In the college-town surroundings of Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, between souvenir shops decorated with sky blue North Carolina T-shirts and bars advertising $1 beer specials, I recently stumbled across some of the most creative—yet authentic—Chinese food I’ve found in America: pan-seared squid with house-made XO sauce, local asparagus with poached duck eggs, even hand-rolled rice noodles that cast me back to a meal on a mountaintop above Taipei. I’ve eaten on Franklin Street dozens of times over the years, including several dinners at Crook’s Corner, which helped pioneer New Southern cuisine in the 1980’s. But never have I felt transported like I did eating tea-smoked duck at Lantern, where the unlikely chef-owner is a former New York political operative named Andrea Reusing.
When we talked between courses, I learned that Reusing had emigrated to the South to join her musician boyfriend in the mid-1990’s, pined for the Chinatown noodle houses that had sustained her in Manhattan, and—with no evidence that the area would support genuine Chinese food and no experience running a kitchen—figured she’d push the envelope and open her own. It all seemed so improbable, yet I shouldn’t have been surprised. For some time now, I’ve been reveling in similarly unexpected achievements by visionaries, entrepreneurs, and assorted talents in towns and cities across America. Taken together, they’ve helped to validate my conviction that this is by far the most rewarding time in memory to travel around our country.
I should point out that I don’t live in New York City or Los Angeles but in Boulder, Colorado, which sits three fat states from the nearest ocean. I report and write for a living, so I often need to travel. Between the occasional journeys to Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and other far-flung destinations, I spend an awful lot of time on domestic regional jets hopping from one midsize city to another. So I feel I can say this with authority: There’s something afoot in America today, a creative burgeoning from one side of the country on through to the other. Manifestations of this phenomenon include (but are hardly limited to) new and innovative restaurants, hotels, museums, boutiques, and spas, all of which are making my trips to those places where I have to go—but didn’t ever particularly want to—a whole lot better.
Just a few years ago, my primary objective when visiting smaller American cities was to emerge unscathed. That meant a good steak, a predictable hotel room, maybe a movie. Now I look to Salt Lake City for sushi; shop for my wife in Charlotte, North Carolina; gape at architecture in Milwaukee, Fort Worth, Texas, and Cincinnati; and sip remarkable wines in rural Tennessee. I still love my trips to the coasts—Manhattan and Manhattan Beach, Back Bay and Half Moon Bay. But I no longer need them the way I once did.
Don’t misunderstand: I continue to appreciate those aspects of American culture that remain regional and local, the thrillingly diverse heritage of our 50 multifarious states. The last thing I desire is sameness, coast to coast. But as a traveler, I also want the comforts—and the occasional vanguardist, mind-expanding experiences—that I’ve come to expect around the world. These days, even despite our current darkened economy, I’m getting them nearly everywhere I go right here at home. An awakening that began with enlightened college towns, such as Boulder and Chapel Hill, has spread to Middle America, a non-geographic designation that also includes long swaths of coastline as well as the Rust Belt, the Corn Belt, the Bible Belt, and the rest of what friends of mine (and probably some of yours) like to label the Flyover States. “To assume that because we’re in the middle of the country we just don’t get it is not right anymore,” says Jackie Bolin, one of the owners of V.O.D., a Dallas clothing boutique that has opened eyes in what was already a sophisticated fashion scene. “The world is much smaller than even ten years ago. Our customers travel. They know the difference. They do get it.”
How has this happened? the simplified version is: two waves, one in and one out. into the heart of the country came Iron Chef and Andrea Immer, TripAdvisor and Twitter, trendsetters and bright lights who packed up their ideas and laptops and moved to where they really wanted to live. And out into the world went the native sons and daughters of all those cities formerly known as second-tier, using frequent-flier miles and cheap fares to get almost anywhere they wanted to go (we take that for granted, but we’re the first generation to do it), then returning with the sensibilities, tastes, and standards they’d discovered along the way. After that, it was hard to go back to egg foo yong.