18 of the world’s most underrated food cities, according to chefs
These lesser-known locales are brimming with fantastic restaurants, top-notch coffee shops and alfresco markets.
By Morgan Olsen Posted: Friday March 12 2021
Over the past year, we’ve had a lot of time to fantasize about future vacations and reprioritize our travel wish list. While we still have a ways to go before we’re freely jet-setting around the globe again, there’s no harm in daydreaming about it. If you’re the kind of traveler who books dinner reservations before you even look at hotels, we’ve got just the thing for you. We asked some of the world’s best chefs to share their favorite underrated food cities – the kind of places that are brimming with phenomenal restaurants, super-fresh seafood and lively night markets. They delivered tenfold, with a checklist of lesser-known foodie locales around the world, from a seaside state in India to a trio of Italian underdogs. Add these delicious destinations to your travel wish list, then start plotting out your meals accordingly.
Craving more insider insight from the world’s best chefs? You’re in the right place. Talk to the Chef! is a new weekly food series that will tap into the minds of culinary leaders around the globe. The conversation changes just as often, and we’ll chat with chefs about everything from podcasts and kitchen equipment to travel and trends.
“I lived in Singapore for three years prior to moving to New York and have never eaten so well in my life. I think Singapore is the melting pot of Asia. Singapore is surrounded by Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, to name a few. You can’t visit without going to the hawker stalls like the locals; you will find all the best foods there.” —Emily Yuen, executive chef of Bessou and Bessou at Time Out Market in New York City
“The Emilia-Romagna region in Italy produces some of the best pasta, olive oil, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, mortadella and wine – to name just a few. Modena is home to the world-famous Osteria Francescana, but believe me, it is full of incredible places to eat. You can go to any deli, osteria, trattoria or ristorante and be served up next-level dishes like tortellini en brodo made using local ingredients. Nearby Parma and Bologna are also amazing.” —James Cochran, chef-owner of 12:51 by Chef James Cochran in London
“I can’t effectively speak globally, however, in the [U.S.], I believe Seattle does a phenomenal job and I love traveling there to eat. They have a bounty of local, wild ingredients and some pretty phenomenal talent preparing it. I selected them as underrated because I don’t believe they get the recognition that they deserve.” —Erick Williams, chef-owner of Virtue in Chicago
“Taizhou [in eastern China]. Not that it is underrated, but more like most of us haven’t had the opportunity to explore. We went there to visit our friends at Xinrongji, and he showed us his hometown and we were amazed by the vast array of unique seafood, fresh mochi, rustic farmer’s cuisine and pastries – all with beautiful mountain landscapes to accompany.” —May Chow, chef-founder of Little Bao and Happy Paradise in Hong Kong
“It has such a variety of quality food – from high-end fine dining at La Colombe Restaurant in the hills, to the wine regions north of the city, to Liam Tomlin’s journey through cuisines at Chefs Warehouse, to simple street food joints. The food scene brilliantly reflects the produce and the melting pot of cultures in the city. The place is beautiful, and the people are so friendly.” —Mark Moriarty, chef of The Greenhouse in Dublin
“You tend always hear about big guns – Rome, Florence and Venice – which all deserve the limelight, but pound for pound Verona has it all: high-end classic restaurants, simple trattorias, excellent aperitivo bars, wonderful wine bars, fantastic local wine. And it’s home to my favourite winter dish – the mighty bollito misto. The best part is you can walk everywhere and it’s so pretty.” —Tim Siadatan, co-founder of Trullo and Padella in London
“The most underrated food city in the world that I’ve experienced would be Kep in Cambodia. It is a colourful seaside town ruffled with white sand beaches close to nearby islands. Along the shores are street vendors specialized in everything seafood – from sun-dried squid and charcoal grills blazing with freshly caught swordfish to private huts of steamed-to-order crab, proudly topped with Cambodia’s famous green Kampot peppers. Evening strolls along the seaside are a must, with fresh coconut water, French colonial architecture in various states of repair and decay soaked in the rich colours of the sunset, and the freshest seafood all around.” —Chanthy Yen, founder of Touk and chef of Parliament Pub & Parlour in Montreal
“Of course we love Tokyo, Mexico City and New York, but these are commonly well-regarded food cities. One of our favorite and convenient travel cities to jet up to and just eat and drink is Montreal. It’s not on everyone’s radar, but it should be. There is a strong emphasis on quality, execution and approachability in their food and drink scene, so everything from the neighborhood bistro to the tasting menu places are welcoming and delicious.” —Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer, chefs and co-owners of Boia De in Miami
“I would say Bangkok, because even though Thai food is really renowned, I still had the best food slaps in my life [there], having meals prepared with the most basic ingredients. Thai people keep their bar really high and they are very rigorous with their flavors and freshness, that makes their daily cooking – or even street food – always excellent.” —Bertrand Grébaut, head chef of Septime in Paris
“It’s a well-loved city in Taiwan as a food destination, but not enough people in the world know about it. Tainan is the old capital of Taiwan, a city easy to wander about in. It is a myriad of small streets, night markets, wet markets, Xiao chi stalls, cafes and traditional shops for all sorts of things. One of my favourites is Ching Ji Fruits, where they sell seasonal ripe fruits to eat or drink as juices. Many are Taiwanese tropical specials and really a treat to enjoy on a hot, sweaty summer.” —Erchen Chang, owner of Bao in London
“It’s actually a state, and I’d suggest Bhubaneswar and Puri as the main cities to visit in Odisha. From their spectacular Jagannath Temple that has more than 700 stoves and cooks to presenting the world with the delicious rasgulla, this incredible gastronomic destination usually never makes it to people’s culinary list when they travel to India and that must change.” —Saransh Goila, founder of Goila Butter Chicken in Mumbai
“I don’t know if it’s underrated, but I dream of going back to the Greek Islands and eating fresh seafood and salad straight off the beach. I spent a bit of time in the islands, particularly Naxos, a few years back, and the food here comes from the island, so it’s picked ripe and served fresh, it doesn’t come from miles away ripening in a food truck. If you drive a little up into the hills and visit the smaller picturesque villages, you can also get delicious roast pork cooked over open charcoal flames eaten under a canopy of grape vines.” —Nornie Bero, owner of Mabu Mabu in Melbourne
“I think the most underrated city in the world would have to be Mendoza in Argentina, my home country. It is bordering the giant Andes Mountains and is Argentina’s largest wine region, producing a variety of amazing wines. The food is outstanding as well. There is nothing like having a great open asado with wood fire of Cordero Patagonico gaucho style (Patagonia lamb) while looking straight at the Andes Mountains covered by snow and enjoying a great Catena Zapata malbec.” —Agustin Ferrando Balbi, chef-founder of Andō in Hong Kong
“I spent a week there and had nothing but great meals. Grand Café (RIP), Young Joni, Murray’s, Hola Arepa and Hai Hai were all wonderful experiences.” —Nina Compton, chef-owner of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans
“In my opinion, the most underrated food city in the world is Milan. It’s off the tourist map, so restaurants are creating innovative food and pushing Italian cuisine in directions not found in the rest of Italy. Milan doesn’t have the restrictions and expectations that exist in cities dominated by tourists tastes.” —Tony Mantuano, chef-owner of Yolan in Nashville
“The city is a melting pot of many Asian countries and ethnicities, and there are new dishes to discover around every corner. You can sample many Asian cuisines within a few meters of its bustling markets and the fusion dishes there are like no other city.” —Marwa Alkhalaf, chef-director of Nutshell in London
“I’m biased because my father was born and raised there, but it is the best city for tapas – no contest! Spanish produce is amazing quality, so it’s not hard to find a tapas bar serving delicious food, and because it’s inexpensive, you can try everything on offer. Bacalao (salted cod) and gambas blancas (white prawns) are classics, but you can’t miss the jamón. If you can, go for the free-range variety for a more tender texture and complex flavour.” —Peter Sanchez-Iglesias, chef of Casamia, Paco Tapas, Decimo and Pi Shop in the UK
“Of course I would have to say Seoul, Korea. The night markets have great street food – like hotteok (Korean rice flour pancakes) tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) and my favorite, kalguksu (hand-cut noodles). And they usually stay open from 10pm till 5am.” —Bill Kim, chef-owner of Urbanbelly and Bill Kim at Time Out Market in Chicago