Retirement doesn't have to mean cutting back on simple pleasures like eating out. Sure, early-bird specials and senior discounts are an easy way to stretch your budget. But you don't have to give up nights out on the town and glasses of fine wine if you're willing to venture beyond well-known foodie paradises like New York City and Los Angeles. Look beyond these expensive cities, and you'll find plenty of culinary havens that will tickle your palate without cracking your nest egg.
The typical American age 55 and older dines in a restaurant 51 times a year—or about once a week—according to a recent survey by the Cornell University Center for Hospitality Research. Most popular are casual dining and fast-food chains, but baby boomers and seniors indulge in fine dining restaurants about three times a year. Those who enjoy treating themselves might want to take the local food scene into consideration when scouting out a retirement locale.
To find cities that will make your mouth water, U.S. News asked a handful of chefs and culinary experts for recommendations. (You can use our Best Places to Retire search tool to create a personalized list of retirement spots based on personal preferences such as climate, recreational opportunities, and access to healthcare.) One common theme: Many of the top-rated restaurants listed below make use of local goods and produce. Miles Mitchell, dean of culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami, is a proponent of the locavore movement: "Order something that is local and fresh, rather than something from the other side of the country and world," he advises.
Walla Walla, Wash., once famous for its sweet onions and wheat, is now touted for its cabernets, merlots, and syrahs. Many of the city's more intimate restaurants and tasting rooms make use of the locally grown fruits and vegetables. Whitehouse-Crawford is a good example. "They have so much great local produce on the menu," says chef Stephanie Izard, who won Bravo's Top Chef cooking competition in the show's fourth season and plans to open a new restaurant in Chicago this fall, The Drunken Goat. "I had a salad where they'd gone out into the forest and made the salad out of the nice mixture of greens and herbs that they picked there."
Seaside cities like Jacksonville, Fla., Miami, and San Francisco are often the best places to get seafood. "I had a pan-seared snapper, and the thing must have been swimming in the morning because it was that fresh. Seafood has to be caught the same day," says John Kinsella, president of the American Culinary Federation about Jacksonville. "They used mango salsa and sea grapes—little tiny grapes that grow on the seacoast there." Coastal cities such as these offer a mix of such high-end treasures, traditional American cooking, and beach food. "I like to call it shack food," says chef Spike Mendelsohn, another former Top Chef contestant who now cohosts Kelsey & Spike Cook on the Food Network's online channel Food2, about food in Florida. "You spend a day at the beach and have a beer and some boneless chicken wings. For people on a budget, that's awesome, and the food is plentiful enough that you can take it home and have more the next day."
Staying within a food budget is an increasing concern for retired foodies. "People are moving away from the four stars and moving back to a more casual, sit-down, good meal," says Kinsella, who recommends Cincinnati as a great place to eat well on a fixed income. "You can go out and have dinner in Cincinnati and have two glasses of wine and entrées for under $40 dollars," he says. Some restaurants are even shaving dollars off their entrée prices to accommodate cash-strapped customers. "Take advantage of restaurants that have lowered their prices," advises Mendelsohn, who now owns the Good Stuff Eatery, a "comfort food" restaurant in Washington. "I'm serving burgers, fries, and milkshakes, and people are lined up around the door. People can get a good meal in D.C. for $12 for everything."
[See 10 Bargain Retirement Spots.]
In cities where top culinary schools are located, you'll often find restaurants with innovative young chefs. Izard, a graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, says many of her former classmates have opened restaurants in Scottsdale, Ariz., and offer meals priced far below similar dishes in New York. "You can get dinner for two, including a glass of wine, for $60 at an upscale place," she says. "If you just want to grab a couple of tasty tacos with lots of spicy peppers and cilantro and a few beers, you can probably do that for $25." To find more bargains, visit pricey restaurants at lunch, when you'll find less expensive dishes.
Food festivals allow you to sample a variety of exotic delights for a set price. Each March, McMinnville, Ore., showcases its gourmet foods and 90 nearby wineries at the McMinnville Wine and Food Classic. It also hosts the International Pinot Noir Celebration in July and pays homage to its turkey-producing roots with the annual Turkey-Rama barbecue, which costs just $8 for seniors. In Houston, more than 100 wineries and chefs offer up tantalizing samples at the Grand Wine and Food Affair. "The food was consistently executed with good consumer pricing and good flavor, and you're made to feel hospitable," says Victor Gielisse, associate vice president of Culinary Institute of America Consulting and coauthor of In Good Taste: A Contemporary Approach to Cooking.
But beware: Dieting isn't easy in these culinary havens. Burlington, Vt., home of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, is chock-full of temptations including Vermont cheddar cheese, maple syrup, and truffles, which you'll find at Lake Champlain Chocolates. "I don't think you can find a restaurant without apple pie, and it comes with a slab of sharp cheddar cheese, which makes the pie taste sweeter and the cheese taste more bitter," says Barbara Corcoran, author of Nextville: Amazing Places to Live the Rest of Your Life. "Provided you are not overweight and have no heart conditions, I think Burlington is a perfect place to retire."
[See Healthiest Places to Retire.]
Check out these 10 chef-recommended places for foodies to retire: