Today we announce the seventh annual Eater Awards, celebrating the chefs and restaurants that truly made an impact in 2016. We recognize restaurant owners working to create better environments for their staff and diners, plus the establishments — from cafes and pizzerias to fine dining spots — that have taken the food world by storm. Read on to learn more about this year’s best of the best.
Chef of the Year
Well before this year, Corey Lee was already regarded as a chef’s chef among his peers: He draws upon the cuisines of China and his native Korea for the singular tasting menu at his San Francisco flagship restaurant, Benu, and he brings precision to Gallic comforts at his bistro Monsieur Benjamin. But with his latest project, In Situ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he’s mapping uncharted territory as a chef-curator. The menu rotates to showcase the signature dishes of 80 of the world’s most influential chefs, who work with Lee to make sure he nails the details. Rather than mere mimicry, the result is akin to a choreographer interpreting a benchmark ballet. And like a work of art, the food is as wonderful to look at as it is to savor. With the debut of In Situ, it’s clear Lee is an unstoppable genius. —Bill Addison
Empire Builder of the Year
Renee Erickson’s rise to the top of Seattle’s dining scene has felt inexorable, like the tide rolling in. She and her Pacific Northwest-focused Sea Creatures restaurant group caught the nation’s attention with the 2010 launch of her second eatery, The Walrus and The Carpenter, a bright and lofty showcase for Pacific Northwest oysters and their kin. Her 2012 follow-up, wood-fired The Whale Wins, solidified her fame, eventually netting her this year’s James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest.
And in late 2015, Erickson doubled her empire with the addition of three side-by-side Capitol Hill ventures. Bar Melusine, a lovely oyster bar that the chef has described as "Walrus's French-Atlantic cousin,” is proof that Erickson can repeat her successes if she’d like. General Porpoise charts new territory: It’s a darling little doughnut and coffee shop, frying London-style treats filled with creams, custards, and jams. And Bateau is Erickson’s boldest departure, a steakhouse that Eater critic Bill Addison believes to be the country’s most innovative. “Bateau is another advancement altogether that reflects smart choices about whole-animal cooking and finding true pleasure in the unexpected,” he said in naming it one of America’s best new restaurants this year. Eventually, Bateau’s meat may come entirely from Erickson’s young farm on nearby Whidbey Island; for now, it’s nevertheless a stunning paean to beef, with its nightly list of unusual cuts that get crossed off the chalkboard when they’re gone.
Erickson’s empire doesn’t sprawl the way others do, at least not yet — this is a captain who runs a tight ship. — Adam H. Callaghan
Pastry Chef of the Year
Maple & Ash, Chicago
As one of the country’s most gifted pastry chefs, Aya Fukai certainly commands mastery of the modern bells and whistles: She’s composed plates awhirl with jellies, powders, crumbles, and creams at some of the toniest hotel restaurants in Chicago. But in joining the crew at Maple & Ash, a steakhouse upending established notions of that genre, Fukai ups her already celestial game by choosing to revel in the sublime delights of simpler, often homier sweets. She pulls off comforts like coconut cream pie and refinements like pear crepe cake with equal artistry. And if you crave a bombastic chophouse finale, she delivers with an ice cream sundae service that goes gleefully overboard with a dozen-plus possible toppings. —BA
Best Neighborhood Restaurant
From Hillary Dixler’s piece on why Oberlin is the neighborhood restaurant Providence needs: When chef Benjamin Sukle opened Oberlin this January, he wanted to serve regulars. He already had his tasting-menu restaurant, Birch, in Providence, RI, but Sukle and his wife Heidi hoped to explore casual comfort foods while still showcasing the fine-dining-caliber products he works with at Birch.
In a warm, well-lit space in downtown Providence, Oberlin serves a menu featuring dishes like pastas, whole-roasted fish, and plenty of vegetables, plus a raw bar to pair with sake, cider, beer, and natural, biodynamic, or organic wines. The Sukles opened the restaurant to bring a more casual dinner option — a place for the community to gather every day — to the city, whose dining scene previously had a strong focus on special occasion meals. The 50-seat spot succeeded: It's already racking up accolades, and, more importantly, has created a space that the neighborhood needed.
Actually Doing Something About it Award
Danny Meyer, Locol, Gabriela Camara
Union Square Hospitality Group CEO and Shake Shack founder, New York
Late last year, Union Square Hospitality Group founder Danny Meyer made waves by committing to gradually eliminate tipping in all of his restaurants in an attempt to more fairly distribute wages to front and back of house staffers, fund benefits, and move away from the historically racist, sexist, and generally unfair system of gratuities in restaurants. That alone merits lauding. That he is using his “Hospitality Included” system to offer four weeks paid parental leave to all of his full-time staffers is a further step in the right direction. If America isn’t going to compete with the rest of the developed world when it comes to benefits, it’s up to private sector leaders like Meyer to take the charge. — Amanda Kludt
Oakland and Los Angeles
The odd-couple pairing of fine dining chef Daniel Patterson and outspoken food truck kingpin Roy Choi opened an important and radical fast-food chain in Locol earlier this year. The mission is straightforward yet novel: serve nutritious, creative, delicious, and affordable food in underserved poor urban areas, and staff the restaurant with locals. They’ve opened up in Watts and Oakland in California and hope to expand to nine new locations, including a commissary and a coffee shop in 2017. —AK
Cala, San Francisco
Though Mexican chef and restaurateur Gabriela Camara has said she didn’t start San Francisco’s Cala, her first U.S. restaurant, as a social project, that’s what ended up happening. Instead of turning to culinary schools and Craigslist when staffing up in the notoriously competitive and expensive SF market, she went to probation programs and halfway houses to hire a team of ex-convicts. Since opening, the percentage of ex-cons on staff has dropped from its 70 percent starting point, but all restaurants face staff turnover. Camara and team are trying to give second chances to a marginalized group of people and doing their part to fight recidivism. And they are doing it while running one of the best new restaurants in the country. —AK
Most Beautiful Restaurant of the Year
Here’s LA editor Matthew Kang on the “high-ceilinged beauty” that is Gwen: “Curtis Stone and brother Luke set out to open one of the most ambitious restaurants in Los Angeles, and these are the results: a top flight European-style butcher shop up front, and a gorgeous, 83-seat Art Deco-style dining room in the heart of Hollywood. Blending rustic and industrial with the elegant and lush, the Stones have really outdone themselves here.
Designed by brothers Evan and Oliver Haslegrave of hOme Studios, the place feels very much like a gussied up movie set from The Matrix or Gattaca, blending elements of steampunk, Art Deco, and gothic interiors. The moody lighting gives it that tuxedo-evening gown feel, the kind of comfortable place to hold a fancy soiree. The design details look phenomenally well thought out, and the space just beckons those to revel in everything from the chinchilla barstools to the green velvet banquettes.”
2016 Food World Obsession
From Lucas Peterson’s feature on the ‘mad genius’ that is Baroo: “Diners come in droves, however, especially on the weekends. I've spoken to at least a dozen people who have eaten there, and every single person has loved it. There are a handful of negative reviews on Yelp, but those all seem involve frustration with wait time when Baroo is busy. This is in spite of the fact that the food is not approachable, in a conventional sense. There are 10, 15, or even more components to every dish, with half of the plates containing ingredients that the average diner has never even heard of, much less eaten.
This ambition and complexity attracts food critics, too, and they effuse praise, even if they aren't quite sure what to make of what Baroo is doing. The fact is, Uh is gently, almost indifferently, blazing a culinary trail into unexplored territory. His approach is very punk rock: stripped-down, forward-thinking, and firmly outside the PR machinery in which most Los Angeles restaurants are forced to operate.”
Wine List of the Year
Helen Greek Food & Wine
Sommelier Evan Turner had the kitchen and cellar equally in mind when he opened his first restaurant last year. His list is comprised entirely of Greek varietals, and at nearly 200 bottles, it is among the largest collections of wines from Greece in America. Brilliantly, Turner manages to make his wine program as fun and as approachable as it is exhaustive. His dozens of notes throughout his list are playful — “When the Texans win the Super Bowl, you will want to drink this,” he writes of a minerally Assyrtiko from Santorini’s Gavalas Winery — but also in tune with a gamut of tastes. Pinot noir fans, natural wine geeks, rosé guzzlers, and lovers of the obscure will all find liquid pleasures that deftly match chef William Wright’s full-throttle Mediterranean cooking. —BA
The High-Low Balancing Act Award
Pineapples & Pearls
As a follow-up to his ceaselessly popular Rose’s Luxury, chef-owner Aaron Silverman created a tasting-menu restaurant that charges $250 per person, which includes 13 courses (at least), beverage pairings (alcoholic or not), tax, and tip. The cost is dear, but it buys you the least stuffy fine-dining experience in America. Silverman’s ever-changing menu toys with expectations: One course may be sole Véronique, with shimmery slices of green grapes covering the fish, and then you might be eating sweetbread-stuffed chicken wings out of a cardboard box. The food is wonderful, and warm staff eliminates any hint of pretense. Not blowing that kind of dough? Swing by during the day, then, when the entrance foyer converts to a coffee shop; that’s when the kitchen cranks out one of the country’s finest fried chicken sandwiches for $8. —BA
Coffee Shop of the Year
All Day is the coffee shop that you can really sit at and enjoy all day. The welcoming airy space in downtown Miami, by 2014 Eater Young Guns winner Camila Ramos, looks like an Instagram picture come to life with mismatched vintage glasses, golden flatware, and pink marble accents on the tables. But the real star is the coffee. Creative concoctions fill the neon-green lit menu, like the “#2 & MILK,” designed to guide a guest to the exact coffee-to-milk ratio they want with their hot-weather-appropriate rosemary cold brew. But unlike most coffee shops, food here isn’t an afterthought, as All Day’s kitchen turns out dishes with a subtle nod to Ramos' Cuban roots, like a croqueta-filled sandwich and tres leches French toast. But you can’t go wrong by ordering the aptly named “Runny & Everything,” a hybrid BLT with a fried egg and gouda, with a side of extra napkins (you’re going to need them) and sitting down and staying a while. —Olee Fowler
Bill Addison’s Favorite Pie
People who travel constantly for work gravitate to reassuring touchstones — a familiar chain restaurant, a favored brand of coffee, a standard breakfast order — to keep themselves grounded in the world. I seek out pie, my favorite treat, in the nation’s greatest bakeries. My pie obsession keeps leading me back to an always-bustling corner shop in Detroit’s West Village: Lisa Ludwinski (one of Eater’s 2015 Young Guns) nails the formula for a rich crust with just the right flakiness, and her fillings roll gloriously with the local season. I plan visits to Michigan around her sour cherry-bourbon masterpiece available in July. As the community has discovered, Sister Pie is also a sustaining morning destination for egg-on-top galettes and savory hand pies. —BA
Instagram Badge of Honor
Perhaps Emmy Squared’s menu items weren’t explicitly designed with Instagram in mind. Perhaps. But they’ve proliferated on the platform nevertheless. It’s been hard for New Yorkers and food lovers elsewhere to escape the photos of perfectly curled pepperoni and pretzel bun burgers and petite wire racks topped with square “Detroit style” pizzas and drippy fried chicken sandwiches and Rice Krispie ice cream sandwiches in their feeds for the balance of this year. Luckily there’s substance here in addition to style. —AK
Cookbook of the Year
Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking
Jessica Koslow, Los Angeles
From the cookbook review by Maria Bustillos: “In this fun, luxurious book, Koslow ultimately transcends all prejudices and paradoxes [of California cuisine] with her inclusivity and love of the state’s rich fields, its crowded streets and bustling kitchens, and of its people, whether they are farmers or movie stars, in a manner that is as innovative and pleasurable as the food she serves.”
The Eater Icon Award
Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, Brooklyn, NY
The Eater Icon Award is presented to a person in the food industry who strives to elevate new voices, start tough conversations, address the real issues facing our restaurant communities around the nation. Our inaugural winner is restaurateur, cookbook author, and television host Carla Hall, who will also co-host the Eater Awards event in New York City this year.