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.
It helps that today’s like-minded enthusiasts share affinities across time zones, for even virtual neighborhoods have neighborhood shops and restaurants. Planning a trip to Portland, Maine, earlier this year, I turned to the food fanatics at chowhound.com and came across Hugo’s, which has a menu that reads like a Top Chef episode. I already had dinner plans, so I stopped in for appetizers that were far more daring than anything I’d ever experienced in Portland, including panko-crusted lamb’s tongue cooked sous-vide and Asian tripe stew with sour cream.
Then I headed down the block to Bresca, where a former pastry chef named Krista Kern has created a storefront trattoria that feels like an Italian family’s living room. Kern came to Maine for the slower pace of life, but the food she sends out from her kitchen has a sense of aspiration and urgency—taste me now!—that makes it world-class. I thrilled to her linguine with sea urchin, a dish I’d longed for since I’d first experienced its pungent, unctuous texture on the Gulf of Palermo years ago.
It astonished me that two restaurants of such achievement and ambition sat just a block apart in a city of 64,000. Then I asked some questions and learned that a huge percentage of their business comes from out-of-staters who discovered them the way I did, trolling the Web, unwilling to waste a meal on something short of memorable. This isn’t quite e-commerce but something more subtle: e-inspired commerce. At V.O.D., in Dallas, for example, customers now walk in asking for pieces from the likes of French designer Isabel Marant. “We get shoppers from New York and San Francisco learning on the Internet that we carry her and calling us, which is amazing,” says Liz Thompson, one of Bolin’s business partners. “But local people also come in now and know exactly what they’re looking for. In a way, that’s even more amazing.”
During the past few years, my instinct that travels around Middle America were getting noticeably more compelling took on the complexion of a quest. I can’t pretend to be an expert on high fashion, but when I learned that designer Isaac Mizrahi thought the finest boutique in America was located in a shopping center in Charlotte, I had to see it for myself.
Capitol is the vision of Laura Vinroot Poole, who grew up with one foot in Charlotte (her father, Richard Vinroot, served as the city’s mayor from 1991 to 1995) and one foot beyond. She attended Andover in Massachusetts for high school and bristled at the ignorance that her classmates showed about the South. By the time she’d finished college, she wondered why so many of the smart, tasteful Charlotteans she knew regularly left town to shop. Her response was Capitol. It has one of only a handful of Patrick Blanc vertical gardens outside Paris, and stocks some of America’s most interesting fashion and accessories, including antique Chantilly lace lingerie and $200,000 Indian sapphires. “Capitol has things that literally no other shop in America has,” says Laura Mulleavy, half of the avant-garde design duo Rodarte, which is based in Pasadena, California.
Vinroot Poole and her staff go so far as to curate their customers’ wardrobes. “I’m literally in their closets,” she says, “organizing their clothes for the week according to the weather. We type it up for them. We’ve Southernized the experience of shopping.” Clearly, she could have made it anywhere. “But I’m from Charlotte,” she says. “My doctor is the guy who delivered me. My house has a really big closet. I like it here. I feel like I can do something of value and importance.”
Talking with Vinroot Poole helped me understand how hometown boosterism, in the best possible sense, is altering our American landscape. So did Blake Richardson, who migrated to Japan, then returned to Minneapolis to open Moto-i in October 2008. A brewpub featuring sake as well as local beer, it has a pool-hall atmosphere and Nirvana blaring, but with long wooden tables and framed photos of sumo wrestlers above the sawdust shuffleboard. The novelty of hanging out in a sake brewpub—who ever heard of that?—was what drew me there, but the food and drink will bring me back. Richardson’s junmai-nama sake is extraordinary, and his Asian bar snacks (pork buns with sweet chilies and pickled carrots; ramen with silken tofu and egg) made me wonder why there isn’t a Moto-i in every city. “This town has been hungry for someone to stick a flag in and say, ‘We’re just as good as New York or L.A.,’” he says. “I wanted to be that guy. If sake brewpubs become a trend, it started here.”
Pride of place isn’t confined to entrepreneurs. In 1991, the City of San Antonio, Texas, reached across the border and hired the innovative architect Ricardo Legorreta to design a dramatic new library. Since then, municipalities around America have cast their nets ever wider in their quest for iconic landmarks that can alter outside perception of their cities. In rapid succession, Cincinnati chose the Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid for its Contemporary Art Center, Fort Worth commissioned a light-filled Modern Art Museum from Japan’s Tadao Ando, and Milwaukee picked Spain’s Santiago Calatrava for its own art museum on the Lake Michigan waterfront. I flew to Milwaukee recently to watch the giant wings of Calatrava’s remarkable creation flap, as they’re meant to do three times daily, but excessive wind canceled the show. Still, even seeing it in such straitened circumstances, I can understand how that building is affecting Milwaukee the way Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim did Bilbao. “The committee said to put Milwaukee on the map for arts and culture,” says Elysia Borowy-Reeder, a curator and marketer for the museum. “Well, we did. The people who want to see this have to come here.” Last year, when Milwaukee’s symphony orchestra landed a top conductor (Edo de Waart, who has guided such ensembles in San Francisco and Hong Kong), the museum received much of the credit.
When I’m home in Boulder, i make weekly visits to Sushi Tora, which overnights fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. They serve tuna and mackerel, but also rarities such as kochi (flathead), kinmedai (golden-eye snapper), and kamasu (barracuda), and the occasional cod milt, sea cucumber, and firefly squid. Friends who pass through are amazed at the range and freshness of the selection. “The miracle of FedEx,” I tell them.
So I should have been prepared for Salt Lake City’s Takashi when I visited earlier this year. I’d checked in to the Grand America Hotel, which looks like the parliament of a small European nation. Its unflappable employees, stationed at every corner, are outnumbered only by its chandeliers. I’d never had a memorable meal in the city, and probably held the same patronizing attitude that some friends and colleagues have about the entire time zone. But seated under a 30-foot steel fish that arcs over Takashi’s bar, I enjoyed some of the finest sushi of my life. Not extravagantly architected maki rolls leaking mayonnaise, but the real stuff, tai and kohada and mirugai, paired with seasonal namazake sakes that are usually found only in Japan. “Little by little, they understand,” said Takashi Gibo, the owner, who was sitting at a nearby table with his wife. “We teach, they learn.”
I’ve also come to appreciate food from over the next hill. An exceptional meal once meant caviar and truffles shipped in from distant lands. But now that every Safeway is crammed with foodstuffs from Chile to China, the new extravagance is produce that hasn’t ever felt the numbing chill of refrigeration, let alone traversed an ocean. That’s where American towns and cities of almost any size can really shine. “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t get anything from here except potatoes and cabbage,” says chef Lisa Carlson of Minneapolis’s Spoonriver, which relies almost entirely on a network of local growers. “Now we get almost everything.” Recently, I had an astonishing meal at Blu, outside Traverse City, Michigan. The feel was old-school: plates of food that resembled the Battle of the Marne, with the vegetables and potatoes entrenched on one side and a slab of meat holding down the other. But the ingredients were all gathered within 30 miles of where I sat, from the Norconk Farms asparagus in the soup to the Deer Tracks venison. I tasted terroir as surely as in any wine.
Carry this concept to the extreme and you’ve got Blackberry Farm, in remote Walland, Tennessee. This 63-room hideaway is not merely a working farm, but practically self-sufficient. Its meals are augmented by a 180,000-bottle wine cellar, the comfort of cottages costing as much as $4,800 nightly, and a stream of top chefs and vintners imported for weekend blowouts. The resort, which began as a farmstead in 1939, was transformed in incremental fashion to its current state by Sam Beall with family money earned from Ruby Tuesday eateries, which is a nice irony. It also speaks to Americans’ increasing willingness to wander off the beaten path if the experience is rewarding enough. “Five years ago, I don’t think the market was ready for us at this scale, certainly not in this location,” Beall says. “Now it is.”
All of this came together for me not long ago at Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel, a daring, evolving art collection with 90 postmodern guest rooms wrapped around it (first featured in Travel + Leisure in 2006). Heading to my room, I almost stumbled over a three-foot-high red plastic penguin, one of several dozen in the hotel. “They move around,” the bellhop told me. “You never know where they’ll turn up.” The penguins annoyed me at first, but as I spent time there I began to see them as witty, unexpected, memorable, and accessible.
21c is a creation of Steve Wilson, a businessman, public servant, and philanthropist whose ideas—skyscrapers; land conservancy; bison farms—have often seemed outlandish to conservative Louisville. But his wife is an heiress to the Brown-Forman liquor fortune (Jack Daniels; Southern Comfort; Finlandia Vodka), and the two of them can mostly do what they like. “Art drives commerce” is their delightfully off-center motto. Wilson had long considered the city’s dilapidated Whisky Row an underutilized resource. He proposed that a branch of the local art museum should be built amid the blight to help bring life to the city’s core. When the museum didn’t oblige, he did it himself, adding a hotel and restaurant to pay the bills. Between the hotel, the restaurant and bar, and the art, 200,000 people passed through 21c in 2008. On a single weekend last April, WalMart’s Alice Walton, ex-Senator John Warner, actor Adrien Brody, and chef Bobby Flay were there. “People say we’ve redefined the city,” Wilson says. “Whenever some local corporation is trying to recruit someone, they bring them here.”
More than that, Wilson and others like him have helped to redefine American sophistication, at least for me. When I was in Louisville, I ate a dinner at 21c that included bison carpaccio, braised goat, and other evidence of a quirky but highly evolved food culture. I drank good wine and bourbon. I spotted celebrities at the bar and chatted deep into the night. And when I stepped in the elevator and found a red penguin waiting, I couldn’t have been anywhere else.