In a city like San Francisco, one of the major gastronomic capitals in the U.S., it’s not uncommon to hear people discuss restaurant openings with the same excitement usually reserved for movie premieres. Terms like “Japanese-Norwegian fusion” and “contemporary Californian menu” are thrown around effortlessly, as if anyone has any idea what those things mean.
Even when it comes to something as seemingly definable as West Coast or East Coast fare, what characterizes the two can often be elusive. And if you don’t live in an area obsessed with food, I’d imagine it seems even more confusing. We may know what the best coast is for bagels or burritos, but when we read that a restaurant specializes in West Coast or East Coast cuisine, what does that really encompass?
West Coast: Local, Fresh, Fusion-ed Fare
When people refer to West Coast cuisine, they’re usually talking about specialties from the region extending from British Columbia in Canada to Southern California. Food culture on this side of the country is usually associated with California-style menus, which pair fusion cooking—incorporating various flavors and cooking styles from around the world into one meal—with a heavy reliance on seasonal ingredients. The coast is lined with Asian fusion restaurants in particular due to its extensive Asian population.
However, West Coast food extends beyond fusion. Chefs specializing in this type of cuisine favor experimentation, but certain ingredients are mainstays because of how abundant they are over here. Seafood, particularly salmon, halibut, shellfish, and shrimp, are usual entrée stars. In San Francisco, Italian immigrants took the Pacific Ocean’s abundance of seafood and invented a fish stew called cioppino.
Crops that thrive here also pop up on most menus. For example, if a sandwich shop anywhere in the country offers a “California-style” or “West Coast-style” sandwich, chances are it’s loaded with avocado and/or Jack cheese. And thanks to the rich landscape of vineyards, wine—and its deliciously necessary partner-in-crime, cheese—supplement most dishes served at West Coast restaurants.
Most people’s perception of West Coast cuisine is healthy and produce-heavy, which isn’t far from the truth. Fruit smoothies were invented here, after all. (But then again, so were cheeseburgers.) Access to a variety of fruits and vegetables combined with influences from immigrant populations and chefs’ desires to deviate from the norm have made West Coast cuisine what it is today—locally grown, a tad unpredictable, and full of unique and fresh flavors.
East Coast: Comfort Foods Revisited
Whereas gourmands on the left coast pride themselves on experimentation, East Coast cuisine focuses more on the classics. Because this side of the country has always been home to a variety of immigrants via Ellis Island, to call food here a “melting pot” isn’t that far from the truth.
Regionally, East Coast cuisine comes from places like Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York New Jersey, and New England, an area that includes Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. One-pot comfort foods are big here—new interpretations of classics like stews, casseroles, pot pies, and baked beans are often seen on menus. Chowders, especially the clam variety, are generally thought of an East Coast claim. There are two kinds to choose from: New England-style, which uses milk or cream, and Manhattan clam chowder, a tomato-based soup.
Lobster, crab, and oysters are also big in this area. The West Coast claims Monterey Jack cheese, but on the East side, it’s all about cheddar cheese from Vermont. With the arrival of Italian immigrants during the 19th century, Italian food became a huge part of East Coast cuisine, which is probably why most right coast transplants claim they can’t find decent pizza on the West side. Common dishes from Jewish, Greek, Russian, Puerto Rican, Chinese, and Cuban cuisines have also greatly influenced what characterizes East Coast-style meals.
Chefs specializing in East Coast cuisine may not be as fusion-happy as their West Coast counterparts, but they do enjoy finding new ways to reinvent old favorites. With a region as rooted in tradition and chock full of different cultures offering a variety of ingredients and techniques to choose from, East Coasters always come up with fun spins on the classics.
Restaurant scenes and dining trends are always changing, so it’s hard to predict what West Coast or East Coast cuisines will look like a few years down the line. But as long as the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans maintain their fish populations and chefs continue their support of experimental cooking—through either small-scale reinterpretations or complete overhauls—the coasts will always boast unique dishes sure to please the palates of locals and visitors lucky enough to sample them. As for which side makes the better cuisine, well, that’s a whole ’nother story.