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Food Writers and Experts on the Best and Most Overrated Dining Cities of 2012

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Illustration: Eric Lebofsky

To close out 2012, Eater asked industry experts, seasoned diners, and friends of the site several questions about the year in food. The series kicked off yesterday with answers about the best meals of the year and continues today with a discussion of the best — and most overrated — dining cities around the world. Sydney, Tokyo, Chicago, and Seattle are among the metropolises that get high marks, while New York and Miami seem to have been put on notice. The full results below:

Matt Buchanan, BuzzFeed FWD Editor:

New York, obviously. Seattle was my favorite non-native stop, though — there's a maturity to what's happening in food there that you don't see in, say, Portland. I'm thinking particularly of Walrus & Carpenter and Sitka & Spruce, which are utterly refined in what they're doing, though they seem so simple on the surface.

Atlanta, where I spent most of the past year living, I'd say is overrated in a sense — there are very, very few standout restaurants (Holeman & Finch, Eugene, Abattoir, and I have a serious soft spot for Antico), just lots of solid ones. And there's a tediousness to how much of the city's best restaurants hew so closely to the New American/New Southern gambit. Though I suppose that's true of most cities of late.

Lockhart Steele, Eater co-founder:

A Tale of Two Pacific Northwests in my travels this year: Seattle, surprise win. Portland, totally played. (Well, maybe not totally played. But Seattle has retaken the edge.)

Alyssa Shelasky, Grub Street Editor and Apron Anxiety Author:

The food all over Sri Lanka made me very, very happy. Especially in the laid-back beachy hang of Hikkaduwa, with cold beer and endless conversation. Curries, hoppers, kottu roti, and all the fresh seafood, cashews 'n peas, coconut milk rice, cararmlized-onion chutneys. Light, spicy, earthy, seductive. Eat with your hands while laughing under the sun — sublime.

Ali Kurshat Altinsoy, MAD Symposium Director:

Perhaps I am biased, but Copenhagen is going through a renaissance right now. Of course there is Noma, Relae, Geranium, Geist and the like, but we are seeing new places opening up on all levels. I don't know how much I'm allowed to say just yet, but there are a number of very exciting projects well in the pipeline.

I was also impressed by Sydney, although I feel that I didn't get to stay there long enough to explore it fully. Alongside established heavyweights Marque and Quay, now Momofuku Seiobo has certainly made a huge impact in a tiny amount of time. Whilst new, smaller places, notably Sixpenny, are still making their impressions felt.

I am not so sure that I can single out one city as "most overrated." I long thought that London could be that, but lately new places that have just or will soon open — Bubbledogs, Hedone, Isaac McHale's Clove Club, and James Lowe's surely imminent restaurant — are changing my opinion.

Mike Thelin, Feast PDX Festival Co-Organizer:

Chicago. It does upmarket everyman so well at places like Publican Quality Meats and Au Cheval, but also has an appreciation and an audience for the very high end and avant garde — and all of the old neighborhood places seem to hang on. There's even taco places like Antique Tacos and Big Star that would destroy most in Texas. 

The most overrated? I can't think of any place that struck me as overrated. 

Adam Roberts, Amateur Gourmet blogger and cookbook author:

Seattle is really a force to be reckoned with these days. The meals that I ate at Sitka and Spruce and The Walrus and the Carpenter, in particular, were remarkable for the quality of the cooking but also for how much it felt like you couldn't be eating those meals anywhere else. I also had great meals this year in Atlanta (especially at The One-Eared Stag and Cardamom Hill) and Austin, where I pigged out at Franklin BBQ, Barley Swine, and Uchi. Overrated dining city? I'm not going there. (But maybe Miami.)

Regina Schrambling, Food Writer:

Pittsburgh was just a revelation. Really lively, smart restaurant scene (snails with chanterelles [at Salt of the Earth], lamb's tongue and kidney with rhubarb chutney [at Legume],) and the farmers' markets and food shopping (the Strip, plus a supermarket chainlet, Market District, devoted to local products) are outstanding. Can't answer the second half. 

Ben Leventhal, Eater Co-Founder:

Atlanta; New York

Per-Anders and Lotta Jorgensen, Editors of Fool Magazine:

Best: Still more than a decade after first setting foot in San Sebastián, the city never disappoints. Discovery of the year is Australia: Sydney-Melbourne-Dunkeld!

Most overrated: Shanghai, unless you know exactly what you are doing. Even then, it is difficult.

Kat Kinsman, CNN Eatocracy:

New Orleans — I could spend weeks there, going from oyster, po-boy, and soul food joints to neighborhood hipster haunts and white tablecloth schmanciness, and never get bored. Everyone gives a serious damn and is well aware of the level of competition, that they're falling over themselves trying to — not out-fancy or out innovate each other — but rather to refine what each is doing to the point that their version is essential.

Las Vegas celebrity chefs — you're on notice. While restaurants like China Poblano and B&B are firing on all cylinders, I've been seriously burned by a few venues that are cashing in on the name on the door. Yes, people love to say I really should have known better, but really, should tourists be tricked into spending a good deal of their hard-earned dollars on mediocre (or much, much worse) meals ostensibly endorsed by the chefs they've come to trust on TV. #rhymeswithschmolives

Adrian Moore, Mandarin Oriental Paris Concierge and Food Writer:

I was told New York restaurants were getting some stick lately. Can't imagine why. Coming from Paris, one of the (if not the) best restaurant city in the world, I've been coming to NYC more and more (actually every chance I can get) for the excitement in the culinary world. Although the City of Light has some fabulous tables, places like Pok Pok and Mission Chinese (although apparently they're coming here soon —Danny, please DM me), are great, exciting, gritty, and bending the rules. Blanca and Brooklyn Fare are places I am dying to visit. NoMad is a great scene, with great food, which is rare where I live, where cool places for the most part have abysmal food.

Charlotte Druckman, WSJ writer and Skirt Steak author:

Best: San Francisco

Most Overrated: New York City (please don't hate me, my fellow natives)

The Gurgling Cod:

I did not get to travel as much as I'd need to answer this question, but I did enjoy just about everything I got to eat in Seattle.

For overrated, I'll say New York City, in that people still feel that NYC chefs should naturally dominate awards. And it seems like the Times can still get away with running stories along the lines of "(City X: More than just an Applebee's!).

Robbie Swinnerton, Japan Times columnist and Tokyo Food File blogger:

Tokyo remains top, a never-ending ocean of new and great restaurants to discover!

London, despite some high spots, disappoints more than it thrills.

Amanda Kludt, Eater Editorial Director:

I had nothing but incredible food and wonderful experiences in Seattle, which I was not expecting. Loved the feel of Canlis, the seafood at The Walrus and the Carpenter, and everything about Sitka & Spruce. There's a weird positive energy surrounding that food scene.

I took my first trip to Portland this year for the wonderful Feast festival. While I would pay to have the chicken and rice from Nong's Khao Man Gai shipped to my apartment on a weekly basis, I didn't discover a whole lot in that restaurant scene that doesn't already exist in Brooklyn. The restaurants are solid, but, coming from New York, I'd rather be dining in Seattle, LA, and San Francisco.

Adam Goldberg, blogger behind A Life Worth Eating:

Tokyo is still the best dining city in the world. I am going through my top 25 meals of 2012, and nearly half of them occurred during my three-week trip to Japan. Part of it is cultural — the Japanese have very high standards for food, and eat out regularly. Mexico is an underrated dining destination. All of the raw ingredients are there to make the country a culinary destination: a strong food culture, unique local products, thousands of years of culinary tradition, but there are still just a handful of chefs in the country who are bringing everything together in a way that is presentable to outsiders. For the country that shares our border, there is still a lot of exploring to do.

I'd have to say that Copenhagen is a bit overrated, aside from a few restaurants that are worth a trip: Relae, Noma, and Geist.

Katie Parla, food writer and Parla Food blogger:

The best dining city I encountered this year was Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, the perfect society in which eating four meals a day is nothing out of the ordinary. Things get started at 5am with hearty beyran, a fiery soup made of mutton broth, shredded mutton, rice, suet, garlic and chili. This savory breakfast is followed several hours later by subtly sweet katmer, a thin crêpe envelope filled with kaymak (clotted buffalo cream) and coarsely ground local pistachios. Lunch and dinner are spiced spreads, various dolma, lahmacun (crispy flatbread smeared with minced mutton, chili, and onion or garlic, depending on the season), and grilled meats and offal. For a change of pace, you can sub liver for beyran at breakfast.

The most overrated dining city was Padova, or more specifically, the nearby frazione of Sarmeola di Rubano where Le Calandre offers an expensive cocktail of boring and pretentious dishes. Particularly painful was the dessert course, in which a dozen chocolate preparations were served with a recording of the chef's unborn child's fetal heartbeat, which, aside from making no sense, was enough to put me off chocolate for life.

Bonjwing Lee, photographer and blogger behind the Ulterior Epicure:

If I could choose to revisit one city from my travels this year, I'd go back to Oaxaca, Mexico. I barely scratched the surface in forty-eight hours. Even with a lifetime of eating there, I don't think you could fully cover its culinary diversity or history. I'd also love to explore San Sebastian (and environs) more.

Overrated? I don't want to say that New York is overrated, but I do think that it has hit a culinary ceiling. Despite its manifold offerings (which are always dependable and good), there's nothing there that truly excites me at the moment.

James Casey, Swallow Magazine:

Best dining city is Mexico City, for sure. High end taken by the likes of the excellent Pujol, low-end an infinite number of options.

Going to get booed for this, but Brooklyn's not worthy of the hype. Come to think of it, New York's lack of a great seafood restaurant (other than very special occasion visits to Le Bernardin, of course) is pretty lamentable.

Helen Rosner, Saveur Senior Web Editor:

The best: I go to Chicago a couple times each year to visit my parents, and every time I get completely overwhelmed by how good and smart and inventive and insanely delicious everything is, and how many new options there are every time I'm there. I mean, this isn't news to anyone, but still. New York may have more great restaurants in terms of hard numbers, but we also have uncountable hundreds of deeply cruddy places. In Chicago, the hit-to-miss ratio is almost unbelievable — I'm obsessed with Yusho, Vera, Girl and the Goat, La Sirena Clandestina, and Alpana Singh's incredibly ambitious Boarding House, which simultaneously pulls off both intimate and sprawling. Through some brilliant confluence of culture, geography, attitude, and real estate prices, there are things happening in Chicago that literally could not happen anywhere else in the world.

Overrated: I keep reading about the rise of Miami, and I keep going there and trying to find these amazing places that are apparently popping up everywhere, and still the only restaurants worth going back to (that aren't just straight Vegas-style facsimile outposts of New York and LA spots) are Yardbird (amazing) and Versailles (immortal).

· All Year in Eater 2012 Coverage [-E-]

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