How to Visit America's Best Foodie Cities on the Cheap
Find out how to get the full flavor of the USA without breaking the bank.
You can pull off a delectable foodie trip while still staying on budget.(Getty Images)
It's no secret that Americans are big foodies. Not only does the U.S. consume the most food of any country in the world, but in 2015, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that Americans spent more money on eating out than dining in. Over the years, Americans' appreciation for food has seeped into their travel itineraries, with many adding culinary activities on their lists of things to do when visiting a new destination. Between 2006 and 2013, Americans who traveled specifically for food-related experiences rose 11 percent, according to Mandala Research, a travel and hospitality research firm. And in 2012, a report published by the University of Florida found that tourism expenditures on food services totaled $201 billion, making food the highest travel spending category.
It's safe to say that the U.S. is not just a foodie destination, but one that teems with culinary adventures. Although epicurean excursions of all kinds can be found from coast to coast, the question of affordability tends to linger on some travelers' tongues. With tickets to big-time culinary festivals typically ranging in the hundreds of dollars, and some food tours averaging the cost of multiple meals, is it possible to pull off a delectable foodie trip on a budget? Yes, according to top food experts. We asked experts to reveal their top tips for enjoying the full flavor of the USA's 15 Best Foodie Cities without putting a sizable dent in your wallet.
Do Your Research
The last thing you want to do on vacation is wander from restaurant to restaurant scanning menus and wondering if the $20 plate of pasta at some swanky bistro is really worth the cost. Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor-in-chief of Budget Travel and veteran food writer, suggests going beyond popular review websites to find the most delectable eateries. "It'll be best to do your research on the local level, reading weeklies and Web sources," Firpo-Cappiello says. Laura Siciliano-Rosen, co-founder of Eat Your World, a site dedicated to finding the best regional dishes around the globe, recommends starting conversations with the people who know the city's food best – its residents. "There are apps and websites like ours that exist to help you find these foods, but tracking them down on the ground is often as simple as chatting up regular people," she says. "Ask your waiter, your cab driver, the guy next to you on the bus – where do they like to eat?" Chances are, you're more likely to find the city's most authentic – not to mention most affordable – fare from regular Joes than your hotel concierge.
Venture Off the Beaten Path
Being in the heart of any new city can be exhilarating, but it's best to take your dining plans elsewhere. Siciliano-Rosen strongly suggests getting out of the downtown area and exploring the outer edges of the city (eating in North Charleston rather than the pricey city center, for example). "Look for informal, hole-in-the-wall kind of spots. They are generally not aimed at getting tourist dollars, and the prices reflect this," she says. "What you lose in atmosphere you may very well gain in cost and authenticity," she adds. If you're in New Orleans (ranked No. 3 on the Best Foodie Destinations in the USA list) and looking for Cajun cuisine, Siciliano-Rosen suggests Coop's Place, a restaurant located just outside the French Quarter. Firpo-Cappiello also proposes travelers look to East Asian communities for some budget-friendly fare. "Check local sources for reviews of Vietnamese, Korean, Indonesian and Singaporean restaurants where you'll often find great dishes for a shockingly good price," Firpo-Cappiello says. "This is especially true of expensive cities, such as New York City or Los Angeles," he adds. Speaking of the Big Apple, both Siciliano-Rosen and Firpo-Cappiello suggest heading to Queens – an "ethnic enclave" as Siciliano-Rosen puts it.
Take to the Streets
Grabbing a meal at sit-down restaurants, especially for dinner, can be a pricey venture. Luckily, many of our top foodie destinations offer alternatives that are both delicious and affordable. The catch? You probably won't be able to sit. Food trucks can be found in many metropolises, including Washington, D.C., New York City and Seattle, but are especially huge in Los Angeles. There are currently about 200 gourmet food trucks in Los Angeles, but some have become so popular over the years that they've turned into full restaurants. LudoTruck – now LudoBird in LA's Staples Center – is headed by Ludo Lefebvre, a chef who spent 13 years cooking in Michelin star-rated restaurants. At LudoBird, you can order a gourmet-caliber plate of buttermilk chicken with a side of honey lavender biscuit for just $15. Food carts in Portland, Oregon, are even more prevalent than LA: The City of Roses boasts more than 500. Like Los Angeles, some of Portland's food carts have become so successful they've evolved into brick-and-mortar restaurants. El Cubo De Cuba and Fifty Licks, for example, have earned a few extra tables from charging fewer dollars.
Consider Eating in
We don't mean cooking. Rachelle Lucas, founder of The Travel Bite, advises travelers to take part in the relatively new "eating like a local" trend. "There are several websites now dedicated to pairing travelers with locals for the sake of eating dinner in their home," Lucas says. Among her recommendations are BonAppetour and EatWith. Some of our top-ranked foodie cities, including Seattle, Asheville, North Carolina, Chicago and Houston, all offer BonAppetour experiences, which allow travelers to get a home-cooked meal from a local, with the goal that they'll be able to experience the true culture of the city they're visiting. EatWith is similar, but operates in more than 150 cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia, to name a few destinations. A quick scroll through either site can yield some pricey results, but look hard enough and you'll be able to find three- to five-course meals for less than $50. If you would rather be at the helm of the kitchen (or book accommodations that allow you to cook), consider hitting up food markets for the freshest local ingredients. Pike Place Market in Seattle is one of the country's oldest farmers markets and welcomes some of the freshest Pacific Northwest seafood, including crab, shrimp and various shellfish, to the market daily. Meanwhile, San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which is regularly visited by the city's top chefs, prides itself on offering ingredients (think: herbs, meat and produce) from certified organic regional farmers and ranchers.
If you don't mind spending a little coin on a great foodie experience, there are ways to get around the triple-digit bill often associated with fine dining establishments. It just depends on what time of day you go. If you've decided on a sit-down meal, Siciliano-Rosen suggests seeking out lunch menus. Breakfast or Sunday brunch menus can also yield cheaper results. For example, James Beard Award semifinalist Marcel's by Robert Wiedmaier in D.C. offers a three-course Sunday brunch menu for $65, while four- to seven-course menus range from $95 to $155. Firpo-Cappiello also says that top chefs with high-end restaurants often open cheaper eateries to appeal to their more cost-conscious customers. "Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro, several of David Chang's Momofuku restaurants and Tom Colicchio's 'wichcraft, are just a few examples," Firpo-Cappiello says. "You'll get a really nicely thought-out menu and top-notch food preparation for a fraction of the price," he adds.
If all else fails, travel to cheaper destinations. "I would note that Charleston, Philadelphia and Asheville are undervalued as foodie destinations and, therefore, offer more bang for the buck than other cities on the list," Firpo-Cappiello says. He also suggests that anyone who travels to Charleston try a Coca-Cola cake(a chocolate cake with a carbonated spin).
Siciliano-Rosen says no matter where you go, if you're looking to save money, stick strictly to local cuisine. "Local food is, generally speaking, the food of the people, so it's often a good bet for affordability," she says. "The specific dishes a city is known for – they tend to be inexpensive stand-alone meals that make a great quick lunch or dinner while giving you a real taste of the city. Think: pizza and bagels in NYC, half-smokes in D.C., Mission burritos in San Francisco, fritas (Cuban hamburgers) in Miami, barbecue in Asheville, Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago … I could go on!" she says.
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