When I set out last year to compile the first-ever National 38 list, a roundup of the restaurants that shaped and defined American dining, I faced a thrilling — if daunting — task. This year's job was no less ambitious: Just as the 38 lists on Eater's city-specific sites grow and change with their restaurant scenes, editors rotating out some quality restaurants and introducing fresh names to the roster, so does this one. There's no shortage of outstanding places in every tier of every scene that help answer the question, "What is essential dining?" Still, some kitchens speak more clearly to this moment than others.
Here, you'll find many restaurants from our inaugural list that have re-earned their place, but of the nearly 450 meals I ate on the road this year, 13 stood out as culinary accomplishments so vibrant and so necessary that they demanded inclusion on this list. (You'll see them marked with a blaze.) They include an iconic Tampa steakhouse, two local favorites in New Orleans, a Phoenix pizzeria that started a revolution, a Los Angeles taco truck, and a Russian restaurant in Portland whose food had me smitten from the first bite.
To qualify for the National 38, restaurants must be open at least 18 months; they're presented here in alphabetical order. These restaurants are essential to my dining life — but more importantly, they're essential to everyone's.
Dinner as theatre, dinner as laboratory, dinner as pop culture commentary: The only constant at this country’s foremost modernist restaurant is its relentless drive to evolve and surprise. The latest zigzag from chef Grant Achatz and his partner Nick Kokonas: Alinea temporarily closed its doors in early January after ten years of operation, to give the space (and the ideas that fuel their immersive tasting menus) a refresh. The restaurant’s crew is spending the first part of 2016 on the road, appearing first as a popup in Madrid and then in Miami. The Chicago brick-and-mortar re-launches later this year; expect seats for Alinea 2.0 to sell out as quickly as Adele’s concert tour. Read the full review here.
Baronial chophouses are a cornerstone of America’s restaurant culture, but Bern’s, which opened in 1956, exists in its own west Florida dimension of eccentricity and excellence. Amid the endearingly baroque decor, suited servers guide diners through the restaurant’s meticulous approach to cooking steaks (the menu includes charts for preferences on temperature, thickness, and char) and the fathomless wine cellar, with bottles that stretch back decades — or, in the case of ports and Madeiras, centuries. The evening’s capstone? Macadamia ice cream in the retro splendor of the Harry Waugh Dessert Room. More on Bern's retro decadence here.
San Francisco, CA
The Bay Area is the most exciting place to go wild on haute modern dining in America right now; half a dozen of its luminaries could easily have a place on this list. The food at Benu, chef Corey Lee’s hushed sanctuary, bridges East and West like nothing before it. Looking to Korea (his place of birth) and to China for inspiration, Lee’s progression of courses might start with a brilliant and uncategorizable dish like winter melon soup with caviar, chicken cream, and gold leaf, and spin off into a dozen more kinetic expressions of texture and flavor. Master sommelier Yoon Ha’s nervy beverage pairings takes the experience even higher, elevating Lee’s peerless creations and securing Benu as the one San Francisco fine dining restaurant you must experience. Read the full review here.
Pocantico Hills, NY
Dan Barber’s think tank of a restaurant, set on a working farm, revolutionizes fine dining by pulling the countryside into the dining room. Participatory (you may be handed gardening sheers) and educational (bread comes with genuinely engaging patter about wheat varieties), the dining experience emphasizes connection not not just the land, but with with the staff and with the tactile nature of the food itself. The meal never comes off as precious, thanks to Barber’s mastery as a chef, and an unusually engaged front-of-house team who share their knowledge with equal parts reverence and wit. Read more on Blue Hill's sense of place here.
Kansas City, MO
In the last dozen years, Colby and Megan Garrelts’s restaurant has matured into a fully realized vision of Midwestern tasting-menu dining. In their 28-seat space, guests mix-and-match dishes to create three-, five-, or ten-course dinners informed by the couple’s close relationships with nearby farms. Desserts like strawberry-rhubarb tart conclude meals with polished hominess, a reflection of Megan Garrelts’s spot-on pastry sensibility, a wonderful contrast to the food sent out by chef de cuisine Andrew Longres, who plates ingredients with the precision of a jeweler setting gemstones. More on Kansas City's vibrant dining scene.
The upstairs café at Chez Panisse channels the spirit of California dining even more ecstatically than its more formal downstairs sibling. The menu shifts daily with dishes obsessively in tune with the seasons, showing off the Bay Area’s staggeringly beautiful produce. Impeccable salads, rustic pizzettas, and honest delights like chicken cooked under a brick alongside butternut squash, kale, and sage simply make you sigh with happiness. The desserts are heavenly: the apricots, peaches, pears, and sour cherries that fill the rustic galettes through the year rival fruits plucked from the Garden of Eden itself. Read the full Chez Panisse review here.
New Orleans, LA
Spend a few hours among Clancy’s cultured, effervescent clientele, and you’ll know what dining in the city of Sazeracs and shrimp rémoulade is all about. For a century, its corner building — its location in the residential Uptown neighborhood keeps it mercifully apart from the Bourbon Street tourist crowds — has been either a restaurant or a bar; the current owners took over in 1987. House specialties like fried oysters with melted brie transcend time and trends, expressing a true Creole heart. The wine list goes deep with French whites that pair flawlessly with smoked soft-shell crabs, rabbit sausage en croute, and panéed veal Annunciation with crabmeat and béarnaise. Reserve early or fight for a seat at the bar, where you’ll find good company with chatty characters. Read more on New Orleans dining here.
San Francisco, CA
Michael and Lindsay Tusk’s trattoria captures several of the most vital aspects of San Francisco dining under one roof. The brick- and wood-lined dining room is animated without being frantic, the cooking defines the modern California-Italian ethos, and Michael Tusk is nothing less than a pasta savant. Count on agnolotti del plin, tiny, meat-filled rectangles that snap against the teeth before vanishing, plus an ever-changing array of other pasta options. Antipasti, entrees, and desserts are prepared with a subtlety that never even comes close to veering into dullness. Here's three more great mid-range restaurants in San Francisco.
New York, NY
With exceptional poise, Estela demonstrates how a restaurant in the world's most closely observed dining scene can evolve from a flavor-of-the-month to a haven for its community. Ignacio Mattos's cooking, heralded when the restaurant debuted in 2013, now shows even more finesse as he's honed in on his signature style: a layering of intriguing ingredients, like ricotta dumplings with thinly shaved mushrooms and shards of pecorino that play off their assorted delicate textures. Co-owner Thomas Carter matches the daringness of the food with his heady, far-reaching wine list. Settling into the welcoming bar is just as satisfying as table service — maybe better.Here's a full review of brunch at Estela.
This always-packed oyster bar, which sits along one of Portland’s most progressive restaurant rows, combines foods from Maine and "from away" in dazzling mash-ups: Pemaquid oysters glossed with kimchi ice, a classic New England clam bake alongside green curry lobster stew, peekytoe crab rolls next to pickled-watermelon-topped fried chicken buns. America is rife with quirky seafood houses, but Eventide’s deftly handled cross-cultural playfulness (plus a killer blueberry pie in the summer) puts this one in the stratosphere. Read the latest on Maine dining.
In a small city replete with outstanding dining options, FIG — which helped fuel Charleston’s restaurant boom when it opened in 2003 — distinguishes itself year after year with remarkable, soulful cooking. Mike Lata and his executive chef Jason Stanhope cull the finest from the Lowcountry fields and waters and take diners on a spin through European cuisines. Eating here is a master class in the use of acidity and brightness in cooking; even the signature gnocchi with Bolognese shows off a subtle shimmer of mint. Read on for five knock-out meals in Charleston, including FIG.
The hours-long line that forms every morning alongside Aaron Franklin’s turquoise-trimmed pilgrimage site may be more famous than the food itself, but let’s be clear: your wait is rewarded. The restaurant serves the country’s most transcendent barbecue — pulled pork that gives North Carolina mean competition, campfire-scented turkey that bathes in butter, plump sausages that burst — but the beef brisket, impossibly silken in texture and mosaic in flavor, remains Aaron Franklin’s masterwork. It’s worth getting on a plane for. Read on for more great Austin dining.
Why call out this Italian fine dining restaurant above scores of other contenders across the country? Simply put, Frasca offers the best service experience in America. Hospitality wizard Bobby Stuckey and his team are consummate, fully engaged pros who stay remarkably attuned to every diner’s whims. Their conviviality paves the way for chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson's thrilling specialties inspired by the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy.
Los Angeles, CA
In a city that runs on staggeringly good tacos, it can be a struggle to single out one source to hold up above all others. But a meal from Wes Avila’s midnight-blue truck, which he parks in front of marquee coffeehouses across the metro area, eliminates the problem. A Southern California native, Avila worked for Alain Ducasse and some of LA’s most forward-thinking chefs before striking out to sell tacos. His creations shatter any notion of authenticity; in his hands, the corn tortilla becomes a palette for personal expression. Wild boar may show up as a filling, so might sweet potato or swordfish belly or the Middle Eastern sausage called soujouk. His culinary brainstorms are radiant with farmers-market freshness and rigged with all sorts of textural tripwires. Here's why Los Angeles is the best food city of 2015.
Kevin Gillespie’s flagship isn’t a place for quiet conversation: it’s loud, it’s bright, it’s participatory, and it’s arguably the most creatively energized restaurant in the Southeast. Every week, executive chef Joey Ward and his team decide on a dozen or so dishes they’ll each prepare. As they’re ready, the cooks take their latest creations into the wide-open dining room on carts and trays, and explain them to the crowd. Indian-spiced fried okra? Peking duck? Beef Wellington? Their inspirations circle the globe, though meals always end squarely back in Georgia, with warm banana pudding billowing with meringue, a recipe from Gillespie’s grandmother. More on Atlanta's hometown favorites here.
St. Paul, MN
Chef-owner Lenny Russo takes the name of his restaurant seriously: Most of the food at Heartland and its adjacent market-cafe comes from within a 300-mile radius. In the true spirit of Midwestern welcome, the menu aims to please myriad appetites and predilections. Choose from between two tasting menus (one vegetarian), a wealth of small plates, hearty entrees (don’t miss the riff on cassoulet), or order one of the five burger variations offered at the sports fan-friendly bar. Russo has a singular gift for doling out bear hugs of direct, honest flavors in his cooking; his love of culinary Minnesota makes Heartland the neighborhood restaurant of dreams. Here's a guide to the Twin Cities' essentials.
New Orleans, LA
Chef Donald Link’s first restaurant — not as splashy as recent partnerships like Cajun-Southern sensation Cochon, sandwich shop extraordinaire Cochon Butcher, and grilled seafood palace Peche — still exudes a bewitching, timeless gentility. Like New Orleans itself, the kitchen (under daily direction from chef de cuisine Rebecca Wilcomb) borrows from a grab bag of cultures and somehow arrives at an elegant crossroad. Italian influences show especially well — the riff on spaghetti carbonara with a poached egg is one of the city’s modern classics — but visitors and residents alike who sip one spoonful of the powerful, chocolate-brown gumbo will know themselves to be nowhere else but Louisiana. Why New Orleans is America's best lunch town.
Of all the chefs and writers who have salvaged, heralded, and personalized Southern cooking in recent years, Sean Brock most nimbly bridges the distance between tradition and innovation. In his kitchens, Gullah crab fried rice or shrimp and grits can appear alongside Cheerwine-glazed ham or smoked and fried chicken skins with kimchi mayo for dipping. Between the original Husk in Charleston and the Nashville location that opened three years later, Tennessee takes the edge for pushing the extremes between classical and modern Southern cooking ever further. It’s also the one place that serves Brock’s incredible fried chicken, cooked in a meaty mélange that includes bacon fat and rendered country ham. More intel on both of Sean Brock's Husk restaurants.
If ever there were a moment for Russian cuisine to ascend to the American mainstream, it’s now. The curing and pickling crazes have primed our palates for northern Eurasian flavors. Affordable caviar and electric orange salmon roe are now ubiquitous. And who doesn’t want to spend a few dreamy minutes with a bowl of silken dumplings? Chef Bonnie Morales, née Frumkin, uses the Belarusian foods of her childhood as a springboard into the cuisines of the former Soviet Union. The flurry of cured fish, sharp-flavored salads, meat-filled Siberian pelmeni, and vodka flights that she and her front-of-house husband Israel conjure nightly is irresistible. Read the full review of Kachka here.
Las Vegas, NV
Mastering the moonscape playground that is Las Vegas means finding balance between fantasy and reality, excess and moderation, flash and substance, and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon nails that tightrope act. Robuchon’s international "workshop" concept, launched in 2003, helped propel the now-prevalent notion that refined, stylized food can hook an audience in a casual setting. Executive chef Steve Benjamin worked at the original Atelier in Paris, heading to the States when the Vegas outpost opened in 2005. The continuity he upholds, in skillful interpretations of Robuchon classics like foie gras-stuffed quail alongside an intensely butter potato puree, of how to bring the philosophies and extravagances of an earlier era into harmony with contemporary dining. More on how to master Vegas dining here.
Los Gatos, CA
To experience the current pinnacle of California cuisine, head 55 miles south of San Francisco and sit down for David Kinch’s revelatory tasting menu. Kinch opened Manresa in 2002, and his partnership with grower Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farm has led him to ever more intuitive and borderless approaches to cooking. A meal in August included tomato and garlic custard in tomatillo broth, a chunky version of green gazpacho, and a sultry tangle of melon, lettuce, and glass noodles alongside a pool of green curry. It all left me with the impression that I'd never tasted truly fresh food before — even after a week of eating through the Bay Area’s finest. It was otherworldly, a little unhinging, and entirely exhilarating. Why the Bay Area is the country's best fine dining destination.
New York, NY
Twelve years ago, David Chang began serving ramen with bacon-enhanced pork bone broth and steamed Chinese buns in a tiny East Village restaurant. The phenomenon he created changed dining worldwide (and spawned a global empire), striking a crack in upscale formality that spread until the genre shattered. All these years later, the original Momofuku still delivers on its menu of classics, though the latest creations by Chang’s imaginative squad deserve equal attention. (A recent win: Chinese broccoli zinged with pickled shrimp, orange, and brown butter.) With its rich pastiche of faces and languages in the kitchen and in the dining room, Noodle Bar remains one of Manhattan’s great egalitarian havens. Read the full review of Noodle Bar here.
Los Angeles, CA
The past decade has seen a slow movement away from the denatured homogenization of restaurant Thai food in America, and a growing awareness of the country’s funkier regional cuisines. Kris Yenbamroong is a guardian of those glorious extremes, going for the jugular with recipes that throw heat and spice and stink in your face. The room and the crowd, both psychedelic, match the cooking’s intensity. Order a slew of dishes — belligerently spicy salads, pungent curries, catfish "tamales" steamed in a banana leaf, "Bangkok mall pasta" aggressive with garlic and salted fish — along with a bottle from the terrific, eccentric list of natural wines, and the meal becomes as much an exuberant endorphin rush as it does advanced cultural immersion course. Read more about L.A.'s white-hot dining scene here.
In the age of Ottolenghi cookbooks and fusion fattoush, Ana Sortun’s translations of Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisines are more germane than ever. The kitchen’s unequaled savvy with intricate spicing makes it a national standard-bearer. Come here to savor differences in regional spice blends and how they interact with foods: herbal za’atar brightening lemon chicken; nut-rich dukkah (this one starring almonds) intensifying a carrot puree; and peppery, sweet-edged baharat animating quail kebabs with dried barberries and pistachio. Even when American trends like deviled eggs, burrata, and sweet potato fries pop up on the menu, the sun-baked flavors that surround them speak profoundly to the lands of Sortun’s inspiration. All the intel on Ana Sortun's Boston restaurants.
Texas is the capital of America’s meat obsession, reflected in the state’s endless supply of chili con carne, dry-aged steaks, and of course, smoked brisket. One stunning exception: Justin Yu’s tasting-menu odes to flora, with another option incorporating a bit of fauna if you so desire. The laid back space — brick walls, central counter, mid-career Joni Mitchell or early Michael Jackson on the turntable — eases you into the artistry of the food. Yu and his diverse corps of cooks (including his pastry chef wife Karen Man) create ravishing, electric dishes. Yu grew up in a family that ran Cantonese restaurants, but his food taps into many cuisines, registering as a brilliant distillation of Houston’s astounding multiculturalism. More on Houston's massive, diverse dining scene.
Husband and wife team Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark waded into the next-gen fusion fray with their mid-priced destination spot, which takes its cues from Kim’s Korean heritage (dolsot bi bim bop, the rice salad served in a blisteringly hot bowl, is textbook greatness) and then spins off in myriad clever directions that all coalesce on the plate — like an irresistible version of bing, the Chinese flatbread, here given a steakhouse makeover with baked potato dough, bacon, scallions, and sour cream-enriched butter. In a short time (the restaurant opened in 2014), the duo’s cooking has become a national example of culinary individualism that nevertheless prioritizes the pleasure of the customer over creative excesses. Read on for more essential Chicago destinations.
Two decades ago, Chris Bianco, a Bronx native baking pies in a shopping-center restaurant in Arizona, catalyzed the modern pizzeria revolution. His misshapen pies sprang from a Neapolitan-American tradition, but achieved higher glory under a freethinker’s close attention and fanatical approach to quality ingredients. Exceptional pizza can be found across the country now, but Bianco’s masterworks still merit a journey. His crust has fragrant, bready depth. The man is so passionate about the tomatoes for his subtly sweet, basil-scented sauce that he started his own canning label. Among his six signature pies, I’m partial to the Wiseguy topped with smoked mozzarella, slices of fennel sausage, and bronzed rings of roasted onions. More on why Chris Bianco is the country's best pizza maker.
The greatness of Ashley Christensen’s flagship begins with her macaroni au gratin. Made with cheddar, Jarlsberg, and Grano Padano and broiled to a crusty, bubbly bronze, its a mingling of French and Southern sensibilities, and there may be no better version of mac and cheese anywhere. Christensen has firmly planted herself at the crossroads of high-low dining: beyond the macaroni, her menu changes nightly, offering dishes homey in flavor and meticulous in execution. During a spectacular spring meal, that meant delicate flounder filet over turnip greens creamed with pureed turnips, and fried soft-shell crab over early tomatoes with Brussels sprouts slaw. The restaurant’s interior — an affectionate updating of the original 1940s diner with pressed-tin roof and a metallic double-horseshoe-shaped counter — perfectly mirrors how Christensen raises Americana to new heights. Take a North Carolina dining road trip here.
The hot chicken rage continues to blaze nationally, with even KFC jumping on the bandwagon.To relish the original, head to a nondescript strip mall about seven miles from Nashville’s city’s center — according to current proprietress Andre Prince Jeffries, her great uncle Thornton Prince III invented the dish in the 1930s. A line usually snakes through the room ‘til late on Fridays and Saturdays, when the restaurant stays open until 4 a.m. Choose from among mild, medium, hot, and extra hot — my nose tingles and my scalp prickles, but the taste is so narcotic that I clean my plate every time. Read on for an essential guide to Nashville fried chicken.
The question of what Midwestern cuisine actually is has been percolating for a while now. The Publican — the crowning achievement of Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality Group — is one affirming interpretation. When it opened in 2008, the restaurant emphasized pork and beer, two of Kahan’s obsessions. In a nod to changing tastes, the seafood and especially the vegetable dishes created by chef de cuisine Cosmo Goss now keep equal pace. The place is raucous every night: sitting at a communal table, with a Hefeweizen in one hand and a crackly pork rind or forkful of curried cauliflower in the other, you’re in a joyfully immersive clamor that sings of Chicago. Paul Kahan's Chicago restaurants, ranked.
Calling it a pizzeria doesn’t accurately express Roberta’s virtuosity; under the direction of chef Carlo Mirarchi, the restaurant has defied easy categorization since opening in 2008. He takes the menu past the limited scope of margheritas and calzones (sublime though they are) to encompass inventive comforts like grilled and fried sunchokes piqued with Asian pear, hazelnuts, and miticrema (a spreadable Spanish cheese). It all coheres, as well as the space’s rambling, concrete barracks motif, makes the place feel like the spiritual center of Brooklyn dining. And those who want to skip the two-hour prime-time waits can head next door for takeout pies and killer garlic knots. Read the full review of Roberta's here.
No other restaurant rewards a lengthy wait for a table with such enveloping hospitality. Once you’re inside the converted two-story townhouse, the warm staff speeds out drinks and an array of sumptuous breads. That welcome onrush sets the tone for food crafted with equal parts smarts and gusto. Few chefs bring such unerring daring to their menu as Aaron Silverman, who has grown ever more confident in uniting unlikely ingredients into astonishing ensembles. His crumbled pork sausage with lychees, coconut cream, and herbs has emerged as a signature, as has his family-style serving of magnificent smoked brisket. Read the full review of Rose's Luxury here.
Teiichi Sakurai, one of the country’s greatest and most under-sung Japanese chefs, devotes himself foremost to fresh soba. The taupe noodles are famously challenging to form and cut, but in his hands, they seem to have life force. In the sanctuary of the dining room, savor them served cold in a wicker basket with dipping sauces, or hot in a soup with soy-dashi broth. To best understand the full measure of Sakurai’s mastery, call ahead and request the seven-course omakase that often includes A5 wagyu beef and ultra-seasonal fish. Soba, in its simple splendor, is always the finale. Read the full review of Tei An here.
Los Angeles, CA
When culinary historians document the curious period in American dining when ambitious chefs served elaborate tasting menus in unapologetically casual settings, Trois Mec will be the exemplar. Chef-owner Ludo Lefebvre and partners Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook may be preoccupied with their newer restaurant projects, but their first collaboration is still at an apex of excellence. Creations like beet tartare ringed by smoked eel, horseradish crème fraiche, and potato pancake border on mystical: the sum elicits so much more flavor than the parts would suggest. Polished servers work the 28-seat room (which still looks very much its former tenant, a pizzeria) with the coddling attention one would expect at the Paris Ritz. Watch Trois Mec's entire tasting menu in 60 seconds.
These are herbivorous times in dining, with chefs showing more adoration toward vegetables than ever before. But those seductively prepared roots, brassicas, and nightshades don’t need to share the menu with massive slabs of meat in the hands of chefs as skilled and driven as Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. The format couldn’t be more modern: a swank, multi-room restaurant in a Center City brownstone, with a menu that delivers gorgeous, substantial small plates, beginning with salt-roasted beets sculpted with avocado, smoked tofu, and cucumber. Plainly stated, Vedge is the best meat-free restaurant in America — and a fantastic restaurant, period. Read the full review of Vedge here.
The Whale Wins takes the communal, Pacific Northwest aesthetic of chef Renee Erickson’s other restaurant, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and delves into dishes that are saucier and riskier, with a menu of punched-up zingers: sardines over toast slathered with curried tomato paste, roasted chicken wings with anchovy-herb vinaigrette, and raclette oozing around green tomato marmalade and date vinegar. The lofty space shines in all of Seattle’s seasons, cozy enough to stand up to the misty months, airy enough to be flooded with light when the sun finally appears. Everything you need to know about Renee Erickson's Seattle restaurants.
Spike and Amy Gjerde’s always-mobbed restaurant triumphantly takes up the cause of Maryland-style cuisine: skillet-based chicken and biscuits, oyster pan roast with hot sauce made from fish peppers (a once popular, now nearly extinct strain of chile), and extravagant crab, particularly in the summer months. Sly nods to Baltimore’s long-standing cultural communities, like lamb sausage over warm potato salad and sauerkraut evocative of German fare, deepen the menu’s championing of the Chesapeake region. The smells of focaccia baking in the wood-burning oven will hurry you through the door; the sweet hospitality and killer cooking will have you daydreaming of returning. Read the full review of Woodberry Kitchen here.
The multidimensional dishes Michael Solomonov serves at his flagship restaurant have propelled the flavors of Middle Eastern cooking nationwide. The Tel Aviv-born chef illuminates the breadth of modern Israeli cooking through the small salads called salatim, the array of hummuses that glamorize chickpeas like never before, and the mezze plates that interweave Levantine, Turkish, North African, and Eastern European influences. Bring a group for the breathtaking smoked lamb shoulder braised in pomegranate juice. No place else in America serves such a sensuous, transporting, and finely wrought feast. More on Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook's Philly restaurant empire.
Editors: Helen Rosner and Meghan McCarron
Art Director: Tyson Whiting
All photos by Bill Addison unless otherwise noted.