Updated November 30, 2013

Study: Best Small Cities for Food

Lesser known but just as tasty
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Whether you're a food enthusiast or just enjoy an occasional night out at a restaurant, you need access to good food options. Metropolitan areas usually hog the spotlight for their range of restaurant offerings, but many smaller cities have their share of good meals as well.

We’re letting the secret out by highlighting the 10 Best Small Cities for Food. These cities’ population range from 500,000 to 1 million. But, don’t let their size fool you – these hidden gems' food offerings are more than capable of competing with those of their larger counterparts.

Study Methodology

  1. Restaurant sales per capita
  2. Establishments per person
  3. Fast food vs. full service restaurants
  4. Growth in number of full service restaurants (2007 to 2009)

Cities were ranked on both the quantity of food choices available and the quality of those choices. We looked at how many establishments residents in an area can access. The fewer people per establishment means more restaurant options are available.

Quality was measured by both sales per person and the full service/fast food differential. In this economic climate, people choosing to eat out instead of at home is a significant sign: when this happens in large numbers, it usually indicates exceptional restaurant food. For this reason, cities with higher restaurant spending per person were favored. A positive full service/fast food differential means most of the restaurant choices in the area are traditional “sit down” restaurants instead of fast food places – another indicator of the availability of quality food.

Finally, we determined growth in terms of the increase or decrease in restaurants from 2007 to 2009. This is an especially significant time frame because it spans the economic crisis. Cities that saw positive growth in the number of restaurants during this period are more likely to have healthy and thriving restaurant industries – the type of environment most likely to produce outstanding entrees.

10 Best Small Cities for Food

For perspective, here are the U.S. averages in each category:

  1. Sales per person: $1,953
  2. People per establishment: 489 (on average, a city has one full service restaurant for every 489 people)
  3. Full service/fast food differential: +0.219 (on average, a city has 0.219 more full service restaurants per thousand people than fast food restaurants)
  4. Growth: 0.46%

1. Scranton, PA

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $1,499
  • People per establishment: 402
  • Full service/fast food differential: +0.311
  • Growth: 8.48%

Having about one restaurant for every 400 people puts any city toward the top of the national list in terms of establishments per capita. For a small city that’s an impressive accomplishment. Combine that high relative quantity of establishments with a full service/fast food differential well above average and notably strong growth in recent years, and Scranton earns the top spot on our list.

2. Portland, ME

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $2,505
  • People per establishment: 296
  • Full service/fast food differential: +0.366
  • Growth: 0.59%

Maine is known for its lobster, and nearly every restaurant in Portland has lobster dinner or at least a lobster sandwich on its menu. But don’t worry if you’re not a fan of seafood – this city has one of the highest restaurants per capita totals in the entire country, and there’s plenty of variety among them. In fact, over 200 restaurants are packed into the tiny borders of this city’s 26 square miles. Craft beer enthusiasts will enjoy Portland as well. About a dozen microbreweries and brewpubs call the city home.

3. Albany, NY

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $1,661
  • People per establishment: 404
  • Full service/fast food differential: +0.10
  • Growth: 9.56%

Growth in restaurants of 9.56% would be impressive over any two-year stretch, but to see that kind of growth during a recession is especially impressive. Albany is second only to Des Moines in restaurant growth on this list, and 404 people per establishment is among the lowest (and best) nationally, especially for a small city. The $1,661 in sales per person is a bit below the national average of $1,953, though. Since prices in Albany are about 8% above the national average, the sales per person total should be above the national average as well.

4. Bridgeport/Stamford/Norwalk, CT

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $2,080
  • People per establishment: 427
  • Full service/fast food differential: +0.416
  • Growth: 3.12%

This trio of cities are all suburbs of New York City, and their food offerings are just as promising as that of their metropolitan cousin. Each has 300 or more restaurants to choose from, and the majority are full service. At just over twice the national average, the full service/fast food differential in this area was in the top 10% among all of the small cities we considered for this ranking.

5. Fort Myers/Cape Coral, FL

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $2,018
  • People per establishment: 539
  • Full service/fast food differential: +0.388
  • Growth: 4.23%

Fort Myers has the highest number of people per establishment on this list and is one of only two cities to surpass the 500 mark in this metric. However, it makes up for it by having one of the stronger full service/fast food differentials and by experiencing fairly strong growth during the recession.

6. Des Moines, IA

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $1,787
  • People per establishment: 418
  • Full service/fast food differential: -0.049
  • Growth: 9.96%

Despite the recession, the Des Moines area managed to increase its number of restaurants by almost 10% in a two-year time period and now boasts a restaurant for every 418 people. The only knock on the city is the fact that fast food restaurants slightly outnumber the full service ones.

7. Charleston, SC

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $2,615
  • People per establishment: 448
  • Full service/fast food differential: +0.228
  • Growth: 0.67%

Like many coastal towns, Charleston is known for its seafood, and many visitors would consider their trip incomplete without sampling the local fare. The $2,615 spent per person in Charleston restaurants each year is well above the national average and good enough to put it among the top totals for small cities nationally.

8. Toledo, OH

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $1,622
  • People per establishment: 415
  • Full service/fast food differential: -0.015
  • Growth: 3.39%

Toledo’s restaurants per capita number is in the same range as cities ranked much higher on this list. It ranks eighth only because it’s one of two cities in the top 10 whose full service restaurants are outnumbered by fast food places. The other city in that position – Des Moines – has a much stronger growth rate.

9. Sarasota/Bradenton/Venice, FL

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $1,875
  • People per establishment: 515
  • Full service/fast food differential: +0.416
  • Growth: -4.34%

The Sarasota/Bradenton/Venice area was hit hardest by the recession among cities in the top 10 and saw a decline of more than 4% in its number of restaurants from 2007 to 2009. It’s also one of only two cities (the other being Fort Myers) to have a people-per-establishment number over 500. Still, the full service/fast food differential was the highest among the cities considered, so most of the choices you do have are traditional “sit down” restaurants. And, the spending per person is just a bit below the national average – a metric influenced quite a bit by larger and more expensive cities.

10. Oxnard/Thousand Oaks/Ventura, CA

  • Restaurant sales per capita: $1,851
  • People per establishment: 498
  • Full service/fast food differential: +0.034
  • Growth: -2.51%

The Oxnard/Thousand Oaks/Ventura area is the second of two cities to see negative restaurant growth from 2007 to 2009; however, the decline here wasn’t quite as great as what the Sarasota area experienced. There are more restaurants per capita in this region than Sarasota. But, Oxnard comes in at number 10 because its full service/fast food differential is about even while Sarasota’s is the highest among the ranked cities.

We acknowledge our list isn’t perfect, but it should pique the interest of food lovers who like to visit new cities or are curious about where their own area ranks. Even though food is a broad category, we focused on restaurants. Those who prefer one type of food or another may not agree with our method of determining variety. We attempted to mitigate potential accuracy issues with the first two metrics, which is based on 2007 data – the most current time period available – by using the growth statistic measuring the change in the number of restaurants from 2007 to 2009, a particular tough (and telling) time for restaurants. Finally, price was not factored into any metric, so the average cost of a meal in a restaurant in the cities on this list could cover a wide range.

If you ever find yourself in any of these cities, make sure to add some extra money to your food budget! Whether you’re a tourist or a resident, stop in to a local restaurant, and let these cities prove that population size doesn’t matter when it comes to good food.


Leah Norris is a research analyst at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Leah Norris at leah@creditdonkey.com. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for our latest posts.

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