Seven restaurant people let us in on their extreme food vacation destinations.
When you’re in the food business, you just can’t get away from it. Even the ultimate escape, a vacation, will find you studying the local restaurants for inspiration. With all the traveling food pros do, they’re one of the best resources for tips on where to eat well. And so, to help you plan your next well-fed vacation, consider these favorite spots from people who have eaten their way around the world.
Extreme food vacation: Saigon
Saigon is beautiful and tropical, and if you adore fresh vegetables and fruits, which I do, they are presented in a lively manner here. It’s a refreshing cuisine that you can eat every day. Saigon was closed for 30 years after the war so the charm of the old ways still remains. You can see foods like rice paper made the traditional way, by hand. It’s a wonderful place to eat and to learn. I love to eat in the outdoor markets. Ben Thanh is one of the biggest markets in Vietnam. It’s clean and it has everything, fresh fish, beautiful fruits and vegetables, and there’s a small food court in the area. And you have to eat in the pho shops. Pho 24 is fun and so is Rap & Roll which offers street food in a hip fashion. At Ngon you’ll find street food in a French villa atmosphere. And the Mandarin restaurant features regional cuisine from both North and South Vietnam.
Next stop: Kerala, India; Istanbul, Turkey, and the southern provinces of China
I love India. The food is incredibly delicious, and I particularly want to go to Kerala where the food is similar to th foods I cook, but very different because of the hard spices, like cinnamon and cardamom, that they use. I want to go to Istanbul and all over Turkey because my friends who have traveled the world always put it at the top of their list. And I want to visit the southern provinces of China and Hunan. They border Vietnam and so I am intrigued with their food. The Chinese impact on Asian cuisine is tremendous.
Extreme food vacation: Yountville, California
I travel a lot for work and when you work for a pub company everyone goes out to drink. I like to go out to eat, and the food is just so fresh in the Napa Valley. At Brix, one of my favorite restaurants in Yountville, there’s a garden behind the restaurant planted with herbs and vegetables, and the view of vineyards and rolling hills in the distance is beautiful. The food tastes like they’ve just picked the produce and put it on your plate. And the same goes for other restaurants in the area. You can smell the rosemary growing as you approach Bistro Don Giovanni, and the food is flavored with wonderful fresh herbs. Quite different but also special is Thomas Keller’s Bouchon. There’s something mystical about his restaurants, and an atmosphere that you don’t see often. The formal service is very old school and makes you feel coddled.
Next stop: New York City
I’m going there this summer. Atlanta is very much a meat and potatoes town. People don’t readily accept change in their food here, but that’s not the case in New York. There food is in the culture and I’m excited about tasting new flavor combinations and seeing the way food is presented.
Extreme food vacation: Florence
There’s such a great variety of places to eat in Florence and everything is fantastic. Florence is a great walking city, for touring and for eating. You can walk into a restaurant and even if you haven’t done any research on the place, you’ll get a great meal. There are lots of wonderful cheese shops and little delis where you can pick up something. Even in the little hole in the wall places, there’s freshness and quality. Although we had great meals wherever we went, the steak Florentina at Baca Lapa in the Piazza Antonori was particularly memorable.
Next stop: Auckland, New Zealand
We went on a working trip to the Kim Crawford winery and didn’t have time to tour Auckland, but based on the food we had at just one restaurant, I want to go back and really see the whole place.
Extreme food vacation: San Francisco
Northern California is the epicenter of everything that happens in food and wine culture [in the United States]. There are so many fabulous places in San Francisco that it’s hard to pick just a few favorites, but Zuni Café is always a stop for me. They have the best margaritas on earth. And I still remember a dinner I had years ago: a fire-roasted salt cod brandade with Nyon olives and manchego cheese, Caesar salad and Acme bread. It was one of the seven best meals I’ve ever had. I also like the approach of Craig Stoll, the chef at Delfina in the Ferry Building. The food is very pure, not extremely mainstream. I remember a lightly dressed puntarelle (a type of Italian white chicory) and a basil gnocchi that you would punch your best friend for, plus they have fabulous pizzas. Another place I particularly like is Incanto for their whimsical preparation of off cuts of meat and their fabulous chicken liver ravioli with brown butter sauce.
Next stop: Siena, Tuscany
Every January we focus on a different region in Italy and next up is Tuscany, so this fall I’m going to Siena. I’m especially looking forward to the wild boar, the pastas and the wine.
Extreme food vacation: Tucson, Arizona
There are so many wonderful food cities, but I have a couple of kids and when I go on vacation with them, I think in terms of food we can all eat. I went to the University of Arizona and I have great memories of Tucson. When you really know the city, you realize it’s a cool, funky town. One of my favorite places to eat is a Mexican restaurant called El Charro. It was opened in the early 1920s, I think. It’s small, family-owned and has great,
traditional food. Another favorite is Dirt Bags. It’s on the college campus and is a typical college bar with dark wood and a relaxing atmosphere. I love the ‘Dirt Burger’ with Swiss cheese and waffle fries. And for the best shakes in the world you have to go to a diner-like place called Robert’s. There’s always a wait but it’s worth it.
Next stop: Naples, Italy
My favorite restaurant in Phoenix is Pizzeria Bianco where they serve a wonderful thin-crust pizza. I want to go to Naples so I can enjoy the real thing.
Extreme food vacation: Rome
Rome is refreshing and invigorating, a city that offers everything. I always get ideas when I’m there. In Rome I love to eat, not in the fancy restaurants, but the traditional Roman food. I always go to Campo dei Fiori, the outdoor market. They have great focaccia and a stall with all the cuts of pig. And I love a trattoria in Trastevere called Da Lucia. It’s a small place, deep in the bowels of Rome, and you eat at a table in an alleyway, with clotheslines full of sheets air drying above you. Another favorite is Osteria di San Cesario. It’s about 29 kilometers outside Rome, in the hills. The chef is a woman named Anna Dente. Her family were the town butchers and they opened the restaurant in 1995 to preserve the rustic traditional recipes of Rome and the Roman Campagne (countryside). They serve offal like pajata de vitella (the intestines of veal from milk-fed calves cooked in a tomato sauce); soups with maize dumplings, and dishes from the old Ebraic cuisine, like fried artichokes. This is what real Roman food is.
Next stop: Rio de Janeiro
I want to go to Rio for Carnival—and to go to samba school—but I also want to study the food. The Italian cuisine is rich in vegetables and balanced, but with Brazil, all you hear about is meat, and I want to see how they balance their meals. I think they do a lot more with fruit and want to find out. And their treatment of meat is different, so I want to see what they do.
Extreme food vacation: Santorini, Greece
I love to eat healthy when I travel but that’s not easy and I often come back heavier than when I left. In Santorini the food is so fresh and pure—the fish, for example, is line caught and cooked simply with just olive oil, lemon juice and salt—that I actually came back weighing less. Archipelagos is a lovely restaurant overlooking the Aegean, with views of the volcano, and Lithos is another place where the food was simply delicious. Feridini is a bit more modern looking and the cuisine is a little more complex, but it still focuses on fresh fish and local pasta, but with a touch more elegance in the presentation and service. Diktia, on Pervilos Beach, is just a little family-owned taverna that serves wonderful fresh caught fish and regional small plates such as fava spread, marinated whitefish and charcoal-grilled octopus that goes perfectly with Ouzo and the local Greek wines. And speaking of the wines, the volcanic soil on Santorini produces mineral-driven whites that are great with the fish.
Next stop: Piedmont, Italy
I’m dying to go to the Piedmont for truffle season. I want to go to Alba in the fall for the white truffles and have truffles on everything and drink some Barolo and Barbaresco, which are great with truffles, at the source.