The residents of major American cities have a lot to brag about: sports teams, notable citizens, famous architecture. But few things instill as much civic pride like food does. Whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall deli, a decades-old steakhouse or a hot dog drive-in, every city seems to have that iconic eatery locals swear by and tourists regularly swarm. Here are the must-eat spots from 20 big cities.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
For tourists walking down U Street, Ben’s is immediately recognizable because of its old timey façade. It’s well-known for its famous clientele—President-elect Barack Obama dined there before his inauguration in 2009 and Bill Cosby has been a loyal customer since he served in the Navy in nearby Quantico and Bethesda in the 1960s. And it has a storied past: Riots erupted in the area after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, shutting down the city, but Ben’s stayed open. But the restaurant’s claim to fame is the half-smoke, a spicy quarter-pound pork and beef sausage on a warm steamed bun, topped with mustard, onions and a spicy homemade chili sauce. You can even order the half-smoke, along with hot dogs and burgers, during breakfast hours, and grab a booth or stool that hasn’t budged since 1958.
For 85 years, servers at the world’s largest drive-in diner have been asking customers, “What’ll ya have?” The answer is usually The Varsity’s signature hot dog. Knowing the lingo is essential for ordering: “red dog” means pile on the ketchup, “yellow dog” calls for mustard and “heavy weight” signals extra chili. The same goes for sides: potato chips are dubbed “bags of rags,” and “ring one” gets you a single order of the diner’s signature onion rings. Each day, two miles of hot dogs, 500 fried pies and 300 gallons of chili are made from scratch on site at the eatery, which caters heavily to nearby Georgia Tech students.
The must-eat meal at this family-run business has remained the same since 1886: the crab cake sandwich. A giant, flaky half-pound lump of crabmeat sits atop chewy white bread, surrounded by the classic combo of lettuce and tomato. It’s been named one of the best sandwiches in America by “Man vs. Food” host Adam Richman. But what makes it so good? Before the balled-up mix is tossed in the fryer for five seconds, Faidley’s owners, who are descendants of the original founder, stir in chopped saltines, which give the crabmeat, mustard and Old Bay mix a fluffier quality.
Union Oyster House
At this eatery, customers can get a taste of history and New England oysters by sliding into the upstairs booth John F. Kennedy once preferred to eat his lobster soup in while reading the newspaper as a congressman. A century before that, the “Great Orator” Daniel Webster regularly enjoyed several plates of raw oysters, washing them down with brandy, at the U-shaped raw bar downstairs. The oldest continuously operating restaurant in the country, the Union Oyster House is famous for its bivalves, which can be served raw, grilled, fried, stewed or Rockefeller. After chowing down, customers can grab a toothpick on their way out, a device reportedly invented at the Boston institution.
What better place to grab a hot dog than in the city it first appeared? Chicago’s family-owned Superdawg Drive-in is known for three things: the two 12-foot-long hot dog statues with blinking eyes mounted on its rooftop and hearty, made-to-order franks. The recipe, which makes for a smokier and spicier sausage, has been the same since the drive-in opened in 1948, when a sandwich and a drink cost just 32 cents. Hot dogs are, as the locals say, “dragged through the garden” and slathered with toppings, then served in a cardboard box with crinkle-cut fries and Superdawg’s signature pickled green tomato.
Camp Washington Chili
Chili may as well be its own food group in Cincinnati, where the dish has little in common with its Texan and South Carolinian counterparts, featuring a Greek-style tomato sauce that’s tangy instead of spicy. A single-store institution, Camp Washington Chili has been serving it five different ways, 24 hours a day, since 1940. The basic is a bowl of chili. It’s spread over spaghetti in a two-way, and shredded cheese is piled on to make a three-way. Four-way means onions, and the five-way is the works, complete with spaghetti smothered with cheese, beans and onions.
While this Tex-Mex taqueria has spread to more than 50 locations since its opening in 1973, locals and tourists alike still know to go to the original Navigation Boulevard eatery for an authentic experience. Ninfa’s is credited with inventing fajitas, a made-to-order flour tortilla filled with chargrilled sliced meat that founder Ninfa Laurenzo, also known as “Mama Ninfa,” called tacos al carbon. Today, virtually every Mexican restaurant in the city, not to mention the country, serves a variation of Ninfa’s trademark fare of steak or chicken served with pico de gallo, guacamole and chile con queso.
St. Elmo’s Steak House
A classic steakhouse, St. Elmo’s winning fare is its shrimp cocktail, large boiled shrimp served with a fiery sauce made of Missouri-grown, horseradish guaranteed to clear your sinuses. Each entrée is served with your choice of Navy Bean soup, a hearty concoction of beans, ham, tomatoes and parsley, or a glass of tomato juice. Where that tradition came from, no one knows, but its patrons don’t seemed to mind—located in the heart of downtown Indianapolis, the century-old restaurant is frequented by celebrities, athletes and politicians alike, and the walls are plastered with photos of them.
Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue
After sampling the restaurant’s barbecue, Anthony Bourdain declared it was “criminally good,” and later added the Kansas City staple to his list of places to eat before you die. Oklahoma Joe’s is known for its “burnt ends,” which until last spring it only served on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The dish consists of sweet and salty tender chunks of beef, the remains of the restaurant’s smoked brisket, but cooked longer. Located in a functioning gas station, the restaurant smokes its meats using white oak wood in lieu of more commonly used hickory, mesquite and apple-flavored woods, which can mask the taste of the meats. Owner Jeff Stehney and his grilling team, called Slaughterhouse Five, have won the World Brisket Open, and their lamb, sausage, pork and others have taken first place at various tournaments.
In the 1930s, New Jersey native Ben Canter opened his deli in the Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles before it moved to the city’s Fairfax neighborhood in 1948. By 1953, it had moved into an old theater, and the décor, including its trademark autumn leaf ceiling, has remained unchanged. And so has its massive standout sandwich: Half a pound of corned beef and pastrami sourdough rye bread with a side of pickles, which are made on site each day. It offers 22 other signature sandwiches, served on your choice of sourdough, challah egg bread, pumpernickel or whole wheat, and homemade potato salad, coleslaw and egg salad.
The 1950s-inspired restaurant, set inside a rustic barn with aged brick and bright neon décor, has been rated the city’s top barbecue joint 22 times since 1984. In true Memphis style, Corky’s meats are slow cooked over hickory wood and charcoal. Every pork shoulder is hand pulled, and chefs have trimming each slab of ribs down to a science. Waiters clad in bowties and white shirts serve the ribs two ways: The dry version is basted with a special sauce and sprinkled with a spice and salt rub, while wet ribs are doused with Corky’s Original Bar-B-Q sauce. Both come with a healthy mound of baked beans, coleslaw and fresh-baked rolls.
Joe’s Stone Crab
Even James Bond, in Ian Fleming’s book Goldfinger, describes his order at Joe’s as the best meal of his life. The eatery has been serving its signature dish of stone crab legs, a Floridian delicacy, since its real estate boasted only a few picnic tables in 1913 (today, the high-ceilinged restaurant seats 475). The legs are served chilled with mustard sauce and come in four sizes, from medium to jumbo. But the restaurant’s best-kept secret isn’t surf or turf—it’s a surprisingly cheap fried chicken (half a chicken costs $5.95), which loyal customers know to follow with Joe’s original homemade key lime pie.
Café Du Monde
Café Du Monde’s famous coffee and beignets date back to the Civil War, when the original coffee stand opened in 1862. The café serves its trademark java black or au lait with a New Orleans twist. It’s blended with chicory, the root of the endive plant, which softens the dark roasted coffee’s bitter edge. Its beignets, pronounced “ben yays,” are square French-style fried doughnuts smothered in powdered sugar. The Big Easy staple is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for Christmas or, as it says on its website, “on the day an occasional hurricane passes too close to New Orleans.”
Since 1888, Katz’s assembly line of sandwiches has moved at top speed, with customers sampling for free their choice of meat before committing to a full sandwich. During World War II, the owners sent food to their three sons overseas, a tradition that helped create the deli’s slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the army.” Today, the cafeteria-style eatery’s best-known menu item is a New York tradition for locals and tourists alike. A mound of smoked, black-edged slices of pastrami, smothered with deli-style mustard is served on rye bread and comes with a healthy serving of pickles.
Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks
In 1930, Pat Olivieri, who ran a small hot-dog stand at the famous Italian Market in south Philly, decided to try something different and asked the butcher for some chopped meat instead. Pat’s, the first half of the epicenter of the Philly cheesesteak, was born. Thirty-six years later, Joey Vento opened his Geno’s across the street from his rival—and he was ready for a fight. “If you want to sell cheese steak, you go to where they eat cheese steaks,” he declared. The ingredients are the same: frizzled rib-eye steak, melted cheese and grilled onions on an Italian loaf. But preparation is key in the City of Brotherly Love. Pat’s pushes Cheez Whiz as the topping of choice, and steaks slide across the counter wide-open and unwrapped, slices of meat flowing over the sides of the loaf. Geno’s recommends provolone cheese on its thinly sliced steaks, which get to the table neatly wrapped. (Local lore explains that it was Geno’s that first topped its steaks with cheese. )
“This is American food,” said travel writer Paula Schultz of Primanti in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. In the 1930s, Joe, Dick and Stanley Primanti invented a sandwich meant to be eaten with one hand, a savvy offering for the truck drivers who regularly delivered goods to warehouses in the city’s Strip District. That meant that the standard sides, French fries and coleslaw, cozied up to the grilled meat and tomato stacked high between two slices of Italian bread. Customers at the Steel City institution still get their meal-in-a-hand order the same way, pouring on some Heinz ketchup, another Pittsburgh creation. The Depression-era eatery has spread across the city, even to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, but visitors flock to the original spot for an authentic experience.
This shop is known for its quirky and creative doughnuts; when it first opened in 2003, it sold doughnuts glazed with NyQuil and coated with Pepto-Bismol, until the health department nixed the treats. Customers love Voodoo for its unflinching quirkiness: Its namesake menu item is a voodoo doll-shaped pastry that oozes jelly. Doughnut creations get kookier from there: “Captain my Captain” is coated with vanilla frosting and Cap’n Crunch, “Dirty Snowballs” are topped with marshmallow, coconut and a dollop of peanut butter, and the “Marshall Matters” is sprinkled with mini M&Ms in a doughy ode to rapper Eminem’s real name. In the Tex-Ass Challenge, eager customers can gobble down a giant doughnut six times bigger than usual within 80 seconds and win their $3.95 back.
When customers bite into a baguette burger or gourmet grilled cheese at Boudin, they taste more than 150 years of history. That’s because every batch is, by lore, created with a swig of the “mother dough,” a yeast-bacteria culture developed during the Gold Rush by a French immigrant and nurtured at the bakery ever since. It survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, when the owner’s wife carried it in a bucket to safety. Boudin’s trademark loaf is sourdough, cored into a bread bowl and filled to the brim with its famous clam chowder. Its bakers also churn out hearth-baked kalamata olive, walnut and ciabatta breads, as well as loaves shaped into crabs and turkeys.
Located in the heart of the famous Pike Place Fish Market, this family-owned bakery has been serving sweet and savory pastries since 1992, making Gourmet’s list of 10 must-try Seattle eateries last year. Piroshky are small stuffed pies, the Russian version of the empanada or calzone, rolled out and molded on sight for customers to watch. Fillings range from the traditional potatoes and mushroom or marzipan to cream cheese, apples and rhubarb. The bakery’s prime location means some doughy puffs feature a Pacific Northwest twist, like piroshky stuffed with smoked salmon paté.
Colorado green chili isn’t native to Colorado, but that hasn’t stopped restaurants like The Cherry Cricket from serving it up as their trademark dish. The original opened in 1945 in the owner’s living room, moving to its current home in 1950. Once owned by current Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the restaurant mainstay is “a bowl of green,” featuring browned pork, tomatoes, onions and diced green chiles famous for their spicinesss and flour tortillas. Burgers are big here too, with 21 toppings from cream cheese and jalapenos to melted peanut butter and fried egg. In 2009, Food Network star Aarón Sánchez named the restaurant’s half-pound Cricket Burger, which is slathered in green chili, the best burger he ever ate.