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Ultimate food cities

There are few cities in the world that don’t claim to be a culinary hotspot, but some stand head and shoulders above the rest with a rich heritage of gastronomy coupled with restaurants old and new that are the talk of the town – we visit six of the best

Words by Ben McCormack

Cape Town

Names such as Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek have made the south-western tip of the African continent famous the world over for the quality of its vineyards. But now the cuisine of Cape Town is as talked about as the wines harvested on the city’s doorstep. Get a taste of the melting pot of Indian, Afrikaner, Cape Malay and Indigenous organic food from small-scale local farms at the Oranjezicht City Farm Market on Wednesdays and weekends. Or take a one-day tour to explore the city’s food hotspots and heritage, including the kitchen garden planted by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 to supply its ships.

The city’s contemporary cuisine, however, is what’s making waves around the world these days. Fyn won The Best Restaurant in Africa award at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2022 and the Sustainable Restaurant Award the following year: not bad for a place that only opened in 2018. South African chef and restaurateur Peter Tempelhoff spent time in New York, London and Japan before launching Fyn on the fifth floor of a 19th-century silk factory. The name – pronounced ‘fain’ – comes from the Fynbos eco region of the Western and Eastern Cape, known for its biodiversity, but though the ingredients are indigenous to Africa, the technique is Japanese: witness sliced abalone cooked inside a kelp stem with garlic and wine before being cut open at the table. Come early: the views of the sun setting behind Table Mountain through triple-height windows deliver a quintessential Cape Town experience.

There are more local and foraged ingredients on the menu at Salsify at the Roundhouse prepared with fine-dining finesse and served in an 18th-century hunting lodge surrounded by forest and with views to the Atlantic. To get even closer to the water, head to Pier overlooking Cape Town’s working harbour, with a seafood-focused menu to match the setting. And as visiting wine country is essential, take time out from tasting with Ivor Jones’s four-course set menu at Chef’s Warehouse at Beau Constantia - enjoyed high above the vineyards.

Photos by Jan Ras Photography; Claire Gunn; Andrea van der Spuy

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Eating out in Lisbon might conjure up sun-soaked images of salt cod and custard tarts but there’s far more to the Portuguese capital’s food scene than these (admittedly delicious) clichés. Get your food bearings at the main food market, Mercado da Ribeira, which opened in 1892 and, since 2014, has also been home to the food hall of the city’s Time Out Market – a collision of old and new that embodies the current Portuguese culinary renaissance. Where once colonialists brought back the flavours of Goa, Malacca and Mozambique to Lisbon, now it’s young chefs returning home after exploring the most prestigious kitchens abroad. Take Henrique Sá Pessoa, who worked at Singapore’s Tippling Club before opening Alma in a 17th-century former warehouse in the central Chiado district, where Asian influences are interpreted through a Portuguese viewpoint.

Nowhere better exemplifies the dialogue with Portugal’s culinary past than the two-Michelin starred Belcanto where chef José Avillez serves classic dishes such as suckling pig and slow-cooked pot au feu in cutting-edge guise. The wood-panelled dining room in bohemian Bairro Alto, lit by windows placed beneath vaulted ceilings, is a suitably historic setting to discover it all – washed down, if you like, with José Avillez’s own-label wines.

But there’s distinctly Portuguese contemporary cooking too. At Ceia ceia. just 14 guests gather around a communal table for an eight-course tasting menu of ingredients grown on the restaurant’s regenerative farm.

Reneé Kemps

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Photos by Bruno Calado; Grupo José Avillez; Paul Raeside; Reneé Kemps; Chris Tonnesen; Sarah Coghill; Ditte Isager

Twenty-five years ago, Danish cuisine meant open sandwiches and Danish bacon. All that changed in 2004 when a group of young chefs founded the New Nordic Cuisine movement to champion ‘purity, simplicity and freshness’. One of them, René Redzepi, also happened to own a restaurant called Noma which went on to win three Michelin stars and be voted Best Restaurant in the World five times between 2010 and 2021. René created shockwaves in global gastronomy at the beginning of 2023 when he announced that Noma would be closing two years later, with the result that every table is booked until the final service at the end of this year. Still, the New Nordic values of Noma are to be felt (and tasted) everywhere in the Danish capital, from the ‘holistic cuisine’ of Alchemist to Høst’s seasonal Nordic ingredients and minimalist design aesthetic.

Most obviously, there’s Geranium which channels New Nordic (and Scandinavian in general) egalitarianism. In the unlikely setting of the eighth floor of Denmark’s National Football Stadium, chefs quietly go about their work in a completely open kitchen that feels like an extension of the dining room. Since 2022, Rasmus Kofoed, Geranium’s head chef and co-owner, has made the restaurant a meat-free zone, serving only local seafood and organically and biodynamically farmed Scandinavian veg. Typical dishes include smoked lumpfish roe with milk, kale and apple – foie gras and caviar this most assuredly is not, although the only thing that is not approachable is the price: the no-choice tasting menu costs around £460.

Still, in the highly likely event you’re unable to score a table at Noma (or Geranium without planning way ahead), there’s more than enough to eat elsewhere in Copenhagen, and the compact city centre means it’s never too far to the next food truck or craft-beer bar, meatball or smørrebrød. Not forgetting of course, the coffee and cakes that put the hug in hygge: try Hart Bageri on the islet of Holmen for cardamom croissants while eyeing up the brightly coloured buildings of Nyhavn over the water. Or stay on this side of the harbour: the organic beef and veggie burgers at Popl come courtesy of Noma alumni. And the fact that another Noma veteran is behind the tacos at Hija de Sanchez in the airy, glass-walled market of Torvehallerne provides reassurance that although Noma is closing, its influence will be felt in Copenhagen for years to come.

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Photos by Anthony Hart; Peter Bennetts; osh Robenstone; Annika Kafcaloudis; Unsplash; Pat Whelen; Adam Dillon

Melbourne’s restaurant scene is a result of its exhilarating mix of cultures, but whether eating Greek or Vietnamese, you’ll always get a taste of Victoria state. Start at the vast, historic Queen Victoria Market or, for a more intimate experience, take the tram to Prahran Market in South Yarra. Names to look out for include grass-fed beef from G McBean butchers and a cheese toastie from Maker & Monger.

Australia’s laidback brunch culture, while a successful cultural export, is not to be ignored on home turf. Try the breakfast feast made with local produce at Brick Lane Café in the CBD, washed down with a magic (double ristretto with steamed milk). The best chefs, however, have defined an identifiable Australian cuisine for the domestic market. Chef Clinton McIver’s Amaru is a 34-seat open kitchen where a pair of tasting menus are peppered with the likes of mud crab, kangaroo tail and Western Australian marron (a species of crayfish): complex fine dining created from Down Under ingredients. It’s this refusal to be bound by tradition that makes eating out in Melbourne so exciting. Rinaldo Di Stasio’s Città blurs the boundaries between art exhibition, architecture installation and an exploration of Italian and Australian identity: a spin on fritto misto involving squid and whitebait with chips and a textbook risotto Milanese as good as any found in Milan.

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Mexico City

Photos by Antony Hart; Peter Bennetts; Josh Robenstone; Annika Kafcaloudis; Unsplash; Pat Whelen; Adam Dillon
Clockwise from top left: Pujol, famed for aged molé; Enrique Olvera; the restaurant lobby; Jorge Valljeo; from garden to plate; historic CDMX

In 2010, Unesco declared traditional Mexican cuisine part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage: a wake-up call for anyone labouring under the misconception that Mexican food is all tacos and tequila, nachos and guacamole. Regional food is key, from the green peppers of Puebla to the pit-oven pibil roasts of Yucatán, and it all finds its way to the country’s hectically experimental capital, known in local shorthand as CDMX.

A morning visit to San Juan or La Merced markets offers a crash course in Mexican ingredients, but a breakfast guava empanada almost anywhere in the city will create just as powerful an impression of the quality of Mexican produce. And even if a plate of escamoles – fried ant larvae – mixed with crunchy cactus leaves may not be to all tastes, there’s always
a hot chocolate with churros to offer more familiar comfort.

Unesco aside, opinions vary about where Mexico City’s restaurant revival dates from. Some say it’s Contramar contramar. that introduced meat-eating locals to seafood such as the now legendary tuna tostadas. But the consensus is that Enrique Olvera’s Pujol – famous for its definitive version of molé aged for 3,000 days – focused the spotlight on CDMX. Pujol remains essential eating for anyone keen to taste what happens when a food history stretching back thousands of years is given the molecular gastronomy treatment.

For the freshest take on Mexican cuisine, head to Quintonil where ingredients have likely only travelled the 30m from the kitchen garden, and what chef Jorge Vallejo can’t grow himself he sources from organic orchards and producers countrywide. Dishes on the 11-course menu might include king crab in green sunflower seed pipián sauce with Thai lime and basil and blue corn toast, or striped bass barbecued in grasshopper marinade with cauliflower cream and plankton. A seat at the counter gives a ringside view of chefs plating up insect-based tacos or cornbread with eggnog while you sip a glass from the Mexican wine list – further evidence this is a cuisine looking to the future.

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San Sebastián

Photos by Mugaritz; Jose Luis Lopez de Zubiria; Sara Santos; Magdalena Staurino

The original gastronomic hotspot of the 21st century, seaside San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) has the perfect ingredients for a gourmet getaway: a high/low restaurant scene, two-hour flight times from the UK and overnight ferries if you want to load up your car with Basque Country wines. Of course, it helps that the town itself is a bobby dazzler, with bayfront, belle époque boulevards lining three beaches, where a morning’s surfing can be followed by a restorative glass of vermouth on the rocks before lunch, when locals cool down during the hottest part of the day with la hora del vermut or vermouth hour.

San Sebastián has the second-most Michelin-starred restaurants per sq km of anywhere in the world (only Kyoto beats it). Arguably top of the tree is two-star Mugaritz perched on a hilltop 10km out of town. The restaurant is open only from the end of April to the end of October; the rest of the year, boundary-pushing chef Andoni Luis Aduriz is collaborating with artists, writers and designers on avant-garde creations that might find their way on to a 30-course menu exploring texture, taste, temperature and sound, such as an edible, saké-infused handkerchief. Once experienced, it is impossible to think about what constitutes a restaurant meal in quite the same way again. The other big local name is Arzak – two names, in fact: father-daughter chef duo Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, whose inter-generational creativity (the restaurant has been in the family since 1897) has been the wellspring for the New Basque Cuisine movement, always based on the freshest local ingredients.

But the charm of San Sebastián lies just as much in the casual bars that line the alleys of the Old Town (Parte Vieja) as the tableclothed formality of its Michelin joints; it also helps that after a tasting-menu lunch, a light supper will likely be in order. Locals have elevated the bar crawl into an art form, picking at a couple of pintxos before hopping on to somewhere else for another bite-size morsel and a glass of the local sparkling Txakoli wine.

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