I’ve been traveling a lot, both for T+L and to visit some far-flug friends--which means that I’ve been eating a lot, too. Here are some of my favorite recent restaurant discoveries in cities around the country:
NEW ORLEANS The Big Easy may be a foodie’s paradise, but as a vegetarian I had to look beyond the sausage-heavy jambalaya joints to find my dinners. Two eateries that offer both NoLa flavor and expanded menus are Café Atchafalaya and Bennachin, an East African spot with a Creole kick in the French Quarter, where all the regional dishes (spicy jambalaya, gumbo, etc.–all of which derived from Africa originally) can be made vegetarian.
Set among trees in the residential Upper Garden District, Atchafalaya is well away from the French Quarter hulabaloo, which kind of makes it a destination restaurant (you'll need a car to get there). Under new ownership, the restaurant now has an haute-traditional menu (perfect fried green tomatoes, pork chops, shrimp and grits) and its servers (once known to be rude at best) are friendly, helpful, and indulgent of large, talkative groups who have trouble deciding what they want for dinner but are quick to order that next bottle of wine. Not that I'd know anything about that.
PHOENIX Barrio Café and Tuck Shop both break the mould in this conservative city. Barrio Café, while hardly an unknown quantity (it’s consistently ranked as one of the city’s best restaurants), has a super-hip artsy-intellectual vibe and sits in an unspectacular area near Downtown that tourists are likely to miss. I'm so glad I didn't. The subtly-spiced southern-Mexican cuisine is creative and tasty--the classic brunch dish I ordered, huevos rancheros, came out of the kitchen so lovingly arranged, ungloppy, and fresh that I just...well, I just wish I could have some again, right now. One-year-old Tuck Shop, near downtown, serves unfussy, farm-fresh food that's meant to be shared: sauteed artichokes with housemade mayo, fried walnut-crusted fontina (read: amazing cheese sticks), succulent eggplant napoleons, coriander pork loin with spicy chimichurri sauce. You're seated at long group tables here, which encourages lots of mingling between the neighborhood regulars, sophistication-seeking suburbanites, and visiting travel editors.
OCEAN CITY, MD Crabs are the raison d’etre of Maryland’s dining scene, so don’t get overwhelmed by the proliferation of seafood shacks in resort towns like Ocean City--go straight to Higgins Crab House, where for $25 you get the following food extravaganza: fried chicken, homemade cole slaw, and fish chowder followed by all-you-can-eat steamed blue crab seasoned with Old Bay. Of course I was eating child’s grilled cheese with a side of broccoli (non-seafood eaters, beware–options are limited), but my nine hungry friends looked very, very happy with their messy feast. This is a great family option.
Catesby Holmes is an assistant editor at Travel + Leisure.