For many travelers, experiencing new tastes is one of the top reasons for leaving home. “It’s a great way to connect to a place,” says Christine Muhlke, executive editor of Bon Appetit magazine. “Unless you actually taste that food and see it and smell it and push it around the plate with a fork, you’re not going to understand it.” She shares her favorite cities for eating and exploring with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
The Japanese dedication to dining is unrivalled, Muhlke says “It’s one of the purest food experiences in the world. They have restaurants dedicated to one part of an animal, or one noodle. Both the high and low end are of exceptional quality. You can go to the food hall at the Tokyo train station and have a wonderful experience.” Visitors shouldn’t overlook hotel dining, either, with exceptional places like the New York Grill at the Park Hyatt. gotokyo.org/en
Bucket list tip: Make sure to allow a day or two to visit Kyoto, home to top-rated restaurants serving everything from tempura to traditional multi-course kaiseki meals. “The market is one of the most exquisite in the world.” pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en
THE BUCKET LIST: More must-see destinations
Although it may not be a surprise to see the French capital on the list, the city still keeps diners guessing. “Paris is exciting on two levels,” Muhlke says. “The classics are the height of perfection, and they’re worth saving for. And there’s really an exciting young movement celebrating these young chefs. You’ll have one guy who’s the chef and dishwasher and the reservation-taker. He’ll have a 35-euro tasting menu that will blow you out of the water.” Visitors should look in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, for places like Le Dauphin and Vivant. franceguide.com
Bucket list tip: While Paris cafes are celebrated, they aren’t usually known for their coffee. That’s beginning to change with what’s being called the third wave coffee movement at places like Telescope café, the Broken Arm and Ten Belles. “The people who run these places are really into food, so ask them where they eat.”
The cultural capital of the country remains its food capital too, Muhlke says. “People are so freakishly ambitious and competitive here, and chefs are really putting their all into these restaurants – they really want to win.” That’s why even decades after their debut, classics like Le Bernardin and Daniel remain relevant. But the best food’s no longer in Manhattan. Head to the boroughs for some of the most creative kitchens. Just one example: Roberta’s Pizza, located in a former auto body shop in a gritty warehouse district, serving squid, wagyu beef tartare and a perfect pastrami sandwich. gonyc.com
Bucket list tip: Check out Smorgasburg – a weekly gathering of 100 food trucks and vendors, where chefs try out their latest food concepts. “It’s kind of an incubator for new ideas.” smorgasburg.com
It’s the incredible quality of the ingredients that makes Bay Area restaurants shine, Muhlke says. “They have access to amazing things. Even their butter is better. It results in food you can’t get anywhere else.” Some of the innovation has been fueled by new tech money, she says, and the results are fantastic. On a recent visit, she was delighted by the tasting menu at Coi, where vegetables rule, but says classics like Zuni Café are aging well. She also loves strolling the Ferry Building, where Boccalone serves incredible housemade charcuterie. sanfrancisco.travel
Bucket list tip: The city’s pastry scene offers some of the country’s best breads and baking, she says. People line up for loaves from Tartine, while B Patissereie and 20th Century Café are worth the trip alone. Another standout: Craftsman and Wolves, home of “The Devil Inside,” a muffin with a soft boiled egg at its center.
The city has long delighted foodies with its small plates at meze eateries and grilled seafood restaurants. “It’s magical to be in the market with piles and piles of spices or in a restaurant that’s hundreds of years old, and it’s incredible to be eating fish on the Bosporus, Muhlke says. Now the dining scene’s evolving with new ideas and approaches. “There’s really a renaissance happening with young chefs.” goturkey.com
Bucket list tip: Visit a neighborhood tavern called a meyhane. Order mezes and sip raki, an anise-flavored liquor. One favorite: Refik, refikrestaurant.com
The Crescent City offers pure pleasure and indulgence in all its forms, Muhlke says. “It’s food and drink and excess and nowhere else in the U.S. is hedonism as sanctioned as it is in New Orleans. There’s no puritanical ‘Don’t eat that, don’t drink that’.” In addition to classics like Galatoire’s, the city always has new favorites, like Bacchanal Fine Wine and Spirits, a retail shop that turned into a backyard drinking party and is now a restaurant, or Peche, which is dedicated to local fish.notmc.com
Bucket list tip: Follow your appetite and try new neighborhoods, like Bywater. Muhlke likes to stay in the Warehouse District, which puts her close to Herbsaint, a sister restaurant to Peche. herbsaint.com
The Scandinavian eatery Noma put the city on the map, repeatedly winning honors as the best restaurant in the world. It focuses on extremely local ingredients, many foraged from the ocean or forest. Diners may be served sea urchin toast, moss or even ants. The Danish capital’s filled with other notable dining options too. “The food is incredibly modern. It’s cutting edge,” Muhlke says. Many chefs who got their start at Noma have opened their own places, and several can be found on Jægersborggade Street, including Manfreds & Vin, an organic wine bar with equally memorable food. visitcopenhagen.com
Bucket list tip: While Noma gets upwards of 100,000 reservation requests each year, it’s relatively easy to come at lunch. “It’s a four-hour meal with wine pairings. Why not blow the whole day?” she says. And then work off the meal by embracing the city’s cycling culture. “Biking to lunch at Noma is one of the world’s pleasures.” noma.dk
San Sebastian, Spain
The Basque region is thick with Michelin-starred restaurants, but nobody should be scared away from dining here. “It’s on the gastronomic circuit, but it’s satisfying for anyone. Just see what the locals are eating,” Muhlke says. The farmhouse-based Mugaritz deserves its international acclaim – even years after visiting, diners remember its potato carefully prepared to look like a stone. Another stand-out: Arzak, which pioneered the region’s modern style. Chef Juan Mari Arzak cooks with his daughter Elena, who has been named the world’s top female chef. sansebastianturismo.com/en
Bucket list tip: Don’t forget the region’s distinctive tapas, called pintxos. The downtown area has plenty of places to try them. Just head to Birmingham and Zabalete streets and follow the crowds.
Diners are discovering Latin America, and the Mexican megalopolis is finally getting its culinary due. “Not only do you have incredible street food, you have some incredibly exciting modern chefs,” Muhlke says. At Pujol, which has been called the country’s top restaurant, chef Enrique Olvera reinterprets classic dishes with new takes on tamales, tacos and flautas, or charred baby corn, meant to emulate snacks sold at stands. Elsewhere diners can try micro-distilled mescal or modernized barbecue pits. visitmexico.com
Bucket list tip: Visit Polanco’s open-air market on Saturdays and graze from its array of street vendors which stretch along several blocks.
Whether its dishes from the 19th century or the latest food trend, London has something for every type of diner. “You have these really cool young chefs and there are places that have been open more than 100 years and are still relevant and good,” Muhlke says. “The classics and modern coexist in such a neat way.” Muhlke says famous restaurants like River Café still deliver. “It’s screamingly expensive, but worth it.” Or for something different, try the Clove Club, a restaurant/dance spot that started as a private supper club for friends. visitlondon.com
Bucket list tip: Hit the Borough Market, one of the UK’s largest, for shopping and snacking from places like famed Neal’s Yard Dairy. boroughmarket.org.uk