Oct 16, 2023 - Economy

The country's most "food-forward" cities, ranked

Data: Datassential; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Datassential; Chart: Axios Visuals

Food consultancy Datassential used a custom formula and an enormous database of restaurant menus to determine that (drum roll, please)... San Francisco is the country's most "food-forward" city.

The big picture: This doesn't necessarily mean it has the best food — just that it has the greatest diversity of cuisines, lots of "emerging" foods, and plenty of residents who seek out gustatory novelty.

Why it matters: Cities derive economic strength and attract residents in part on the basis of their culinary chops, so rankings like this can drive investment and draw talented chefs.

Driving the news: Datassential ranked 158 U.S. cities based on the breadth and variety of their restaurants, and residents' interest in and awareness of a wide array of foods.

  • California cities dominated the top of the list — including slight curveballs like San Diego and Monterey.
  • Likely suspects, including New York and Chicago, were shut out of the top 5.
  • The bottom 5 were concentrated in the Midwest: Sioux Falls, South Dakota; La Crosse, Wisconsin; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Fargo, North Dakota; and Wausau, Wisconsin.

What they're saying: "This is not at all to say that the food in Wausau or any of the places that don't rank at the top of this list is not exceptional," the executive chairman of Datassential, Jack Li, tells Axios.

  • Wisconsin, he noted, "has probably got some of the best brewpub food on earth."
  • But there's a "real dominance of a handful of cuisines" that's less pronounced in the more "food-forward" cities."

Methodology: Datassential tracks 1.4 million places that serve food in the U.S. — 680,000 of which are restaurants — and maintains a capacious database of menus.

  • It devised a metric called "the race to 90" — a measure of how many cuisines it would take to reach 90% of a city's total restaurants.
  • If a city's most common type of cuisine was barbecue, for example, and that represented 30% of the city's restaurants, and the next-most-prevalent was steakhouses at 15%, that would put the total at 45%.
  • "The higher the number of cuisines [needed] to hit that magic 90% mark, the higher the food-forwardness ranking of a particular city," as Datassential put it.

Results: In Miami, for example — #3 on the list — it took 29 cuisines before 90% of the city's restaurants were represented.

  • In Wausau, however, 90% of the restaurants were represented by only 11 cuisines.

Zoom in: Another big factor was residents' receptivity to new tastes and foods, which Datassential tracks through its consumer preference program.

  • "I can tell you, hey, in this ZIP code, this is the percentage of people that have ever heard of injera, the Ethiopian bread," Li said.

A third factor was "how often earlier-stage [food] trends showed up at local restaurants, highlighting that a particular city was responsible for giving life to new food trends," Datassential said in its report.

By the numbers: Big cities that fell outside the top 10 included Dallas (#14), Phoenix (#16), San Antonio (#26,) Chicago (#28) and Philadelphia (#38).

  • Chicago was the biggest surprise, said Li, who had expected it to rank higher, given the star power of its top restaurants and chefs.

The other side: Plenty of other rankings reached different conclusions.

  • WalletHub's 2023 list of the "best foodie cities in America" factored in the affordability of quality ingredients and restaurant meals, giving top marks to Orlando; Portland, Oregon; and Sacramento.
  • U.S. News & World Report's rankings looked for ethnic diversity, "distinctive cultural fare" and "hometown dishes you won't find anywhere else in the world." It gave top honors to New Orleans, New York and Chicago.

The big picture: Cities have upped their epicurean game ever since TV food networks started to get popular, lionizing celebrity chefs and spotlighting different cuisines.

  • "When you hear people from anyplace say, 'The food scene has really gotten a lot better here, and we're much more of a foodie city,' I think that is empirically true," Li observed.

How it works: A psychological phenomenon called the "exposure effect" means that we come to like something after we grow familiar with it — whether it's a new song on the radio, an acquaintance we keep running into, or a food that keeps popping up on menus.

  • Living in a place with a broad diversity of restaurants "makes you open to trying new things," Li said.

What's next: Trending items and ingredients you can expect to see in food-forward cities? Datassential says they're lavender, bao (Chinese steamed buns), nectarine, pistou (a garlic-and-basil condiment), and the "mixed dessert" plate, which is sort of a charcuterie board of sweets.

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