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The West’s Top Culinary Destinations

Everywhere you turn these days, there's always something delicious to eat.

The fish of the day salmon on a white plate with a back background at Le Pigeon in Portland, image
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Image: Courtesy of Le Pigeon
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Fish of the day at Le Pigeon in Portland.

Some people travel to relax, to escape the grind, to experience different cultures, or to become immersed in history. For more and more travelers, though, the overriding factor for choosing a vacation locale is a top-notch food and drink scene. When your stomach is your ultimate guide, these top culinary destinations in the West should not be missed.

San Francisco, CA

It’s the birthplace of sourdough bread, cioppino, and countless food trends, as well as the city with the most full-service restaurants in the country. When visitors come to San Francisco, food is first and foremost on their minds for good reason.

One of the newest must-stops is Che Fico, opened in 2018 by a team of alums from New York’s vaunted Eleven Madison Park. Italian for “what a fig’’ or more common in slang for “that’s so cool,’’ the Cal-Italian tavern frequently has lines out the door and A-listers such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Anderson Cooper paying visits for toothsome house-made saffron spaghetti with lobster and blistered pizza crusts with a flurry of grated Parmesan blanketing the edges.

Insider’s Tip: Can’t snag a table? Try one of these nearby NoPa restaurants instead.

Perennial favorite, Rich Table, which notched a Michelin star in 2018, is always a hard ticket. But it’s worth the effort to enjoy its uncanny, imaginative fare such as dried porcini doughnuts in a pool of gooey raclette, aged beef wontons with chili oil, and signature potato chips with a whole crisp sardine threaded through each of them.

In Situ breaks the mold of museum restaurants. Housed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, its dishes are practically art exhibits unto themselves. Created by Corey Lee of the Michelin three-starred Benu restaurant, this Michelin one-starred establishment recreates iconic dishes from esteemed restaurants around the world. Any given menu might feature lobster with wasabi marshmallows by Restaurant Tim Raue in Berlin, sea urchin in lobster Jell-O from Amber in Hong Kong, and sage-smoked dark chocolate brownie by Dominique Ansel Kitchen in New York.

In Situ's Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart dessert, picture
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Photo: Eric Wolfinger for In Situ
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In Situ's striking dessert, which could easily be in the museum gallery, is titled Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart.

Yountville, CA

It may boast only 3,000 residents, but Yountville is often considered the culinary capital of the Napa Valley. For a time, it laid claim to having the highest concentration of Michelin stars in the world, too.

Much of that attention is thanks largely to the legendary Thomas Keller, whose Michelin three-starred French Laundry is the holy grail of dining experiences, what with reservations that must be made three months in advance for its four-hour-long tasting menus.

If that’s too rich for your blood, there’s always Keller’s classic French bistro, Bouchon, for steak frites and Croque Madame; or the even more casual Ad Hoc, for a four-course, family-style meal. Or pop into his Bouchon Bakery for a perfect baguette or an irresistible “Better Nutter’’ (peanut butter cookie sandwich). They’re all on the same street, just steps from one other.

Read more: How to Visit Napa Valley on a Budget

Creamy Mexican cheese and spicy Italian sausage star on a quesadilla at Roland’s Cafe Market Bar.
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Photo: Jill Richards
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At Roland’s Cafe Market Bar in Phoenix, creamy Mexican cheese and spicy Italian sausage star in an untraditional quesadilla that honors the owners' heritage.

Phoenix, AZ

Arguably, Phoenix was put on the foodie map when Chef Chris Bianco started his Pizzeria Bianco in 1988, turning out such superlative wood-fired oven pies with impeccable ingredients that critics routinely deemed it the best in the country. Enthusiasts booked flights or made sure they at least had a stop-over in Phoenix just to try his pizza.

His efforts spurred a new generation of restaurateurs to greater ambitions. With several restaurants now under his belt, Bianco recently teamed up with Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez of the beloved Tacos Chiwas to create Roland’s Café Market Bar, an all-day café in a century-old building that serves soulful dishes influenced by the couple’s native Chihuahua and Bianco’s Italian specialities. From the fresh-brewed ROC2 coffee and breakfast burritos in the morning to the wood fired tostadas and mortadella quesadilla at lunch and dinner, each meal brings a unique twist on a classic.

Bianco isn’t the only one bringing new life into the desert. For something sure to bring out the kid in anyone, look no farther than Welcome Chicken + Donuts. Yes, it specializes in fried chicken and donuts. But this is far from lowbrow fare. The ingredients alone put it a step above with steroid-, hormone-, and antibiotic-free chickens from Red Bird Farms in Colorado; organic sugar; and non-GMO flour from family-owned Wheat Montana. Go to town on an order of fried chicken wings with house-made Korean chili sauce, followed by a red wine-glazed donut with pinot noir salt.

dessert on a stoneware plate at Le Pigeon in Portland, OR, image
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Image: Courtesy of Le Pigeon
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Artful dessert at Le Pigeon in Portland.

Portland, OR

This city’s motto may be “Keep Portland weird,’’ but it might just as well be “Keep Portland delicious.’’ All manner of food carts and trucks, breweries, wineries, and restaurants have done their part over the past two decades to ensure that.

While mouth-watering food lines the streets, James Beard Award-winning Chef Gabriel Rucker still manages to stand out with Canard. The café by day and wine bar by night debuted next door to his celebrated French restaurant, Le Pigeon, in 2018. Start the day at Canard by indulging in Duck Stack’ (pancakes with duck gravy, duck egg, and optional seared foie gras) or end the evening with molasses-braised short ribs with rosemary refried beans. Twenty wines are available by the glass, too.

Across the river in Downtown, it’s hard not to love any place that calls itself a “pastry luncheonette.’’ Maurice, open from late-morning to late-afternoon, entices with everything from polenta clafoutis with poached farm egg to currant-and-rosemary cream scones and lemon soufflé pudding cake.

Day or night, there’s always a line outside any Salt & Straw shop. The artisan ice creamery draws crowds with it's use of local ingredients, and makes a point to push boundaries in avant-garde ice cream flavors such as pear with blue cheese and bone marrow with smoked cherries. Snag a scoop at one of the five shops in town or dig in closer to home—the ice creamery now has outposts in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Read more: 85 Best Ice Cream Spots in the West

Bateau interior basket lights and chalk mural in Seattle, picture
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Photo: David Dosset for Bateau
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Inside Bateau's bright, modern dining room.

Seattle, WA

With fresh local seafood galore, a temperate climate that encourages a long growing season, stellar wine producers, and a strong coffee culture (Starbucks, anyone?), it’s no wonder that Seattle has one of the most dynamic culinary scenes around.

After Chef Edouardo Jordan took home not one, but two James Beard Awards in 2018, the queues at his walk-in-only restaurant, JuneBaby, have continued to grow. It’s where Jordan— whose experience spans the French Laundry in Yountville, Per Se in New York, and Lincoln New York—takes Southern food to delectable new heights. The menu is heavily influenced by the seasons, but you can expect dishes like Antebellum wheat buns with honey butter; fried catfish with Geechie Boy grits, spinach, fiddleheads, and red sauce; and beignets with apricot jam.

Named one of the best new restaurants in the country in 2013 by Bon Appetit, Joule is a hip Korean steakhouse that serves up eclectic fare such as a flat iron steak with Hawaiian prawns and watermelon lomi lomi; geoduck fried rice with pork rinds; and beef tartare with Asian pear and spicy cod roe aioli.

Chef Renee Erickson has made a name for herself with seafood at her maritime-inspired restaurants. In 2016, she opened her first meat-centric spot, Bateau, which not only specializes in butchering whole animals and aging beef in-house, but also has its own farm. Opt for the five-course tasting menu or a la carte specialties such as beef liver mousse with fruit paste and toasted brioche or your choice of daily changing beef cuts finished with a flavored butter.

Up Next: Best Food and Wine Festivals in the West

The expert travel counselors at AAA can plan your next trip to any of these destinations. Visit AAA.com/Travel to learn more. 

This article was first published in November 2018. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.