Photo: © Deborah Jones
“Best restaurant” lists are tricky. How can any sensible eater compare an iconic pizza parlor or the joint that serves that simply transcendent cheeseburger with the lapidary perfection of a French Laundry or the genre-bending inventiveness of a WD-50? On what terms is it possible to stack the culinary monuments of Manhattan, Chicago, or Los Angeles up against the really-very-good but necessarily more modest establishments of, say, Buellton or Murphysboro? Talk about apples and oranges.And yet here we are offering a best restaurant list of our own. Which means that it’s probably appropriate to explain exactly what this roster of eating places is supposed to be, and how we arrived at it.
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We began with a simple premise: Where do we, the editors of The Daily Meal, like to eat? Taking into consideration our mood and our budget and where we happen to be when we get hungry, how would we vote — not with our finely honed critical faculties so much as with our mouths, and our pocketbooks? And where would we send our friends?
Collectively, we came up with a master list of 150 places from every part of the country, from ultra-casual to super-fancy, old-fashioned to avant-garde. Then we divided our choices into categories — according to cuisine, region, and a number of specific factors, including service, wine list, and price level — and invited an illustrious panel of judges, mostly restaurant critics, food and lifestyle writers, and assorted bloggers, from around America to help us narrow down the list. (Two of them requested not to be identified.) The panel and our editorial staff voted anonymously, and the percentages of votes for each restaurant were tallied in order to assemble a ranked list of the 101 best.
The results were, well, thought-provoking. It probably won’t surprise anybody that Thomas Keller’s superlative French Laundry in Napa Valley came out on top, but in a real coup his restaurant Per Se took the number two spot as well. It also might surprise a few people to find three barbecue places and two pizzerias outscoring pricey French restaurants run by Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon — or Katz’s Delicatessen edging out WD-50.
For American cooking, modern or traditional, our judges liked the West Coast: Seven of the 21 restaurants in that category are in the Golden State. Perhaps it indicates that the country looks to the West for revolutionizing America’s culinary heritage. However, New York seems to be the stronghold for maintaining the best ethnic cuisines, taking the top spots in the French, Italian, and Asian categories.
Overall, New York beat out California in the top 10, garnering five spots. Taking a deeper look into the big winners, the more “experimental” chefs like Grant Achatz, Michel Richard, and José Andrès seem to be panelist favourites. What’s America’s favourite cuisine? It turns out that American cooking with French influence makes up about 50 per cent of the highest rated restaurants.
In regional breakdowns, our panel thought Bern’s Steak House in Tampa was the best restaurant in the South, Citronelle in Washington D.C. was numéro un in the Mid-Atlantic, and Clio in Boston was the winner in the Northeast (though Frank Pepe Pizza in New Haven was the next one down).
You may quarrel with our results, quibble over the panel’s choices, ask how we could call that dump a “best” or why we left out that temple of gastronomy. It would be astonishing if you didn’t, in fact. We’re not presenting objective truth here. In case you haven’t noticed, there is no objective truth when it comes to taste in restaurants (or anything else).
Rather, think of this list as the Senate of Culinary Greatness in our country — every region, cuisine and price level is represented, and if you wonder what some of them are doing there, hey, ask the voters. It’s the best of the best from each league, which is the reason why Katz’s sandwiches can stand alongside Peter Luger’s steaks and Arthur Bryant’s barbecue alongside Bazaar’s molecular gastronomy. We think our list turned out pretty well, and sincerely thank our panelists for helping us refine it. We stand behind these restaurants — and would sit down happily at any of their tables.
This post originally appeared at The Daily Meal.
Patrick O'Connell, self-taught as a chef, opened this restaurant in 1978 in what was originally a garage in a little town about an hour's drive from D.C. He formed alliances with local farmers and artisanal producers long before it was fashionable, and developed into a sophisticated modern American chef of the highest order. His partnership with Inn co-founder Reinhardt Lynch ended in 2007, but praise for The Inn at Little Washington has continued.
With his Santa Claus build, his amiable nature, and his obvious passion for his métier, Michel Richard sometimes looks like the happiest chef alive as he leans over a plate at Citronelle holding one of his imaginative, brilliantly executed specialties, smiling, putting on the finishing touches -- a sight you can witness through the glass wall that encloses his sparkling kitchen at this D.C. classic. There are those who think Richard is the best contemporary French chef in America.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the few chefs in New York City with the distinction of four stars from The New York Times. At his eponymous restaurant in the Trump International Hotel and Tower, his classic French technique bridges old and new worlds, eschews heavy sauces, and embraces the spice and flavours of Asian cuisine.
Chez Panisse is, of course, where it all started, four decades ago this year. Before Chez Panisse, practically nobody in America served only fresh local foods and wrote menus according to the season, if not the day. Practically nobody cared like Alice Waters and her associates did. It has become fashionable to criticise this culinary icon as (take your pick) tired, irrelevant, pretentious -- but the truth is that the food is still superb, both in the one-menu-a-night downstairs restaurant and the lively, diversified upstairs Café. A must.
High-profile organo-loca-sustainavore Dan Barber has found the perfect home at Blue Hill Stone Barns, a beautiful restaurant in a bucolic but hard-working setting on a year-round farm and educational centre. Most of what you eat here will be grown, raised, and/or processed on the property, and Barber's modern American food is full of colour and flavour.
There's little question that Grant Achatz, whose training includes stints with Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Ferran Adrià, deserves the title of America's most creative chef. The menu at his Alinea sounds deceptively simple ('Bass, black pepper, vanilla, lemon' or 'Rabbit parfait rillette consommé), but what shows up on the plate is absolutely original and almost always dazzlingly good.
Daniel. This very grown-up restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side maintains standards of service and cuisine -- French haute cuisine, very much an endangered species today -- that hark back to an earlier era… But the cooking is up-to-date and really, really good.
Think Le Bernardin and you think accolades: Michelin, The New York Times, James Beard. Is it a little stuffy? Sure. But if cooking fish well is an art, then Chef Eric Ripert is a master. His contemporary French touch has led some to call his creations the world's best seafood.
Having triumphed in California, Thomas Keller returned to New York with this elegant dining room overlooking Central Park in the Time-Warner centre. Per Se upholds the standards set by The French Laundry, and -- despite the defection of longtime chef Jonathan Benno to open his own place (Lincoln) -- it remains one of the outstanding dining experiences in the city.
How did a chef whose innovative restaurant in Manhattan failed and who headed west to cook in a downtown L.A. hotel suddenly emerge in the Napa Valley to create a restaurant to rival the great three-star establishments of rural France? Hard work and outsize talent, most probably. Taking over what had been a good but far simpler restaurant, chef Thomas Keller approached contemporary American food with French technique and his French Laundry established new standards for fine dining in this country.
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