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Best Midwest Food Towns

The best road trips hinge on great food. We've picked five of the best towns to eat in across the Midwest.

#4 Bloomington: Come just to eat

Bloomington, Indiana, hides at the end of the kind of highway where you might get stuck behind a tractor. Though not our smallest winner (that's Traverse City), Bloomington's population (184,000) belies a homey feel; you can park for free and walk to just about every good restaurant.

And there are plenty of them. Indiana University students congregate at laid-back spots such as wrap shop Laughing Planet (laughingplanetcafe.com). Another college town staple, ethnic food, gets a funky twist with Fourth Street's Restaurant Row, a string of houses-turned-restaurants.

More surprising, however, is the depth of Bloomington's adult dining scene, which relies heavily on local products. At eateries such as Farmbloomington, Restaurant Tallent and Scholars Inn (see next slide), you'll find an array of intriguing dishes from saffron walleye to a pomegranate-kissed filet mignon.

People here say that even after their kids graduate, parents keep coming back to eat out. After a bowl of spicy black bean soup at Uptown Cafe (the-uptown.com), we sort of understand the impulse.

Pictured: Little Tibet (anyetsangs.com) is one of three Tibetan restaurants in Bloomington.

Bloomington/Monroe County Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

#1 Madison: full of great taste

Nichole Fromm and JonMichael Rasmus enjoy eating their way through all 600 or so restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin. Their endeavor, addictively documented at madisonatoz.com, perfectly captures our top food town: quirky, totally democratic and full of great taste, not pretension. 

The couple attribute the vibrant food culture to the University of Wisconsin and the city's working-class roots. Being a state capital amid rich farmland helps, too. 

No matter your taste, budget or ethics, Madison (population: 555,000) serves a meal to match. For eco-eaters, the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company (greatdanepub.com) offers an all-local Sustain-a-Burger. Students scarf pancakes at Mickie's Dairy Bar, while a trendier crowd nibbles tapas at The Icon (theiconmadison.com).

On State Street, enticing smells waft from ethnic restaurants such as Afghani favorite Kabul (kabulmadison.com). And for those who want to tap Wisconsin's own heritage, Bavaria Sausage (bavariasausage.com) makes a mean weisswurst, and The Old Fashioned supper club (theoldfashioned.com) cheekily lists Bud and Bud Light as "import" beers.

The Dane County Farmers Market (pictured) appeals to most everyone. Around the capitol, some 170 vendors sell amber honey, ripe tomatoes and tiny potatoes that still smell like damp soil (dcfm.org).

Mickie's Dairy Bar (608/256-9476)

Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

Four fabulous plates in Madison

We would happily feast on a loaf of farmers market fave Stella's Hot and Spicy Cheese Bread, but here are four "real" essential Madison meals.

Brunch @ Sardine A golden-crispy Belgian waffle with crème fraîche and berries. sardinemadison.com
Dinner @ L'Etoile Pan-roasted pork chop with creamed corn, bacon and braised organic collard greens--all local. letoile-restaurant.com
Sweets @ Chocolate Shoppe A scoop of dark, sinfully rich Zanzibar ice cream, featuring a blend of three African cocoas. chocolateshoppeicecream.com
Souvenir @ Fromagination A block of cave-aged, five-year cheddar from Hook's Cheese Company in Mineral Point, and, to serve it, a bag of the shop's Potter's crackers. fromagination.com

Pictured: Pork at L'Etoile

 

#2 Traverse City: an established food reputation

If Disney World had a Foodland, it might look a little like Traverse City, Michigan (population: 142,000). Too-cute-to-be-true storefronts line downtown's Front Street. Kids lick American Spoon Foods gelato (spoon.com), and tourists graze on cherry-flavor everything at Cherry Republic (cherryrepublic.com).

The small farmers market is a tableau of gorgeous produce. Farm-fresh food headlines most menus. Lake Michigan glitters, orchards blanket the hills, and everyone talks--no, gushes--about the food.

Several factors explain Traverse City's culinary scene. The lake climate makes for bountiful harvests. Vineyards yield respected wines. The Great Lakes Culinary Institute attracts young, ambitious cooks; some stay to open restaurants.

In fact, of our top towns, Traverse City has the most established food reputation. So why the silver medal? Traverse City is less affordable than Madison. And, aside from secrets such as Middle-Eastern cafe Silver Swan Homemade Foods (silverswantc.com), it's relatively lacking in ethnic options or hole-in-the-wall favorites. Sins to be sure, but easily forgiven over a sack of fresh-picked cherries.

Pictured: Overlooking vineyards and the lake at Traverse City

Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

Five fabulous plates in Traverse City

Breakfast @ Patisserie Amie Ratatouille omelet with Gruyère cheese, paired with tender potato croquettes. (231) 922-9645
Lunch @ Trattoria Stella Snappy green bean salad with a light lemon-garlic dressing and gobs of soft Gorgonzola. stellatc.com
Dinner @ The Cooks' House Rabbit braised in Scotch ale and cocoa, served with thin-sliced zucchini "noodles." thecookshouse.net
Sweets @ Eurostop Luscious (yet bargain-price) tiramisu, in a to-go container perfect for eating on the beach. eurostopcafe.com
Souvenir @ Chateau Chantal A bottle of Late Harvest Riesling, plus recipes for the nine gourmet treats served on the winery's two-hour tapas tour.chateauchantal.com

Pictured: Trattoria Stella's tavola del giorno sampler

 

#3 Ann Arbor: Food scene grows up

Rarely has a city's culinary reputation been so intertwined with one restaurant as is Ann Arbor's with Zingerman's Deli (zingermansdeli.com). What began in 1982 as Michigan's best place to get a Reuben has grown into a mini-empire of deliciousness, with a bakery (Jewish rye), creamery (homemade cream cheese), coffee roaster (single-origin Brazilian peaberry), mail-order catalog (sour-cream coffee cake) and sit-down restaurant (smoked chicken mac 'n' cheese). Make no mistake. We love Zingerman's.

But we also love how Zingerman's has invigorated the larger food scene in Ann Arbor (population: 350,000). Bob Sparrow, owner of Sparrow Meat Markets and Produce (kerrytown.com/sparrowmeats/), says that eliminating chemicals and using fewer, fresher ingredients means you can actually taste the cherries and duck meat in his gourmet sausage.

For years, University of Michigan students and faculty have sipped beers and lattes at downtown's sidewalk cafes. The city retains that college-town vibe, but the dining scene has grown up. You'll find fried local squash blossoms at Vinology (vinowinebars.net/vinology), a ginger-glazed salmon burger at Logan (logan-restaurant.com) and tender gnocchi at Gratzi (gratzirestaurant).

Pictured: Dining at Gratzi

Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

Five fabulous plates in Ann Arbor

Brunch @ Cafe Zola At Ann Arbor's coolest brunch spot, a perfectly fluffy omelet with asparagus and goat cheese. cafezola.com
Lunch@The Jolly Pumpkin Haute pub grub, including oven-dried-tomato pizza and truffle-oil fries. jollypumpkin.com
Dinner @ Zingerman's Roadhouse Melt-in-your-mouth North Carolina pulled pork, seasoned by 14 hours over the coals. zingermansroadhouse.com
Snack@Mediterrano Taramousalata, a garlicky potato-caviar spread with the texture of whipped butter. mediterrano.com
Sweets @ Cake Nouveau Citrusy strawberry-lemonade cupcakes, with fruit baked inside, one of dozens of rotating flavors. cakenouveau.com

Pictured: Zingerman's brownies

 

#4 Bloomington: Come just to eat

Bloomington, Indiana, hides at the end of the kind of highway where you might get stuck behind a tractor. Though not our smallest winner (that's Traverse City), Bloomington's population (184,000) belies a homey feel; you can park for free and walk to just about every good restaurant.

And there are plenty of them. Indiana University students congregate at laid-back spots such as wrap shop Laughing Planet (laughingplanetcafe.com). Another college town staple, ethnic food, gets a funky twist with Fourth Street's Restaurant Row, a string of houses-turned-restaurants.

More surprising, however, is the depth of Bloomington's adult dining scene, which relies heavily on local products. At eateries such as Farmbloomington, Restaurant Tallent and Scholars Inn (see next slide), you'll find an array of intriguing dishes from saffron walleye to a pomegranate-kissed filet mignon.

People here say that even after their kids graduate, parents keep coming back to eat out. After a bowl of spicy black bean soup at Uptown Cafe (the-uptown.com), we sort of understand the impulse.

Pictured: Little Tibet (anyetsangs.com) is one of three Tibetan restaurants in Bloomington.

Bloomington/Monroe County Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

Fabulous plates in Bloomington

Breakfast @ Farmbloomington Signature buttermilk biscuits, with eggs, bacon, gravy--or just a smear of butter. farm-bloomington.com
Brunch@Scholars Inn Eggs Charleston, made with sage sausage, shiitake mushrooms, onions, a toasted English muffin and hollandaise. scholarsinn.com
Dinner@Restaurant Tallent Fiedler Farms pork belly with butternut squash grits, Brussels sprouts, bacon and swet tea gastrique. restauranttallent.com
Sweets @ Blu Boy Chocolate Among lovely truffles, a deceptively humble espresso-chocolate mudslide cookie. bluboychocolates.com

Pictured: Berry shortcake at Farmbloomington

 

#5 Des Moines: culinary ambition

Des Moines has undergone a dining transformation, the kind that happens one kitchen at a time, until residents look up and say, "Wow! Things have changed." We knew our list would include one rising star. Turns out, it's our hometown.

The biggest name: George Formaro. His best-known restaurant, Centro (centrodesmoines.com), packs crowds for contemporary Italian, and his newest, Django (djangodesmoines.com), has Des Moines' third oyster bar. Their classy interiors and seamless service signal a swell of culinary ambition in Iowa's unassuming capital (population: 547,000).

But Formaro's genius really lies in Gateway Market (gatewaymarket.com), the city's first successful gourmet grocery, whose cheese counter and stylish cafe finally give foodies a place to call their own. Elsewhere, Bistro Montage (bistromontage.com) delivers classic French cuisine. In downtown's ever-hipper East Village, Miyabi Yamamoto rolls the city's best sushi at Miyabi 9 (miyabi9.com). And, as befits a Midwest food town, he's not too cool to wave as you leave.

Pictured: Rainbow rolls at Miyabi 9

Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

Five fabulous plates in Des Moines

Breakfast @ La Mie A buttery croissant (or wait, maybe a cherry Danish...or perhaps a pecan roll....) and a strong cup of house coffee. lamiebakery.com
Snack @ Downtown Farmers Market An El Salvadoran pupusa (a hearty, hand-formed tortilla stuffed with gooey melted cheese, pork or beans), topped with a bright, limey cabbage salad. desmoinesfarmersmarket.com
Lunch @ Uncle Wendell's BBQ Brisket sandwich on perfectly squishy house-made white bread, with brown sugar baked beans and hot pepper corn bread. unclewendells.com
Dinner @ 801 Chophouse Special-occasion steaks with diet-busting sides to match, such as creamed spinach or potatoes blended with Iowa's own Maytag blue cheese. 801chophouse.com
Sweets @ Django Apple dumplings, with warm fruit seductively peeking out of a flaky pastry shell. djangodesmoines.com

Pictured: Pear Danish at La Mie

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2009. The web version was updated in 2014. Prices and menus frequently change; please check specifics before making travel plans.)

 

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