One of the best ways to get to know a city is by taking a walking tour, and one of the tastiest ways to get to know a community is by taking a walking food tour.
Walking food, culinary or tasting tours are popping up in cities across the nation in an effort to expose visitors — foodies or otherwise — to local fare and flavor. Walking tours not only give guests a chance to sample regional culinary treats, they also showcase the area’s history, architecture and atmosphere.
Asheville Food Tours
Asheville, North Carolina
Chris Ortwein founded Asheville Food Tours in 2009 after his wife read an article about walking culinary tours and suggested that Asheville’s budding food scene might be able to support its own food tour.
“It was on the cusp of becoming a lot more culinary at the time,” Ortwein said.
He spent the next several months approaching local chefs and restaurants and putting together both the tours and the company. Today, Ortwein offers walking food tours from March through Thanksgiving, taking a break during the chilly winter months.
Each tour features about seven stops; they include handpicked downtown restaurants as well as a couple of specialty food stores, such as olive oil and chocolate shops. Portions at each restaurant are sizable, and guests get to sit for 15 minutes or so to enjoy the food, take in the atmosphere and socialize.
All the stops are in a six-square-block area of the city’s historic downtown, which is “a beautiful, walkable little downtown,” he said. And every participating restaurant or shop is part of Asheville’s fiercely local, proudly sustainable economy.
“Unlike a lot of communities that say they’re about the harvest-to-table, farm-to-fork movements, they don’t just do it here; they believe it, they celebrate it,” Ortwein said. “It’s not platitudes; it’s the truth.”
Stops include the Blackbird, Chorizo, Farm Burger, Green Sage and Olive & Kickin’, to name a few, and tours usually wrap up with root beer floats at the old soda fountain at Woolworth Walk.
Ortwein leads all the tours, which he keeps to a maximum of 15 people. He can also arrange for private group tours.
Maine Foodie Tours
Portland, Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor, Maine
Most people assume that Pamela Laskey has a culinary background; why else would she start a food tour company?
Nope. Laskey’s former career was in the “sexy world of academic publishing,” she said with a laugh. She was considering buying a business that led her to research all the tours in the area; that, in turn, led her to start her own food tour company.
“No one was doing anything with the culinary scene, yet I was completely struck by the talent in the culinary world here,” she said. “It’s insane how good the food is, and it’s not just the restaurants. It’s the bakers and cheesemongers and fish handlers and all the suppliers.”
Laskey also quickly realized that people who grow up in Maine and want to stay in Maine understand they might have to go into business for themselves because the state doesn’t have many large employers. That leads to a wonderfully wide array of local shops, stores and restaurants, she said.
Today, Maine Foodie Tours offers culinary walking tours in Portland, Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor. Groups are usually limited to 14 people, but the company easily handles larger private groups by breaking them into smaller parties led by its several tour guides. Laskey’s guides also act as step-on guides when needed.
During a tour, guests might sample Maine staples such as fresh lobster or crabmeat, perhaps served in a roll or bisque; artisan cheeses from local farms; preserves made from regional berries; clam “chowda”; and local beers. Don’t forget the original whoopie pie or dark chocolate truffles that incorporate Aroostook County potatoe s.
Bite San Diego
San Diego, California
When it’s 72 degrees pretty much all the time, taking a walking food tour in San Diego is a breeze — and a sunny one at that.
Bite San Diego now offers several tour locations: Downtown/Little Italy, Coronado Island, Hillcrest, La Jolla, Encinitas, Julian and North Park. The company also just opened a sister operation in Las Vegas called Nosh Las Vegas.
The Downtown/Little Italy tour is the company’s most popular in San Diego, said Daniella Ruiz, operations manager for Bite San Diego and Nosh Las Vegas. It starts in San Diego’s historic and happening Gaslamp Quarter, where the lamp-lit streets are lined by stately Victorian buildings overflowing with activity: jazz lounges, night spots, dive bars, modern speakeasies and, of course, restaurants.
The group then makes its way along Fourth Avenue and Horton Plaza northwest to Little Italy, a quaint and slightly quieter section of town anchored by India Street, which is lined with boutiques, bakeries and bistros. During the tour, guests will sample pizza, Indian food, rustic Italian food and home-style American cooking with modern twists.
“We do it with all local restaurants instead of large chains,” Ruiz said. “We do try to give you something different at every place; we try to give a good mix of everything.”
Bite San Diego tries to guarantee at least five stops for public tours and at least four for private groups, which tend to take a little longer because guests are more likely to know each other and socialize more, Ruiz said.
Bite can split large groups into smaller groups and stagger or rotate their starting points, she said. The company also offers to do some customization for private group tours.
Taste of Kansas City Food Tours
Kansas City, Missouri
When Rebekah Dykstra travels, she loves to get off the beaten path, to find the unknown or extraordinary, and to frequent the mom-and-pop shops that perfectly portray the area’s culture.
Many times during her travels, she would ask a taxi driver or someone on the street to point her to a restaurant. Too often for her foodie tastes, they would say P.F. Chang’s or Cheesecake Factory.
“I thought it would be brilliant if somebody would just show me where to go at the beginning of my stay, and I could just make my decisions about what to try from there,” she said.
That’s what ultimately prompted her to start Taste of Kansas City Food Tours in 2012. She wanted to get people out of the city’s hypercommercialized districts filled with chain restaurants and into the then-unknown but up-and-coming Kansas City culinary scene.
“We have James Beard winners, we have places that have been on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,’” Dykstra said. “Kansas City is becoming a culinary destination.”
Taste of Kansas City now offers two walking food tours: the Crossroads Food Tasting Tour and the Westport Culinary and Historical Walking Tour, which was just added this fall.
Each tour features six stops, but the two tours are very different, Dykstra said. Crossroads is in a funky art district that delivers fantastic sights, sounds and people-watching. Crossroads’ portions run a bit smaller, as the chefs have a more artistic approach to their food.
The Westport tour “is the gluttony tour,” Dykstra said with a laugh, a gluttony of both food and history. The tour wanders through downtown and past buildings dating to the 1800s, and between stops for hefty helpings, guests learn about the area’s history, including that of the Underground Railroad.
Bleu Plate Tours
Laura Mize always took walking tours when she traveled — usually food or culinary walking tours that appealed to her foodie sensibilities and that dished up plenty of local flavor.
“That was the ultimate. That was the cherry on top: to do the walking tour, explore the city and taste the culinary scene as well,” said Mize, owner and founder of Bleu Plate Tours.
Mize was taking a walking food tour in Pasadena, California, a quaint smaller city similar in many ways to Lexington, when the idea struck her.
“I thought, they should do that in Lexington,” she said. “Then I chuckled and thought, who is ‘they?’”
Mize was “they.” She held her first tour on August 7, 2010, just several months after the idea originally came to her. She originally offered the Heart of Lexington tour on Saturdays but soon added the Sunday Stroll Tour on Sunday afternoons.
Both tours are predominantly downtown, and there’s a bit of overlap in the areas they cover. Each tour has seven tasting stops, but the group learns about every restaurant they pass, even if it’s not open or not on the tour, Mize said.
“In just the past three years since I’ve been doing these tours, we’ve probably tripled the restaurants we have in Lexington,” she said. “And the bar is really raised on the quality. Things are a little more innovative and a little more interesting.”
Stops include fine dining and diners, brunch favorites and nightspots. Guests might sample desserts made with Kentucky bourbon or regional favorites such as cornbread sticks.
Public tours can have up to 16 people, but Mize can handle private groups of 50 or fewer with advance notice. She also partners with a local man who does agricultural tours and who takes guests to a farm where many local restaurants get their produce before leading guests on one of her food tours.