The Big Idea: Many metro areas vie for the title of “best food city.” But what cities have the most options for grabbing a bite to eat — and what does that say about where you live?


There are plenty of competing rankings for best food cities floating around the internet. You can find lists for cities with the most restaurants, the best restaurants, the most distinctive local restaurants… and of course none of these seem to agree (although the “winners” tend to be similar among these lists).

But what about the cities that provide the most dining options per person? And what does restaurant variety have to do with a city’s livability?

One of the hallmarks of a great city is a smorgasbord of great places to eat. Cities offer a wide variety of choices of what, where, and how to eat, everything from grabbing a dollar taco to seven courses of artisanally curated locally raised products (not to mention pedigreed chickens). The “food scene” is an important component of the urban experience.

Restaurants are an important marker of the amenities that characterize attractive urban environments. Ed Glaeser and his colleagues found that “Cities with more restaurant and live performance theaters per capita have grown more quickly over the past 20 years both in the U.S. and in France.”

Matthew Holian and Matthew Kahn have seen that an increase in the number of restaurants per capita in a downtown area has a statistically significant effect in reducing driving and lowering greenhouse gas production.

We’ve assembled data on the number of full service restaurants per capita in each of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. These data are from the County Business Patterns data compiled by the US Census Bureau for 2012. Note that the “full service” definition basically applies only to sit down, table service restaurants, not the broader category that includes fast food and self-service. We’re also looking at metro-wide data to assure that the geographical units we’re comparing are defined in a similar fashion—political boundaries like city limits and county lines are arbitrary and vary widely from place to place, making them a poor basis for constructing this kind of comparison.

As you might guess, the metro areas with the most restaurants per capita are found predominantly in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Elsewhere, New Orleans and Denver score high as well. While the average metropolitan area has about seven full-service restaurants per 10,000 residents, the range is considerable. The San Francisco metropolitan area has more than 11 restaurants per 10,000, while Riverside has only five and seven other metropolitan areas have fewer than six.

The top five metropolitan areas on this indicator are San Francisco, Providence, Portland, New York, and Seattle. Each of these cities has nine or more full service restaurants per capita. With the possible exception of Providence, all of these are recognized as major food cities in the US. (And Portland achieves its high ranking without counting the city’s more than 500 licensed food carts.)

Interestingly, Las Vegas, which we think of as a tourism mecca, has fewer restaurants per capita than the average metropolitan area. A lot of this has to do with scale—the average restaurant in Las Vegas tends to be much larger than in other metropolitan areas. According to the Census Bureau, almost eight percent of Las Vegas restaurants employed more than 100 workers; nationally the average is only two percent.

This ranking doesn’t include anything about quality–simply quantity– but the higher restaurants per capita can indicate higher competition (and therefore better quality options), or higher demand (a signal that more diversity of options is valued, allowing for more valuable experiences). It is also highly correlated with per capita income, which makes sense: the more people that are able to afford frequent restaurant outings, the more restaurants there will be.

While this isn’t a perfect listing of best food culture — each person’s measure of the ‘best food town’ is subjective — it does settle the debate of where you should go to have the largest selection of eatery options. If you’re going to travel 2,000 miles for dinner, it might be wise to make a reservation. Or if you’re going to Portland, at least be ready to wait in line.


Photo courtesy of Janet at Flickr Creative Commons