Trusting someone with a restaurant suggestion is a show of great faith. A good suggestion puts you in the inner circle, a candidate for godfather of the next child, a guy whose name is mentioned behind closed doors, approvingly, with vigorous nodding. A bad suggestion keeps both parties involved up at night. There is so much good food in America right now that winnowing the lot to a few handfuls of the best is difficult. Do you include the roadside shack that isn’t technically a restaurant? Do you disqualify a place for foam smears and cheese dust? Are you being persuaded by hype?
And so our litmus test was simple: these 25 American restaurants are the places we’d send a friend if he had time for one meal in Chicago, Denver, Houston or any of the other cities on this list. One city, one suggestion, one good meal. Thank you. You’re welcome.
There is the question of trust. Fortunately, you know us. You’ve seen how we handle beef, coffee and the Thanksgiving turkey. We know you: we’re guessing you’d sit for a fried clam roll with lemony aioli at The Optimist in Atlanta, tuck into a plate of hand-made beef bolognese at SoLo Farm & Table in Vermont, or assemble four good friends for a crispy cumin-spiced 56-ounce bone-in pork shoulder at Acorn in Denver. Are we right? Then here are the 25 Best Restaurants in America right now.
Don’t call The Country Cat a “Southern” restaurant just because there’s fried chicken on the menu. Missouri native Adam Sappington, a perennial contender for a James Beard award, brings his riff on American home-style to the Rose City. Tucked into Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood, The Country Cat is Sappington’s homage to butchery-gone-wild, farm-to-table, snout-to-tail. While there are lighter options, this is hearty, straightforward fare, with dishes from the butcher’s block holding pride of place on the menu: skillet-fried chicken cooked in beef tallow (Cat’s runaway most popular dish); collard greens with bacon (house-cured, five tons every year); and the must-try entrée, lamb shoulder slow-roasted, glacéed with lamb juice, and served with mashed turnips and roasted red beets. Or go for “the whole hog”, a whirlwind tour de swine including a brined chop, pork belly roulade, smoked shoulder and head cheese, breaded and fried.
In Seattle, Etta's or Canlis is always a safe, classic bet for a meal. For something unique and edgier, bring friends to Staple & Fancy Mercantile in Ballard for Ethan Stowell's omakase-style rustic Italian. Ballard, the funky satellite once known for trash bars and slop joints, is now Seattle's cultural epicenter -- and there’s parking. You'll be at chef Branden Karow's mercy, but neither northwest seasonal ingredients (foraged mushrooms or succulent gooey duck clams that Karow had just finished digging up himself) nor chef's deft but restrained hand will disappoint. The restaurant allows a la carte selections (“staple”), but unleash your appetite and Stowell’s creative genius with “fancy”, a multi-course feast with several small appetizers and pasta, entree, and dessert to share, all created ad hoc that evening based on what’s fresh and what’s cooking in Karow’s left brain.
Renowned chef Alice Waters, staunch advocate of local and organic ingredients and famous influencer of the Obamas' decision to plant the White House vegetable garden, founded Chez Panisse in 1971. The restaurant has proudly offered sustainable meals to patrons since. Though an à la carte café occupies its upper level, the main restaurant is a reservation-only affair and features a different fixed, 3-4 course menu each day, each full of varied and mouth-watering elements like grilled squab with persimmon chutney, black trumpet mushrooms, duck sausage and black cod consommé.
Dining at Hinoki and the Bird -- once you find it -- is a full-sensory engagement. The hostesses' attire (belted shirts with plenty of leg), the wabi-sabi decoration, the sheets of hinoki paper carried aflame to your table while wafting cedar-like smoke: all are evidence of the classically trained (read: French) David Myers’ affection for the Japanese aesthetic. Tucked away under the Century condominium tower, the restaurant's initial vibe is after-work social center for CAA execs, with lively clusters of patrons at the bar and stand-up tables near the entrance. However, the patio balances that energy with the calming influences of wood and mid-century modern styling. And that flaming wood we mentioned earlier is more than visual candy: it adorns and perfumes one the restaurant's signature dishes: hinoki-scented black cod. It’s a must-try for both the spectacle of conflagration and the subtle, tender flavor. Miso plays a prominent supporting role, adding glutamate to appetizers (a spinach salad with miso-dusted goat cheese), entrees (miso-marinated skirt steak, rich with umami) and desserts (miso donuts, served with honey caramel, which disappear far too quickly) alike. This is a dinner that does more than just sate your appetite.
In March 2010, Steven Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton opened a restaurant in Boulder called OAK at Fourteenth to rave reviews. Inspired by the restaurant’s success, they followed with Acorn, an eclectic bar and grill in Denver’s River North district. Sharing OAK’s propensity for seasonal, wood-fired, American fare, Acorn's chef Redzikowski offers small plates like an oak-smoked duck breast and red snapper fried tempura style as well as shareable dishes like the crispy cumin-spiced 56-ounce bone-in pork shoulder. The bar, managed by Dayton, offers an ambitious range of drinks categorized by booze percentage (-free, -low, -high), as well as a handful of cleverly chosen beers and wines. Looks like the Acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.
On a recent chilly November evening, a friend and I had dinner at The Bachelor Farmer in the trendy North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. The cozy restaurant is tucked in a century-old building that used to house a fur and wool factory, and feels more like a Minnesota farmhouse dining room than a James Beard finalist. The clever take on Scandinavian immigrant cuisine is pitch perfect in a city that prides itself on its Nordic roots. Even the name is a wink at those lonely Norwegian farmers who settled this state, bringing with them their clipped vowels and love of pickled herring. But this is no church basement fare, as we found out; lutefisk and lefse were nowhere to be seen.
We started with some house signature toast appetizers, which consist of a quaint rack of
toasted bread served with wooden boards of spreads, cheeses and charcuterie—butternut squash puree, roasted oyster mushrooms and cipollini onions, beef tongue, sugar cured salmon. It is a rustic way to start a meal, crumbs and dribbles ratcheting down the atmosphere. Not that this is a stuffy place. The decor is decidedly farmhouse chic, replete with a homey patterned wallpaper, wide rough plank floors and unfinished brick walls and exposed beams. While The Bachelor Farmer has a fine wine list, we opted to choose glasses from one of the open bottles marked on the blackboard. Whenever someone orders a glass, a hashmark goes on the board until the bottle is empty. It’s like sharing a bottle with the whole dining room—Minnesota nice indeed.
Minneapolis is enjoying a bit of a dining boom these days, with chefs winning national awards almost annually and a dizzying pace of restaurant openings. It’s no small feat to choose the best restaurant in the city but when it comes down to it, The Bachelor Farmer seems an obvious choice, since it really captures the essence of the city’s, and the region’s, Nordic roots. The menu makes heavy use of locally-sourced produce and proteins, from rhubarb in the early summer to the root vegetables of autumn. From the start, the owners wanted to grow as much of their own produce as possible and they installed a garden right on the roof, which required strengthening the old building’s supports to hold up all that dirt. The local sourcing goes further in the kitchen, with house-made sausages (pheasant!), hand-chipped ice, pickled veggies to last the long winter and even plates made by a local potter.
When it was time for entrees, it was hard to resist the autumnal smorgasbord of pheasant
meatballs with red cabbage spaetzle, roasted turnips, apples and tarragon. Chef Paul Berglund oversees the kitchen and draws inspiration from his own Scandinavian roots, retaining the work ethic of doing it all from scratch but bumping up the creativity and seasonings that will make even the most skeptical midwestern boy forget grandma’s bland hot dish. The meal conjured up visions of a Minnesota prairie, a hunter in his Red Wing boots and a faithful dog returning with the shot quarry. Portions are ample, befitting the “farmer” in the name, but we left room for dessert. I opted for the bay leaf flan with candied walnuts and cinnamon whipped cream, which was kept nominally Nordic with the inclusion of a traditional Swedish cookie, a sandbakkel.
Warmed by the wine, the meal and the cozy atmosphere, we reluctantly relinquished our table and bundled ourselves out into the cold early November night. Winter wouldn’t be far away now; it’s good to have a warm place to go.
-- Jason Heaton
8135 Maryland Avenue, Clayton, MO 63105
1547 North Jackson Street, Milwaukee, WI 53202
523 Fremont Steet, Las Vegas, NV 89101
Eat: Duck confit pizza and the fried chicken ballotine for two.
807 Taft, Houston, TX 77019
Eat: Pizza with house-made belly ham and the Carolina trout.
1222 4th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37208
824 South 8th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Cochon isn’t your average good restaurant. It’s not even your average great one. Cochon is a movement; that’s what happens when your establishment goes from being locally known to nationally recognized. Everyone -- seriously, everyone -- you talk to about food in New Orleans will tell you to go to one of two places. If they’ve only been to the Crescent City once, ten years ago, they’ll tell you Commander’s Palace. If they’ve been any time in recent memory, they’ll tell you Cochon.
That's why, on any given night, you’ll walk into the restaurant’s dimly lit confines and find a six-top of sixty-year-olds sitting next to a twelve-top of twenty-somethings sitting next to George Clooney, all wining, dining and listening to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” pumping through the speaker system. Visually, none of this will make any sense to you. Until you try the food.
As is evident by its name, Cochon’s focus is on meat -- pig in particular. Going through the menu, you’ll see plenty of dishes that you could imagine being on the menu of your favorite place back home. Smoked this. Pickled that. Cured something. There’s obviously a local tint to everything, as evidenced by the artichokes stuffed with Louisiana blue crab and the fried boudin with pickled peppers, but there’s nothing that, at first glance, seems especially extraordinary. However, as you go through dinner -- trying a few small plates, some house-made charcuterie, etc., before finally landing on dessert -- you’ll realize, “everything was good”.
Now, that’s not to say that it shouldn’t be good. Obviously, when you go to a nice restaurant, you expect it to be good. However, when you truly think about it, it’s almost never all good. There’s usually a catch somewhere: a soup that wasn’t hot enough, or a dish that was “interesting”.
Herein lies the power of Cochon. It doesn’t try to impress you with fancy culinary executions. It doesn’t crowd its menu with terminology that you don’t know and don’t need to know. They don’t even do that popular but annoying thing where they list every purveyor of every ingredient in the dish description. At Cochon, it’s not “Fancy Farms Heritage Silver Fox Rabbits with Organic, Unbleached Stone-Milled Flour Dumplings”, it’s just “rabbit & dumplings”.
They don’t even want to bother you with spelling out the “and”.
It’s this honesty, this simplicity of the approach to food, that makes Cochon so special, and it’s why the next time someone asks you about food in New Orleans, you’ll emphatically tell them to go to Cochon.
-- Brandon Chuang
Opening a restaurant isn’t hard. However, keeping it open -- especially in what many consider to be the greatest food city in America (sorry, JFK/SFO/LAX) -- is damn near impossible. But that’s exactly what Avec has done, luring patrons into its beautiful Windy City locale for the last ten years. Opened in 2003, Avec was one of the first restaurants in the country to truly consider the diner’s environment as part of the dining experience, bringing on an award-winning architect (Thomas Schlesser) to help shape the restaurant’s identity. Today, Avec is still just as pleasing aesthetically as it is gastronomically, sending out a mixture of Southern European–inspired large and small plates to a dining room they describe as “wrapped in cedar and anchored by a light hickory floor...with red oak seating”. A bit much? Possibly, but if they pay that much attention to where you’re sitting, just imagine how much focus they put into what you’re eating.
Chef Adam Evans has wrangled the elements that make a proper oceanside seafood eatery and transplanted them delicately and boldly into The Optimist, a cavernous, white-tiled and large-windowed seafood cathedral in Atlanta. The restaurant is relatively far from any ocean, but the best seafood in the country is shipped southward to be served to patrons who crave the briny: oysters on the half shell or roasted in the wood-fired oven, smoked whitefish chowder and swordfish poached in duck fat make for a menu worthy of Poseidon himself.
The Greenhouse Tavern
Few people would expect a food renaissance in a city hit particularly hard by the economic recession. Yet James Beard Award finalist and Cleveland native Jonathon Sawyer has shattered those expectations, owning and operating several thriving joints in the Cleveland area, including Noodlecat, Tavern Vinegar Co., Sawyer’s Street Frites, and SeeSaw Pretzel Shoppe. The jewel of his operations, The Greenhouse Tavern, has emerged as one of the best restaurants not only in Cleveland, but in the United States. It’s an eclectic restaurant with an eclectic menu, so expect to see local art on the walls (or bikes hanging from the ceiling) and dishes like crispy chicken wings confit, vegan cassoulet and fries covered in mozzarella curds and brown veal gravy.
After vacating its previous 17-seat location in Sunny Isles, a new, more exclusive Naoe has opened on Brickell Key in Miami, Florida. The eight-seat restaurant features an omakase (chef’s choice) menu that consists of a four-item bento box, each piece chosen daily, and an à la carte menu of sushi and sashimi from which patrons can order after the initial meal is complete. Chef Kevin Cory models the food after the cuisine of Kanazawa, Japan, where his extended family resides. Thanks to a schedule of only two three-plus hour seatings per night, only a fortunate few will have the pleasure of experiencing his creations.
Over the years, Charleston has quietly morphed into a popular destination for the gastroscenti. The city paved in palmettos has given birth to countless great restaurants in recent years, but none are more favored than Husk. Helmed by James Beard winner and culinary good ol’ boy Sean Brock, the downtown Charleston restaurant delivers a continuously rotating menu of white-collar takes on low-country food. What’s that mean? To be honest, it may mean that you’re paying $27 for catfish. But this being Husk, it also means it’s worth it.
Dame’s Chicken and Waffles
Durham, North Carolina was recently elected one of the “South’s Tastiest Towns” by Southern Living magazine. Though it has many great restaurants, the centrally located Dame’s takes the cake -- er, waffle -- for their twist on regional comfort food. Sure, chicken and waffles have been a staple of Southern-inspired food for decades, but here the big portions of buttermilk-soaked fried chicken amount to some of the crispiest bird we’ve ever bit into. Paired with the golden waffles and a “schmear” of flavored whipped butter (we like maple pecan), Dame’s signature dish brings comfort food into the realm of idolatry. Each order also comes with two sides, and while it should go without saying, we suggest you skip the fresh fruit and go straight for the grits and triple-cheese macaroni.
Komi is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The spartan setting, apropos for a Greek-inspired restaurant, serves as a blank slate for chef Johnny Monis’s masterful play. With no written menus, this D.C.-based tasting is a progression from light to rich, a gustatory crescendo that often begins with sushi-grade fish raw and culminates in your choice of roasted goat or suckling pig. For a restaurant in a city where most people are wearing the same ill-fitting grey suit, white shirt and striped tie, the creativity and variation Monis exercises across the 15 or so small plates and a few shared entrees is inspired. Komi's informality extends to the waitstaff, at once playful, engaging and attentive, who skillfully manage the string of dishes over this multi-hour food expedition.
The first time I ever ordered a tasting menu was at Restaurant Stéfane Derbord, an ornate and Michelin-starred restaurant in Dijon, France. I scraped together all the money I had left after living in Germany for the year, took off with my buddy for a quick vacation in France, and decided to splash out on the “Country Cooking and Creation” menu with a bottle of white Burgundy. There were snails in a parsley coulis, smoked trout from a stream nearby, fine cheeses transported on a silver cart. Small confectionaries were assigned my table frequently and abundantly. Afterwards I smoked a cigarette under a tree and just looked at the restaurant. I knew what many of us who have dined thusly know: you only get to do that once, because afterwards it’s never as revelatory.
And then there was the time I ate testicles at Takashi in New York City.
We were working on a story for the Month of Beef, an infamous and widely commended project in which GP higher-ups decided to write beef-related stories for an entire month. On the trail of Japanese yakiniku (“grilled meat”), a style of cuisine that emerged in post-World War II Japan at the hands of Korean immigrants, we ended up in chef Takashi’s cozy West Village restaurant where he serves the full range of beef cuts and variety meats (offal and other uncommon parts), all of it from sustainably raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free cattle.
I dove in. The savory chuck eye tartare in the chef’s secret sauce, the raw chuck flap on seaweed and shiso topped with raw sea urchin, tongue three ways, marinated heart, beef belly so tender and fatty I thought, pork, you’re in for it. By the time I got to the cow balls my jaw was tired from chewing through “the tongue experience”. But they were surprisingly tender, served escargot style with garlic shiso butter. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
It was more like a piece of interactive beef performance art than the gentle supping that took place in Dijon -- part exceptional, part shocking, mostly delicious. Next time I’ll probably just get beer and a pile of ribeyes to grill at the table, but if I’m feeling like a revelation it’s nice knowing that beef liver and chestnut crème brûlée is just an order away.
-- Jeremy Berger
SoLo Farm & Table
Chloe and Wesley Genovart, the husband and wife team behind SoLo Farm & Table, moved away from the Big Apple to Chloe’s native Vermont and opened this rustic spot in the mountains of Londonderry. Originally from Spain, Wesley -- a former chef of the East Village's lauded Degustation -- packs his birthplace's culinary vibrancy into the house-made squid-ink spaghetti with littlenecks and smoked mussels, while channeling the immediate setting with roast chicken and crispy pork belly made with local livestock. Set close to prime skiing resorts, SoLo, with its short but rich menu of succulent and sundry ingredients and extensive wine list, is a destination for slope sliders and gourmands alike.
While most of the restaurant world has gravitated toward casual settings and attire to match (but not cocktail prices), the soaring elegance of The Dorrance seems to beg for a jacket and tie, or at least a cable-knit sweater and the ability to pronounce “Woonasquatucket River” without missing a beat in conversation. Located in the heart of downtown Providence, The Dorrance is a study in marble columns, stained glass windows and ornate molding -- in other words, a throwback to Old World luxury -- which is surprising, since the restaurant opened in 2012. What’s not surprising is that the menu resides somewhere between classic and contemporary, with dishes like a very good house-cured coho salmon, seared local scallops, and duck breast l’orange; the cocktail menu, meanwhile, has all the boutique gins, bitters, syrups and muddled this-or-that to make it tier one in any city. Start with a few drinks at the bar, loosen the tie, and Woonasquatucket should roll right off the tongue.
Maybe it’s the legacy of Boston's Brahmin value system, but the city's finest restaurants rarely take chances the way one might in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. You’ll get the quail with figs and make nice conversation with Dr. Winthop’s boys. That’s not such a bad thing if it means reliably good food, but one place that’s managed to stack imagination on top of dependability for more than a decade is Oleana, across the Charles River in Cambridge. Order a tableful of chef Ana Sortun’s Turkish- and Middle Eastern-inspired meze (the fried mussels, the tamarind-glazed beef with smoky eggplant puree, the chickpea terrine) and then share the lamb tagine or brick-flattened lemon chicken. Drink sherry, sparkling wine and large bottles of high-test beer. For dessert there’s Turkish-style profiteroles, frozen olive oil souffle, even baked Alaska -- for the Winthrop boys.
Eventide Oyster Co.
Three More From the East
While the West Coast’s Portland is spoofed on television, Maine’s Portland is a thriving seaside community where parody is trumped by a salt-of-the-earth attitude and the sheer abundance of quality seafood. It’s only natural, then, that the best dining experience in town is a classic New England oyster bar with picnic table seating and 1,200-pound slab of granite filled with ice and a few dozen oysters ranging from ultra briny Wild Belons to bright and creamy Blue Pools. You could be content (and perhaps a little fuzzed) throwing back a few dozen with a pair of dirty martinis, but it’d be a shame to miss out on a fried oyster bun and a bowl of porky New England clam chowder.