No matter where you roam in the USA, you’re never far from an outstanding meal. Sizzling steaks, mouthwatering seafood and farm-fresh produce are all part of the culinary bounty of one of the world’s great food destinations.
Menus and specialties vary widely from region to region, and you could spend a lifetime indulging in the vast range of food and drink experiences in the US. Travelers will find smoky Texas barbecue joints, lobster shacks in New England and the northeast, and decadent dessert shops in the South, not to mention the diverse cuisines from around the globe in any big city – and in some small towns as well.
Here are the best things to eat and drink in the USA.
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Bite into a slice of pizza
Pizza made its way to New York in the 1900s through Italian immigrants, and the first pizzeria in the country – Lombardi’s in Manhattan’s Little Italy – opened in 1905. Pizza’s popularity quickly spread across the country, with different varieties taking root. While Chicago-style pizza is “deep dish” and Californian tends to be light and doughy, New York prides itself on its thin crust.
Where to try it: Lucali in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood serves some of the best pies in NYC. In Chicago, Gino’s East has earned global fame for its decadent deep-dish pizza.
Order tacos from a food truck or sit down for a Tex-Mex or Mexican meal © VioletaStoimenova / Getty Images
Make a meal out of tacos and other Mexican foods
Many Americans rank Mexican food or Tex-Mex fare (which have much overlap) at the top of their list of favorite dining experiences. This is not surprising given that people of Mexican descent make up more than 11% of the population. Tacos, burritos and other quick foods are favorites, with snack carts and food trucks popular stomping grounds for people of all walks of life. Casual sit-down places are also popular, with margaritas and chips and salsa a nearly essential part of every meal.
Where to try it: Arizona has few rivals when it comes to great Mexican fare, with places like Elote Cafe in Sedona serving up some of the best cooking north of the Rio Grande. San Diego is famous for its fish (and seafood) tacos. Taste some of the best at Oscars.
You won’t go hungry in barbecue country © Clay Hayner / Getty Images
Indulge in America’s finest barbecue
Barbecue is a big deal in the US. Although its popularity is unrivaled in the South, you’ll find this smoky, tender meat everywhere from Los Angeles to Bar Harbor, Maine. Barbecue in the US dates back to colonial times, and even George Washington (who had a smokehouse at his estate in Mount Vernon) was a fan. The dish is simple enough: meat slow-roasted over fire pits until tender.
You’ll find a wide variety of cooking styles and specialties. Kansas City is known for burnt ends (the crispy, charred ends from the fatty part of the brisket) and emphasizes thick, sweet sauces. In the Carolinas, pulled or sliced pork is most popular. Memphis favors ribs, served either “dry” or “wet” (slathered in sauce). In Texas, beef is the dish of choice – no surprise given this is cattle country. It’s also home to some of the nation’s best barbecue joints. Lockhart is the epicenter for all things smoked and meaty.
Where to try it: Make a delicious mess while gorging on smoky brisket at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Texas. In Kansas City, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que has a diehard following for its pulled pork, ribs and burnt ends.
Dig into comfort food favorites at diners across the USA © mihailomilovanovic / Getty Images
Enjoy classic comfort fare in a diner
While food trends come and go, a simple and hearty meal never goes out of style in the USA. Comfort foods at their roots are warm, traditional dishes that evoke nostalgia for childhood staples. Classics such as mac ‘n’ cheese, chicken noodle soup, lasagna, pot roast, grilled cheese sandwiches, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and hamburgers all fall into this category.
Many American diners churn out uncomplicated, tried-and-true recipes. Comfort foods can also be found in more creative versions at gastropubs, bistros, and upmarket restaurants and bars. You might find mac ‘n’ cheese with fresh crabmeat, burgers topped with applewood-smoked bacon and goat’s cheese and served with duck-fat fries or spicy Thai chicken noodle soup with coconut milk and curry.
Where to try it: At Becky’s on the waterfront in Portland, Maine, you can grab a seat next to fishermen and dig into pancakes and eggs in the morning, or return later in the day for pastrami melts, seafood sandwiches and lobster rolls. Enjoy some of Miami Beach’s best comfort fare while admiring the art deco architecture at 11th Street Diner.
New York City puts its spin on food specialties from all over the world, including hot pastrami sandwiches © James Andrews / Getty Images
Munch your way around the globe in NYC
They say that you could eat at a different restaurant every night of your life in New York City and not exhaust the possibilities. Considering that there are an estimated 24,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone, with hundreds of new ones opening each year, it’s got to be true.
Owing to its huge immigrant population and an influx of more than 50 million tourists annually, New York easily captures the title of the greatest restaurant city in the country. Its diverse neighborhoods serve up authentic Italian food and thin-crust pizza, all manner of Asian food, French haute cuisine and classic Jewish deli food, from bagels to piled-high pastrami on rye. More uncommon cuisines are found here as well, from Ethiopian to Bhutanese.
Where to try it: The densest concentration of diverse restaurants is in the East Village. Within a few blocks, you’ll find Japanese ramen, Vietnamese pho, Tibetan momos, Puerto Rican sancocho (oxtail stew) and much more. Leave room for pierogi and other Ukrainian specialties at Veselka.
Explore the hearty cooking of the Deep South
No region is prouder of its food culture than the South, which has a long history of mingling Anglo, French, African, Spanish and Native American foods in dishes such as slow-cooked pulled pork, which has as many meaty and saucy variations as there are towns in the South. Southern fried chicken is crisp outside and moist inside. In Florida, dishes made with shrimp, conch and grouper incorporate hot chili peppers and tropical spices.
Treasured dessert recipes tend to produce big layer cakes or pies made with pecans, bananas and citrus. Light, fluffy hot biscuits are served well buttered, and grits (ground corn cooked to a porridge-like consistency) are a passion.
Where to try it: In Charleston, you can dine on South Carolina’s famous Lowcountry cuisine at iconic spots like Florence’s or the more upscale and avant-garde Magnolia’s. Atlanta has a dizzying variety of restaurants, including Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, which showcases southern cuisine with global accents.
Get your fill of gumbo and other Louisiana favorites
Though geographically it’s part of the South, Louisiana deserves special mention for its distinct cuisine, influenced by colonial French and Spanish cultures, Afro-Caribbean cooking and Choctaw traditions. Bayou-born Cajun food marries native spices such as sassafras and chili peppers with provincial French cooking.
Famous dishes include gumbo, a roux-based stew of chicken and shellfish, or sausage and often okra; jambalaya, a rice-based dish with tomatoes, sausage and shrimp; and blackened catfish. Creole food is more urban and centered in New Orleans, where dishes such as shrimp rémoulade, crabmeat ravigote, crawfish étouffée and beignets are ubiquitous.
Where to try it: At Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans, you can (over)indulge on gumbo, redfish with crabmeat and other Creole decadence. In the heart of Cajun country, the town of Lafayette has many traditional standouts: Prejeans has been going strong for more than 50 years.
Sample just-caught seafood in Maine and New England © Montes-Bradley / Getty Images
Feast on fresh-off-the-boat seafood
Seafood is king in New England. The North Atlantic offers up clams, mussels, oysters and huge lobsters, along with shad, bluefish and cod. New Englanders love chowder (seafood stew) and a good clambake, an almost ritual meal where the shellfish are buried in a pit fire with corn, chicken, potatoes and sausages. Lobster rolls (lobster meat with mayonnaise served on a long bun) are served throughout the region, but for a real lobster feast, head to Maine, where you’ll find seafood shacks all along the coastline.
Where to try it: Sit at a picnic table and enjoy the waterfront views while nibbling on butter-smeared lobster meat at Boothbay Lobster Wharf in mid-coast Maine. Chatham Pier Fish Market on Cape Cod has perfectly cooked fish and chips, tender scallops, steaming bowls of clam chowder and many other temptations.
Beer, wine, everything’s fine!
Beer is about as American as Chevrolet, football and apple pie. But despite their ubiquity, popular brands of American beer (e.g. Coors, Budweiser and Miller) have long been the subject of ridicule abroad due to their low alcohol content and “light” taste. Regardless of what the critics say, sales aren’t suffering – and with the meteoric rise of microbreweries and craft beer, even beer snobs admit that American beer has reinvented itself.
With around 7300 craft breweries across the USA, it’s possible to “drink local” all over the country – microbreweries are found everywhere from urban centers to small towns. Have a sip in San Diego at the Karl Strauss Brewery or the local favorite, Hamilton’s Tavern. The ever-incresasing popularity of the humble brew means aficionados are being catered to more than ever before and some restaurants even have beer programs, sommeliers and cellars.
If you prefer your sommelier to be of the more traditional variety, never fear – the US makes nearly 14% of the world’s wine and is the third largest wine producer in the world (behind Italy and France, and just ahead of former #3, Spain). Today about 80% of US wine comes from California, though other regions are producing wines that have achieved international status. In particular, the wines of New York’s Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Long Island are well worth sampling, as are the wines from both Washington and Oregon, especially pinot noirs and rieslings.
So, what are the best American wines? The most popular white varietals made in the US are chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; best-selling reds include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and zinfandel.
Vegans and vegetarians
The US has made remarkable strides when it comes to plant-based dining. You’ll find vegetarian and vegan restaurants all across the country, even in meat-loving states like Texas and Oklahoma. Food halls are all the rage just about everywhere in the country and are reliable places to find a variety of veg-friendly options.
You can also make a pilgrimage to the nation’s hollowed vegetarian and vegan restaurants, like Moosewood in upstate New York, Greens in San Francisco or Vedge in Philadelphia.