Updated June 10, 2014

Study: Best Cities for Foodies

Where You're Most Likely to Find a Good Meal
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When you're choosing a city where you'll work, travel, or even live, you have lots of factors to consider. Food may not be the first thing you think of when you're in the planning stages, but it surely will be when you're in the area and hunger strikes. Wherever you go, easy access to high-quality food is important and so is having a variety of restaurant options. Read on to discover our top 10 best cities for foodies, and plan to budget some extra food money if you find yourself in any these locations.

Study Methodology

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

The more people spend at restaurants, the better the food is likely to be. Especially in today’s economy, people opting to eat out instead of preparing food at home indicates that a city has some great food offerings. Similarly, the more establishments that exist per person, the more food choices you have. More restaurants also means more competition among them, with only the best surviving.

Using U.S. Census Bureau data, as we did for the other measurements, we also looked at fast food vs. full service restaurants. This metric distinguishes higher quality, “sit down” restaurants from lower quality, fast food establishments. Cities with better food have more full service restaurants than fast food places.

Finally, using data from the USDA, we looked at growth. Growth in the number of restaurants indicates a healthy, thriving industry – the kind of environment that has the best chance of providing great food.

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

  1. Sales per person: $1,953
  2. People per establishment: 489
  3. Full service/fast food differential: +.219 (on average, a city has .219 more full-service restaurants per thousand people than fast food restaurants)
  4. Growth: 0.46%

10 Best Cities for Foodies in US

1. San Francisco, CA

San Francisco, California
San Francisco, California

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $2,889
  • People Per Establishment: 376
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +1.122
  • Growth: 3.97%

San Francisco residents spend almost a full dollar more than the national average on restaurant food each year. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually the second highest per capita spending total on this list. The city also boasts the lowest number of people per establishment of any of the cities ranked here – 23% better than the national average.

2. New York, NY

New York, New York
New York, New York

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $2,122
  • People Per Establishment: 458
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +1.147
  • Growth: 3.72%

New York is known for much more than just bagels and pizza. With over 4,000 restaurants, it’s home to the second highest number of restaurants in the country. Most of those restaurants are full service, too. The city has almost twice as many full-service restaurants as fast food places, and its full service/fast food differential is well over five times the national average. A good meal will cost you, though – New York is also home to the highest consumer price index in the country, so the average meal here will cost more than twice as much as one in most other U.S. cities.

3. Virginia Beach, VA

Virginia Beach, Virginia
Virginia Beach, Virginia

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $2,053
  • People Per Establishment: 457
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +0.134
  • Growth: 7.12%

With over 7% growth, the Virginia Beach/Norfolk area saw the highest percentage increase in restaurants of any city on this list between 2007 and 2009. That kind of growth is impressive any time, but given the economic climate during that time span, it’s especially noteworthy. Even though the number of people per establishment here is almost the same as New York’s, the population is much smaller. That could mean your options are a bit more limited than they would be in some of the other cities ranked here.

4. Portland, OR

Portland, Oregon
Portland, Oregon

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $1,918
  • People Per Establishment: 407
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +0.542
  • Growth: -0.26%

Portland is one of three cities in the top 10 to show the effects of the recession. It had negative restaurant growth from 2007 to 2009, but it makes up for it with a strong full service/fast food differential more than twice the national average, as well as has a restaurant for about every 400 people. Portland ranks third in those two categories.

5. Providence, RI

Providence, Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $1,895
  • People Per Establishment: 387
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +0.108
  • Growth: 5.91%

Even though Providence’s full-service/fast food differential and per capita restaurant spending are a bit below the national averages, it gets the number five spot because of its impressive growth in restaurants during the recession, as well as a very low people-to-restaurant ratio. Having a restaurant for every 400 or fewer people is impressive and puts the city easily toward the top of the national rankings in this category.

6. Orlando, FL

Orlando, Florida
Orlando, Florida

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $4,298
  • People Per Establishment: 485
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +0.071
  • Growth: 3.69%

One of several major vacation destinations in the top 10, the $4300 per person spent at restaurants in Orlando each year is by far the highest per capita spending on this list, as well as one of the highest nationally. Much of the credit for that amount likely goes to local tourism and attractions, which bring in extra dollars in restaurant revenue without adding to population figures. Still, many tourist spots are known for their excellent food, and the high per capita spending and impressive 3.7% growth in the number of restaurants during the recession make a good case for the quality of Orlando’s food.

7. Miami, FL

Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $2,458
  • People Per Establishment: 507
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +0.104
  • Growth: 3.05%

Two of the most popular travel destinations in Florida – and in the country as a whole – are back to back in the rankings, and their statistics are similar. The exception is the sales per capita value, with Miami coming in almost a full $2,000 below Orlando. That difference, combined with fewer restaurants per capita in Miami, is what gives Orlando the edge.

8. Seattle, WA

Seattle, Washington
Seattle, Washington

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $2,327
  • People Per Establishment: 384
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +0.216
  • Growth: -0.015%

Seattle is the second of three cities on this list to have negative growth in the number of restaurants in operation from 2007 to 2009, but the decline was negligible. The city has a restaurant for every 384 people – of the cities named here, only San Francisco was better. In addition, even though the full service/fast food differential is a bit below the national average, it’s actually good enough for fourth best among the top 10 cities.

9. Charlotte, NC

Charlotte, North Carolina
Charlotte, North Carolina

  • Restaurant Sales Per Capita: $2,180
  • People Per Establishment: 470
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: +0.135
  • Growth: -0.312%

Charlotte was hit the hardest in terms of negative growth from 2007 to 2009, but a decline of three-tenths of 1 percent in a recession isn’t bad. Some areas saw declines north of 10 percent in the same time period. The restaurant sales per capita are already above the national average, but Charlotte is one of only two cities in the top 10 to have a consumer price index below the national average. That $2,180 in restaurant spending per person would be equal to about $3,650 in San Francisco and more than $5,000 in New York.

10. Memphis, TN

Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis, Tennessee

  • Restaurant Sales per Capita: $2,719
  • People Per Establishment: 569
  • Full Service/Fast Food Differential: -0.109
  • Growth: 3.02%

Rounding out the top 10 is Memphis, which is the only other city besides Charlotte to have a consumer price index below the national average. That means Memphis’ already impressive per capita spending of $2,719 would equal $3,090 if brought up to the national level, and much more if brought up to the price levels in some of the other cities on this list. Memphis is at number 10 because it’s the only city to make the top 10 with a negative full service/fast food differential, meaning it has more fast food restaurants than full service ones.

Food is a very broad term, but for the purposes of this list we focused on food served at restaurants. While the number of establishments per person likely has a correlation to the variety of food types available in a city, taste in food is very subjective. Another caveat: The most current data available on the first two metrics are from 2007, which could affect their accuracy. However, we attempted to mitigate that with the growth statistic, which measures the change in the number of establishments from 2007 to 2009 – an especially relevant time frame because it stretches from before the recent recession to after. Finally, it’s worth noting that price was not a factor in any of the metrics, so the average cost of a meal in a restaurant in the cities on this list can vary quite a bit. (When cost is an issue – and when isn’t it? – consider getting dining rewards credit card, which gives points every time you dine. For a list of such cards, go here.)

You don’t have to be a food enthusiast to enjoy a good meal, but you have the best chance of getting one in the cities named here. If you happen to find yourself in any of them, make sure to stop in to a restaurant to sample the local fare.

Leah Norris is a research analyst at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Leah Norris at leah@creditdonkey.com

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