Guided culinary tours are the best way for the traveling foodie to experience pretty much any city in the world. You get to try more different things and learn more than you could by choosing a single place to eat on your own, no matter how good it is, and you will usually uncover some hidden gems you would not find through research.
I’ve been a food writer for two decades, authored a New York Times bestselling book on food, and have been a food columnist at America’s largest newspaper for many years, and frankly, I know a lot about food. But you can always learn more, especially with insider local perspective, so I am a big fan of signing up for food tours in cities when I travel. Of course, I haven’t traveled in a year, but with a vaccinated light at the end of the tunnel, I hope to return to the road shortly, and when I do, I will be starved for the dishes and places I’ve missed.
I’ve done these outings from Tokyo to Taipei, New York to New Orleans, and there have been many standouts, but the best guided food tour I have ever taken was in Las Vegas, offered by Lip Smacking Food Tours, which I wrote about here in detail at Forbes two years ago. The very creative and hands-on founder, Donald Contursi, is a food industry veteran who leveraged his relationships in the city to give guests special access into some of the best and most popular restaurants in Las Vegas – ones you might not otherwise be able to get into at all – as well as behind the scenes access, experiences, and always, signature dishes with no skimping or punches pulled.
“It started for me with wanting to showcase the best dishes in the city,” Contursi told me, “but then I was like, hey, it’s Vegas, so why not be a VIP? We get the best tables with no lines and no waits.”
His company offers several different guided tours with different themes, from Boozy Brunch to Savor The Strip, and concentrates on varying neighborhoods around Sin City, so even repeat customers like myself have something new to look forward to. Most are quite affordable and excellent values for what you get, but the best-kept secret in his arsenal is an over the top, $800 per person, one-of-a-kind, Ultimate Steakhouse tour. A carnivore’s Bucket List event, this one is offered only to small private groups, and includes three stops at A-List red meat venues, which last time I checked included Bazaar Meat, by world-renowned Chef Jose Andres, Jean Georges Steakhouse by star chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, and the city’s newest hotspot, Scotch 80 Prime. Showcased were a sampling of the best meats on earth, and not just beef, including house dry aged USDA prime, true imported A5 Japanese Wagyu ribeye, a uniquely slow smoked full-blood domestic Wagyu brisket from California’s lauded Mishima Ranch, bone-in Tomahawk Ribeye, foie gras, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, and steakhouse-style seafood, including Maine lobster, white shrimp, Spanish octopus, and Alaskan King crab.
The company has gotten overwhelmingly rave reviews and tons of global press, leading Contursi to create similar Lip Smacking Food Tour itineraries in Seattle, Santa Monica, San Jose and Vancouver.
Last June, as the pandemic mounted, Contursi launched a sister operation, Finger Licking Foodie Tours, self-guided but fully planned versions of his mainstays, with all the same logistics, but for private groups of as few as two to enjoy without contact with guides or strangers.
The Finger Licking Foodie Tours model is more flexible, allowing you to choose your starting time and date rather then relying on a calendar of scheduled tours, and each itinerary includes nine or ten different signature dishes at three different excellent and curated eateries. The tours last two to two and a half hours, and cost $79-$150 per person, with a ton of food included, enough so afternoon tours can do double duty as lunch and dinner. The four options include Downtown Las Vegas, the city’s Arts District, its excellent but potentially confusing Chinatown, and an all-Aria resort tour that lets you stay completely under one roof while checking out dishes by Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning chefs.
But the biggest news as leisure travel looks to resume is Contursi’s latest offering, an expansion to his hometown of Chicago. The just announced Deep Dish Pizza tour launches this week – on National Deep Dish Pizza Day of course (April 5). It is an absolute must for pizza lovers visiting the Windy City – especially those East Coasters who look down on deep dish, most likely because they’ve only had chain or frozen versions. The real thing, a Chicago specialty, is excellent, especially at the four powerhouse icons Contursi’s tour features. One of the hassles of deep dish pizza is how long it takes, both to get into these flagships, which can have long lines, and then to wait for the pizza, which can take 45 minutes or more to cook. The Finger Licking Foodies Tour model gets you around all of that and allows you compare different signature takes on the city’s iconic dish at four legendary spots in just two and a half hours.
This self-guided tour provides the most efficient, effortless and profound way to take a delicious deep dive into deep-dish. Like its Las Vegas progenitors, the tour allows guests to skip the usual queuing for a table and the long bake times. Instead, you will get seated immediately with VIP service and pizza delivered fresh out of the oven in only 10 minutes. Designed especially for these strange times we live in, the tour is exclusive to only you and your invited dining companions. It comes complete with an innovative virtual guide providing information on each restaurant visited. Best of all, you definitely will not leave hungry, and you get to take leftovers with you.
The itinerary hits a Who’s Who of deep-dish: the original Pizzeria Uno, which claims to have invented the dish and certainly spawned its best known chain, though no other location rivals this one; Gino’s East on Superior Street, known in the pizza world as the see-and-be-seen spot for its celebrity clientele; Giordano’s on North Rush Street, with its twist in the form of a stuffed, two-crust pie; and Lou Malnati’s, my personal favorite, famous for its rich and decadent butter crust. All Lou Malnati’s flavors are exceptional, but they are best known for their unique take on sausage, featuring a single plate sized sausage patty that covers the entire circumference of the pie. While in almost every other city, pepperoni is the most popular topping, Chicago loves its sausage, and at all four stops, within easy walking distance of one another in the vibrant Magnificent Mile area, you’ll get a half-cheese, half-sausage pie, for the unheard-of opportunity to judge the city’s most beloved proprietors side by side.
The expedition rings in at $75 per person – with gratuities included. An optional $45 beverage package provides a different Chicago craft beer pairing at each stop. I’ve been to all four establishments, have been on tour with Contursi, and can’t think of a better way to get what so many travelers say they want on vacation, a true sense of place.