Oct 16, 2023 - Food and Drink

San Diego's "food-forward" restaurant scene

Illustration of competing restaurant neon signs.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

San Diego is one of the country's most "food-forward" cities — a slightly surprising and much appreciated honor.

What's happening: Food consultancy Datassential used a custom formula and an enormous database of restaurant menus to determine that San Diego ranked 5th in the U.S. for its breadth and variety of restaurants, plus residents' appetite for varied menus.

Reality check: 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 tracks 1.4 million places that serve food in the U.S. and used its capacious database of menus to rank 158 U.S. cities. California cities dominated the top of the list.

  • San Francisco earned the No. 1 ranking, followed by Los Angeles at second and Monterey at eighth.
  • Likely suspects, including New York and Chicago, were shut out of the top five.
  • The bottom five were concentrated in the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin.

Zoom in: Local spots and chefs featured in San Diego Magazine's Best Restaurants of 2023 no doubt helped the city earn this recognition.

  • William Bradley and Brad Wise were named best chefs.
  • The issue also features restaurants by cuisine, including the best Ethiopian, Filipino, Caribbean, Peruvian, Italian and more.

The big picture: Cities have upped their epicurean game ever since TV food networks gained popularity, 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," executive chairman of Datassential, Jack Li, told Axios.

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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