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What Are the Beard Awards’ Favorite Cities for Food?

Over the past decade, New York City has dominated the Oscars of food; Chicago, hosting them for the first time, is just ahead of San Francisco for its claim to be America’s second city of cuisine.

Tanya Baker, executive chef at The Boarding House, is one of Chicago’s nominees for a Beard Award.   Photo: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

Well, maybe a more interesting question is: what are the Beard Awards’ favorite food cities besides New York? The biggest city in America hosted the awards every year until this year. New York City has its own regional Beard Awards category, presumably so it doesn’t swamp Boston and Philadelphia. And the awards have given more recognition to New York than anywhere else.

This year they decided to recognize Chicago’s prominence in the food world by celebrating the awards’ 25th anniversary away from New York for the first time. But by the Beard Awards’ own standards, is it the best food city in the country?

I decided to find out, by gathering Beard Awards results in some of the highest-profile categories for the past decade (not including 2015, since the awards haven’t been given out).

My rules: Points were awarded for Outstanding Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Best New Restaurant, Rising Star Chef, and Best Chef (the last of which is a regional award) as follows: five points for a national winner; three points for a regional winner; two points for a national nominee; and one point for a regional nominee, narrowed down to ten top American food cities. (I excluded restaurateurs because nominees often have restaurants in multiple cities.)

And Chicago comes in second to New York, but just barely.

Chicago has 116 Total Beard Points to San Francisco’s 115. If you counted Napa Valley—with the legendary French Laundry in not-too-far-away Yountville and other regional nominees—in a bigger Bay Area category, it would lead.

Likewise, San Francisco would lead if you excluded Paul Virant’s Vie in Western Springs, but… c’mon, it’s still in Cook County. There are advantages to being sprawling and having a robust regional light rail system.

If there’s a surprise, it’s that Washington beats New Orleans, and New Orleans beats Los Angeles. But it also makes some sense. Washington is the nation’s capital (and a world capital of money and power), and New Orleans bred what’s arguably the nation’s most prominent regional American cuisine.

And Los Angeles? Well, its ranking kind of suits the general national impression of Los Angeles restaurants. It gets plenty of points for national nominations, but it didn’t win a national award in the chef and restaurant categories from 2005-2013; finally, Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza won Outstanding Chef last year. No Los Angeles chef has ever won a Rising Star award. It has surprisingly few regional nominations—but it’s also in the same region as San Francisco and the Napa Valley.

And this is another year with San Francisco and Chicago battling it out in New York’s shadow. In the categories I counted—sorry, mixologists, sommeliers, and pastry chefs—New York has six nominations to go with its own regional category. Chicago has two national nominations—Parachute, one of Chicago’s picks, for Best New Restaurant, and Tanya Baker of Boarding House for Best New Chef. San Francisco has only one national nomination. As expected, both cities dominate their regional Best Chef categories, with three nominees each.

So expect Chicago to widen its lead tonight, as the third-largest city in the nation continues to establish itself as the country’s second culinary city, while the entertainment capital of the world slowly plays catch-up.

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