2015 was a big year for dining. And Eater national critic Bill Addison traveled around the country — and beyond — to discover what's essential, what's overrated, and which cities will be on the country's radar next. From the magnificent seafood in Baja California to the Detroit restaurant boom, read on for his top city-focused posts from the last 12 months. And don't forget to check out the best new restaurants of 2015 and the 38 essential restaurants in America as you make your travel plans for the new year.
Pizzeria Bianco's margherita pizza.
20 Years In, Chris Bianco Is Still America's Best Pizza Maker
"Pizzeria Bianco crouched in the corner of an open air shopping center called Town & Country on 20th Street and Camelback Road. To reach the restaurant, I walked past an herb and vitamin store, and its weird smell — pharmacy mixed with dried oregano — gave way to the smoky wafts of the pizzeria’s wood-burning oven. Chris Bianco stood behind the counter wielding a peel with a long handle. His massive arms and physical brawn suggested a street fighter, but his calm, enigmatic demeanor more closely resembled Yoda."
A whole hog stack (slaw, cornbread, pork) at Skylight Inn.
"The American South is a land seemingly devised for road tripping. It keeps journeyers rapt with beauty and eccentricity and contradiction: A drive through the majestic Great Smokies can lead to Dollywood; a day spent on an Everglades alligator farm might segue into a night drifting around South Beach. For the food-obsessed, I wager that no Southern road trip itinerary brings more pleasure than a west-to-east trek across North Carolina. Over the last decade the state’s small, charismatic cities like Asheville and Durham have soaked up plenty of attention for their budding food scenes. But five recent days of feasting between North Carolina’s mountains, hilly piedmont, and coastal plains revealed an astounding breadth of accomplished cooking."
Is Pittsburgh The Country's Next Destination Food Town?
"In the last few years, the national arbiters have labeled Pittsburgh 'the next big food town.' They’ve cited cocktail upstarts like Bar Marco, where the skilled bartenders converse with customers rather than handing out menus, and innovative restaurants like Root 174, where Keith Fuller playfully surrounds pork belly with strawberry-apple slaw, barbecue-flavored pop rocks, and a savory Rice Krispies treat. Was there a defining shift that had made this Rust Belt survivor the next must-fly-to-eat destination? Were key restaurants evoking a singular sense of place, like in Charleston or Nashville? Had the eating public developed remarkably adventurous palates à la Portland, Oregon? Or was it simply that a critical mass of stellar restaurants had opened?"
"Ah, Savannah. Georgia’s oldest city, founded in 1733 just inland from the marshy coast, is a place of otherworldly, out-of-time beauty. Statuesque oaks line the streets, frocked with Spanish moss dangling in rows that resemble fringes on a gray leather jacket. The historic district houses twenty-two squares and centuries-old churches in Greek Revival and Gothic styles. Savannah ranks among the most memorable towns in America for strolling. For dining, though? Not so much. Before my latest trip last month, when I saw and tasted signs of true culinary transformation for the first time in the two decades I’ve been visiting the city, I would pass along a handful of rote Savannah restaurant suggestions that barely shifted over the years. By contrast, the eloquence of a recent roasted chicken entree at The Grey seemed flabbergasting. The restaurant opened in December in a former Greyhound bus depot given a majestic renovation."
Chile rellenos and chicken-fried chicken at Dove's Luncheonette.
"In his eighteen years as a chef-restaurateur, and with seven restaurants and a cocktail bar currently run by his One Off Hospitality Group, Paul Kahan has built a local empire by anticipating and gratifying Chicago’s evolving tastes. His exposure to culinary entrepreneurialism came early: His father owned a deli and also a salmon smokehouse factory in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, where Kahan (pronounced "con") worked before and after college. His formative restaurant gigs were with chefs who also ran their own operations; he was first a line cook and then sous chef for Rick Bayless at Topolobampo when it opened in 1989. In 1997 Kahan met Donnie Madia, a career front-of-house maestro who was planning his own venture. Kahan signed on as chef, with the agreement that he’d also be a partner."
Tomato salad at Quince.
"The wacky wonderfulness of Meadowood’s cheese candle exemplified so much about dining right now at the finest of the Bay Area’s upscale restaurants: extravagance, earnestness, surprise, and perfectionism tempered by charm and warmth. San Francisco and the surrounding counties have been incubators for many of America’s food trends for four decades. We know the biggies by heart: respect for ingredients, coupled with an abiding love for the varied cuisines of the Mediterranean and an embrace of pan-Asian influences. But the chefs piloting the Bay Area’s top-flight kitchens have reached their own Space Age. The creativity is now unbound and borderless, built upon the fresh/seasonal evangelism of Chez Panisse and the Yankee wit of The French Laundry but more brazen and harder to peg."
The spread at Garcia's.
Devouring San Antonio, Texas's Most Underrated Food City
San Antonio, TX
"To understand the motley glories of Tex-Mex cooking, order The Deluxe Mexican Dinner plate at Garcia’s in San Antonio. Crammed onto an oval platter: two cheese enchiladas and a pork tamale buried in chili con carne and melty webs of yellow cheese; a freshly fried crispy taco stuffed with ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, and diced tomato; fluffy rice tinted auburn-blond by tomato paste; and a magma pool of refried beans creamy with lard and bacon fat. I’ve had dozens of combination plates like this one over the years, but few have nailed each element of the plate with such finesse — a word, I know, not often associated with a cuisine too often considered cheap and inauthentic. But Tex-Mex is way more nuanced than a blanket stereotype, and eating at Garcia’s is one insightful, gratifying introduction to eating in San Antonio."
Tacos at TJ Oyster Bar.
North America's Most Exhilarating Dining Destination Straddles the Border
San Diego, CA, and Baja California in Mexico
"Fish tacos have long been the culinary mascots of San Diego and Baja California. That won't change anytime soon, but restaurant cooking in the region is also undergoing a pride-of-place revolution. Some forward thinkers have labeled their gourmandized approach "Baja Med," but that kind of branding can suggest stuffing tortillas with lamb tagine or falafel. What's happening is more about Mexican and American chefs cultivating a heightened appreciation of the coastline's extraordinary bounty. They're embracing a subtle fusion of influences that emerges from innate cultural shifts and respectful curiosity, not from gimmickry. To taste how chefs on both sides of the fence are finessing local flavors is to eat in stereo, to experience the broader community's fullest depth and context."
Khao soi gai at Baan Thai.
"In the first spoonful of khao soi gai at Baan Thai in Washington D.C., I tasted brawn. Someone in the kitchen had pounded the hell out of lemongrass, ginger, fresh turmeric, and other spices to create a curry paste imbued with supernatural strength. It was electrical and alive. It infused every atom in the fiery liquid, layered with a pungent whomp of shrimp paste against the soothing sweetness of coconut milk. Braised chicken rested in a shallow pool of broth atop ropy noodles, garnished with sliced shallots (also an ingredient in the paste) and pickled mustard greens. One spritz of lime quickened every flavor. Fried noodles, a traditional adornment, rose from the far corner of the bowl like a tangle of wintry branches. Every other element of the dish instantly conjured the tropics."
The dining room at Chartreuse.
"These people have driven in from the suburbs to dine here," a friend told me. She was observing, not condemning. She herself had motored in from Ferndale, a 20-minute drive up I-75.
But the comment certainly spoke to the momentum of — and local fervor over — Detroit’s restaurant boom over the last year. And I do believe it’s safe to call the rush of openings an official renaissance. Detroiters tend to prickle when outsiders swoop in to pronounce comebacks and redeemers in their city, but every media outlet in town has recently marveled over newcomers in every tier of the dining scene. Places like ramen-slinging Johnny Noodle King and Ale Mary’s Beer Hall fall right in step with coast-to-coast predilections. Top of the Pontch, the upscale resurrection of a long-shuttered space on the twenty-fifth floor of the previous Hotel Pontchartrain (now a Crown Plaza property), brings a welcome jolt to downtown dining."
Mickey ice cream at Disney World.
Eater's Guide to Disney World
This year, in Eater's Disney deep dive, three pieces in particular help capture the fantasy world of the theme park: this look at magical realism and whether authenticity matters, the baller guide to the parks — aka how to splurge in style — and a definitive ranking of the countries at Epcot.