10 Best Cities to Start a Restaurant

The American dining scene has made leaps and bounds since the recession. In fact, March 2015 marked the first time that consumers spent more at restaurants and bars than they did on groceries. With so many people heading out to eat, now could be a great time for chefs and restaurateurs to think about opening a new establishment.

For those interested in starting a restaurant, selecting the right city can be crucial. "It's a lifestyle," says David Bravdica, the founder and co-owner of Brava! Pizzeria in Denver, Colorado. "You have to be in with both feet." Bravdica started his business with one mobile wood-fired oven five years ago, and has since grown to have four mobile ovens and one stationary restaurant location. He says the entire food scene in Denver has evolved over the past ten years from a steak and potato city to one that has embraced new cuisines of all kinds. "You go out to a nice restaurant on a Tuesday night and it's packed," he says.

Ryan Nelson sees the same thing in Indianapolis. The chef/owner of Late Harvest Kitchen and The North End BBQ says, "For years and years Indianapolis really supported chain restaurants, but about 5-6 years ago we started celebrating the small operators." That shift in the food culture means farm-to-table establishments like Nelson's are seeing success with menus based on seasonal ingredients that are sourced locally.

Skip to our runners up, ranked #11-15

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  • Population: 679,036
  • Unemployment: 4.9%
  • % Workers in food industry: 6.78%
  • Farmers markets in city: 11

Barbecue and Tex-Mex might come to mind when you think of El Paso, but this city supports a diverse range of restaurants. For a city its size, it also has a surprising number of farmer's markets, which could provide new restaurants with an ample supply of fresh, local foods.


  • Population: 384,320
  • Unemployment: 6%
  • % Workers in food industry: 7.63%
  • Farmers markets in city: 6

Labor will cost a little more in New Orleans, but it's still a good choice for a restaurant. Conde Naste Traveler calls the city a "foodie paradise." Mardi Gras, of course, brings in plenty of tourists who need to eat, but many restaurants see strong traffic year-round from visitors and residents alike.

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  • Population: 644,014
  • Unemployment: 4.2%
  • % Workers in food industry: 5.46%
  • Farmers markets in city: 8

One big plus for Nashville is its cost of living, which is one of the lowest of all the best cities to start a restaurant. Its food scene is another reason chefs and restaurateurs may want to focus on Music City. Not only is Nashville barbecue considered among the best in the nation, but the city supports plenty of other cuisines and dining options as well.

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  • Population: 809,958
  • Unemployment: 5.1%
  • % Workers in food industry: 6.28%
  • Farmers markets in city: 7

Charlotte saw a 26 percent increase in food and drink establishments from 2009-2013 and for good reason too. Thanks to a wave of innovative chefs, residents of the North Carolina city are saying goodbye to the chains and hello to food trucks, city markets and craft breweries.

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  • Population: 912,791
  • Unemployment: 3%
  • % Workers in food industry: 5.61%
  • Farmers markets in city: 10

Words like "booming" are used to describe the Austin food scene. As in El Paso, barbecue and Tex-Mex are a major presence in the city, but chefs are also experimenting with innovate dining concepts and new cuisines. Austin restaurant owners will benefit from Texas's low cost of living, although labor costs are higher in the capital city than elsewhere in the state.

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  • Population: 619,360
  • Unemployment: 4.9%
  • % Workers in food industry: 6.07%
  • Farmers markets in city: 22

Perhaps nowhere in the nation has the "eat local" movement been embraced as it has in Portland. The city teems with farmer's markets and fresh food options, and the region's chefs have wasted no opportunity to use them. The only downside to Portland for restaurant owners is the city's high cost-of-living.

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  • Population: 439,896
  • Unemployment: 4.3%
  • % Workers in food industry: 5.33%
  • Farmers markets in city: 6

The food scene in Raleigh is just starting to come into its own, which could make now the perfect time to consider starting a restaurant in the city. While award-winning chefs are opening up shop, the market is far from saturated and there is plenty of room for new chefs and restaurateurs to make their mark.

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  • Population: 848,788
  • Unemployment: 4.3%
  • % Workers in food industry: 5.57%
  • Farmers markets in city: 14

Nelson can rattle off a number of reasons Indianapolis is a great place to open a restaurant: low cost-of-living, low housing costs and lots of disposable income among city residents. What's more, the city has ample space for new establishments. "We have all these open [retail] spots, so restaurants are seeing cheaper rents," he says.

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  • Population: 835,957
  • Unemployment: 3.8%
  • % Workers in food industry:5.96%
  • Farmers markets in city: 14

Columbus has a lot of things going for it. Ohio has the lowest maximum corporate income or franchise tax of the states represented on this list. In addition, the city's cost-of-living is tied with Nashville as the lowest among the best cities to start a restaurant. And its low unemployment mean residents may have access to more money to spend dining out. Columbus isn't a foodie destination yet but the emphasis in this sentence is on the "yet."

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  • Population: 258,703
  • Unemployment: 5.5%
  • % Workers in food industry: 6.17%
  • Farmers markets in city: 5

The smallest city on our list is also the best for starting a restaurant. Buffalo might seem like an unlikely contender to stand up against food heavyweights like Nashville and Portland, but this city has the perfect combination of an affordable workforce, reasonable unemployment rate and a lower cost-of-living. What's more, Buffalo has an emerging food scene that means new businesses have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and ride to the top of what could be the next hot spot in the culinary world.

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Honorable Mentions

While these cities didn't make the top ten, they came close. Each has a vibrant food scene and a relatively low unemployment rate, but a relatively higher cost of living is one factor that pushed these five cities out of the top ten.

#15 - Denver

#14 - Cleveland

#13 - Las Vegas

#12 - Virginia Beach

#11 - New York City


We ranked 60 cities with populations greater than 250,000, based on 2013 population estimates from the U.S. Census. Each city was scored on a 10-point scale, using the following seven data points and the weights specified in parentheses.

  1. State corporate income or franchise tax rate (10%), U.S. Small Business Association, 2015
  2. Percent of the state's small businesses classified as Accommodation & Food Services (10%), American Community Survey, 2013
  3. Metro area unemployment (10%), Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015
  4. Average payroll per restaurant employee in each metro area (10%), County Business Patterns, 2013
  5. Percent change in the number of food service & drinking places in each metro area (20%), County Business Patterns, 2009-13
  6. Cost of living index (10%), Council for Community and Economic Research, 2015
  7. Culinary Culture (30%), based on three data points from the County Business Patterns and the Agricultural Marketing Service, 2013

For the Culinary Culture score, three factors were taken into account, and each city was scored on a 10-point scale for the combination of these data points. They are:

  1. The number of restaurants and other eating places per 100,000 people in each metro area (50%), County Business Patterns, 2013
  2. The number of mobile food services per 100,000 people in each metro area (25%), County Business Patterns, 2013
  3. The number of farmers markets per 100,000 people in each city (25%), Agricultural Marketing Service, 2015


  • The Next Big Scene, Keia Mastrianni and Sean Pressley, January 21, 2014 The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/living/south-park-magazine/article9094136.html
  • A Food Lover’s Guide to New Orleans, Anne Roderique Jones, January 27, 2015, Conde Nast Traveler, http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2015-01-27/food-lovers-guide-to-new-orleans
  • The Triangle’s growing food scene is attracting talented chefs, beverage pros, Andrea Weigl, September 6, 2014, The News & Observer, http://www.newsobserver.com/living/food-drink/article10051172.html
  • Nashville’s Food Scene, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. http://www.visitmusiccity.com/visitors/food
  • Portland’s Food Rules, Cooking Light Magazine, http://www.cookinglight.com/healthy-living/travel/portland-food-scene/page2
  • Food and Drink, Austin Visitor’s Center, http://www.austintexas.org/visit/food-and-drink/
  • Interview with David Bradvica of Brava! Pizzeria, July 2015
  • Interview with Ryan Nelson of Late Harvest Kitchen and The North End BBQ, July 2015

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