New York and Los Angeles are two of the largest and arguably best cities in the US. They constantly get the spotlight for all sorts of “best of” lists from museums, to public transit, to food and beyond.
And while they and other large cities often merit those accolades, when it comes to food, mid-sized cities are the real winners.
On a recent trip to Salt Lake City, Jim and I excitedly discussed options of where to grab a bite to eat as we took TRAX — their light rail — from the airport to a wedding downtown. We finally narrowed it down to Eva’s Bakery on Main Street and I got a delicious slice of pear, walnut, and Gorgonzola pastry. I don’t remember what Jim got because when I bit into my food, my taste buds were blown away. It was delicious. Easily as good as or better than comparable pastries in similar shops in central LA where I live, or NYC where I’m based as a flight attendant. It was also about half the cost of what I was expecting to pay, being used to the comparatively higher prices of those bigger cities. In the past few weeks, I’ve had this experience again and again, in mid-sized cities like Provo, UT, Portland, OR, Austin, TX, and Sacramento, CA, among others.
There are a few things I love about the food scene in mid-sized cities:
1. Mid-size cities weed out mediocre restaurants that thrive on one-time customers more quickly than larger cities, leaving a higher ratio of places with tasty eats in business. Because fewer people live in mid-sized cities, they more heavily rely on return customers to stay in business. A larger city with a population of 5 million people potentially has 5 million one-time customers. So even if the food is not that great, and people aren’t coming back, they still have the potential to stay in business ten times longer than a city with only 500,000 one-time customers.
2. Mid-size cities offer a more bang for your buck. As is the case with everything, restaurants in large cities tend to be more expensive because they have to cover higher rents, wages, and other costs. In my experience big cities also tend to have more eateries aiming for a posh or highly manicured aesthetic, which means paying a premium for presentation and decor. This becomes less and less the case the smaller and cheaper a city is.
3. Good mid-sized cities tend to have strong centralized food cores, with many of the best restaurants, bakeries, etc close together, which makes going out for a food a more pleasurable and potentially spontaneous experience. Because mid-sized cities are inherently smaller than than their larger city counterparts, the food scene also tends to be geographically tighter. Unlike mid-sized cities where a food scene in sometimes within a walkable area, I can spend literally hours in a car or in public transit getting from one side of LA (or New York) to the other, and the best food will be spread all throughout that mess.
— Laura Rowley