Our Favorite Places to Eat from 2018

In 2018, we traveled across America in search of the best places to eat. Now, it's your turn.

Take it from a bunch of people who travel the 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 constantly changing. There are so many cities that just won't stop growing and so many old familiars that suddenly look different and feel different when you go back and visit. 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 trip, everything'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 and it may never be done — thank goodness, then, that it is always engaging, typically entertaining, and often downright inspiring.

At the end of 2018, we took an ever-so-brief look back, appreciating each and every moment of the ride. Here's a sampling of some of our favorite places to eat from that year. Hang out with us, just for a few minutes. It'll be fun.

The places that felt like the future

1. Los Angeles, California

If you don't know, then ask somebody who does — is there another city in the United States that feels as switched on as Los Angeles? Sometimes, it feels as if everyone (including José Andrés) is moving there. 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 in even pretending. Bite off whatever you can chew, quite literally, and enjoy the city's diverse flavors, from the proliferation of exciting Filipino cooking to the rise of modern Korean, plus almost every kind of regional Mexican and Central American cuisine. Then, there are the chefs everyone's talking about, too many to mention here, from promising young things like Jonathan Yao at Kato and Brian Dunsmoor, whose seasonal Fuss & Feathers dinners at Hatchet Hall paid tribute to the past in a most modern way. 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, often in the places most of us aren't even looking.

2. Houston, Texas

Here's the thing, Los Angeles — Houston is coming for you.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 accessible. In Houston, the whole world is next door, from Oaxacan dishes by James Beard Award winner Hugo Ortega to the affordable bowls of goodness at Pho Binh, just blocks from the gloss of the Galleria mall. There are weekday Indian brunches at Pondicheri in trendy Montrose, business lunches of Banh Cuon, duck salad at standby Huynh, and artisanal banh mi at Roostar. There are so many names to know including Ryan Lachaine at Riel, and of course, Justin Yu (Theodore Rex), who with local barman Bobby Heugel gave the city Better Luck Tomorrow, one of Food & Wine's Restaurants of the Year in 2018.

3. Oakland, California

If the future is female, it's already happening in this sunny, invigorating jumble of a city that spent too long in the shadow of San Francisco (but that's ancient history). While there has long been plenty of restaurants to get excited about in Oakland, 2018 saw a wave of entrepreneurial women making everything even more interesting. There's Janice Dulce, chef-owner of FOB Kitchen, a Filipino pop-up that found a permanent home in Preeti Mistry's old Juhu Beach Club space. Of course, there's also Reem Assil of Reem's, one of 2018's all-around standouts. Not to forget the men, we applauded James Woodard at Smokin' Woods BBQ and Keba Konte, founder of the one-to-watch Red Bay Coffee. Both of them joined the ranks of established greats like James Syhabout (Commis, Hawking Bird, C.D.P.), and the gang at Ramen Shop, where the Japanese staple got the Chez Panisse treatment, to beautiful effect. All in all, 2018 was a memorable year in Oakland.

4. San Antonio, Texas

Yes, we returned to 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 was on a growth tear like you wouldn't believe, and of course, that meant new food, new makers, new restaurants — and plenty of them. From that long list, the ones we appreciated most had a 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. 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 saw astounding growth, becoming a scrubbed-up version of its weird old self, San Antonio offered an excellent reminder that you can grow a great deal without wiping out what was there before.

5. St. Louis, Missouri

It can be 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, often doesn't get enough credit for the things that it does well. One of those things is food. From the nearly-ancient Italian culture on The Hill to innovative Bosnian cooking to pho so dangerously delicious it landed on Food & Wine's February cover, anything goes — and that's just the way we like it. If you are there, make sure to look in on Blue Hill-alum Michael Gallina, whose restaurant Vicia dominated the dining scene in 2018, and stop by Gerard Craft's glam Cinder House at the Four Seasons Hotel.

The ones we loved all over again

6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

When it comes to food in Philadelphia, anything can happen — and it does. In 2018, we were impressed with the Lebanese cooking at Suraya, which drew crowds to rugged (and very trendy) Fishtown. We also ate some of the East Coast's best tacos at South Philly Barbacoa, which began as a food cart and found a new home in the Italian Market. If you make it to town, do the decent thing and pay tribute to the Reading Terminal Market, which has been thriving since 1892. Just you try living that long.

7. Seattle, Washington

Temporarily ceding the Northwest culture limelight to Portland, Seattle attempted to take it back in 2018. And we cheered on the Northwest's big — and getting bigger — city from the sidelines. If you haven't heard, a lot of people moved here and showed up hungry. Eduardo Jordan of Junebaby (and before that, Salare) shook up the culinary scene even more in 2018. Alongside, Japanese restaurant Kamonegi garnered a cult following for its soba noodles and tempura, and chef Brady Williams upped the ante at Canlis, that classic stunner. Try the Filipino-Northwest tasting menus at Archipelago in Hillman City, head to Homer for the Mediterranean-inspired cuisine 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, Louisiana

Just this once, put your nostalgia on a shelf and let New Orleans be New Orleans, 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, Piece of Meat, to Nina Compton's sophomore effort, Bywater American Bistro, there was plenty to get excited about in 2018. Add to that a slew of casual spots including Molly's Rise & Shine on Magazine Street and the latest from Mason Hereford (Turkey and the Wolf). Also, don't forget the classics, such as dinners at Marjie's Grill and Galatoire's, which in 2018 brought Phillip Lopez, one of the city's most incorrigible visionaries, to its hallowed kitchens.

9. Washington, D.C.

If you're not taking the food in Washington, D.C. seriously, let's get you caught up because so much went down in 2018. Let's meet by the fire at Maydan — winter is a great time to be there. Speaking of warming up, don't miss the good barbecue in the smoke-filled room they call the Federalist Pig. For mornings and afternoons when indoors is the best idea, there is (of course there is) something very good from Aaron Silverman just for the occasion: the striking Little Pearl, a smart coffee and wine bar, steps from the metro at Eastern Market.

The ones we expected big things from

10. Columbus, Ohio

If there's one thing we know about the Midwest, 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, as it welcomes people from all over the world into the ever-growing fold. From some of the best momos in the country 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 top-notch cafes. Seriously, don't sleep on this city.

11. Tampa, Florida

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 paying attention. With neighborhoods and wonderful centuries-old food traditions brought by Cuban, Italian, 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. Food-centric projects like Sparkman Wharf and the Heights Public Market have become legitimate attractions and the Seminole Heights neighborhood is a hub for great restaurants like Rooster & The Till, the first of three projects launched by Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez.

Happy little surprises along the way

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

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

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

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

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

16. Embracing Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins' unique vision in San Diego.

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

18. 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.

19. 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.

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

21. Hanging out with the Amish in sunny Florida in December.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30. Making a pie pilgrimage to Wisconsin's Door County, only to find out that everything has changed.

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