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America's most densely-packed restaurant city may surprise you

Photo source: Nicholas Millard/GoProvidence.com

You can't swing a lobstah in Providence without knocking over a bowl of chowdah.

What's it like to live in a place where there are more restaurants per capita than anywhere else?

"Because of the student population here (Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales University), there are lots of cozy places geared to a tight budget," says Jamie Coelho, associate editor at Rhode Island Monthly, where she writes and edits the publication's local food newsletter, The Dish.

"Providence definitely has those high-end places, but it also boasts a variety of more affordable multicultural options. You can enjoy a bowl of noodles at Den Den, Ken’s Ramen or (to the) north, cheap tacos at El Rancho Grande, artisan sausages at the Wurst Window, Indian at Not Just Snacks, fancy crepes at La Creperie and more."

An analysis of recently-released federal data shows that Providence and San Francisco rank first and second of major U.S. metro areas for restaurants per capita, with nearly 21 restaurants per 10,000 residents.

List: 10 U.S. metro areas with the highest density of restaurants

Ironically, Coelho says it doesn't seem like her city has more restaurants than most major cities she's visited. And diners and even food critics in many metro areas, such as Dallas and Toledo swear that they've heard their towns have more restaurants per capita than anyone.

"It's like that everywhere I go," says consultant Chris Tripoli, president of Houston-based A La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group, which specializes in developing concepts and market strategies for non-chain restaurants. "Everyone thinks where they're living has become a restaurant town. It's a common misperception. People also think their traffic is worse."

There are other metrics, such as how much the average resident spends on dining out, etc., but the analysis focused only on the number of restaurants per 10,000 people. One telltale sign of living in a true restaurant town: Restaurants become specialized.

"You won't go to just an Italian restaurant. It will be Northern Italian," Tripoli says. "Or Sicilian. In L.A., it won't be just Asian. It will be South Korean. The larger you go ... the consumer seems to win; they get more of a variety in concepts."

In turn, according to Tripoli, anyone operating a restaurant in a highly-competitive market must strive to find and to keep employees who enjoy serving people. They do that by constantly challenging them, cross-training them in different restaurant-related disciplines. Restaurant owners also go out of the way to improve customer experiences.

That also explains why smaller restaurant markets will support joints with general themes and expansive menus, like those often featured in the television show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The popularity of the Food Network and other culinary entertainment outlets has helped drive greater demand for restaurants, and given diners more sophisticated tastes, Tripoli says.

Many of the top dining cities benefit from food-driven tourism, says Annika Stensson, director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association:

"A long-established culture tied to food can certainly have a role in restaurant location counts. ... I’d say travel and tourism overall play a stronger role, especially in areas that do have a distinct regional cuisine."
That explains New Orleans' perennial appearance on the list.

Dave Moore is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.