Image: Parkway Bakery fare, New Orleans
Courtesy of Parkway Bakery
In a recent survey, New Orleans won for neighborhood cafés, and came in No. 2 for its zesty ethnic fare. And while you’re waiting for a table, you can engage in one of the town’s great pastimes: people-watching.
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updated 9/26/2011 7:31:38 AM ET 2011-09-26T11:31:38

When you travel by your stomach, the challenge may now be following the latest trends — literally.

Slideshow: America's best cities for foodies

Anna Brones, a food columnist at EcoSalon.com, recalls sitting in a San Francisco bar when she saw a woman walk in, dragging a cooler on wheels. “A crowd immediately surrounded her,” she says, “and my friend said, matter-of-factly, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the Tamale Lady.’ I figured I better buy one of the tamales from her cooler — and what an excellent choice.”

Such ever-changing culinary buzz secured San Francisco’s status near the top of America’s best cities for foodies, as chosen by Travel + Leisure readers. Within the important food and drink category of 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.

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Indeed, today’s most enthusiastic foodies seek out indulgences well beyond the white-tablecloth variety. Markets are a key enticement for those wanting to experience the nationwide farm-to-table trend. Among the top 20 foodie cities, restaurant communities focused on fresh ingredients: local beef at Nashville’s hottest burger spot, “boat-to-table” seafood in Providence, R.I., and market produce supplying Lower Manhattan’s finest restaurants.

We found nearly as many fresh takes on comfort food — such as craft beer–infused mac ‘n’ cheese in Minneapolis — and the unstoppable recent trend of food trucks and pop-up restaurants. With more than 200 restaurants-on-wheels patrolling the city daily, Portland, Ore., has food trucks for any craving, even Korean-Hawaiian fusion. “Portlanders are obsessed with food, but not in a snobby way,” says New York–based cookbook author Judith Klinger.

The food-obsessed treat top chefs like celebrities, among them, award-winner José Andrés, who experiments with molecular gastronomy and strains mojitos over cotton candy at Los Angeles’s SLS Hotel. Back in San Francisco, long lines form daily outside The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, where the menu often includes a melted pile of Gruyère, sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions.

“San Franciscans may have ‘fine’ tastes,” says the restaurant’s general manager, Nate Pollak, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not looking for something classic and simple. A grilled cheese sandwich can be the template for something really special.”

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