As food is the way to a lover’s heart, it is also a recipe for travel romance. Culinary tourists can go it alone based on Google finds or word of mouth recommendations, while more venturesome epicurean explorers can let instinct or serendipity lead the way.
Chancing it can be a recipe for disappointment though, especially in larger cities. Put your trust in a local food insider, however, and you’ll access an authentic taste of place that goes behind the scenes and off the beaten path to bring the scene alive. Offering public, private, and customizable tours, here are your passionate, entrepreneurial, independent, top-rated go-to gastronomic guides in seven leading North American food cities.
Donald Contursi, Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, Las Vegas, Nevada
Seemingly omniscient and omnipresent, Donald has threaded himself into the Vegas culinary scene like a finely tailored suit. His success is no mirage though. Born into an Italian-Greek family in Chicago, he left for Vegas in 2001 at 18. Seeing opportunity in the emerging culinary scene, he worked up from “turn and burn” double shifts at Planet Hollywood to crafting custom culinary experiences for high-rollers at the top restaurants in town. In his free time, he indoctrinated himself in the wider Vegas culinary scene.
Seeing a new opportunity, he launched Lip Smacking Foodie Tours in 2015 to help visitors navigate the overwhelming Vegas dining scene. His curated showcases of standout Strip and Downtown restaurants allow guests to affordably savor signature dishes while learning about Vegas’s rich history.
Incorporating the VIP touch elevates the experience to the exceptional level, starting with getting ushered past the waiting line to your table. Other patrons notice, and it’s a buzz. Go full red carpet with his award-winning four-hour Ultimate Steakhouse Tour, which includes chauffeured limousine service and decadent bites at the most sought-after spots in town. You’ll feel like a true celebrity on dream stages such as the outdoor patio at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s PRIME Steakhouse. Located inside AAA Five Diamond Bellagio Las Vegas in view of the resort’s famed dancing fountains, it’s one of the hottest tables in town. Add-ons include a nighttime helicopter ride over the Strip.
Governor-appointed to the Nevada Commission on Tourism for his contributions to Vegas, Contursi always looks to go one better. Promising “a special surprise” to ten Steakhouse tour guests this summer, he changed their booking to dinner at speakeasy-style Barbershop Cuts & Cocktails inside The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas where, through his connections, Contursi had learned in advance that Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak were performing a private show. Pricing begins at $125 per person, up to $799 per person for the Ultimate Steakhouse Tour. Tel: 888-681-4388. lipsmackingfoodietours.com
Julia Rosenfeld, Food Chick Tours, San Antonio, Texas
After working in NYC marketing and advertising firms during college, New Jersey native Julia Rosenfeld decided that Madison Avenue was not for her. In 1979, she relocated to San Antonio. She fell ardently in love with the local food scene, which earned San Antonio UNESCO recognition in 2017 as a Creative City of Gastronomy. She began reviewing restaurants for San Antonio Magazine and teaching writing classes at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus. Here she took over teaching culinary anthropology from Chef Elizabeth Johnson of San Antonio’s nationally recognized plant-forward restaurant Pharm Table. Her immersive journey inspired her to launch Food Chick Tours in 2015.
Rosenfeld’s passion for this singular trinational Texan treasure shines through in her high-end curated walking food tours, all tailored to guest preferences. Highlights include signature courses at four leading restaurants in the Pearl. Formerly the 1881 Pearl Brewery Company, this sprawling complex is now a vibrant mixed-use visitor hub. Julia enriches the experience by talking about the chef, menu, and background of each restaurant, and regaling guests with racy tales of the Pearl’s founder, his pioneering wife, and other historical details.
Other tours include the brunch stroll through the enchanting King William Historic District and her celebration of San Antonio’s rich Tex-Mex tradition. She also provides restaurant recommendations and just published San Antonio Cooks, showcasing favorite recipes from 42 local chefs and restaurateurs. Tours start at $110 per person. Tel: 210-473-5976. foodchicktours.com
Sylvia McCoy, ‘Burgh Bits and Bites Food Tours, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh-born to a Swiss father and German mother, Sylvia McCoy, hearing the call of the “old country,” traveled to Switzerland in the early ‘90s to explore her roots. Three months turned into eight years of traveling across Europe and absorbing the continent’s history, culture, and culinary traditions.
She returned to Pittsburgh intent on rediscovering her hometown. After working in business development for a local graduate school, she became a volunteer tour guide with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
Inspired to share Pittsburgh’s many hidden culinary and historic charms with visitors, 6 launched ‘Burgh Bits and Bites Food Tours in 2015. Her timing was great. That year, Zagat named Pittsburgh the nation’s top Food City, citing “an abundance of more refined food glories.” From five-star dining to ethnic food traditions passed down through the generations, the Pittsburgh scene spans the globe. Dedicated to “introducing new friends to my old friends,” McCoy and her ten knowledgeable guides reveal Pittsburgh’s culinary soul in scheduled and custom two-plus hour walking and tasting tours.
Exemplifying how food tours connect visitors with neighborhoods and people they would not have known, the suburban Brookline tour includes storied Mediterranean food store Pitaland. Beginning with his Pittsburgh honeymoon in 1974, Lebanese founder Joe Chahine’s immigrant success story had members of the group in tears, with smiles all around for his fresh-baked pita dipped in delicious hummus. Tours start at $49 per person. Tel: 412-901-7150. burghfoodtour.com
Brian Beard, Discover Richmond Tours, Richmond, Virginia
Another food tour company founder with precise market timing is Brian Beard. Originally from Florida, Beard moved to Richmond in 2009 following college to work in data analytics. His ambitions changed after a stint living in Freiburg, Germany, here he led English-language walking tours. Finding that experience more fun and rewarding than doing spreadsheets, Beard returned to Richmond and began exploring opportunities in the local tourism industry.
In 2014, the year that Departures crowned Virginia’s capital city “The Next Great American Food City,” he launched Discover Richmond Tours. “Our food scene was starting to win national accolades and becoming a pillar of tourism marketing efforts,” said Beard on our culinary tour of Richmond’s colorful Arts District, which included two personal favorites, old-school soul food institution Mama J’s and star bakery Sugar & Salt. “It was the perfect time to do something in the food space.”
Covering other neighborhoods, including lively Carytown, historic Church Hill, and reborn Scott’s Addition, Beard designs his 8 to 12-person tours, which extend to breweries plus hiking and other non-food programs, with locals in mind. “Ingrained with traditional Southern hospitality, our unyielding focus on authenticity and respecting the local scene is a win-win for all visitors. More than half of our clientele are Richmonders who routinely become customers of our restaurant partners, while visitors are continually surprised by the quality and diversity of our scene.” Prices start at $65 per person. Tel: 804-213-2330. discoverrichmondtours.com
Corey Taylor, Food on Foot Tours, New York City
I met Corey Taylor at the 2022 annual meeting of NYC & Company, New York City’s tourism marketing agency. “Let’s eat!” he said, so we did, in August, when I played backyard tourist as the only New Yorker on a sold out, 40-person walking food tour of Hell’s Kitchen. When I travel, three’s a crowd, and as a New Yorker I wouldn’t be caught dead moving in a pack, but kudos to Taylor, he kept our group of Europeans, South Americans, and Australians on the move and engaged without pissing off a single native.
Formerly in radio and TV, Taylor, a Brooklyn native and avowed foodie, launched his “eat like a New Yorker” concept in 2009 after losing his job. His unique hook is the surprise factor. You don’t know the dining spots in advance, or it’s either pay as you go, allowing you to eat what you please. Providing local history along the way, Taylor’s diverse portfolio includes guided forays in the East Village, self-guided tours of Astoria, and guided specialized programs like All Beef Brooklyn and his highly rated Sweet Tooth Tour. It was a kick cruising past my old Hell’s Kitchen apartment, recalling the neighborhood’s less tourism-friendly days, and discovering its appeal as a certified culinary corridor. Prices start at $38 per person. Tel: 631-491-0326. foodonfoottours.com
Danny Pavlopoulos, Spade & Palacio, Montreal, Canada
There’s no mistaking the strong epicurean culture of LGBTQ traveler magnet Montreal, where food and drink are automatic conversation-starters and most every citizen can speak knowledgeably about the food scene. Montrealers are demanding diners who eschew trends and clichés, which keeps the flame high on quality and informs the “real deal” approach of the guided food and other tours offered by Spade & Palacio.
Of Chilean and Greek heritage, Montreal-born owner Danny Pavlopoulos previously worked in tourism with a large international travel company. His pseudonymous tour company, launched in 2014, avoids popular attractions that don’t require guides.
“We don’t do Montreal’s well-known bagels and smoked meat, for example,” said Pavlopoulos. “Instead, we go the non-touristy route, taking a maximum of ten people on three-hour walking food tours of less traveled neighborhoods where locals go.”
Signature programs include Beyond the Market, which explores the international dining diversity of the Mile-Ex district surrounding the historic Jean-Talon Market. For fans of authentic bites at hole-in-the wall restaurants in a searching urban landscape, Mile-X is as bonafide as it gets.
Other explorations include Beyond The Basilica, an architectural tour incorporating local food bites; off-the-beaten path biking and mural art tours; and private, custom, and corporate experiences. As a proud LGBTQ organization, Pavlopoulos and his ten guides offer free tours during Montreal Pride. Food tours start at $89 CAD per person. Tel: 514-806-3263. spadeandpalacio.com
Stefanie Siska and Georges Laurier, C’est Bon Cooking & Tours, Ottawa, Canada
The old joke used to be that if you wanted good food in Ottawa, you went to Montreal. That all changed over a decade ago as enterprising and ambitious local chefs stayed home and transformed the scene in Canada’s welcoming, LGBTQ friendly capital city.
Among the local players capitalizing on this shift was Chef Andrée Riffou, who founded C’est Bon Cooking & Tours (C’est Bon) in 2009 after studying cuisine and pastry with Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and Paris, where she attained the school’s highest qualification, Le Grand Diplome.
I first met Chef Riffou on a 2010 visit to Ottawa that included an eye-opening C’est Bon food tour. Highlights included meeting local artisan food producers and farmers, and eating a requisite Beaver Tail, the famed fried dough with cinnamon sugar pastry flattened like the tail of Canada’s national animal.
In 2016, Chef Georges Laurier and entrepreneur Stefanie Siska took over the business, which continues to flourish alongside Ottawa’s ever-evolving culinary scene.
Home of Capital Pride, an energetic drag and burlesque scene, and the world’s second longest running production of Naked Boys Reading, this welcoming, walkable city is great for working up an appetite. C’est Bon is at the ready with its unique combination of five-star guided and self-guided gourmet food tours with hands-on cooking classes for all levels at their ByWard Market storefront. Plus, evening dine-arounds, customized private experiences, and the award-winning Bike & Bites Tour. Pricing begins at $70 CAD per person for tours and $120 CAD per person for cooking classes. Tel: 613-722-8687. cestboncooking.ca
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