6 surprising US small towns that will blow away your tastebuds
Farm-fresh ingredients and creative chefs mean belly bliss outside of the US' usual hot spots
Sure, your first thought for a US culinary adventure is likely the big cities: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. You will certainly eat well there. But if your thoughts don’t immediately then go to smaller cities, you and your tastebuds are missing out. So, check out these smaller centers of US deliciousness.
ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN
Downtown Ann Arbor. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
Ann Arbor, the college town not far from Detroit, is known for one of the best dining scenes in the American Midwest, following Chicago. A big thank you for that goes to the abundance of nearby farms and to the Zingerman Community of Businesses, which was instrumental in cultivating the town’s food culture.
Zingerman’s, founded by Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, takes a global approach to food which they anchor in their interest in “local, natural, and slow”. They make a point of developing their staff to help them achieve their culinary dreams — which means culinary happiness for everyone who visits Ann Arbor too.
Argus Farm Stop, Ann Arbor. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
It all began with Zingerman’s Deli. The Community of Businesses now includes everything from Conman’s Farms, to The Creamery for cheese and gelati, Miss Kim for Korean street food, and even a mail-order business. Zingerman’s Roadhouse really impressed me. Among (many, many) other things, I ate the best mac and cheese of my life (Alton Brown quite rightly awarded it Best Comfort Food in America) and a divine dessert they simply call butterscotch puddin’, but I’d call a muscovado sugar pot de crème of heaven.
You’ll find an abundance of international selections in Ann Arbor, including Ayse’s Turkish Café, Bigalora Wood-Fired Cucina making pizza in the traditional “biga” style, French comfort food at Mikette, Northern Italian at Gratzi, Moroccan at Casablanca, Spanish at Aventura, Japanese at Slurping Turtle, and oh so much more.
Variety at Madison's farmers' market. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
The capital city of this northern state is home to the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country. Called the Dane County Farmers’ Market, it operates year-round. At the height of summer about 150 stalls offer up the region’s bounty. Make sure you walk counterclockwise around the square or you’ll reveal your Madison naivité.
Food matters here, especially of the farm-to-table variety which the market specializes in. Of course, you’ll find plenty of Wisconsin cheeses and baked goods (Chris & Lori’s Bakehouse is famous for its scones, for example). Thanks to the area's Lao community, you'll also find less-typical herbs and vegetables including specialty eggplants and wood fungus.
Farner's market freshness. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
Look for any resto by chef Tory Miller’s Deja Food Restaurant Group. Sadly his pan-Asian Sujeo has closed, but L’Etoile, Graze, and Estrellón still delight. At Lao Laan-Xang, try those Lao veggies cooked up by an expert. Or go to Short Stack Eatery for breakfast, have anything from The Old Fashioned Tavern's wood-burning grill, sample Mediterranean fare at A Pig in a Fur Coat, and enjoy from-scratch classics at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. On Friday nights, be sure to go to a Wisconsin fish fry. The Edgewater, a historic hotel right on Lake Mendota, has one every Friday night at The Boathouse.
Madison’s food shops cater to tourists (and locals) who like to snack as they explore the city’s five lakes and Frank Lloyd Wright sites. For example, Gail Ambrosius, named one of North America’s top ten chocolatiers, makes beautiful chocolate confections (including a surprisingly delicious combination of chocolate and mushroom, of all things). Madison Sourdough has all sorts of bread and pastries from their communal oven. You'll be happy just smelling either shop, but even happier if you buy treats to take home with you to remember Madison.
WINTER PARK AND NEARBY ORLANDO, FLORIDA
East End Market, Winter Park, Orlando, Florida. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
Winter Park is a tony suburb of Orlando, and both have much to offer the foodie (most theme park food can be skipped, but not the Butterbeer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter). Winter Park’s population is one-tenth that of Orlando, just 30,000 compared to Orlando’s 300,000. Famous Winter Park residents include both Mr. Rogers and Tom Hanks, who played the children’s TV legend in 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'.
Just on the edge of Winter Park is East End Market, known as Orlando’s original food hall. Pick up a raw juice at Skybird and then immediately join the line for Gideon’s Bakehouse. Go early, because this cult cookie shop sells out of its massive cookies daily. Cookies secured, relax and peruse the other shops including La Femme du Fromage for artisan cheeses and tasting flights of grilled cheese sandwiches, Olde Hearth for bread, Lineage for craft coffee, and Bird of Paradise for local organic fare.
Nearer to downtown is Mills 50 or Little Vietnam — ViMi for short. Wander traditional Asian markets, sample unique Lao street food dishes at Sticky Rice, and have a Cheese Mousse Tea (yup) at a US outpost of China’s ROYALTEA. Try Sanctum Café for plant-based deliciousness. Five minutes east is Se7en Bites with its brunchy southern comforts served on tin plates ideal for sharing (you'll need to!).
Sanctum Cafe. Orlando, Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
Stay at sister hotels Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek or Waldorf Astoria Orlando, which also feature autumn food and wine weekends, linked with Epcot’s 87-day-long International Food & Wine Festival. The food and wine weekends offer special tastings at the resorts’ destination restaurants including Zeta Asia, La Luce (don’t miss the risotto fritters), and Bull & Bear (no matter what else you're having, order The Lemon for dessert at soon as you arrive and hope they’re not already sold out).
While Disney Springs is affiliated with the theme park, you’ll find some of the world’s top chefs have opened restaurants there. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s Morimoto Asia serves Asian fusion, including Peking duck and dim sum. Get traditional Mexican at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Cocina. And, if you can find the secret door, have Sicilian food at Enzo’s Hideaway. Their pastas are particularly heavenly. Take a break from all Orlando's fab eating by walking as much as you can at the city's theme parks.
Lexington, Virginia's rolling green hills. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
There’s something about college towns which brings a great culinary scene. Lexington, surrounded by Virginia's rolling green hills dotted with farms, perfects it. Buffalo Creek Beef Farm and organic Paradox Farm supply many of the town’s butchers and restaurants. There’s plenty of orchards, including Virginia Gold’s Asian pears and Halcyon Days Cider Company’s apples and, you guessed it, cider. At Haywood’s in The Georges Hotel, the chef told me the quality of ingredients he can get from in and around Lexington is better than what he could source in his California wine-country home.
Lexington has several farm-to-table restaurants including the Red Hen, which became famous not just for protecting its staff from Trumpian values but from the bizarre backlash because of it. Another elegant choice is Bistro on Main with exquisite stuffed pastas, quiches, and more. More casual fare is at JJ’s Meat Shack for barbeque and Southern Inn, downtown, famous for its crispy fried chicken.
Haywood's in the Georges Hotel, Lexington, Virginia. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
Pick up expertly-selected cheeses at Cheese to You, premium chocolates at Cocoa Mill Chocolate Company, and even stone-ground flour at Wade’s Mill. Plus Lexington is home to the delicious ice cream at Sweet Things, where the shop owner claims to be able to predict your personality by what you order. We describe it here in What your favorite ice cream flavor says about you.
ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN
Vintage wine shop in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
Back up in Wisconsin, we find Elkhart Lake, a tiny resort town with a Dirty Dancing-feel. It's on — surprise — Elkhart Lake. The best place for foodies to stay is The Osthoff Resort. This grand hotel draws upon its two-acre organic garden for its cooking school and excellent restaurants. I’m still craving the skillet-baked berry pancake stuffed with raspberries from Otto’s (best eaten out on the patio overlooking the gardens and lake).
It’s surprising how many great places there are to eat in this tiny town. In "downtown" Elkhart Lake (just a couple blocks from the lake), the Paddock Club serves ever-changing menus of seasonal cuisine. The undecided should visit Tuesdays for small plates night. Wood-fired pizza is fabulous at Lake Street Cafe. Eat (and drink) while you shop at Vintage Elkhart Lake Wine. Word to the wise: stock up on the super cheesy Palo Popcorn made with Wisconsin's famous cheese.
The Osthoff Resort, Elkhart Lake. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
On the lake at Siebkens Resort is Stop-Inn Tavern, where you can have a Siebkens Sandwich made on their secret-recipe rye bread. Save room for treats at Sissy's Coffee and Ice Cream Shoppe. The Cottonwood Social at The Shore Club features the efforts of local farmers. Watch the sun go down over the lake with small plates and cocktails at the Tiki Bar & Lounge (shoes are optional).
DOOR COUNTY, WISCONSIN
Door County cherries. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
Ok, we're cheating here, because Door County is not one small town but a series of tiny ones spread over a peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan. Door County is rightly famous for its cherries and we've outlined all the can't-miss cherry-licious eats in We’ve cherry-picked the best of Door County for you.