10 Small American Towns With Surprisingly Big Food Scenes

Small towns aren't always equated with destination-worthy food. But these under-the-radar burgs from Healdsburg, California to Covington, Louisiana are dining hot spots.

September 18, 2019
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What Defines a Small Town?

The concept of what defines a small town largely depends on where you’re from; to some, it might mean 500 residents, others, 50,000. For this list we limited the scope to towns with less than 30,000 people, although most places contain fewer than 10,000. That said, there are easily a few dozen small towns with impressive food scenes, usually resulting from a combination of notable chefs, new openings and local movements. For the sake of space we’ve narrowed it down to 10 of the best, ranked from smallest to largest.

Los Alamos, California

The Santa Ynez Valley is home to about 100 wineries and the tiny Old West town of Los Alamos. Though less than 2,000 people live here, a growing food scene has emerged. There’s Bell’s, a new French bistro opened by Per Se alums, and Bodega, another new spot with a cute wine and beer garden, bocce ball court and fire pit. Bodega recently added lodging in the form of a renovated farmhouse, providing extra incentive to stick around town. The Skyview Los Alamos is another newcomer in the sense that the iconic motel has been converted into an upscale property. Dine at Norman, the hotel’s light and airy restaurant committed to regional cuisine and a well-curated wine list. Rounding out the new additions is Lo-Fi Wines first tasting room; Lo-Fi is known for its natural wines. Not new, but Bob’s Well Bread Bakery (pictured), Full of Life Flatbread, Plenty on Bell and Pico at The Los Alamos General Store are among the reasons why this laid-back town is now garnering national attention.

Marfa, Texas

Marfa is an anomaly. The artistic community of less than 2,000 people resides in the middle of the West Texas desert, a good three hours from the nearest airport in El Paso. Yet a thriving food scene exists for those who make the trek, usually for the chance to snap the perfect image in front of the staged Prada store, a sculpture by Berlin-based artists Elmgreen and Dragset in this art-dominated town also home to renowned sculptor Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation. But beyond that are worthy food stops like Food Shark, an Airstream food truck famous for its Marfalafal sandwich (and Beyonce’s visit). Cochineal is where to go for classy New American, while Capri, located next to the simple Thunderbird Hotel, is a good option for cocktails and light bites. (Look for a sign that says Thunderbird Restaurant.) The scene heads to Al Campo Marfa (pictured) where you'll find South-American dishes in rustic environs. Opened in 2017, LaVenture in Hotel Saint George makes for a special occasion outing. Other standouts in this quirky town include Marfa Burrito for its road-trip-worthy burritos, Frama for coffee inside a laundromat and Buns N’ Roses for breakfast, baked goods and yes, flowers. And don't miss Pizza Foundation and Stellina, both of which serve memorable Italian fare. Just be sure to check ahead since some businesses are seasonal, others have partial hours and turnover is common.

Greenport, New York

The North Fork is a 30-mile stretch along Long Island’s northeastern peninsula, beloved for its wineries and farm stands. It’s here that Greenport reigns as the region’s hub. As an old fishing village, there’s a compact walkable downtown a block from the water, where an increasing number of buzzy eateries have moved in. The town itself is home to about 2,000 residents, but attracts many more from nearby NYC and the metro area. For years visitors have been coming to Noah’s for sophisticated small plates, the Frisky Oyster for fine dining, 1943 Pizza Bar for pizza and Lucharitos for affordable tacos and margaritas. Claudio’s, a seafood joint overlooking the water, is a local institution, as is Aldo’s for coffee. The renowned North Fork Table and Inn technically isn’t in Greenport, but it’s close. For a more affordable experience, the North Fork Food Truck can be found in the restaurant’s parking lot; its lobster rolls are a must. Back in town, Industry Standard Bar is a sleek addition within the past five years, good for cocktails and Impossible burgers. The Halyard (pictured) is one of the newest additions, overseen by acclaimed chef Stephan Bogardus, who most recently helmed the North Fork Table and Inn. Also making waves? Barba Bianca, an in-demand seasonal Italian spot from esteemed NYC chef Frank DeCarlo.

Mystic, Connecticut

Upon hearing the words Mystic, Connecticut, those of a certain age will instantly remember the 1988 movie Mystic Pizza starring Julia Roberts, based on an actual pizza spot that still exists. But Mystic’s food scene goes beyond pizza, offering impressive options for a town of about 4,000 residents. Since 2011, restaurateur Dan Meiser has created a mini empire with Oyster Club, Engine Room and Grass & Bone, his newest. Beyond his restaurants are notable spots such as MBar, a restored gas station that feels like anything but inside. Expect to find elevated American fare and an impressive wine list. Elsewhere in town there’s Rise for brunch, Sift Bake Shop for French-baked goods and pastries, Red 36 for seafood on the waterfront and Deviant Donuts for creative combos. And while a stop at Mystic Pizza is almost required, Pizzetta is the place for a leisurely sit-down meal.

Carbondale, Colorado

The ranching town of Carbondale is just 30 miles away from Aspen, a known foodie haven, but Carbondale’s scene can hold its own. About 6,000 people live in this laid-back Rocky Mountain community, where agriculture fuels the growing food movement. The Way Home (pictured) is one of the latest examples of this trend; the guesthouse and restaurant opened in 2019, and specializes in locally sourced fine dining. Co-owner Lacy Hughes also runs Silo, a casual farm-to-table spot that’s known for its egg sandwiches. Izakaya Carbondale is another newcomer. The restaurant is a more casual offshoot of Kenichi in Aspen, popular for its highly regarded, high-end sushi. Roosters joined the scene in 2018, with an emphasis on local, rotisserie-style meat in a modern rustic setting. Elsewhere around town you’ll find Bonfire Coffee, which small-batch roasts its ethically-sourced beans. Also worth checking out; Phat Thai produces innovative Thai fare; Señor Taco Show is a favorite for Mexican; and Allegria is the go-to for solid Italian.

Park City, Utah

Beyond skiing and the annual Sundance Film Festival, this town of about 8,000 people is also home to a burgeoning food scene. Among the newcomers are Old Town Cellars winery, Twisted Fern for on-trend New American and the renovated Mid-Mountain Lodge for above-average on-mountain dining. Five5eeds is another new addition from Australian owners, where you can find acai bowls and good Australian coffee. Compare it with Harvest’s similar farm-to-table focus. Speaking of which, The Farm delivers seasonal menus at a higher price point. But the premier Riverhorse on Main (pictured) is the place to splurge, and the dramatic dining room is as enjoyable as the food. Alternatively, Park City Provisions by Riverhorse offers a more affordable option at its cafe and market. And by all means grab a smoky Campfire whiskey at High West Saloon — billed as the world’s only ski-in, ski-out distillery. Also memorable? Booking a dinner at The Viking Yurt. This involves riding a sleigh up to 1,800 feet (pulled by a snowcat, not a horse), for a four-hour, Norwegian-style meal.

Covington, Louisiana

With a population of about 10,000 people, Covington is a New Orleans suburb about 45 minutes from the city, making for an easy day trip. Del Porto Ristorante attracts visitors from beyond downtown New Orleans, drawn by husband-and-wife team David and Torre Solazzo who have reached the James Beard semifinals three times for Best Chef in the South. Visitors also make the trip for Oxlot 9, a classy bistro in the Southern Hotel that focuses on all things Southern and seafood. Meanwhile, carnivores make reservations at Gallagher’s Grill for special occasion steakhouse fare. Lola is another exciting venture, located in an historic train depot, whose chefs craft tasty salads and sandwiches for lunch and elevated Southern dishes for dinner. More casual, The Shack wins points for down-home Southern cooking like shrimp and grits, and Bear’s Restaurant is considered one of the best options around for roast beef po’ boys. Bonus: Those with a sweet tooth will be excited to learn that a Cafe du Monde outpost in Covington means you can bypass city crowds for beignets and chicory coffee.

Healdsburg, California

It’s probably not surprising that a Sonoma wine country town has a thriving food scene, even if that town contains less than 12,000 people. But what may be surprising is that Healdsburg is continually evolving. This has been helped along by SingleThread, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant that opened in 2016. Dishes are Japanese-inspired (pictured), with chef Kyle Connaughton overseeing a nightly eleven-course tasting menu. SingleThread also operates a five-bedroom inn above the restaurant that includes a full breakfast with multiple dishes (a Japanese option is available). When it comes to fine dining, Dry Creek Kitchen, helmed by chef Charlie Palmer, has been a destination restaurant since opening in 2001. Among other area standouts are Barndiva, where you’ll find sophisticated local food served in a converted barn. The adjacent Studio Barndiva houses The Gallery Bar, a chill spot for enjoying a casual meal or relaxing with a glass of wine. What else? Flying Goat Coffee is beloved by locals, while Campo Fina is a trendy spot for wood-fired pizza and a fun bocce ball court.

Oxford, Mississippi

Oxford is best known for the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, and as the home of Southern literary legend William Faulkner. But this college town with about 24,000 residents doesn’t just cater to cheap pizza and burger fans. Some of the latest buzz surrounds Emily Blount’s Saint Leo, a 2017 James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. Yes, as an Italian restaurant it does serve pizza (albeit wood-fired), but in more stylish surroundings. Plus, Blount recently added Saint Leo Lounge next door, a sleek space serving cocktails and small bites, something the town had been missing. James Beard award-winning chef John Currence is another local of note. His four restaurants, City Grocery, Oxford Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast (pictured) and Snackbar, each offer something different, yet all are rooted in Southern foodways. In fact, Currence’s City Grocery, opened in 1992, is credited with launching Oxford’s food scene. The newer guard includes Oxford Canteen, where you can grab breakfast tacos and a Vietnamese iced coffee inside a converted gas station.

Juneau, Alaska

Yes, Juneau is Alaska’s capital city, but with a population hovering around 30,000, in a region only accessible by boat or plane, it feels more like a small town. Despite its small size, an exciting food movement is happening here, starting with Chef Beau Schooler, a two-time semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award, and a 2019 James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Northwest. He’s currently the chef at In Bocca Al Lupo, a newer addition in the upscale Italian category. Schooler also co-owns The Rookery Cafe, a cafe/coffee shop that serves Stumptown coffee and makes its own baked goods. Tracy LaBarge is another highly regarded local figure for Salt and Tracy’s King Crab Shack (pictured). The former features local Alaskan fare prepared by chef Lionel Uddipa, who spends many mornings foraging, while the latter is usually packed with folks waiting for fresh crab legs. Come summer you can also find food trucks like Deckhand Dave’s, Pucker Wilson’s and Bun Daddy. And if you need help navigating all of the food options, Juneau Food Tours offers several tours.

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