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Food + Cooking

The Next Big Scene

Published in Gourmet Live 06.20.12
Colleen Clark finds 10 cities where the music's hot and the food rocks
emerging music and food cities

Anyone who's ever choked down a cardboard chicken breast to satisfy a jazz club minimum knows that good food and good music do not always go hand in hand. But cities like Portland and Austin have proven that tunes and taste buds can live together in perfect harmony. So we've rounded up the country's newest hot spots where the grub and the clubs are both worth a visit, from famous tune towns like Nashville to Midwest success stories such as the Twin Cities, where Dutch broodjes go well with indie rock, and DIY dynamo Detroit, home of pickle stands and punk rock bands.

Athens, Georgia

Once nicknamed the "Liverpool of the South" for the indie rock, bluegrass, and country it churns out, Athens birthed groups as diverse as R.E.M., Neutral Milk Hotel, and the B-52s. It's home to indie standard-bearer record label Elephant 6 and—because it's a college town—a selection of shockingly affordable eats in addition to a growing high-end dining scene.

The Venues: Like New York's CBGB and San Francisco's Fillmore, the 40 Watt Club has served as the hub of Athens' music culture, from the heavyweights above to more recent acts like Drive-By Truckers and Of Montreal. Before they get to play there, local bands prove themselves at the more intimate Caledonia Lounge. Americana, jazz combos, and indie hip-hop mix things up after long dinners of braised beef cheeks with dandelion greens or pork loin with fennel confit and corn bread purée at Farm 255, a combo club and restaurant that grows most of its own ingredients at the nearby Full Moon Farms.

The Menus: Get a side of music history at soul joint Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods, whose slogan, "Automatic for the People," became the name of one of R.E.M.'s most famous albums. Some of Michael Stipe's cash from that record went into buying the building that houses vegetarian spot the Grit, which serves up hearty, fresh takes on college fare like burritos, gyros, and (tofu) chili cheese dogs. But if Stipe is the musical king of Athens, its culinary leader is Hugh Acheson, co-winner of this year's James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. His restaurants, 5 & 10 and the National, both bring European flavor to Southern specialties, with pimento cheese and smoked catfish getting equal billing alongside Lyonnaise salad and hangar steak.

Birmingham, Alabama

You may know it as the birthplace of Emmylou Harris, and these days it's the home of three American Idols. Factor in some of the best blues in the country, a scruffy little indie scene, and some serious jazz to boot (Sun Ra), and small-but-mighty Birmingham is emerging from its darker days in the civil rights era as one of the most exciting music cities in the country. And it's got the food chops to match.

The Venues: Musician Brian Teasley, who toured with bands like the Polyphonic Spree, now co-owns the Bottletree, a combination club and vegetarian café that's consistently ranked among indie bands' favorite stages in the U.S.A. Maybe that's due to its unpretentious food or the vintage Airstream trailers that serve as greenrooms for the acts. You'll catch the best bands here and at WorkPlay, situated in an old warehouse at 23rd Street South. Also, be sure to watch for the festivals produced at Sloss Furnaces, a preserved 20th-century iron-production complex that now hosts barbecue and music events.

The Menus: Birmingham goes far to preserve its down-home past (and present), which you can taste in the super-smoked ribs of Demetri's and the hot biscuits at hash house Bogue's. But the real must-eats here are in Frank Stitt's restaurant empire. The Alice Waters/Simone Beck–trained chef put both Birmingham and the South on the world food map with his famous Highlands Bar and Grill. Also check out the next wave of culinary talent at the farm-to-table Café Dupont or at seafood mecca Hot and Hot Fish Club.


Low rents and endless real estate are the perfect ingredients for a rich creative climate, and Motor City certainly has both in spades, not to mention one of the country's most important musical legacies. From John Lee Hooker to Aretha Franklin, Madonna to Marvin Gaye, the Stooges to the White Stripes, Insane Clown Posse to Eminem, some of the biggest names in the biggest genres of American music have called Detroit home.

The Venues: Music fans may remember the name Magic Stick from the brawl there a while back between then Detroiter Jack White and Jason Stollsteimer of the Von Bondies. Well, the billiards club above an old bowling alley is still as deliciously gritty as ever and a great place to catch up-and-coming rockers. If you're looking for something a little more low-key, see what's going on with SOUP, an organization that hosts monthly dinners to fund creative projects like last year's pop-up music/arts venue above a Mexican bakery. Into hip-hop? Check out acts like Black Milk and Danny Brown at St. Andrew's Hall.

The Menus: The music video for breakout indie pop stars Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s cover of "We Almost Lost Detroit" is a perfect example of everything that's right with Detroit's creative scene. In it, the duo cruises through the city, singing about its challenges but highlighting its solutions. Chef Andy Hollyday of Roast, the folks from McClure's pickles, bakers (Avalon International Breads) and pizza makers (Supino) all make appearances before the band ends up at then shuttered Green Dot Stables, now reopened as a quirky little gastropub. It's a good go-to list for a first-time visitor.

Lafayette, Louisiana

New Orleans always gets top billing in the Pelican State, but Lafayette is Louisiana's true food and music lovers' secret. Known for Cajun-zydeco music, the city has recently been earning accolades for its Acadian classics, smoked meats, and vintage-cool vibe.

The Venues and the Menus: In this capital of Acadiana, it's rare to find food without music (and vice versa). You can wake up Sunday morning to Cajun music and a breakfast of biscuits topped with boudin patties, poached eggs, and crawfish étouffée while a 14-foot alligator looks on at Prejeans (don't worry, the gator's stuffed). Don't miss the crawfish boils at Randol's, another dance hall where you can dance to live zydeco nightly. And there's a whole new generation carrying on the Cajun torch, from local-boy-made-good Donald Link's outpost of his famous New Orleans restaurant Cochon to the sophisticated fare at the French Press, which nods toward the region's French past. Bands like the Doc Marshalls, Feufollet, and the Malfecteurs can be found reinterpreting their French musical heritage at venues like the Blue Moon Saloon along with indie rock acts like the Givers.


Musicians you've heard of from Milwaukee? Arrested Development, the Violent Femmes, the Promise Ring, the Die Kreuzen, and Liberace (didn't see that one coming, did you?). To the uninitiated, Brew City's music reputation might seem a little, well, scattered. And the food scene? Aside from cheese and beer, similarly unheralded. But this unassuming town (and its biker edge) is prepared to prove you wrong, one microbrew-drenched show at a time.

The Venues: If you want to know where Milwaukee's priorities lie, consider the fact that its beer magnates choose to spend their money rehabbing the city's music venues. As a result, you can see big-name acts in the restored Pabst Theater, an 1895 architectural gem, at the historic Riverside Theater, or at Turner Hall, once a showcase for German immigrant painters, gymnastics competitions, and dances in the early 1900s. On the other end of the spectrum is the very much not restored Cactus Club, a beloved Bay View institution and proving ground for locals like bluesy rockers the Ragadors and soul combo Kings Go Forth. Try to visit during the 11-day Summerfest, one of the world's biggest music festivals, rocking lakefront in Henry Maier Festival Park.

The Menus: Milwaukee has one of the highest per-capita bar stats in the country, so it should come as no surprise that some of the most exciting developments for food lovers here come in liquid form. Distil uses local ingredients like Sprecher ginger ale and Great Lakes Distillery liquors in its craft cocktails. At the upscale Hinterland Gastropub, Beard Award nominee Dan Van Rite challenges your notion of beer food with globe-trotting comfort dishes like Tunisian-spice pork belly with a smoky eggplant purée and tabouli. But if you want to indulge in some stereotypes, head to the Cheese Bar, where you can sample pairings of 175 Wisconsin-made cheeses with local beers. Cheese heads, indeed.

Minneapolis-St. Paul

The music scene is as vibrant as ever in the cities that brought us Bob Dylan, Prince, and the Replacements. But the Twin Cities are not yet widely known for eateries as varied and inspired as the current indie darling, Portland, Oregon. This may seem shocking, considering the consistently high number of James Beard Award nominees for restaurants and chefs in the area (seven in the last three years), but if that good old Midwest humility is keeping the locals from spreading the word, at least that should make it easier to get a table when you come to town.

The Venues: St. Paul's new Amsterdam Bar and Hall is like a microcosm of the Twin Cities' creative landscape. Opened in the fall of 2011 by the owners of the beloved 331 Club—still home to great free live shows nightly—this newcomer shares a block with Eclipse Records and a screen-printing shop that makes band posters. Expect to see great local neo-folk and indie rock bands like Poliça, Peter Wolf Crier, Communist Daughter, and the Small Cities. And you can even eat well under the same roof, thanks to an in-house eatery that nods to the area's northern European heritage with items like frites and broodjes, small Dutch slider-style sandwiches with fillings such as curried seafood salad or tomato and Edam.

The Menus: Alma may be the best table in town (and a true value, at $48 for its three-course tasting menu), but where James Beard Award–winning chef Alex Roberts really ropes 'em in is at his low-key Brasa, a hearty homage to Caribbean and South American home-cooking. The newest rock stars on the culinary firmament, though, are Eric and Andrew Dayton. Their restaurant, the Bachelor Farmer, set in an old wool warehouse in the North Loop, serves inventive seasonal fare inspired by the cities' Nordic heritage, brightened with herbs from the rooftop garden.


Music City U.S.A. has always been known for, well, music. But with a roaring food-truck scene, an emerging cocktail culture, and new restaurants with serious culinary pedigrees, thanks to an influx of Alinea and French Laundry alums, Nashville is finally getting some culinary cred.

The Venues: Country, obviously. But with big-name rock acts from the Black Keys to Kings of Leon choosing to take up residence here, you'll find some seriously diverse tunes. Check out Jack White's Third Man Records, see world-class country musicians for free at legendary honky-tonk Robert's Western World, and munch on shepherd's pie while jamming at the Family Wash, housed in an old laundromat.

The Menus: Kick it old school with a meat-and-three (a protein plus three sides) at Arnold's and crispy-fried, cayenne-drenched hot chicken at Prince's. Then see local favorites reinterpreted in whimsical, bold, and downright delicious ways at the Catbird Seat. The two chefs there have résumés that read like a Michelin guide to world cuisine (stints at the French Laundry, the Fat Duck, and Alinea, to name a few), but you'd never know it from the pretension-free Southern charm they dish out while plating sophisticated prix fixe tasting menus from their open kitchen.

Portland, Maine

Its twin out in Oregon may get all of the ink when it comes to indie rock and locavore cuisine, but this coastal Maine town is happy to fly under the radar with its killer seafood, artisanal cheese, and rootsy Americana.

The Venues: Soulful singer-songwriter brought Portland some musical cachet—thank you, Ray LaMontagne and Patty Griffin. You can catch up-and-coming crooners at the charming One Longfellow Square. Or tap into the raw energy of the punk scene at 131 Washington, which doubles as an artists' studio and all-ages music venue in a former screen-printer's warehouse.

The Menus: Portland is so food-crazy that it has an entire bookstore dedicated to food: Rabelais. Any dining tour of Portland should start with the cuisine of Beard Award–winner Sam Hayward. You'll likely see fishermen and farmers delivering their products to the back door of his Old Port restaurant, Fore Street, which focuses on clean and simple preparations on a wood-fired stove and grill. Visitors on a budget can afford to get a taste of Portland's top chefs thanks to casual outposts like Duckfat, a superlative sandwich shop (try the duck confit panini) from Rob Evans, well known for his higher-end Hugo's. And be sure to sample the city's legendary cheeses such as the homemade Camembert at Silvery Moon Creamery and the Kennebunkport Dry Jack at the Cheese Iron.


What do you get when you cross arty institutions such as Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design with culinary arts training ground Johnson & Wales? A food and music crowd that's young, eager, and more than a little quirky.

The Venues: The rowdy art rock of Les Savy Fav and jazz-tinged indie-folk of the Low Anthem made music critics take a second look at Providence in the 2000s. And the vibe is equally eccentric today with hometown heroes like Lightning Bolt, with its raw Philip Glass–inspired compositions, and the Body's metal-noise-rock-meets-church-choir jams. And the city's proximity to the famed Newport Folk Festival means rootsy acts like Brown Bird get serious national attention. Check them out at venues like the Spot and Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel.

The Menus: Still in his 20s, Johnson & Wales grad Benjamin Sukle has already earned a James Beard rising star nomination for his locavore offerings at the Dorrance: Think crispy Rhode Island pork with local egg, Brussels sprouts, and pickled green tomato as an evening small plate to pair with artful cocktails. Thirtysomething Matt Jennings has received similar honors (in the form of a Beard nomination for Best Chef: Northeast) for his hearty bistro-style fare at La Laiterie. Try the seared Vermont chicken livers with beer-battered onion rings and the house-cured bacon.

Washington, D.C.

Some of the biggest names in '90s punk came from D.C., and that edgy aesthetic is alive and well among both food and music types here today. Add to that the serious influx of creative capital after the Obama election, and you've got some deliciously eclectic grub and tunes to choose from.

The Venues: U Street was coined "Black Broadway" in its heyday by singer and actress Pearl Bailey, and that musical heritage is alive and well at Bohemian Caverns, where native son Duke Ellington as well as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald once played, and at the newly reopened Howard Theatre, fresh from a $29 million renovation that included a soul-inflected revamp of the dinner menu by Marcus Samuelsson. Walking through the streets, you can catch performers banging out go-go music, the funky percussive dance-hall genre made famous by Chuck Brown here in the '60s and '70s (and revived Top 40–style with hip-hop flair by Wale. And for the indie rock end of things, check out 9:30 Club—a favorite of national touring bands—and the Black Cat, co-owned by Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. Watch for local acts like pretty-boy country rockers U.S. Royalty, the synth-pop Deleted Scenes, and arty noise-rockers Bluebrain.

The Menus: The sheer variety of D.C. dining could keep any food tourist engaged for weeks on end, hitting the José Andrés hot spots, up-and-comer Johnny Monis' Komi, the eateries of Little Ethiopia, and Ben's Chili Bowl, home of the half-smoke (the hot dog's larger, spicier cousin). But if music's your thing, don't miss the Belgian soul food at Marvin (a tribute to native son Marvin Gaye), the late-night Jamaican snacks at dance hall Patty Boom Boom, and the small-bite/cocktail tasting menu at speakeasy Columbia Room, which plans to open a performance space next door.

Colleen Clark is a food-nut travel writer whose work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Esquire, Food & Wine, USA Today, and Epicurious.