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20 Best Food Cities

A global guide to the world's culinary capitals
There used to be one food mecca on the planet: Paris. Or at least that's what most Americans believed. Of course, Paris was and still is a paradise for those who love to eat, but Americans have finally figured out that there's incredible food all around the world, and these days we eagerly go globe-trotting in search of great restaurants, markets, kitchenware shops, bakeries, chocolatiers and cooking classes. On the pages that follow, you'll find the best-of-the-best in 20 of the world's premier food destinations--the place to go for the lightest gnocchi in Rome or the tastiest tandoori crab in Bombay. Scroll down for a culinary Baedeker to the planet.

Paris

Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon's successor and the chef at the eponymous Alain Ducasse, is still the city's king of haute cuisine. But Alain Passard of Arpègeand Pierre Gagnaire of Pierre Gagnaireare both laying claim to the throne. And Robuchon's influence will almost certainly be carried into the next millennium by such hot protégés as Benoît Guichard at Jamin and Frédéric Anton at Le Pré Catalan.Tailleventremains the first choice for elegant Parisian classicism. For more down-to-earth fare, there's La Régalade(a contemporary bistro), Le Dôme(a brasserie) and Willi's Wine Bar.When you can't bear to spend another minute in a restaurant or bar, that's the time for a croque-monsieur from the street carts behind La Samaritaine. Or better yet, a picnic: a chewy organic baguette from Poujauranor Philippe Gosselin,Crottin de Chavignol from the cheese seller Alléosseand perhaps a good Sancerre from Les Caves Taillevent.Restored, you can shop for cookware at MORA, a modern alternative to the Old World Dehillerin, then stop for macaroons at Ladurée and chocolates at La Maison du Chocolat.

Sydney

The quality of Australia's produce is Edenic. There's proof at Fuel Providore, a new purveyor that's an offshoot of the hyper-trendy restaurant-cum-car-showroom MG Garage. At the Sydney Fish Market, vendors offer a spectacular variety of exotic seafood at daily auctions; tours, a restaurant, a sushi bar and cooking classes are also available. Sushi (it's first-rate at Yoshii and Unkai) is one of Japan's most popular contributions to Sydney; another is Tetsuya Wakuda, a master of fusion who cooks at Tetsuya's. An Australian chef, David Thompson, creates brilliant Thai food at Darely Street Thai and Sailors Thai. The master of Australian cooking is Neil Perry, whose Rockpool and Wockpool are musts. The city's most luxe restaurant is currently Banc, which has exceptional French-influenced food and a superb wine list. An after-dinner drink at Wine Banc, below Banc, is a fine way to round out any evening.

Bangkok

The morning might start with breakfast on the pier at The Oriental hotel; for lunch, you could take the teak ferry across the Chao Phraya to an extraordinary buffet at the hotel's Sala Rim Naam. Lemongrassand Harmonique are good for an intimate, traditional Thai dinner. Seafood Marketis a walk on the weird side--you collect fish and vegetables in a shopping cart, then turn them over to a chef to be cooked. Benjarongat The Dusit Thani hotel, Celadon at The Sukhothai hotel and Bussaracum are all places for a grander meal. If you take cooking lessons at The Oriental or Bussaracum, you might get extra credit by exploring the Chatuchak weekend market, with its heaps of sweet mangosteens, tribal crafts (pick up a tamarind-wood chopping board), chickens and snakes.

Rome

Ah, the pleasure Romans get from buying beautiful fruits and vegetables at the Campo dei Fiori market, in sitting down to a late-night pizza all'uovo (pizza with soft-cooked eggs) at Baffetto, in debating wine at Enoteca Trimani. For classic Roman cooking, follow the locals to Trattoria da Lucia. Or try Settimio al Pellegrino, which, like all real Roman restaurants, serves gnocchi on Thursdays and salt cod on Fridays. With its rigatoni con pajatta (pasta with delicate baby veal tripe), Agata e Romeo offers an elegant take on la cucina romana. The seafood, for which the city is known, is especially fine at Ristorante il Pellicano. Sweet tooth or no, don't miss warm sfogliatelle (crisp pastry leaves stuffed with ricotta) on Sunday mornings at Pasticceria Bella Napoli, gelati from Giolitti or any dessert from one of the exquisite food shops along Via della Croce off Piazza di Spagna.

Hong Kong

Before diving into Hong Kong's seething center, dawdle over tea at The Peninsula hotel on the Kowloon side. Then make your way to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where you can choose between haute Asian fusion at Vong and haute Cantonese at Man Wah, or head to Yung Kee, where up to 5,000 guests feast on the roasted goose every day. Browse Lan Kwai Fong, the pedestrian alley, and stop into Indochine 1929 for Vietnamese soft-shell crab. Call American Peking Restaurant in Wanchai to reserve a table and to order the extraordinary Beggar's Chicken, which takes six hours to prepare. Back at The Peninsula, try either the lovely Cantonese Spring Moon or the chic Philippe Starck-designed Felix on the 28th floor. Save time for a visit to the food carts of Temple Street Night Market and one of the Yue Hwa department stores for woks, cleavers and exotic liquors.

London

Like much that is fashionable in London, food here is personality-driven: the thriving restaurant culture has tossed up such star chefs as Marco Pierre White (Quo Vadis, Criterion Brasserie, MPW and The Oak Room), Alastair Little (Alastair Little), Peter Gordon (The Sugar Club), Gordon Ramsay (Aubergine) and Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray (The River Cafe). Damien Hirst, the British art world's brash boy (and a partner in Quo Vadis), has opened Pharmacy, a hip drugstore-inspired bar-restaurant. Oliver Peyton, who operates the ultra-groovy Coast and Mash, was a nightclub impresario in a former incarnation, so he knows how to keep his restaurants trendy. Then there's the happening North African restaurant Momo, where the eponymous owner spends much of his time refuting Madonna's suggestion that they are friends. Underneath the hype, a pride in British food is evident in the excellent cheeses at Neal's Yard Dairy, the bread from Baker & Spice and the inventive English food (as opposed to the Mediterranean fusion cuisine termed "Modern British") at St. John and at Butlers Wharf Chop House, located in Sir Terence Conran's sprawling "gastrodome"--a gastronomic theme park.

Tokyo

The day starts before dawn at Tsukiji Fish Market, where 5 million pounds of fish will change hands by sunset. It's a good setting for a sushi breakfast at either Ryu-Sushi or Tsukiji Sushi Sei; afterward, you can pick up an excellent chef's knife (for a reasonable price) at the Tsukiji Masamoto Knife Shop. The best fish from Tsukiji makes its way into the elaborate meals at such top restaurants as Waketokuyama and Tsujitome. At Mandaraya, the meal might also include caviar, foie gras and other nontraditional elements. French-Japanese fusion is the draw at Kihachi too. In fact, while French chefs turned to Japan in the 1970s as an inspiration for nouvelle cuisine, the food of France remains influential in contemporary Tokyo, at restaurants run by master chefs both Japanese (Chez Matsuo) and French (the extraordinary Chatelain Taillevent-Robuchon).

New Orleans

Antoine's may be one of the oldest restaurants on the continent, but New Orleans isn't living in the past: its New Creole establishments are at the forefront of American dining. Emeril Lagasse (of Emeril's, Nolaand the new Delmonico) is the most visible face, but the chefs at Bayona, Peristyle, Gautreau's and Brigtsen's are all top-notch. Don't overlook traditional cooking--Jacques-Imo's works hoodoo on fried chicken--or the French-Vietnamese cuisine at Lemon Grass Café. If the spirit of Paul Prudhomme is strong within you, take a Creole cooking class at Spice Inc. Afterward, head out to Metairie for Red Velvet Cake from Anna Banana or relax with a mint julep on the veranda at the Columns Hotel.

Lyons

The renowned Paul Bocuse (of Le Nord, L'Est and the much-hyped Le Sud) visits Les Halles and the open-air Quai Saint Antoine markets in the morning; afterward, he holds court with the city's other great chefs (from Tour Rose, Pierre Orsi and La Mère Brazier) at Le Val d'Isère, one of the city's bouchons, or bistros. (Two rivals are Chez Hugon and Café des Fédérations.) You might join them for a hearty blanquette de veau; or, for alfresco eating, try frites from the stands in the park, or make a picnic with cheese from Mère Richard, bread from Jacquier Pascal, charcuterie from Reynon or Jean Plasse and, of course, chocolates from Bernachon. A drink at Bidon 5 is a good way to wrap up any day.

Singapore

In one of life's grimmest rituals, every visitor to Singapore is forced to down a sickly sweet Singapore Sling. You might as well endure yours at the Raffles Hotel, where the drink originated, then head off to the food stalls of the hawkers centers to get a taste of the real Singapore. For haute Cantonese, try Jiang Nan Chun at the Four Seasons or Summer Pavilion at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore; for Asian fusion, visit Club Chinois; for kitsch, visit House of Mao, which is pretty much what it sounds like--a Chairman Mao-themed eatery. If this dose of Communism leaves you missing the West, head back to the Raffles Grill for European food (and, if you feel like it, Asian cooking classes).

New York

It's an island, right? Try the fish. Visit one of the city's great seafood chefs--Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, Rick Moonen at Oceana or, for something a little more downtown, the young sushi chef Hiroshi Nakahara at Bond St. Or check out the city's artisanal bakeries: for a perfect meal on the go, head to Sullivan St. Bakery for a square of pizza bianca, Bouley Bakery for a grilled Florida shrimp sandwich or Balthazar for a curried chicken salad sandwich. Speaking of curry, Indian spices, which are fringe ingredients at haute French establishments like Jean Georges, are now the main flavors at such fusion restaurants as the soon-to-open Tabla (a new venture by Danny Meyer, the guiding force behind the splendid Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern) and the East Village's Raga. Before a dinner at Raga, wander through the East Village and pick up some chocolate truffles at Black Hound; after dinner, stop for a drink at Chez Es Saada or Temple Bar.

Montreal

One of France's great gifts to Montreal is a tradition of outstanding bakeries--Le Fromentier, Le Passe-Partout and Première Moisson at the Atwater Market. The Fairmount Bagel Bakery and Chez Schwartz (a purveyor of smoked meats) may be even better than their rivals in New York City (heresy!). For casual dining, there's L'Express (still so popular it doesn't need a sign), La Chronique, chic Mediterraneo and the sushi bar at Le Mikado. A meal at Toqué shouldn't be missed--Normand Laprise remains the doyen of Montreal chefs. While some visitors return from Montreal with discreetly packaged raw-milk cheeses from Pierre-Yves Chaput, the law-abiding might prefer glassware from Arthur Quentin.

Buenos Aires

With its gracious Haussmann-style boulevards, this is the most European of New World cities. The affinity isn't just structural--the locals are true bons vivants. Even the famous cemetery in the tony Recoleta district is surrounded by crowded cafés, notably La Biela and Café de la Paix. Gran Café Tortoni is the city's definitive literary café. As a spot for afternoon tea, L'Orangerie in the Alvear Palace Hotel is perfect. For your introduction to Argentine beef, consider Dora, a traditional restaurant with hams and garlic hanging from the rafters. Currently the most popular place for grilled beef is the modern Cabaña Las Lilas, in Puerto Madero. This recently gentrified waterfront neighborhood is the city's fashionable new restaurant district. Best bets include Katrine for Mediterranean and Happening for Argentinean barbecue with an Italian touch.

Oaxaca

The traditional Mexican breakfast buffet at the Camino Real hotel is extravagant, but a simple hot chocolate at El Marqués del Valle, overlooking the town square, is hard to beat. There are piles of chapulines (roasted grasshoppers) at the daily Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre markets, fresh chocolate at Chocolate Mayordomo and ground-to-order moles from La Soledad. Lunch should be the main meal of the day: chicken estofado (a rustic stew) at El Catedral, mole coloradito (meat in a red sauce) at La Casa de la Abuela or tortilla soup at El Mesón. In the rug-weaving town of Teotitlán del Valle, Tlaminalli serves astonishingly great food. Back in Oaxaca, ex-pat Susana Trilling teaches classes in regional cooking. Chill out with a prickly pear ice in the shade of the Basilica del Soledad and write notes on the day's discoveries in your copy of The Food and Life of Oaxaca by Zarela Martínez (MacMillan).

Istanbul

You can watch Europe melt into Asia from a table at Panorama, high atop The Marmara Hotel in Taksim Square. For high-end dining, Safran at the Ceylon Inter-Continental, Tugra at the Çiragan Palace Hoteland the Nouvelle Turkish Sans are also excellent. It may be that the most vibrant Turkish food is the simplest; for home-style cooking, Karabiber is a standout. Then there's Babane for gözleme (stuffed turnovers) and Develi for kebabs. While you're visiting the Egyptian Market (MIsIr Çars¸IsI) spice bazaar, have lunch upstairs at Pandeli, then pick up the best coffee in Istanbul at Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi Mahdumlari.Is the city's choking traffic threatening to overwhelm you? That's the time to escape to the water--take a ferry across the Bosphorus to Körfez.

San Francisco

A visit to San Francisco without a trip to Berkeley's Chez Panisse is like going to Paris without visiting the Louvre. (Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, incidentally, will be developing a café for the Louvre.) Other winners are Masa's, PlumpJack Cafe, Cypress Club, Jardinière and Oakland's Oliveto. Don't miss Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, one of America's best green markets. Other musts: sourdough baguettes from the Acme Bread Company in Berkeley, caramelized shrimp at The Slanted Door and fried eggplant sandwiches at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe. Want a drink? Have a cup of sake at Loongbar. You'll want a souvenir--truffle honey from Restaurant LuLu should do nicely.

Bombay

This is a culinary capital without its own cooking style: people travel here to taste the regional foods of all of India. As a visit to the fish market at Sassoon Docks shows, this coastal city offers extraordinary seafood, and it's worth taking in a meal at Only Fish (which isn't, by the way, only fish), tandoori crab at Sheetal Samudra or fiery Goan-coastal cuisine--think shark masala--at Gomantak. For southern Indian food, there's Tanjore at the Taj Mahal Hotel or a vegetarian tasting menu at Udipi Shri Krishna Boarding; for northern, try the Punjabi snacks at Kailash Parbat or mutton kebabs at Bade Mian, the famous sidewalk restaurant. Now you'll need something sweet, and what could be better than the ras malai (a sweetened cheese dessert) at Chappan Bhog?

San Sebastián

Food is taken very seriously in this Basque city, as a trip through La Brecha market or a meal at one of the many private (entirely male) eating societies proves. As further evidence, consider that San Sebastián has an exceptionally high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants. The homey, wood-paneled Arzak is the best established. The stunning Akelarre, perched on cliffs looking out onto La Concha Bay, is renowned for New Basque Cuisine as well as such regional classics as marmitako, a bonito stew. Just outside the city, at Lasarte, the daring Martín Berasategui shuns butter and cream in extraordinary dishes like cider-marinated mackerel with anchovies.

Brussels

As it prepares to take its place as the capital of the new United Europe, Brussels is shaking its image of moneyed dullness. Comme Chez Soi remains the preeminent culinary destination, with La Maison du Cygne a worthy alternative. The best location for fish is L'Ecailler du Palais Royal, housed in a lovely old building overlooking the handsome Place du Grand Sablon. The competition among bistros and brasseries is fierce: although L'Idiot du Village and Le Bistro du Mail are the trendiest, the older La Quincaillerie beats them both for sheer style. But the main purpose of any visit to Brussels is, of course, exquisite chocolate, preferably from Mary or Pierre Marcolini.

Marrakech

Marvel at the filigree tilework in the mosques, then wend your way through sacks of almonds and baskets of dates in the souks of the Medina. As evening falls, the Jamâa El F'na square fills with snake charmers, fortune tellers and food vendors who sell boubouches, a delicious snail soup. After drinks at Dar Marjana, which overlooks the Jamâa El F'na, have chicken tagine on the terrace of El Baraka, with its view of the Atlas mountains, or opt for bastila (pigeon in pastry with ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar) and mechoui (spit-roasted lamb) at Le Palais Gharnatta or La Rose des Sables at the Imperial Borj Hotel. Another option is the relatively new Le Tobsil, which some locals feel is every bit as good as Yacout, the city's premier restaurant.

Published September 1998
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