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Does New York City have the world's best food?
And does America have better food than France? Here are 5 ways to answer the question.
Recently, people have been arguing about food on the Internet again. In particular, they’ve been arguing about whether the United States has better food than France. My answer is — well, maybe it does — but it obviously depends on where you live in the US and how you define the question.
But forget France for a moment. Nothing against France, but I’ve always been more of an Italy guy. In fact, I’m writing this from vacation in Italy, where I’ve been eating very well:
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This amazing plate of tagliatelle was part of a €22 menu completo that also included bread, water, coffee, a selection of local cold cuts, a tasty plate of zucchini, and a choice of several very good main courses (I picked a sausage dish). It would be hard to find something like this in New York, even though New York has very good Italian food — maybe you could get something 80 percent as good for 3x the price.
On the other hand, every meal I’ve had for the past week has been Italian food. That’s Italy’s comparative advantage, obviously. But we’ve mostly been in small-ish towns where there aren’t a lot of other choices. I’ve had enough experience trying to eat “international” food in continental Europe to know that it’s hit-and-miss depending on local tastes and migration patterns, even as compared to comparably-situated places in the United States.
Obviously, though, that’s espeically true when you compare Europe with New York, where I can walk 20 minutes in any direction from my apartment and encounter good-to-very-good versions of Thai food, Japanese food, Mexican food, or about a dozen other categories. I might also be able to get equal or better food from a different region of Italy in New York than I can in a medium-sized Italian town.
Cross-national food comparisons are fraught enough, though, that perhaps it will help us to reroute by way of a a slightly less contentious question: Where can you find the best food in the US? Here are eight lists I found of America’s best food cities1:
Where do the rankings come from? The first three are from food writers — respectively, (A) Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post, (B) Daryl and Mindi Hirsch of 2foodtrippers and (C) Lauren Dana Ellman of Travel & Leisure. Sietsema and the Hirsches traveled to a whole bunch of American cities and ate a whole bunch of food, which seems like as good a way as any to answer this question. (I’m less clear on how Ellman came up with her rankings.)
Next, (E) and (F) are algorithmic methods; (E) is from US News & World Report and (F) is from WalletHub. The US News rankings are reasonable enough, whereas the WalletHub list is completely insane. (If you’ve ranked Orlando — the city with the most fast food restaurants per capita — ahead of New York or Los Angeles, it’s time to throw out your algorithm.) Finally, (G) and (H) are reader surveys, from Food & Wine and the travel magazine Fifty Grande, respectively.
What about (D)? I’m going to keep its identity secret for now.
But basically, you can see a bifurcation in the rankings, with culinarily and ethnically diverse metro areas like New York in one group and medium-sized “foodie” cities like New Orleans, Charleston and Portland in another group. You’ll sometimes even get places as small as Asheville, North Carolina — the US’s 131st-largest metro area — on “best food cities” lists.
It's obvious that these are apples-to-oranges comparisons. So here’s my attempt to develop a taxonomy of what people mean when they argue about the best food cities or the best food countries. I think they have roughly five different definitions in mind — which can yield very different answers.
Definition 1: The best place to live for restaurant dining, assuming reasonably high effort to find the best restaurants.
This is the category where New York shines. Dining out is sort of the default evening activity. And New York really does have an incredible density of food: shining examples of cuisines from every corner of the world. It’s also extremely efficient in adopting to changing tastes and consumer demands. Categories that were relatively weak when I moved to New York in 2009 — like Mexican food, Japanese food and Korean food — have all quite conspicuously improved.
Sorting your way through all the options in New York takes work, though, which is why it’s a better food city to live in than to visit. The search space is almost impossibly large — it’s hard enough to keep tabs on subcategories you care about (e.g. sushi in Manhattan) let the entire range of options throughout the Five Boroughs and beyond.
And while the floor for food in New York is high, it’s also not a city where you can just stumble in somewhere and necessarily be assured of a great meal. NYC isn’t a particularly exclusive place — that’s one of the things I love about it — but New Yorkers are extraordinarily efficient about finding the best spots and you’ll limit your options if you aren’t prepared to make some reservations or tolerate some long waits.2
Nor are first impressions always the best ones in New York. I think tourists sometimes fall into the trap of seeking out iconic New York foods like bagels and pizza — instead of drawing the broader lesson that New York has a comparative advantage in the Jewish-American and Italian-American culinary traditions, and furthermore in long having been one the world’s foremost hubs for immigration.3
It’s now time to reveal where mystery list (D) came from. It’s… simply a ranking of US metro areas sorted by their foreign-born population!4 It isn’t a perfect ranking of the best food cities by any means. (I probably wouldn’t have Boston in my personal top 10, for instance.) But it does a rather good job of replicating the other, more curated lists.
Hey look, I like “American food” as much as the next guy, whether you define that as burgers and hot dogs or barbecue or Southern regional cuisine. But I’ve been persuaded by books like The United States of Arugala that Americans until perhaps a quarter-century ago favored expedience over food quality to an extent that was pretty outlier-ish relative to the rest of the world. Even now, Americans spend less time consuming food than citizens of peer countries do. The US has been playing catch-up — and we’ve done that mostly by importing food culture from abroad.
Definition 2: The best place to live for food overall, assuming reasonably high effort to find not just the best restaurants but also the best produce and quick-service spots.
“Best food cities” is often a euphuism for “best cities to dine out” when these are obviously different questions. Food consumed at home still represents the large majority of American calorie intake — and quick-service restaurants (i.e. fast food) constitute the majority of restaurant meals.
Places with a wide variety of high-quality, affordable produce — and high-quality, affordable quick-service options — therefore deserve a bump in the rankings by this definition. This doesn’t necessarily make that much difference within the US, although it’s probably enough to vault California (overwhelmingly the top state for agricultural exports) ahead of New York City.
It matters more if you’re comparing the US to places like France or Italy, however — as you can see in consumers’ revealed preferences. France and especially Italy are substantial net exporters of foodstuffs, while the US is a net importer.
Definition 3: The best place for a short, well-curated, food-centric visit.
There’s a romantic ideal of a perfect food-centric road trip. You’ll go to a city for three or four days, with a restaurant list curated by locals who can get you in everywhere and introduce you to everyone. You’ll visit food markets and have a couple of low-key but extremely high-quality lunches there. You’ll stay out too late one night and have an amazingly good version of whatever umami-rich 2AM food that local nightcrawlers prefer. And maybe you’ll even be treated to a meal or two prepared at home using fresh local produce.
This sounds absolutely amazing — but it’s also the sort of experience that’s more reliably attainable if you’re either i) a professional in the food industry or ii) a traveler who’s experienced, well-off and/or well-connected. And because people who write food best-of lists tend to fall into one of those buckets, their rankings are probably a little biased toward this idealized situation rather than what the average visitor might experience.5
With that said, it’s certainly worth recognizing that the best food city for a 3-day weekend isn’t the same as the one where you’d want to live for 300 days a year. On a short trip, breadth, depth, and healthfulness matter less — and novelty (eating something you can’t get a good version of at home) matters more.6 This definition helps cities and countries that specialize more and execute extremely well within particular culinary categories.
Definition 4: Highest median quality of all meals consumed in the city/country.
Definition 5: Highest median quality of all restaurant meals consumed in the city/country.
Let’s take these together. They are probably the most empirically addressable definitions: where is the average person eating the best on a daily basis?
Within the US, I’d imagine the “right” answer to both definitions is somewhere in California, especially somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has both a very high density of non-chain restaurants and access to lots of high-quality produce (and lots of people who can afford it).
But between the mediocre quality of produce in the average American supermarket and our penchant for fast food, I have no doubt that the US comes up short on an international scale, compared not just to developed countries like France and Italy but also many developing countries. Again, this is not just my snooty opinion — you can see it in revealed consumer preferences. Italy exports two-thirds as much food as we do despite having an economy that’s less than one-tenth the size.
The complicated political valence of the New York City dining miracle
So which country has better food, the US or France?
France clearly wins by Definitions 4 and 5.
The US probably wins by Definition 1 — remember, this definition assumes high effort, i.e. really taking advantage of the extensive degree of consumer choice and the wide variety of international cuisines available in the US.
France probably wins by definition 2, though it’s close if you’re a wealthy American living in a major city.
Finally, Definition 3 is subjective enough as to be hard to resolve. As for my subjective opinion, I’ve long found France in general and Paris in particular a little hard to approach foodwise as an outsider and that colors my answer. If you’re comparing the US to Italy, though, my answer is Italy.
So Definition 1 is the only clear American win. Nevertheless, it’s not something I think should be taken for granted. In fact, I think of the incredibly rich array of restaurant dining experiences in New York — and also in other major American cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and Washington — as being quite miraculous in a way that’s easy to underrate when people argue about these things on the Internet.
That’s because it requires two ingredients that make for somewhat uncomfortable political bedfellows. On the one hand, high tolerance for immigration and multiculturalism and high openness to experience that is sometimes lacking on the political right. You really don’t want to be like this guy:
On the other hand, New York’s restaurant scene reflects incredibly intensive, market-based competition — often paired with unapologetic “cultural appropriation” — of the sort that is sometimes out of favor on the left. Restaurant dining is a really tough business, but those restaurants that thrive do a remarkably good job of catering to every culinary desire and potentially create a lot of consumer and social surplus, bringing together people for great food under good and difficult circumstances alike. Whatever you think of neoliberalism, restaurant dining in major American cities, and increasingly even in its suburbs, is one of its most succulent fruits.
Or if we’re being more precise, the best food metro areas.
The best hack, especially if you’re a solo diner, is to eat at the bar counter — in New York, these are often first-come, first-serve and generally serve the entire menu.
OK, you really do need to have a slice of pizza, though.
I’m including what the Census Bureau defines as the San Jose–Sunnyvale–Santa Clara, CA MSA along with San Francisco, and Riverside–San Bernardino–Ontario along with Los Angeles. My newsletter, my rules!
I don’t mean to disparage food writers by any means; there are parallel and often worse problems in just about every kind of journalism. Don’t get me started on how disconnected some political reporters are from the voters they’re supposedly covering.
There’s also a certain romanticism in going to a medium-sized city where you feel like you can do the entire food scene justice in a few days, whereas you can really only scratch the surface somewhere like New York or LA.