The National Eater 38 published last week as a culmination of my reporting in 2014 as restaurant editor and roving critic. I whittled the list down from over 260 meals consumed in nearly 30 cities. Projects like this generate plenty of "whys?" and "what ifs?" from readers — and lots of obsessing from the writer during the selection process. Here are answers to five big questions.
What are some places you wanted to visit but didn’t manage to reach?
North Carolina is the place I most regret missing. From previous experiences, I'm a huge fan of Ashley Christensen's Raleigh restaurants. It's been a few years since I visited Asheville, but its dining scene sounds energized right now. And eastern North Carolina's whole-hog smoking traditions tie with Texas for barbecue greatness.
San Diego was the only city with a local Eater presence that I didn’t reach last year. Sorry, San Diego. Your warm temperatures beckon; I’ll be there very soon.
I ran out of time before I could scour the Midwest. Kansas City, St. Louis, and Wisconsin and border state Kentucky are on the docket this year.
What obvious restaurants did you skip, and why?
The New York megawatts come to mind, places like Le Bernardin, Eleven Madison Park and Del Posto, and Daniel. I’ve dined at these restaurants previously; I’m familiar with the benchmarks they set. Given the realities of budget and the desire to cover a diverse range of restaurants, I sought the counsel of my Eater colleagues (the home offices reside in Manhattan) about which of the luminaries to focus on this year. They pointed me foremost to Blue Hill at Stone Barns 45 minutes outside of New York, which I too found exceptional. Of course, my fellow critic Ryan Sutton also covers this scale of restaurant: Last month, for example, he weighed in on Per Se with context and insight to spare. The New York heavyweight that I’m most excited to try this year? Sushi Nakazawa.
The Bay Area is replete with fine-dining nobility, too many to hit in one year
Likewise, the Bay Area is replete with fine-dining nobility, too many to hit in one year. Last spring I made it to The French Laundry, Benu (which made the final 38 list), and Saison. Others I’m eyeing this year: Atelier Crenn, Coi, and the newly reopened Manresa.
There was no eating across America without devouring my share of burgers. I ate around 30 burgers on the road, a relatively modest number considering our country’s ongoing fixation with them. After gorging on green chile cheeseburgers in Santa Fe in July, I eased up and skipped burger-specific restaurants like Bernie’s Burger Bus in Houston, Company Burger in New Orleans, and Burger Bar in Las Vegas. Confession: I did face down the legendary double stack at Au Cheval in Chicago, but I was eating dinner at Alinea that night and I’d already had deep-dish pizza at Pequod’s, so I didn’t give the burger the stomach room it deserves. I’ll be back.
Name some restaurants that almost made the list.
Lots of people have asked, "What would the 39th have been?" Onerous question, but my first answer is Nashville’s The Catbird Seat. Trevor Moran interweaves New Nordic and Southern flavors so confidently. It felt, though, like the list had one too many hard-to-score reservations, and the South was broadly represented. It nonetheless remains one of my favorite meals from the year.
Choosing between Benu and Saison, both in San Francisco, was difficult. Each astounded with its brilliance. In the end, it was a question of accessibility: Both are spendy, but Benu is the more affordable of the two. (Last month Ryan Sutton wrote an illuminating take on the pricing at Saison.) And I deeply admire the way Corey Lee channels his Korean heritage—among other Asian influences—into the tasting menu model he mastered while he was chef de cuisine at The French Laundry.
The consistency and utter exquisiteness of Aaron Franklin’s barbecue made his Austin restaurant my obvious choice for the list, but La Barbecue in Austin and Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland outside of Houston are close contenders.
I’d have likely found a place on the list for Joe Beef in Montreal and Edulis in Toronto.
We made the decision to contain the list to the U.S., though I also reported on two cities in Canada. If we’d included our northern neighbors, I’d have likely found a place on the list for Joe Beef in Montreal and Edulis in Toronto.
If I compiled this list strictly on personal tastes, it would include Sqirl in Los Angeles. The clean, nourishing food is exactly what I want served at my neighborhood restaurant.
Any restaurants that made it even though you had misgivings?
I worried, for only a moment, that Prince’s cramped strip-mall location might not broadly appeal. But standing in line and vying for a table (or eating the hot chicken in your car) is part of the experience. Nashville is rife with restaurants serving hot chicken and plenty of locals posit that other restaurants (such as Hattie B’s) now beat the originators. I stand by Prince’s.
To the jeers of my New York colleagues, if pressed I’ll name Los Angeles as my favorite place to eat in America. Choosing La Casita Mexicana, a homey restaurant serving sophisticated dishes inspired by the chef-owners’ roots in the tequila-producing state of Jalisco, might seem quirky among all the metro area’s standout Mexican food. I weighed the righteous tacos I ate across the metro area, but there were so many it was hard to choose one taqueria or truck — and the memory of La Casita's moles and other sensuous sauces haunted me all year.
Any spots you frankly expected to be better?
Much-lauded Alma in Los Angeles underwhelmed last April, though the restaurant and its chef, Ari Taymor, are enthralling works-in-progress.
I’d previously gorged on the foie gras poutine, canned duck and liver, and other foie phantasmagorias at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, but it was in January when the caloric onslaught felt sustaining. This past July, when I dined there for Eater, all that fat felt obscene. And the staff was preoccupied; I expected alert service given the restaurant’s nightly throngs.
Chicagoans might wonder why I skipped reporting on any places owned by Paul Kahan, of the city’s finest chef-restaurateurs. I did in fact dine at Blackbird, Kahan's flagship, in early August, but during the course of the meal I learned that Perry Hendrix had started his position as the new chef de cuisine the day before. The meal was a little uneven and it felt only fair to give Hendrix time to settle in. It's on the top of my list for Chicago meals this year.