I went ahead and tried my hand at Yelp-style restaurant capsule reviews for every city I’ve spent significant time in. The absolute greatest spot in that city leads off and is bolded; the next five greatest are underlined, and further honorable mentions are italicized. There are plenty of skippable decent-to-bad places covered here as well. I reserve the right to not mention an eatery I’ve been to if it was unmemorable or redundant, but I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts and remarks of what I got right or wrong, or what I missed. The best overall region for density of good dining experiences is specified at the bottom. I tried as best I could to organize these in a cuisine-specific and logical way. I tried to include only independent standalone places as opposed to chains, so for all I know, some of these joints might have closed or changed their address. Happy eating!
You may die of heart disease
It’s likely that I’ve tried more restaurants in Pittsburgh than any other place I’ve lived. Because of this, I’ll try to organize them in a roughly best-to-worst manner, by the type of fare offered. I’ll forewarn you that the closest thing PGH has to a signature style is artery-clogging diner food, so make sure you enjoy it sparingly.
The food at Burgatory isn’t anything Pittsburgh-unique, and it is a chain that’s local to the region. But it is utterly satisfactory and insanely indulgent, even to jaded locals. Outstanding burgers, phenomenal shakes, great appetizers, solid drink selection and really fun atmosphere – I can’t find much to complain about. Middlebrow caloric overkill in the best possible way.
I felt compelled to write something in memory of the recently closed Sonoma Grille, a California-style bistro with lots of wine and fancy cheese and stuff. Top-notch preparation and service; I went here for my birthday after being blown away on my first visit, and returned a few subsequent times. The steak medallions were heavenly. I wrote this list before the place shut down, so just take my word for it.
Aladdin’s is another limited chain with some of the best Mediterranean food I’ve ever had. Shawarma, kebab chicken and beef, hummus, baba ganoush, that kind of thing. Extremely delicious and consistent, with a large selection and decent price. Disclaimer: I worked here.
Mad Mex serves respectable Mexican fusion in a city that wouldn’t appear to offer much in that regard, but there’s some good stuff if you know where to look. Huge menu, above-average quality. Price and service are decent. Veggie quesadilla recommended.
Coriander is an awesome authentic Indian place right by my old apartment in Squirrel Hill. Very good deal for what you get.
D’s Six Pak and Dogz is quintessential Pittsburgh food. Fantastic meat and veggie hot dogs/sausages with super creative toppings, great drink selection, and the BEST french fries on this planet. Get the veggie pub fries. I’m not messing around.
Benjamin’s Burger Bar is a very tasty, slightly upscale burger bar by my old workplace. High quality, with some good toppings, and the owner/staff are friendly. Tell the super nice lesbian bartenders that Andrew says hello! And get the candied jalapeño cream cheese on your burger, for the love of God.
I haven’t been to Point Brugges Café for lunch, but their brunch is absolutely terrific. Definitely the best brunch in the city. Come prepared for very pretentious accoutrement, high prices and high calories. It’s worth it once in your life, though.
Gaby Et Jules Patisserie & Vanilla Pastry Studio can share a spot since they’re dessert places. They’re both the sort of cookie-cutter type of artisan cupcakery/macaron confectionery that’s experiencing a bubble right now, only they excel at the business. The former has tremendous macarons and the latter, quite tasty cupcakes.
The Porch is a cool, classy student hangout on campus that doubles as a fancy restaurant. Their pizza and brunch are excellent, albeit pricey, for what’s essentially a well-furnished money pit for parent weekends.
Mercurio’s and Union Pig and Chicken are probably too frou-frou for their clientele and their own good, but they have authentic, tasty and overpriced pizza and gelato and BBQ, respectively.
Franktuary, renowned from mentions on special interest network TV shows and chef recommendations, was slightly underwhelming, but still definitely worth a visit for the novelty and adequate meals. Nice compromise between the blue collar Pittsburgh street style and gentrified farm-to-table artsiness.
Fathead’s is a purveyor of more Pittsburgh-style, greasy pub food, located on the street with the most bars per capita in the world. This place has all kinds of indulgent, inventive sandwich and burger ideas which all sound slightly better on paper than they taste, but they sound really good. It’s home to a great brewery based out of Ohio, too. I like the blueberry beer because I am a fancy boy.
Mineo’s and Peppi’s (the former in Squirrel Hill, the latter in Allegheny West on the North Shore) both also exemplify the fattening foodstuffs of local ‘Burgh culture, in hospitable and generous fashion. No frills, delicious pizza/sandwiches that will give you a heart attack. Worth it. I probably gained fifteen net pounds from the Italian hero and white pizza at these joints.
Nu is a fascinating spot: a totally Kosher deli and barbeque place in the middle of Pittsburgh, with some Hasidic fare as well. Very solid hot sandwiches, as I recall.
Double Wide is a cool concept for a restaurant, with a kitchen-sink vegan/omnivore/globalized menu of such breadth it kind of hampers the quality. But everything is basically good.
Sheetz is cheap, greasy, preservative-stuffed gas station grub but HOLD ON. The quality, cleanliness, variety and consistency of the stuff you can order in this 7/11-esque atmosphere, adjacent to fuel pumps, is unlike anything else in America. Get the iced hot chocolate. I am grateful that I have tried it in my lifetime.
Crepes Parisiennes is a completely adequate bougie campus crepes place. Get there early; it fills up.
Potomac Bakery boasts out of this world donuts, with a singular crumbly texture that sounds weird, but reminds you how they’re supposed to taste from scratch.
Waffalonia is so niche and low-effort I’m wary of raving about it, but they do make the hell out of some delicious Belgian waffles and toppings. If you ran into one while peckish one morning I would totally suggest checking it out.
Conflict Kitchen is pretty limited, but its concept is notable: it’s a university operated food stand whose pacifist mission is to serve the cuisine of a nation the US is currently at war with. It’s interesting, and raises awareness through food!
I got way too excited and over-ordered at the cult-worshipped Everyday Noodles. But the potstickers I managed to finish were indeed quality.
Hello Bistro is an offshoot of a local management group that operates a few different branches of family restaurant (including the perversely named Eat ‘n’ Park, which is like a slightly more adventurous IHOP). Convenient and sometimes healthy, but unremarkable. Their fries are delicious, albeit Five Guys-esque.
I thought Milky Way and Italian Village Pizza were fine establishments, particularly the latter. Others I ate with did not.
Crazy Mocha is a wacky local coffee chain with a lot of personality and decent enough java.
Coffee Tree is like the refined, upper-class yacht club rival to Crazy Mocha’s nerdy, awkward summer camp underdog.
The Independent Brewing Company is a fun hipster speakeasy-esque haunt in Squirrel Hill that’s a nice place for a drink if you’re around the area.
Special mention to Uncle Sam’s Subs. Understand: I am easy to please with most American food and will tolerate a lot in the name of gluttony. I also have a soft spot for sandwich fare, and when I learned of this nearby joint upon moving to Pittsburgh, I was eager to try it out, and even opted for the crowd favorite special, the steak and egg sandwich with fixings. This food that I paid good money for during a stressful time in my life was probably the most offensive, disgusting thing I’ve ever attempted to eat. I couldn’t even get past a few bites, and their veggie sub is somehow WORSE. How this could happen, I still don’t understand.
BEST PLACE TO BE:
The Cultural District and the Pitt downtown area have a lot of promising places, but those aren’t real Pittsburgh. Its good and bad, its hearty and even heartier foodstuffs can all be found in Squirrel Hill, although I am biased.
Of all the cities I’ve lived in or near, Kansas City has arguably the hottest culinary scene. Here are some of its treasures, along with spots it’s okay to skip. By all means, you must eat barbeque of some kind there (vegetarians can’t wiggle their way out of this one, because the portobello sandwich at my top choice is still great!), but don’t forget the wealth of other options in this up and coming city.
Kansas City Joe’s needs no introduction. But then again, Anthony Bourdain would tell you the same thing, along with cadres of cookout championship judges across the country. Its humble gas-station-adjacent façade at one of only a few locations belies the most elegantly simple, perfected, world-class barbeque you will ever enjoy (in the KC style, at least). Lines of hyped tourists and hungry locals wrap around the building at all hours of the day. The Z-Man will not let you down. I have a T-shirt of the damn thing. Eat it and believe.
You want more barbeque? Good, you’re in the right place. It doesn’t get better than KC Joe’s; however, there’s stuff that’s just as amazing with a different spin on the same materials. Fiorello’s Jack Stack is much higher-end and pricier, but sublime. The Big Pig is worth subtracting a year of your life for.
Q39 represents a new vanguard of hipsters making the city’s signature cuisine their own in an appropriately gentrified area of town, and they don’t screw it up. Their beef/pork/chicken slider sampler was an unforgettable meal, and I want to have it again soon.
That just scratches the surface of KC’s barbeque riches: Smokin’ Guns is yet another of the endless well-executed, satisfying examples of the town’s signature dish. Arthur Bryant’s is the salt of the earth-type traditional BBQ spot that Obama visited when he was in town. It’s totally pleasant, but pretty undistinguished and overrated among the smokehouse titans you can find elsewhere. Same with Gates, although that place at least has novel offerings and setup. Maybe I ordered the wrong thing there, I’ll give it another shot someday. I probably should have gotten Tech N9ne’s usual.
Swagat is a bizarre outlier: a fantastic Indian buffet in the middle of what’s essentially a rural white middle class strip mall. Nice décor and a selection that really impresses with its authenticity.
Jerusalem Café is a talked-about hot spot for Millennials in perhaps the most Millennial district of any Midwestern city. Terrific Mediterranean food for sure. Check out the Flaming Cheese – admit it, you’re here for the spectacle anyway. And then get absolutely lit in Westport, it’s THE place for that.
Café Gratitude is a fascinating novelty consisting of the most grassroots, frou-frou vegan fare you could imagine. Now I’m all about ethical consumption, ingenious healthy options and trying new things – all of which it delivered on – but the flavor profiles were a bit much for a novice like me. It’s cool to visit though!
As far as Mexican fare goes, Manny’s is a delightful meat-and-potatoes (so to speak) Mexican family restaurant. Then there’s La Bodega, an ultra-bougie, but also quite inventive and tasty, tapas place. Probably more authentic than Meson Sabika in Naperville, for what that’s worth. Mi Ranchito has Mexican cuisine even more homogenized and American than Manny’s, but that sort of thing is hard to screw up.
Longboards is so weird and I love it. It’s on North Oak, and they serve Polynesian and tropical-themed wrap sandwiches. Huh? I adore the Cabo Chicken, although I did have to Google to remember what was actually on it.
I’m most familiar with restaurants in the Northland, where I lived for a while. One staple is Cascone’s, a fascinating and well-run old world Italian restaurant, with apparent historic mob connections that used to have hands in the city government. Is it okay to mention this now? If I turn up floating face down in the Missouri river, you know what’s up.
I had a catered meal at Trezo Mare once which was fairly good, but that’s a pretty easy bar to clear for free food so I wouldn’t consider that definitive.
Minsky’s is a blue-collar, family-style, low-expectation gem in the vein of so many Midwestern eateries. It’s a respectable chain that does nothing more than make awesome pizza. The Five Star is a favorite among white pizza fanatics, and it is a standout. But I like the Thai pie a whole bunch too.
Pizza Shoppe is pretty standard suburban pizza, but they’re semi-famous for an outrageously strong, salty salad/pizza/appetizer dressing (apparently there’s no distinction for topping things there).
Further afield to the west, Waldo Pizza is more exclusive and artisan than Minsky’s and indeed, tips the scales more to personality and customization. Still a lovely spot worth visiting if you’re out in the ritzy suburbs for some reason.
Beer Kitchen and McCoy’s are modern American bistro eateries at their most adequate. Being in the young, hip part of town, they put more of a focus on their alcohol.
Winstead’s is like the Hydrox to Steak ‘n’ Shake’s Oreo. They likely pioneered the formula, only to see a corporate behemoth steal and mainstream it from under their noses. Virtually the same thing as that burger titan, only more limited, small-scale and homey. But that means a marginal increase in quality. Outstanding shakes and a killer 50/50 basket for midnight snacking. Its friendly, charming KC atmosphere is the perfect antidote to chain diner boredom.
I had heard legends of a greasy spoon downtown where shameless eaters drowned their sorrows, and at long last I eventually got to Town-Topic. This old-school rathole makes Winstead’s look like the height of refinement. But that aesthetic has its own dirt-kicking charms, and something in the grease here makes for a memorable regrettable 4 A.M. burger, a la White Castle.
Jersey Boyz and Kelso’s are old fashioned mainstays in the Northland and hallmarks of KC heritage. Very comparable and competitive with the similar comfort food hangouts of Peppi’s and Mineo’s in Pittsburgh, they also dish up classic subs and pizza, respectively.
Grinders is more mass-market meat overkill in the vein of Pittsburgh’s Burgatory. Tasty stuff, dangerously large and unhealthy portions. I mean that in a positive way, just in case it was unclear.
I never really figured out the ideal sandwich for myself at Planet Sub, which is alarming for a sub fiend such as myself. But it’s generally fine, I guess.
I liked D’Bronx’s sandwich a good deal at the time but don’t remember much about it in retrospect.
Green Acres is a spotless, admirable Whole Foods knockoff in the commercial section of a rich residential neighborhood. That compound also houses a Philly Time, another probable chain but I’m too lazy to check. They make a good enough Philly, as per their name.
Glacé made me rediscover ice cream. Amidst all the specialty dessert places popping up in America, it holds a distinct place in my heart. Crazy but not ridiculous flavors, gastronomically proven to make you skeptically go “hmm…” and then discover a new favorite.
Donut King has possibly the best donut I’ve ever eaten, and they even spell it the same lazy way I do! Highly recommended.
Roasterie is a well-regarded and award-winning local brand of coffee, sold at a few brick and mortar, er, roasteries. They don’t pervert and tart up their blends with flavorings and sugar the way I like though, so my verdict is out.
Boulevard is another KC institution that’s quickly going global in popularity, although I only rarely sampled their brews since I was just barely getting into beer at the time and didn’t care for the hoppier, earthier range they dabble in. I’ve since found a few moderately enjoyable lines of theirs I can’t remember offhand. Try them, though! They make the city proud.
First Watch has since evolved to the status of a corporate chain, but it was in KC that I first encountered it and its unerringly pleasant, appetizing breakfast diner ways. Very modern and accommodating, too! Never had a disappointing thing there.
BEST PLACE TO BE:
Per capita, I suppose it’d be Westport, which I haven’t explored nearly enough. But even on its lonesome, in worn-down industrial districts just now being gentrified, KC Joe’s is worth the freaking trip to the city. (Besides those, probably the Country Club Plaza.)
Lower your expectations
Columbia is much more recommendable for its school than for its fine dining. Nevertheless, I have found some decent places there, if you consider that they operate in a relatively isolated and cheap area of the country. Generally, the nicer spots are better, but there’s stuff to love for every price range. I like sticking up for this city despite its drawbacks.
Bleu is the place to be in Columbia, food-wise. It may be a faint echo of actual quality faux-French fare, but in CoMo even a serviceable knockoff shines in comparison. It really is a surprisingly nice spot though. I JUST NOW saw that it rebranded/closed the restaurant part to become a catering business. Way to go, CoMo.
Sophia’s is only a half step below that, and even ditches a bit of Bleu’s gastronomic pretension.
Babbo’s is overpriced Americanized Italian food, but it is successfully fussed-over and higher-end, in a market that lacks such things.
Flat Branch is home to more cuisine that sounds better in theory than in practice, but points for trying. It’s still solid enough. This also gets the handicap for being in a college town in the middle of nowhere.
Upper Crust must hold a record for non-chain restaurant I have frequented the most, seeing as I went once a week for at least the last semester of college and almost always got the same sandwich and pasta salad combination. It was super tasty, fresh and a great deal on Tuesdays! This message paid for by Upper Crust. Not really.
Teller’s has the sizzle of being an urbane, food-forward bistro without much of the steak, so to speak. It took me a while going there to realize that. Once again, sympathy points for trying anything in Columbia more advanced than deep-frying a prize hog in Snickers goo.
Shakespeare’s has been voted the top college town grub hangout in the country, and it’s hard to argue with that. The legend and atmosphere are arguably what you visit for, although the pizza is very well made. For my money, though, just a bit farther afield, Gumby’s has the superior slice. I love that place.
Sparky’s is really cool, being the aesthetic ideal of offbeat college-type vibes without getting too annoying or precious (dig the hilarious outsider art everywhere). More importantly, their ice cream is so good!
Pickleman’s makes a mean sub sandwich, and I would know from those, although I’m pretty sure it’s nationwide.
McAlister’s has struck it big with franchising and expansion lately, but I first encountered it in college. Perfectly agreeable deli-type place. I used to get some good meaty subs, but I now enjoy their subtler and healthier veggie sandwich.
Fazoli’s is a fairly broad chain, but it feels particularly at home in CoMo, seeing as it serves low-quality unfussy oily Italian fast food, which is a consummately American thing. I ate it and didn’t complain, so there you go.
Hotbox Cookies is a famous college student favorite, and I feel like every university town has a sweets shop that’s open late where you can make insane dining choices while drunk. Their unsoundly large cookies don’t disappoint. Actually, maybe just get a small one, you’ll still feel sick afterwards (in a good way).
Las Margaritas serves decent Mexican fare (insert refrain of Columbia being generally underwhelming).
Ranking the processed, stale, trashy student union eateries in the Mizzou Student Center:
- The Brazilian churrascaria (Actually pretty good, if you have no real Brazilian steak experience to compare it to.)
- Pomodoro (Entirely enjoyable pizza!)
- The coffee place (It exists! And that’s about it.)
- The sandwich place (Very unsatisfying. And it only gets worse from here.)
- The burger joint (Surprisingly bad.)
- The sushi place (Fucking yuck, dude.)
Related: I completely missed out on any and all chances to visit the Heidelberg, supposedly the college dive to end all dives. Pity.
BEST PLACE TO BE:
I mean, it’s essentially one big area, but there never was and never will be a valid reason to go north of I-70. Sorry, that’s just how it is. Stick to downtown.
Center of the WASP universe
The tough thing with writing about Naperville’s cuisine is there are a lot of semi-exclusive and high-end chains that I love dearly, but they are still, after all, chains. So I tried to weed out the places that seemed like standalone establishments. Plus, besides two legends discussed below, there’s not really a regional style or specialty. Nevertheless, you can count on specialty overpriced eateries to be good every now and then!
Meson Sabika is probably my favorite restaurant. This Naperville tapas eatery combines so many things I value – it’s no Michelin starred place, but it does successfully convey Iberian cuisine with its fattening soul food recipes. And yet that doesn’t go to its head, as it’s relatively practical and unfussy, being focused on shepherding the dinner rush through the evening with economy and tact. It’s always consistent, with good service and a surprisingly broad and delightful menu. I have shared lots of memories and valuable time there with loved ones. The essentials for any visit with a group of people who want to split some delicious plates would be the stuffed goat cheese crepe – holy moly, get two, you’re gonna want ‘em – but also the bacon-wrapped dates, chicken and/or beef tenderloin skewers, stuffed mushrooms, pork tenderloin medallions, and the Iberian ham appetizer (plus the sautéed banana and profiteroles for dessert). See? Pretty standard, hearty, quasi-Spanish fare, prepared and served with just enough care and detail to be memorable. Exquisite.
BROWSING AROUND TOWN:
As with the other major cities I’ve written about, there are the two archetypal “pizza and sandwich places you’ve gotta try”. Only in Chicagoland, ours are world-renowned for their deep dish and Italian beef/hot dogs. I am speaking, of course, about Lou Malnati’s and Portillo’s, two chains that I nevertheless included. Because you HAVE to eat at both before you die (Shout-out to Giordano’s, but it can’t compete with the classic Lou extra-cheese deep dish and sausage pie). At Portillo’s, either the Chicago-style dog or sweet-pepper Italian beef and cheese will do you just fine, with some cheese fries and chocolate cake, of course (although their menu is surprisingly deep).
Chicago isn’t really known as a BBQ hot spot, but if you find yourself hankering for smoked meat, there are two places I’d suggest. The award-winning Sharko’s has outstanding sauces mimicking the styles of different regions, along with tenderly smoked brisket that’s delicious (not to mention a boatload of quality sides). On the other hand, obscure family-operated eatery Gemato’s is a favorite in my family. They have very friendly service, the option for Gyros (which are authentic, since the owners are Greek) and generous, above-average beef and chicken barbeque. Their beans are great but I’m always too full after gorging on everything else to finish them.
Speaking of styles that would seem to be fish out of water, how about fish fresh out of the water? I have acquainted myself with two outstanding sushi restaurants in the area. The first I found was Wild Tuna, which is a very utilitarian and traditional Japanese place. They have wonderful veggie sushi, which admittedly isn’t as hard to come by, but their seafood offerings are also of decent quality. And the price isn’t too bad – sushi is deceptively filling. But the second one blows their fish out of the water (hah, I love my stupid metaphors) in some regards. Blue Sake Sushi Grill is more of a high-end fusion place, but everything is of slightly higher quality and price. Their vegan Cowgirl roll in particular is astonishing.
Board and Barrel is a newer Naperville bar with a fun country atmosphere and impressive live music that has rapidly risen in my estimation because of their Nashville spicy chicken sandwich, which gets my unabashed recommendation. A slow-simmering, but gradually fierce spice on a nicely breaded breast with some mild, unobtrusive slaw and fried pickles, I was instantly impressed with it.
Empire and Craftsman are two hip, bougie hangouts that are far more about their top-notch drink selections than anything else, but probably as an obligation, they serve food as well. Craftsman has a very Napa Valley-esque sampling menu of hors d’ouevres that was expensive but generally fine. I like Empire’s grub a bit more, maybe because I’m a sucker for burgers (I enjoyed the southwestern chorizo one).
Shout out to the Naperville Cooper’s Hawk, a delightful, impressive dining and wining experience that I hesitated to include because it’s most definitely a high-end chain. Still, another of my favorite places to eat. Dat free bread tho. And Gewürztraminer! Yum!
Le Chocolat might be overrated or overpriced or overcrowded, but dang it, I go there a lot and I enjoy it! It’s nice to feel pampered and indulgent sometimes, and that’s precisely what they cater to. Their menu is primarily different varieties of hot cocoa, and all the ones I have tried are excellent. Plus some good desserts.
Smallcakes is the same type of cookie-cutter cupcakery (mixed metaphors now!) that has gained traction in the Midwest, but it’s a very enjoyable one I found on my own.
Pomegranate is like Chicagoland’s attempt to do First Watch, and it’s mostly pretty good!
Then there’s Everdine’s, a fancy-pants grilled cheese vendor that makes, well, fancy grilled cheese. It’s definitely okay. It’s hard to screw up grilled cheese.
Solemn Oath and 2 Fools breweries might have different ownership (I can’t remember) but they’re right across the parking lot from one another, tucked away in a business complex. And both are excellent for newer suburban establishments, although the sweet cider drafts of 2 Fools are much more my speed.
Pitaville is a humble, likable place with outstanding falafel. Which reminds me, I really should get around to visiting more of the plentiful Indian and Middle Eastern places in the area.
BEST PLACE TO BE:
Uh… I don’t like seafood
So that’s a big obstacle to enjoying what the seaside has to offer for food options. That, plus the relative dearth of civilized and metropolitan areas along the coast. Besides Portland, which is really cool. Nevertheless, I’ll try to give a tour of where I’ve eaten, because some of it really is great! And the scenery is incredible.
King Eider’s in Damariscotta is the best thing the midcoast region has going for it as far as the turf half of surf ‘n’ turf, and it’s really pretty good pub fare! Especially if you avoid ocean bugs in your mouth like I do, it’s a tasty haven in the middle of nowhere.
ELSEWHERE ALONG THE COAST:
Of course, when I say King Eider’s is the best, I secretly mean that Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro wins everything food-related in Maine, because I am a proud member of its cult. From the converted die-hard locals chomping daily on the homiest of homestyle diner food to the evangelists featured on its wall photos traveling around the world with the store’s T-shirts, this place has grown through persistence and consistency into a grassroots sensation featured on TV shows and industry rags alike. It’s nothing you haven’t had before, just better than you’ve ever had it. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but saying you went, having a pleasant meal in the middle of nowhere, and hyping it up for the next friend in line is all part of the deal. I always get the hamburger with their delectable mashed potatoes, and so it shall be. Lastly, their holiest-of-holy triple berry pie is not to be fucked with.
I practically have an ownership stake in The Cupboard. It’s charming how businesses in these small coastal towns can get so personable and symbiotically successful with their clientele. My family first palled around with cheerful owner and head baker, Mary, when she started out on her own in a much more limited space in New Harbor, peddling her world-class cinnamon rolls. Now she’s achieved as much growth as is possible on this peninsula, running a group operation out of a large log cabin ten minutes down the road and selling out her expanded breakfast menu to loyal locals every morning. It doesn’t count as going to the Pemaquid region unless you’ve tried one of those rolls.
Yet another example of this friendly generosity between owner and clientele, the rickety old penny candy and knick-knack shop Granite Hall has achieved a similar sort of notoriety in coastal Americana. The Round Pond staple is a memorable, friendly place, and pretty much what it says on the storefront: besides knit goods and housewares, they sell very cheap, very basic candy. I’m not sure whether to qualify it as a place where you eat things, but it’s certainly worth seeking out for the experience.
The Seagull Shop at Pemaquid Point is as big of a tourist trap as the midcoast has, yet it still can’t help but be charming and scenic. You can even skip out on the (overpriced but serviceable) gift shop restaurant if you feel the need, and survey the peerlessly rugged and gorgeous coast instead. In fact, this particular lighthouse and rocky shore was featured on nothing less than the state quarter. It’s a must-visit, but if you don’t eat there, just remember to get something with Maine blueberries and real maple syrup on it at some point.
Sea Dog is a surprisingly broad and accomplished limited chain of common Americana fare. Everything I’ve had there has been above average, but I may have been desperate for land-lubber food.
Portland’s The Great Lost Bear is a winningly rustic and irreverent spot that has a ton of lovingly prepared, unhealthy pub food. I personally got the BBQ Hot Mess, which is pretty much what it sounds like and served in a mason jar. Good eats.
You wouldn’t expect to find quality artisan pizza in Maine, but then, the state’s biggest city is a wonderfully surprising mini-metropolis these days. Portland Flatbread Company is a tasty restaurant right on the shore.
DiMillo’s is in a boat. That’s pretty much their whole thing. Fresh-caught seafood in a converted docked cruiser. Not wanting to be a total party pooper, I tried a bacon-wrapped scallop there once and once I got to the scallop part, I spit it into a cloth napkin. I should have gotten the fish.
The Cookie Jar is a delicious treat in a city I otherwise haven’t dined in nearly enough. They make an insanely decadent Bismarck (AKA jelly donut).
Shaw’s Wharf is a beautiful cove fishery in New Harbor that still makes acceptable burgers and chicken fingers for heathens such as I. Mostly check it out if you enjoy lobsters, clams and such. Plus they have sightseeing cruises and lovely views.
They’re really trying to be bougie at the Newcastle Publick House, and not quite succeeding. Props for trying to pull that off in the small, small town of Damariscotta, but the one time I went there with family I believe everyone was unsatisfied.
In any other region, Sarah’s would be a dime-a-dozen, vaguely Irish-themed eatery with reasonable but not great food. But on the coast in Wiscasset, it’s an oasis and a safe bet, at the very least. Just don’t expect greatness.
Besides my shameful dislike of seafood, I must admit here that I have never frequented the single most famous and busy Maine eatery, Red’s in Wiscasset. Even on the rare occasions when there’s not an outrageous line, what would I get there, a lobster roll? I think not!
BEST PLACE TO BE:
My carnivore self can’t really be trusted on this one, especially due to limited experience, but Portland would have to take it for lack of options elsewhere. Visit it if you can!
A work in progress
I have thus far only been to Minneapolis for one short trip, but crammed in a lot of good eats while I was there (I don’t think I actually ventured into St. Paul). So here’s my tentative best and worst, which I hope to augment someday with another visit.
Perhaps Minneapolis’ biggest claim to culinary fame is just shoving melted cheese in the middle of a burger, with various nicknames and branding. Hey, I’ll take it! The storied, apocryphal legends of which warring eatery actually came up with this idea first are interesting to behold, but I tried one at The Blue Door, with their spin on it being bleu cheese in a BBQ burger. Reader, it was WAY better than that sounds. Great stuff. I also found a mild MN-based lager here that I really enjoyed and can’t remember the name of!
OTHER THINGS I HAD IN THE SPAN OF A THREE-DAY VISIT:
Dinkytown is the campus-adjacent downtown area that I explored more than anywhere else. My arbitrary first stop was Kafe 421, a perfectly pleasant, modest Mediterranean bistro. I had a nice sandwich and soup.
Black Coffee and Waffle Bar was a real standout considering its oft-repeated, marketable formula of serving fattening brunch fare to college students. All the stuff my sister and I ordered was delicious.
Psycho Suzy’s Motor Lodge is a river-adjacent complex of an eatery that is hippie/Tiki themed and primarily serves pizza, because why the hell not?? Their tacky attitude is a lot of fun and they make a great idiosyncratic slice. Plus, strong and sweet tropical cocktails!
Much like Hotbox, Insomnia Cookies is another University cookie place for stoned twentysomethings at midnight. A great, great s’mores cookie.
I had a simple, average chai at Bordertown Coffee, but I really admire their style and ethics. It’s a cute tucked-away student hangout spot.
Surly is a brewery that’s gradually growing in notoriety, further off campus. Lots of darker beers, plenty of IPAs and spicy brews, and that’s really not my thing, but they’re very solid if you’re into that. As far as their ancillary food menu, the loaded tots weren’t anything life-changing and were a bit overridden by spice, but the grub is good for brewery standards. Their campus is also immaculate, with lots of scenic party space inside and outside.
BEST PLACE TO BE:
Dinkytown, since it was the one I was closest to. To be continued!