In 2018, we ate our way across America. Now, it’s your turn.

Food & Wine Editors
December 17, 2018

Take it from a bunch of people who travel this country for a living—there is never enough time in a year to see all of the things that you need to see, here in America, in order to truly grasp just what is happening. (And that's just the food.)

From coast to coast, from the far North to the sunny South, everything’s changing, there are so many cities that just won’t stop growing, so many old familiars that suddenly look different, feel different. Just when you think you’ve got a handle—finally!—on one corner of the fifty states, you realize that in the six months since your last visit, everything got blown up, it's all new again, no notice, no apologies.

Shannon Renfroe

This is a thrilling space in which to work, because who could ever be bored when there's so much to learn, even if this also means you're never not slightly anxious. The work is never done, it may never be done—thank goodness, then, that it is always engaging, typically entertaining, and often downright inspiring.

At the end of the year, here we are, catching our breath, taking an ever-so-brief look back, appreciating each and every moment of the ride, just before it all starts up again. We've put forward a sampling of what we've learned, of the places we loved, as well as some thoughts on what we’re looking forward to, in 2019. Hang out with us, just for a few minutes. It'll be fun.

RELATED: The 50 Best Places to Travel in 2019

THE PLACES THAT FELT LIKE THE FUTURE

Where to eat right now 

1. Los Angeles

If you don’t know, then ask somebody who does—is there another city in the United States that feels quite so switched on, just now? Sometimes, it feels as if everyone’s moving here—for goodness' sake, even José Andrés is thinking about it. What they’ll find: Los Angeles is one of those places that you never hope to understand completely, that’s the whole point of living there, you’re never finished, and there’s no point even pretending. Bite off whatever you can chew, quite literally, and enjoy, from the proliferation of exciting Filipino cooking, to the rise of modern Korean, to the vast ocean of possibilities in the San Gabriel Valley, plus every kind of regional Mexican and Central American cooking you’ve got your eye on, and some more you never even knew to look for. Then there are the chefs everyone’s talking about, too many to mention here, from promising young things like Jonathan Yao at Kato, to Brian Dunsmoor, whose seasonal Fuss & Feathers dinners at Hatchet Hall pay tribute to the past, in a most modern way, to Casey Lane, whose Viale dei Romani is perhaps the best restaurant in town right now, and of course we can't forget pastry queen Nicole Rucker, and her new pie shop, Fiona. What really gives Los Angeles its edge as one of the country’s greatest food cities is just how much there remains to be discovered, in the places most of us aren't even looking—in neighborhood after neighborhood, from the unapologetically classic to the wonderfully specific, the mind-bogglingly obscure to the almost accidentally au courant, there’s so much, too much, to eat. Better get started.

2. Houston 

Here’s the thing, Los Angeles—Houston is coming for you. Maybe not today, but soon. You can see it all going down; the cooking here comes from everywhere, and in many cases has been here for the longest time—Houstonians of all kinds grow up eating each other’s food, and it feels like everything is so close to hand, unlike in too many other American cities, where you’re often too far from the food we want to eat now. In Houston, the whole world is next door, from Hugo Ortega working high-end Oaxacan magic at a Marriott, to the affordable bowls of goodness at Pho Binh, just blocks from the gloss of the Galleria. There are weekday Indian brunches at Pondicheri in trendy Montrose, business lunches of Banh Cuon and duck salad at standby Huynh, in the shadow of the downtown skyline, fast-casual joints selling artisanal banh mi (Roostar) and gorgeous bowls of char kway teow (Sing). There are so many names to know, now—talented Nick Wong at the delightful little UB Preserv, one part of Chris Shepherd’s quickly-evolving empire, where pastry chef Victoria Dearmond brings joy to table after table on a nightly basis. There’s Ryan Lachaine at Riel, and of course Justin Yu (Theodore Rex), who with local bar macher Bobby Heugel gave the city one of its best new hangs Better Luck Tomorrow. In 2019, word is they’re going to do it all over again. (We’ll be there.) Ditto for master sommelier David Keck, too, whose popular honky tonk Goodnight Charlie's is apparently the first step toward taking over a small stretch of Westheimer Road. Then there are all those new food halls, there is hometown gal Beyonce’s favorite restaurant, and one of America’s finest classic cafeterias, now better than ever—seriously, we’d look away, but we’re afraid we’re going to miss something.

3. Oakland

If the future is female, it’s already happening here, in this sunny, invigorating jumble of a city that spent too damn long in the shadow of San Francisco, but that’s ancient history, now. While there have been restaurants to get excited for, here in Oakland, for quite some time now, there’s been this wave of entrepreneurial women, recently, making everything even more interesting, and you need to know about all of them. There's Tanya Holland at Brown Sugar Kitchen, there's Nite Yun at Nyum Bai, Janice and Brandi Dulce at FOB Kitchen, a Filipino pop-up that’s found a permanent home in Preeti Mistry’s old Juhu Beach Club space. Of course, there's Reem Assil, too, one of 2018’s all-around standouts; most recently, Assil partnered with Daniel Patterson to open the sit-down Dyafa, a follow-up to her bright and beautiful bakery in Fruitvale. Speaking of men, they’re allowed—from James Woodard at Smokin’ Woods BBQ, one of California’s best, to Keba Konte, founder of the one-to-watch Red Bay Coffee, there are so many people to know now, joining now nearly old-timers like James Syhabout (Commis, Hawking Bird, CDP), and the gang at Ramen Shop, where the Japanese staple gets the Chez Panisse treatment, to beautiful effect. All in all, it’s a beautiful moment, here in Oakland, and make sure you don't miss out—the same pressures that have made San Francisco such a challenge for restaurateurs are now being felt in the East Bay, too. Who knows what the next few years will bring.

4. San Antonio

Yes, we’re back in Texas again, because that is where so much of America’s future is unfolding, and so quickly, too—always treasured for its love of heritage, San Antonio is on a growth tear like you wouldn’t believe, and of course that means new food, new makers, new restaurants, and plenty of them. From that long list, the ones you need in your life the most urgently are the ones with the most pronounced sense of place, because that is what San Antonio is all about; at 2M Smokehouse, far on the city’s southeast fringe, native son Esaul Ramos brought what he’d learned in nearby Austin back home, creating—quite organically—one of the most forward-looking barbecue joints in a state that's never short on the stuff. Alex Paredes worked in one of the city’s finer kitchens before opening Carnitas Lonja, a Michoacan-style carnitas spot operating out of a postage stamp space down along the way to the historic Missions, across from a Whataburger. These two talents alone could lure us back to San Antonio, any day of the week, and you should go, too—while there, make sure to stop by La Panaderia, the new-wave bakery from two entrepreneurial Mexico City expats, where we are reminded that there’s nothing quite so irresistible, baked goods-wise, as a proper concha. As Austin continues to see astounding growth, becoming an increasingly scrubbed-up version of its weird old self, San Antonio offers an excellent reminder, at least for now—you can grow, and you can grow a great deal, without wiping out what was there before. Let's hope that holds.

5. St. Louis

There is so much that feels new, there are so many places bursting with promise—it becomes awfully easy to forget the tried and true, the old standbys, the cities that in the popular imagination, are too often perceived as being on the way out, rather than the next big thing. One the oldest of those standbys, St. Louis never gets enough credit for the things that it does well, and one of those things is food, from the nearly-ancient Italian culture on The Hill to so much here-and-now excitement. Recent years have seen immense growth in the local restaurant scene—from innovative Bosnian cooking to pho so dangerously delicious it landed on Food & Wine’s February cover, there are no rules now, anything goes, and that’s just the way we like it. If you are here, make sure to look in on Blue Hill-alum Michael Gallina, whose fresh, exciting Vicia dominated the dining scene in 2018; also dig into Logan Ely’s small plates Savage, inside an old liquor store, and make sure to stop by Gerard Craft’s glam new Cinder House, at the Four Seasons Hotel. In 2019, all eyes are on Rob Connoley, one of the city’s brightest sparks; the JBF-nominated chef has finally landed a home for Bulrush, promised to be a bold tribute to the foodways of the Ozarks. (There will be foraging. Lots of it.)

THE ONES WE LOVED ALL OVER AGAIN

Just when we thought we’d seen it all.

Related: Best Places to Travel in 2019

6. Philadelphia 

Here’s the way it works now, when it comes to food in Philadelphia—anything can happen, anywhere, at any time, and it does. There is the Lebanese cooking at sparkling Suraya, which drew crowds to rugged (and very trendy) Fishtown; you have some of the East Coast’s best tacos at South Philly Barbacoa, which began life as a food cart, now in its new home in the Italian Market, while proper South Philly Italian—something increasingly hard to find, even in its natural habitat—landed in Center City, to the delight of everyone. Did we mention some of the best barbecue in the Northeast, quietly being served out of an old technical high school, far off the beaten path? (It’s called South Philly Smokhaus, and you have to try the pork.) Coming soon, Michael Solomonov’s empire expandeth, this time into a new Rittenhouse apartment building, and we're excited; while you wait, let Zahav’s pastry chef Camille Cogswell guide you to her favorite Philadelphia desserts. Finally, if you make it to town, do the decent thing and pay tribute to the Reading Terminal Market, which turned 125 this year. Just you try living that long.

7. Seattle

Temporarily ceding the Northwest culture limelight to Portland, Seattle would like it back now, please, and we’re cheering the Northwest’s big—and getting bigger—city on from the sidelines. If you haven't heard, a lot of people are moving here, and they’re showing up hungry; you’ve heard of Eduardo Jordan, of Junebaby (and before that, Salare, and most recently, Lucinda), and you’ve heard that Japanese is trending, at places like Kamonegi and Adana, and you likely know that a young Brady Williams is upping the ante at Canlis, that classic stunner, but there’s so much else now, and more coming soon, often in some surprising (and delightfully so) places. Look for Filipino-Northwest tasting menus at the brand-new Archipelago in Hillman City, for the lovely, Mediterranean-inspired, local-centric Homer, high atop Beacon Hill, and don't forget those delicate cakes, deep down in anything but delicate Georgetown, at the surprising Deep Sea Sugar & Salt. But first, as ever, coffee.

8. New Orleans 

Just this once, put your nostalgia on a shelf and let New Orleans be New Orleans, the city it is today, a place where past and present coexist nearly peacefully, and the food is so much better (and more diverse) than you can imagine. From Leighann Smith and Daniel Jackson’s very fine butcher shop and restaurant to Nina Compton’s sophomore effort—in fact, why not let Compton tell you all about her favorite New Orleans hangs—to a whole new crop of the casually great, from Longway Tavern in the French Quarter to the Molly’s Rise & Shine on Magazine Street, the latest from Mason Hereford (Turkey and the Wolf), it’s all go around here, to the point where you might get swept up in the new, and that’s great, but don’t forget the classics, both recent (dinners at Marjie’s Grill, still got it) and not (Galatoire’s, which recently installed Phillip Lopez, of the city’s most incorrigible visionaries, in its hallowed kitchens).

9. Washington, DC

If you are not taking the food here seriously, let's get you caught up, because so much has gone down, in the last few years—let's meet by by the fire at Maydan, or squeeze our way into Kevin Tien’s cozy Himitsu (and soon, Emilie!), or belly up to the standing-room-only Spoken English, stuck back in the kitchens at the Line Hotel—winter is a great time to be here, at least for anyone currently coping with the frozen further-north. Speaking of warming up, don’t miss those Ethiopian hot chicken sandwiches at Kith & Kin, or the good barbecue in the smoke-filled room they call the Federalist Pig, too; for mornings and afternoons when indoors is the best idea, there is (of course there is) something new and very good from Aaron Silverman, just for the occasion—retreat to the striking Little Pearl, a smart coffee and wine bar, steps from the metro at Eastern Market.

THE ONES WE EXPECT BIG THINGS FROM

Surprising things, in unexpected places—that's the rule now. Here are three cities to have your eye on.

10. Columbus 

If there’s one thing we know about the Midwest now, it’s to stop expecting certain things from the Midwest, and certainly not Ohio’s capital city, which has a nearly Sun Belt-esque buoyancy about it these days, as it welcomes all-comers, from all over the world, into the ever-growing fold. From some of the best momos in the country, to a promising young chef recreating the fast food favorites from childhood, to a raft of makers creating everything from terrific charcuterie to very fine chocolates, you’re never short on things to eat, and we haven’t even gotten to one of America’s best Japanese bakeries, hiding out in the suburbs, or the crazy good banana pudding at the very good hot chicken place, or the top notch cafes—seriously, don’t sleep on this city. Good things are happening.

11. Tampa 

Imbued with a delightful sense of place, the kind you get from having been around for a while, this is one of those Florida burgs that you typically see lumped in with so many brash young upstarts, but if that’s your take, you weren’t super-duper paying attention—with neighborhoods and wonderful food traditions that go back a century or more, traditions brought by Cuban and Italian and Spanish and German immigrants, classic Tampa—who could forget Bern’s Steak House, too—reminds us that everything need not be new, in order to be noteworthy. But wait, there’s more; new food-centric projects like Sparkman Wharf and the Heights Public Market have become legitimate attractions, the Seminole Heights neighborhood has become a magnet for good food and drink—you'll start with dinner at Rooster & The Till, Tampa’s most interesting restaurant, the first of three projects launched by Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez. There’s more to come, of course—right now, we’re waiting patiently for the genre-busting all-day cafe from local roaster King State Coffee, one of Florida’s finest; they've just launched their own beer, as well.  

12. Indianapolis

Dropping by Indianapolis to check up on one of the biggest restaurant openings of 2018 led to a day of exploring on a side of the city we’d never seen before, which began a chain reaction that lead to even more surprises—classic places, new places, and exciting things still to come. Stay tuned—we certainly will.

20 HAPPY LITTLE SURPRISES ALONG THE WAY

Behind every very big story, there are so many smaller ones that need to be told. Here, just a sampling of experiences, of the places and people that made 2018 memorable.

13. Stumbling upon a new kind of Omaha, where we also ate some very good deep-fried sandwiches.

14. That time we fell in love with Pennsylvania Dutch cooking all over again. (And again.) Also, did you know that one of America’s best buffets, and one of the biggest, is nowhere near Las Vegas?

15. Flying to Phoenix for lunch, in July, and loving every minute of the ride.

16. Hanging out with rice farmers, and all the other cool people making the food scene in Jacksonville more interesting than ever.

17. Embracing Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins’ unique vision in San Diego.

18. That time when Ray Isle revealed one of his favorite wine pairings—the barbecue of his home state of Texas.

19. Spending a week in Iowa and finding so much good stuff to love, from a growing scene in Des Moines to that pizza in the Quad Cities.  

20. From very good cheese in the Finger Lakes to world-class pain au chocolat in Utica, and even those strange tacos in Buffalo, exploring limitless possibilities on many New York State road trips.

21. Eating our way through the increasingly sophisticated neighborhood restaurant scene in Las Vegas.

22. Hanging out with the Amish in sunny Florida, in December.

23. A cheese-fueled ride through southern Georgia. And how about that very good olive oil?

24. French toast and farmers' markets on a marvelous, lazy weekend in California’s underrated capital, Sacramento.

25. Discovering all sorts of things to like—old things, and new things—in Memphis.

26Donuts, new wave drive-thrus and damn-fine barbecue carts in Portland, the one in Oregon. 

27. Foraging in Cleveland, in November? Oh, most definitely.

28. Eating some of America’s most popular fried chicken, which you will find in a tiny town in Michigan.

29. Seeing visions—in the form of those delicious Oklahoma onion burgers—in Oklahoma City, where there’s all sorts of cool stuff going on.

30. In Shreveport, Louisiana, stopping for a sandwich led to a trip back in time.

31. Making a pie pilgrimage to Wisconsin’s Door County, only to find everything’s changing.

32. Horrible Harrisburg? More like amazing.