Culinary travel is on the map, and travelers are hungry for trips planned primarily around the best food and sips.
The appetite for culinary travel is impressive. American Express Travel’s 2023 Global Travel Trends Report reveals that 81 percent of respondents agree—trying local foods and cuisines is what they look forward to most while traveling. And, nearly half (47 percent) of Generation Z and millennials said they have planned an entire trip around visiting a specific restaurant.
Here’s the skinny on some spots that, for many culinary travelers, are on the radar because their culinary scene is the most compelling reason to visit—especially in summer. There are some obvious amazing food destinations—and some surprises, too.
The Inn at Little Washington is the only 3-star Michelin guide restaurant in the Washington, DC metro area.
The Inn at Little Washington
This year, the restaurant is celebrating 45 years of hospitality, including an exclusive collaboration with Fabergé for the first-ever piece of jewelry designed with a chef. The $18,000 collectible hot air balloon pendant takes 140 hours of hand craftsmanship and is crafted from 18k yellow gold (blue guilloché enamel and adorned with rubies and white diamonds). In the Fabergé tradition, there’s a surprise inside—a miniature white-gold replica of the Inn at Little Washington.
A meal here is a multi-act theatrical experience. Chef Patrick O’Connell is the leading man, with a passionate supporting staff, and a lovely Virginia wine country setting, just about an hour outside of DC, perfectly scripted to complement the $348 per person menu—wine pairings are $238 per person (beverage, tax and service charge are extra.)
The Gastronaut’s menu features dishes like pepper crusted duck with Montmorency cherries on a scallion pancake and coconut-passion fruit bavarian with angel food cake. The Good Earth menu features a melange of stuffed morels, potato gnocchi and fava beans perfumed with lemon garlic and a chocolate-citrus custard cake with peanut for dessert.
And this year, a tribute to the inn’s history and location will be made with a new, unique menu concept created by the chef. The menu, under wraps, will be inspired by George Washington and the culinary world from that time period.
Reservations are tough to snag here, but culinary travelers can get a taste of Chef’s magic at Patty O’s, his more casual country cafe all-day concept located just across the street, housed in a former gas station.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
New Orleans is celebrated for its passion and authenticity. It’s big and it’s easy to discover the soul of the place—you’ll find it in the music, the art and the people.
But for food lovers, it’s the cuisine in this southern town that separates the po’boys from the men—Creole and Cajun, with rich French, Spanish and African influences and ICONIC dishes like gumbo, jambalaya and muffuletta. And there are so many solid choices.
Banana foster was invented in NOLA at Brennan’s in 1951, by Chef Paul Blangé and Ella Brennan, when New Orleans was a hub for importing bananas from South America. The applause-worthy dessert is prepared tableside—built with bananas, vanilla ice cream and a sauce of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, dark rum and banana liqueur, that is ignited.
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In addition to dinner, diners also line up for breakfast at Brennan’s. Executive Chef Ryan Hacker’s menu pays homage to the restaurant’s illustrious and humble beginnings, with a modern twist. The restaurant was honored as a finalist by the James Beard Awards as outstanding restaurant in 2022 and was one of the top 50 restaurants in the U.S. by the New York Times.
And some culinary travel to New Orleans for, above all, the beignets—fried squares of dough dusted with powdered sugar—served at open-air, 24-hour Cafe du Monde. It’s been here since 1862 and is the place to enjoy a café au lait and those beignets—heaven meets New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Arnaud’s Restaurant just off famed Bourbon Street, has been dishing authentic Creole food for 105 years. It’s family-run, with 17 dining rooms and two bars—including the ICONIC James Beard Award-winning French 75 bar. Tableside flambés—café brûlot and crêpes suzette are one reason, and the soufflé potatoes is so popular it has its own food holiday celebrated on September 30. The pearl: Oysters Bienville was invented at Arnaud’s and now served globally. Bonus: live Dixieland Jazz.
Culinary travelers know that summertime is the absolute best time to make a pilgrimage to New England. It’s when the restaurants and clam snacks serve summer on a plate—often with a side history and ocean breezes.
The Ocean State’s Providence has debuted in recent years as a popular food destination and continues to come into its own, deservedly so.
Celebrating 50 years of training chefs, the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University is located here (in good collegiate company with Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design). In fact, the college is home to the only four-year program in baking/pastry arts in the country—it is also home to a culinary museum.
Providence is known for having some of the best Italian food in the country. Federal Hill is to Providence what Little Italy is to Manhattan, the North End is to Boston and Arthur Avenue is to the Bronx—it is where culinary travelers go to experience incredible, authentic Italian restaurants and Italian food markets. It’s a lively scene, especially at DePasquale Square’s fountain—expect music and lots of local camaraderie.
Also, calamari lovers know that Rhode Island produces the most calamari in the country and, in fact, calamari is the official state appetizer (seriously)—it’s prepared with hot cherry or banana peppers. The restaurant that visitors in-the-know make the special trip for is Al Forno, a James Beard award-winning restaurant. Opened in 1980, chef/owners Johanne Killeen & George Germon have popularized its signature dish—grilled pizza, fired up on a hardwood charcoal-fired grill. The grilled pizza calamari and clams al forno (clams, arrabbiata, onions, white wine, butter roasted clams, onions, white wine, butter) are menu winners that woo culinary travelers.
Andino’s is another favorite for that classic Rhode Island squid dish, prepared with hot cherry peppers. The veal and chicken saltimbocca are also house specialties. Frank Sinatra and The Godfather cast hang here (on the walls of the bar), Rat Pack music is the norm and a mural gives a nod to the legacy of Federal Hill’s history.
And there’s a new kid in town that’s turning heads—Bellini by Ignazio Cipriani (yes, of New York City’s Cipriani). The money spot is the Bellini Rooftop lounge at the top of the neighboring Beatrice Hotel where you’ll want to sip a Bellini, of course, and take in intoxicating views of Providence. The Bellini cocktail, by the way, was created in 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s.
Julia Child was this country’s sweetheart, and Boston has bragging rights to her culinary legacy.
For 40 years, Child lived across the river in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband Paul. She started a food revolution in this country, and it all began here with The French Chef, her television cooking show that she hosted on WGBH, the public television station in Boston.
The idolized chef and author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was a frequent guest in Boston and Cambridge restaurants and food markets. Even today, Boston’s celebrated chefs, and butchers, too, who had become lifelong friends and mentees still feel her presence.
And the revolution continues to evolve with new, creative restaurants that are exciting locals and attracting culinary travelers. But fresh fish and seafood and those timeless hearty dishes—baked stuffed lobster, baked beans, clam chowder, fried clams, New England pot roast—still have a place at the head of the table.
One of Child’s favorite restaurants, Harvest, is still in Cambridge, right in the heart of Harvard Square. The restaurant opened in 1975 as a pioneering restaurant with a modern New England menu for its time—and it’s still a favorite. Fans of Child come to visit here and request to sit in her favorite spot, Table 102, known as Julia’s Corner. She loved the fine French wines served here, as well as the American cuisine menu. Her favorite go-to meal at Harvest? Cast Iron Liver & Onions, owner Chris Himmel says, with a glass of the finest French wine.
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Himmel thinks Child would be wowed by the food scene in Boston today. Her special relationship with pioneering Boston chefs like Lydia Shire and Jasper White are testament to the love that she had for Boston’s local food scene, he says.
Food isn’t the only reason culinary travelers journey for a unique, must-do restaurant experience. Often it’s the location that sets the bar. The best kept secret for the coolest dining experience in Boston is the Bleacher Bar, which also happens to be the most unpretentious dining spot in town. The restaurant and bar sits beneath the bleachers with a huge garage door window giving diners a peek at all the ballgame action in the outfield, without stepping foot in Fenway Park.
But, for diehard baseball fans—or not—dining here on a Bleacher Burger or cup of New England Clam Chowder under the bleachers, without paying a penny for a game ticket, is an unparalleled luxury and uniquely Boston culinary experience.
White Barn Inn in Kennebunk, Maine (a quick ten-minutes from Kennebunkport), turns 150 this year, and has been on the wish list for culinary travelers to New England for decades.
The raison d’etre: the White Barn Inn Restaurant, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary this year of its Forbes 5 Star and AAA 5 Diamond fine dining destination designations. Since debuting in 1973 as a pioneering fine-dining spot, this is where you’ll find upscale New England dining with rustic charm and meticulous attention to detail, where special occasions are celebrated by guests who travel far. Executive Chef Mathew Wolf’s menu includes local standouts like lobster bisque and butter-poached Kennebunkport lobster.
To celebrate the milestone this summer, there are lobster bakes planned, new menus, cooking classes and epicurean events, all led by a lineup of chefs who previously helmed the Inn’s signature restaurant.
NEW YORK CITY
Obviously, it goes without saying that NYC is on a bucket list wish for every culinary traveler who craves a fabulous gastronomical experience. After all, it’s got 72 Michelin-starred restaurants, including five with the coveted three-stars, 12 with two stars and 55 with one star.
There are the sought out, good-luck-getting-reservations spots like Eleven Madison Park, which has been the ‘it’ girl for years, and made even more news recently when it boldly pivoted to feature an all-plant menu.
And while many culinary travelers go to the city to experience ICONIC restaurants like the classics Le Bernardin and Per Se, there are also the usual, less coveted suspects that continue to tease foodies with must-have visits—Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side with its mile high pastrami sandwiches, John’s Pizzeria, dating to 1885 in the West Village and, in midtown, Keens Steakhouse (Diamond Jim Brady and his enormous appetite was a regular.)
But NYC has long been known as a melting pot—the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island have welcomed millions of immigrants from all over the globe. And it has continued to blend, resulting in more creative fusion-type restaurants in recent years than ever. The boroughs stir the melting pot with lots of neighborhoods, Arthur Avenue in The Bronx for Italian; Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, for “Little Odessa,” where you’ll find pierogi, borscht and vodka; and Astoria, Queens, home to the largest population of Greeks outside of Greece, and many other cultures who have set up shop here.