Header: a selection of images from Jeffrey Merrihue's foodie travels
There are few better ways to get to know a city than to dive right into its food scene, and some people are lucky enough to have eaten their way around the globe.
Jeffrey Merrihue, who prides himself on having dined at every restaurant featured in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants since 2012, talks us through his alternative guide to what he has dubbed “the foodiest cities in the world”.
Many online lists tout the world’s best food destinations based on the variety of options available there, but I believe a stricter criteria is necessary: the city must have a world-class fine dining scene; it must have a world-class cheap eats scene; both scenes must be indigenous to that country and the city's cuisine must offer a diversity of flavours.
Unfortunately, this rules out some mighty dining cities: Paris has one of the best fine dining scenes on earth, but falls short on street food; Vietnam's major cities have some of the greatest street food scenes on earth, but they fall short on fine dining; New York has great fine dining and killer street food, but very little of it is indigenous.
So here is my countdown of the world’s foodiest cities:
6. Mexico City
The interior and signature baby corn, chicatana ant, coffee, and Costeño chilli mayonnaise at Pujol in Mexico City (images: Pujol)
Why go: Mexican food is well-known around the world but is often tainted by Tex Mex and cheap imitations. Head to Mexico to try the real deal – and also to visit the pyramids at Teotihuacan.
Fine dining: The trio of World’s 50 Best restaurants stalwarts – Pujol (No.20 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017), Quintonil (No.22) and Biko (No.65) – present classic Mexican cuisine in a modern and surprising manner. The chocolate taco at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol is the stuff of legend.
Cheap eats: Some say the taco was invented at El Huequito in Mexico City. But the brave will head to Los Cocuyos, where every part of the cow is fried in boiling oil and rolled in tasty tortillas.
Seiko Gani snow crab at Nihonryori RyuGin
Why go: There’s a reason why sushi chefs famously take decades to perfect their craft. In Tokyo, perfection is key – only the finest ingredients are used and everything is prepared with the utmost precision.
Fine dining: There are more Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo than any other city, but two of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants stand above the rest: Nihonryori RyuGin (No.52 in 2017) for the most gorgeous executions of Japanese omakase, and Narisawa (No.18) for a wilderness-to-table experience you will never forget.
Cheap eats: Go to the legendary Tsukiji Market to try the double-fried oysters at Toyo-Chan at the market entrance. At Tokyo Station, try the double bowl of ramen – one for dipping and one with the broth – at Rokurinsha before going on to drink hand-roasted coffee at Café De L’Ambre served by 101-year-old owner Ichiro Sekiguchi.
Peach, grapes and pink coriander at Restaurant André (image: Restaurant André)
Why go: The Singaporeans invented the collective street-food market, a model which has been copied the world over. Head there for the original.
Fine dining: The city’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants entries couldn’t be more different from each other. Waku Ghin (No.39 in 2012) is overseen by Tetsuya Wakuda, a master of precision who will dazzle you in each of his two dining rooms, while André Chiang’s Restaurant André (No.14 in 2017) allows the market to dictate each night’s menu.
Cheap eats: Singapore has created a model for bringing the best street vendors together in a single, clean, safe market that has been copied everywhere from London to San Francisco. Go to Original Katong Laksa, where the founder invented a laksa with noodles cut short so you can eat it with a spoon while scooping up the coconut milk broth.
3. New Orleans
Beignets and coffee at Café Du Monde (image: Jeffrey Merrihue)
Why go: A city that is practically founded on food you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Fine dining: There are no World’s 50 Best Restaurants here as many of the restaurants are focused on protecting the heritage and traditions of Creole cooking. Galatoire’s is at the pinnacle, with its astounding shrimp remoulade. Brennan's invented Bananas Foster, while Oysters Rockefeller was invented at Antoine’s and Emeril and Prudhomme also have restaurants of epic proportion serving gumbo, jambalaya and the rest.
Cheap eats: The legendary muffaletta sandwich was invented at Central Grocery, while Café Du Monde has perfected coffee and beignets for 150 years. Snag a Parkway Po’ Boy before heading over to the revered Willie Mae’s Scotch House for the best spicy fried chicken found anywhere.
River Scales at Central (image: Central)
Why go: Lima incorporates Japanese influences with three climates – mountain, jungle and coastal – to produce an exquisite cuisine that is a foodie’s paradise.
Fine dining: The menu at Central (No.5 in 2017) starts with ingredients from 20 metres below sea level, moves on to the coast and jungle before “peaking” with ingredients from over 4,000 metres. At Maido (No.8), Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura combines Japanese Nikkei cuisine with Amazonian cooking techniques to exemplify Peruvian fusion. Over at Astrid y Gastón (No.33), Gastón Acurio is so revered as a chef and culinary flag-bearer that some polls show he would be a shoo-in if he ran for president.
Cheap eats: The defining culinary experience is to dine on ceviche at Chez Wong, served in the chef’s living room to a dozen diners at a time. After this religious experience, try the anticuchos, or beef heart skewers served by the beloved Tia Grimanesa.
1. San Sebastian (and Spain's Basque region)
From bitter to sweet at Mugaritz (image: Mugaritz)
Why go: Okay, I’m cheating by picking the entire Spanish Basque Country, but this is truly foodiest place on earth – and I’m not just saying so because it happens to be the location of next year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants events. San Sebastian, Bilbao and beyond are dazzling at every level, with fine dining and tapas (pintxos) rooted in local culture and history.
Fine dining: With four restaurants on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and the most Michelin stars per kilometre, this is fine dining heaven. Asador Etxebarri (No.6 in 2017), Mugaritz (No.9), Arzak (No.30) and Azurmendi (No.38) represent both the past and future of Spanish cooking.
Cheap eats: Head to Txepetxa, which has served traditional tapas (known as pintxos) for more than 100 years, before experimenting with the future at A Fuego Negro for innovative twists on this beloved genre.
Now make your way around the world with our Inside the Restaurant series on YouTube.