Good food is not exclusive to metropolitan areas, this we know. A dense population and international airports are not necessarily the first ingredients in creating a thriving food scene. Across the country, there are small towns (for our purposes, they have less than 300,000 residents) where fresh ingredients are readily available and a passion for cooking and eating local foods never wanes. Where once we stumbled on these towns haphazardly, now travelers are arriving at them on purpose. As we are traveling more and more often for food (and local, fresh, seasonal food at that), it makes sense that we’d head toward the deeper cuts — why get a lobster roll in New York City when you can get one direct from the source in Maine?
That three of these towns are adjacent to wine regions should come as no surprise — they serve the best local foods to pair with the best local wines. And what could be more inviting to winemakers and wine drinkers alike than a small, walkable town serving high-end cuisine with rolling vineyards just a few miles away? Walla Walla, Healdsburg, and McMinnville all have that kind of laid-back, hidden charm in spades. But then there are unexpected towns, like Lafayette, La., and Traverse City, Mich., that are hidden dining treasures simply because of their seasonal bounty and the local food culture that’s grown from it.
Where some of these towns have specific foods to love (and host festivals around them), like lobsters in Rockland, Maine, others have a surprising number of dining options that run the gamut from fine dining to holes in the wall. So in putting together this year’s list, we not only took stock of population and density of dining options, but looked at food-focused buzz in the media and accessibility of local ingredients. These are not just our favorite towns to stop along your next road trip; these are towns we’d want to spend some time in.