America's Coolest Small Towns
Every now and then, you stumble upon a town that's gotten everything right—great coffee, food with character, shop owners with purpose. These 10 spots have it all, in perfectly small doses.
MOUNT VERNON, IOWA (pop. 4,671)
art isn't confined to gallery walls
In Mount Vernon, about a 20-minute drive east of Cedar Rapids, art isn't confined to gallery walls. As you're driving in on Highway 30, a local artist's rendition of Grant Wood's American Gothic, splashed on the side of a barn, immediately sets the town's tone. And at an annual sidewalk-chalk festival, which takes place each May, hundreds of people put their stamp on more than 4,000 square feet of the main drag. "There's a certain amount of culture here that's not as unapproachable as in a larger city," says Matt Steigerwald, a chef from North Carolina who runs Lincoln Cafe, where dishes like the Carolina pork BBQ sandwich draw diners from all over the state (117 1st St. W., foodisimportant.com, $6.50). Due to liquor-license restrictions, the place is BYOB, so Steigerwald opened Lincoln Winebar down the street (125 1st St. W., 319/895-9463). The unofficial clubhouse for Mount Vernon's creative types is Fuel, a 4-year-old coffee shop that doubles as an antiques store. Some of the shop's sofas, tables, and lamps are for sale, along with everything from ceramic tiles to handmade greeting cards (103 1st St. E., 319/895-8429). —Thisbe Nissen
JACKSONVILLE, OREGON (pop. 2,750)
a refuge from the tourist whirl of napa
Just across the border from California, this old gold-rush town is getting its second wind from liquid gold. With 17 wineries in the surrounding Applegate Valley, and a climate that's ripe for growing multiple types of grapes, Jacksonville is a refuge from the tourist whirl of Napa. Herb Quady is among the residents integral to the burgeoning scene. Quady, whose father, Andrew, produces dessert wines at Quady Winery in Madera, Calif., opened the Quady North tasting room in April (255 California St., quadynorth.com). "There isn't anyplace in California that's nearly as cute," Quady explains of his move. "We're all about the bucolic southern Oregon life." The best way to tap in is at South Stage Cellars, which stocks bottles from nine area wineries (125 S. 3rd St., southstagecellars.com). The Garden Bistro at the five-room McCully House Inn & Cottages showcases local growers of a different sort, with food products from 27 area purveyors, including cheese from the goats at nearby Pholia Farm (240 E. California St., mccullyhouseinn.com, rooms from $135). The lifestyle drew Constance and David Jesser, a chef and a commodities trader, respectively, from Sonoma five years ago to open Jacksonville Mercantile, where the shelves are filled with provisions like black-truffle-roasted almonds, meant to pair perfectly with a bottle of Quady North viognier (120 E. California St., jacksonvillemercantile.com). —Jason Cohen
BT Readers' Choice Pick!
ROCKLAND, MAINE (pop. 7,680)
sophistication mixed with saltiness
You'll find just enough sophistication to balance the saltiness of mid-coast Maine in Rockland, where regional mainstays are reinvented every day. After honing her skills working for Perry Ellis in New York City, Beth Bowley was lured back to Maine four years ago. "Rockland is filled with folks who've seen what the world has to offer and want to be here," says Bowley, who opened the boutique FourTwelve, which she stocks with clothing and accessories like Sea Bags, made from recycled sails (412 Main St., shopfourtwelve.com, bags from $110). Down the street at Suzuki's Sushi Bar, Japanese-born chef Keiko Suzuki Steinberger infuses freshly caught lobster, shrimp, and crab with modern Japanese flavors (419 Main St., suzukisushi.com, entrées from $12). Steinberger first came to Rockland to visit a second cousin but stayed after falling for her now husband. As pleasant as a short visit can be, the real risk of visiting Rockland is that you'll do the same and need to move here for good. It's worth testing the waters by renting a house, on vrbo.com, where you can find 19th-century Capes going for $125 a night. —Carole Braden
WHITEFISH, MONTANA (pop. 7,723)
ski bums and urban refugees congregate