The USA is not all fast food. Every state offers its own specialities, and regional cuisines are distinctive and delicious. In addition, international food turns up regularly – not only in the big cities, but also in more unexpected places. Many farming and ranching regions – Nevada and central California in particular – have a number of Basque restaurants; Portuguese restaurants, dating from whaling days, line the New England coast; and old-fashioned Welsh pasties can be found in the mining towns of Montana.
In the big cities, you can pretty much eat whatever you want, whenever you want, thanks to the ubiquity of restaurants, 24-hour diners, and bars and street carts selling food well into the night. Also, along all the highways and on virtually every town’s main street, restaurants, fast-food joints and cafés try to outdo one another with bargains and special offers. Whatever you eat and wherever you eat, service is usually prompt, friendly and attentive – thanks in large part to the institution of tipping. Waiters depend on tips for the bulk of their earnings; fifteen to twenty percent is the standard rate, with anything less sure to be seen as an insult.
Many regions have developed their own cuisines, combining available ingredients with dishes and techniques of local ethnic groups. It’s perfectly possible to create a fabulous US road-trip itinerary by tracking the nation’s regional cuisines – much of it dished up in humble roadside restaurants packed full with locals. Broadly, steaks and other cuts of beef are prominent in the Midwest, the Rockies, the South and Texas, while fish and seafood dominate the menus in Florida, Louisiana, along the “low country” coast of the Carolinas and Georgia, around Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and in the Pacific Northwest. Shellfish, such as the highly rated Dungeness crab and the Chesapeake’s unique soft-shell crab, highly spiced and eaten whole, is the dish of choice on the East Coast; Maine lobsters and steamers (clams), eaten whole or mixed up in a chowder, are reason alone to visit New England. Although the Hawaiian islanders consume more than half the Spam eaten in the nation, they also dish up delicious fresh fish and sushi as a matter of course, with tasty local varieties including mahi-mahi (dorado) and ono (which translates as “delicious”). Even in the carnivorous Deep South, catfish provides a delicious alternative, slathered in butter and “blackened” with spices.
Cajun food, country French-inspired cooking that originated in the bayous of Louisiana as a way to finish up leftovers, uses a lot of pork – chitlins (pork intestines), and the spicy sausages known as boudin and chaurice abound. Sausages are also prepared with seafood like crawfish, or even alligator. Creole cuisine, its urban cousin, found mainly in New Orleans, is the product of a number of cultures: spicy, fragrant jambalayas, po-boys and gumbos are cooked as often in local homes as they are in restaurants. The distinction between Cajun and Creole cooking is often misunderstood (see New Orleans food).
Southern cooking, or soul food, is delicious and very fattening – everything from grits to collard greens, from crispy fried chicken to teeth-rotting pralines. BBQ is also very popular in the South, especially in Tennessee and in particular in Memphis, where every neighbourhood has its own classic ’cue hut, offering anything from dry-rub ribs to sweetly smoky BBQ spaghetti (generally, the more ramshackle the restaurant, the better the BBQ). Other BBQ centres outside the South include Kansas City and Chicago. In the Southwest, indigenous Native American communities continue to cook their traditional food; you will see Navajo frybread everywhere, a kind of fried taco dished up with minced beef.
At the other end of the spectrum, in a region where butter is despised and raw food diets abound, California cuisine is geared toward health and aesthetics. It grew out of French nouvelle cuisine and was pioneered in the 1970s, utilizing a wide mix of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Portions are small but beautifully presented, with accompanying high prices: expect to pay $50 a head (or much more) for a full dinner with wine. New American cuisine applies the same principles to different regional food, generally presenting healthier versions of local favourites.
Finally, there are also regional variations on American staples. You can get plain old burgers and hot dogs anywhere, but for a truly American experience, grab a piping-hot Philly cheesesteak sandwich, gooey with cheese and thin-sliced beef from a diner in eastern Pennsylvania, or one of New York’s signature Coney Island hot dogs – or the LA version of the frankfurter, rolled in a tortilla and stuffed with cheese and chilli. Almost every eastern state has at least one spot claiming to have invented the hamburger, and regardless of where you go, you can find a good range of authentic diners where the buns are fresh, the patties are large, handcrafted and tasty, and the dressings and condiments are inspired.
In the big US cities at least, being a vegetarian – or even a vegan – presents few problems. However, don’t be too surprised in rural areas if you find yourself restricted to a diet of eggs, grilled-cheese sandwiches and limp salads. In the South, most soul food cafés offer great-value vegetable plates (four different veggies, including potatoes), but many dishes will be cooked with pork fat, so ask before tucking in. Similarly, baked beans nationwide, and the nutritious-sounding red beans and rice dished up in Louisiana, usually contain bits of diced pork.
In the cities, in particular, where centuries of settlement have created distinctive local neighbourhoods, each community offers its own take on the cuisine of its homeland. San Francisco has its Chinatown, New York its Jewish delis, Boston its Italian restaurants, Miami its Cuban coffeeshops. Mexican food is so common it might as well be an indigenous cuisine, especially in border territories of southern California, Texas and the Southwest. The food is different from that found south of the border, focusing more on frying and on a standard set of staples. The essentials, however, are the same: lots of rice and black or pinto beans, often served refried (boiled, mashed and fried), with variations on the tortilla, a thin corn or flour pancake that can be wrapped around fillings and eaten by hand (a burrito); folded and filled (a taco); rolled, filled and baked in sauce (an enchilada); or fried flat and topped with a stack of filling (a tostada).
Italian food is widely available, too; the top-shelf restaurants in major cities tend to focus on the northern end of the boot, while the tomato-heavy, gut-busting portions associated with southern Italian cooking are usually confined to lower-end, chequered-tablecloth diners with massive portions and pictures of Frank and Dino on the walls. Pizza restaurants occupy a similar range from high-end gourmet places to cheap and tasty dives – New Yorkers and Chicagoans can argue for days over which of their respective cities makes the best kind, either Gotham’s shingle-flat “slices” or the Windy City’s overstuffed wedges that actually resemble slices of meat pie.
When it comes to Asian eating, Indian cuisine is usually better in the cities, though there are increasing exceptions as the resident population grows. When found in the Chinatown neighbourhoods of major cities Chinese cooking will be top-notch, and often inexpensive – beware, though, of the dismal-tasting “chop suey” and “chow mein” joints in the suburbs and small towns. Japanese, once the preserve of the coasts and sophisticated cities, has become widely popular, with sushi restaurants in all price ranges and chain teriyaki joints out on the freeways. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, meanwhile, provide some of the best and cheapest ethnic food available, sometimes in diners mixing the two, and occasionally in the form of “fusion” cooking with other Asian cuisines (or “pan-Asian”, as it’s widely known).
New York, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco are the consummate boozing towns – filled with tales of famous, plastered authors indulging in famously bad behaviour – but almost anywhere you shouldn’t have to search very hard for a comfortable place to drink. You need to be 21 years old to buy and consume alcohol in the USA, and it’s likely you’ll be asked for ID if you look under 30.
“Blue laws” – archaic statutes that restrict when, where and under what conditions alcohol can be purchased – are held by many states, and prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sundays; on the extreme end of the scale, some counties (known as “dry”) don’t allow any alcohol, ever. The famous whiskey and bourbon distilleries of Tennessee and Kentucky, including Jack Daniel’s, can be visited – though maddeningly, several are in dry counties, so they don’t offer samples. A few states – Vermont, Oklahoma and Utah (which, being predominantly Mormon, has the most byzantine rules) – restrict the alcohol content in beer to just 3.2 percent, almost half the usual strength. Rest assured, though, that in a few of the more liberal parts of the country (New York City, for one), alcohol can be bought and drunk any time between 6am and 4am, seven days a week, while in the cities of New Orleans and Savannah you are even permitted to drink alcohol on the streets.
Note that if a bar is advertising a happy hour on “rail drinks” or “well drinks” that these are cocktails made from the liquors and mixers the bar has to hand (as opposed to top-shelf, higher-quality brands).
The most popular American beers may be the fizzy, insipid lagers from national brands, but there is no lack of alternatives. The craze for microbreweries started in northern California several decades ago, and even today Anchor Steam – once at the vanguard – is still an excellent choice for sampling. The West Coast continues to be, to a large extent, the centre of the microbrewing movement, and even the smaller towns have their own share of decent handcrafted beers. Portland, Oregon, abounds in breweries, with enthusiasts from around the world making the trip to sample draughts. Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, the Bay Area, Denver and other western cities rank up there, too, and you can even find excellent brews in tiny spots such as Whitefish, Montana, where the beers of Great Northern Brewing are well worth seeking out, or Asheville, North Carolina, where the number of excellent craft breweries grows each year.
On the East Coast look for Boston-based Samuel Adams and its mix of mainstream and alternative brews. Check out, the top-notch offerings of Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing too, or stop in at Washington DC’s great beer-tasting spot, the Bier Baron, to sample a broad array of the country’s finest potables – some eight hundred different kinds. Elsewhere, the Texas brand Lone Star has its dedicated followers, Indiana’s best beverages come from Three Floyds Brewing and Pete’s Wicked Ales in Minnesota can be found throughout the USA. Indeed, microbreweries and brewpubs can now be found in virtually every sizeable US city and college town. Almost all serve a wide range of good-value, hearty food to help soak up the drink. For more on craft beers, see craftbeer.com.
California and, to a lesser extent, Oregon, Washington, and a few other states, are famous for their wines. In California, it’s the Napa and Sonoma valleys that boast the finest grapes, and beefy reds such as Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as crisp or buttery whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc all do very well. Many tourists take “wine-tasting” jags in the California vineyards, where you can sip (or slurp) at sites ranging from down-home country farms with tractors and hayrides to upper-crust estates thick with modern art and yuppies in designer wear. Elsewhere, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and other areas in the state are known for excellent vino, especially pinot noir, while Washington state has its prime vineyards in places like the Yakima Valley, Columbia River Gorge and the Walla Walla area, among others. Beyond this, a broad variety of states from Arizona to Virginia have established wineries, typically of varying quality, though there are always a few standouts in each state that may merit a taste while you’re on your journey.