Travel + Leisure Magazine recently released the result of its reader poll for "America's Best Cities for Foodies." New Orleans claimed the top spot. This did not sit well with certain other cities. The San Francisco wing of the Huffington Post snarked, “In San Francisco, the food community was hurt. Then, confused. New Orleans? In Travel and Leisure’s [sic] 'America’s Best Cities for Foodies' readers poll, San Francisco was beat out by New Orleans?” The author goes on to write that while “many readers and food-lovers might protest the results in Travel and Leisure,” the article wasn't that bad because it alerted people to “unexpected cities where they take food seriously.”
If you think it is “unexpected” that people in New Orleans take food seriously, then I can understand why you would be confused that New Orleans appeared at the top of Travel + Leisure's list. You probably exist in a state of near-constant confusion about a lot of things. Tying your shoes, for example, or distinguishing between “up” and “down.”
What struck me about the list is not that New Orleans is at the top, but rather that the list was the result of a reader poll. One would expect the results of a national poll to favor larger cities, particularly those with great food like Chicago and New York. The fact that folks nationwide ranked New Orleans so highly is impressive.
Travel + Leisure explained how the poll worked: “Within the important food and drink category of our America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers weighed in on which major cities had the best big-name eateries, neighborhood cafés, ethnic cuisine, and farmers’ markets.” New Orleans ranked fourth in the “big-name restaurants” category, first in “neighborhood eateries,” second in “ethnic cuisine,” and seventh in “farmers' markets.” San Francisco came in second overall, with Providence third, New York City fourth, and Chicago fifth. Pretty good company, food-wise.
I have always worn my allegiance to New Orleans on my sleeve. We are not just a great food city; we are a great food culture. The reason we have so many great restaurants is because so many of us take eating well seriously. Some people eat to live; we live to eat. I know that's a hackneyed expression, but it's true. I make my living as a lawyer, and I get to meet people from all walks of life as a result. Invariably, in New Orleans, I can talk to just about anyone about three things: the weather, the Saints, and “what have you eaten lately?” Where else in the world can you have an hour-long conversation about red beans and rice? Where else can you find bread that's worthy of a poor boy? Where else do people debate what to boil with crawfish? Does any city in the U.S. have restaurants that preserve culinary traditions like Galatoire's, Antoine's, Arnaud's, or Tujague's?
Our local passion for good food is why we have so many great restaurants of every type. It's not just the white-tablecloth places; many of our restaurants serve what people in other places call “comfort food.” Here, we just call it good.
Sure, tourist dollars drive a lot of the restaurant business in New Orleans, but without a devoted local following, we wouldn't have half as many quality restaurants as we do. So while a few people in San Francisco might be surprised by our place in the poll, it's well deserved.
That's not to say that San Francisco doesn't have great restaurants. It does. The same is true of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta, among others. There are more great restaurants in New York than there are in New Orleans. It's a numbers game. The millions of people who live in New York support more restaurants – good and bad – than can New Orleans. We'll never compete with the breadth of “ethnic” cuisine available in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, and we'll probably never have a restaurant that compares to Alinea, Le Bernardin, the French Laundry, Manresa, or Charlie Trotter's.
But that's not really the point. What is “New York food”? What is “Chicago food?” What is “San Francisco food”? (Don't get me started on “California Food” and Alice Waters. Pretension is not a cuisine.) Where else in the country is there anything analogous to Creole cuisine? Where else is food such an integral part of a city's life? Where else can you walk into a neighborhood grocery and leave with a sandwich that will satisfy your soul as well as your palate?
I don't know if New Orleans deserves to be considered the “top foodie city” in the country. I don't think anyone here really cares, either. We know what we have, and we treasure it. We're willing to share it with anyone who comes down here, but I don't think we have a chip on our shoulder about it. We're proud of our culinary heritage, but would any of us really bat an eye if San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or another major city was picked by Travel + Leisure as the “top foodie city” in the country?
Well, okay, maybe if they'd picked Houston.