of the best barbecue in the nation at Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland.
Where to stay: Book the Bed & Breakfast package at the aforementioned Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Houston to receive complimentary breakfast for two at Quattro or in-room.
Mainlanders usually envision dishes such as kalua pig, loco moco and Spam musubi when they think about the cuisine in Hawaii. While these stereotypes are true to some extent, the food scene in Honolulu offers so much more. Thanks to its close proximity to Japan (and to Japanese tourism in general), there’s a wealth of authentic food choices from the Asian country — from achingly fresh sushi at places like Sushi Ginza Onodera, to udon noodles at Marukame Udon or tonkatsu pork cutlet at Tonkatsu Ginzu Bairin.
Chef-driven spots such as Ed Kenney’s Mud Hen Water and Andrew Le’s Pig and the Lady are passionately redefining the local food culture through the use of technique and native ingredients. In Kenney’s case, he’s showing us what modern Hawaiian cuisine should taste like, while Le takes us on a crazy French-Vietnamese journey with a local Hawaiian flair. A strong food truck culture, as well as a plethora of choices in fine dining (from oceanside Five-Star La Mer to French Four-Star Chef Mavro) make Honolulu’s culinary landscape a joy to explore.
Where to stay: Book the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Celebration at Trump International Hotel Waikiki to receive up to 50 percent off the standard rate (three-night minimum). The deal is available on overnight stays through December 21.
Ringing in at over 840 square miles in size (with 22 miles of white-sand beaches and a river running through downtown), Jacksonville is often referred to as the “River City by the Sea.” It goes without saying then that this is the place to experience fresh seafood.
Try spectacular fresh off-the-dock fare at popular “shacks” such as Clark’s Fish Camp or North Beach Fish Camp. Or indulge in oceanside dining with an order of the Long Line Catch 3 Ways at oceanfront Azurea, the signature restaurant at Four-Star One Ocean Resort & Spa where chefs prepare three different preparations of the same incredible, fresh-off-the boat fish for your entree.
Beyond that, the world is your oyster, namely because Jax’s food culture is often described by locals as a “melting pot of cuisines.” You can find everything from Southern fried chicken (Beach Road Chicken Dinners) and lick-your-fingers-clean ribs (Jenkins Quality Barbecue) to curry chicken burritos (Burrito Gallery) and Guinness beef stew (Culhane’s Irish Pub).
Then, you could move on to duck confit hash for brunch at Restaurant Orsay or the crazy-good crab rangoon at Thai hot spot Indochine. To finish your tasty tour of the town, you’ll want to stop by buzzy live-work-dine address 220 Riverside to sample from Sbraga & Company and Hobnob. With the latter, you have to try chef Roger Regulacion’s spicy truffled edamame and shrimp kiliwin. And at the former, you won’t go wrong with Top Chef season seven winner Kevin Sbraga’s Hog and Hominy, the toque’s delicious take on cheesy grits with pork.
Where to stay: Book the Fourth Night Free special at One Ocean Resort & Spa for a complimentary evening after three consecutive paid ones.