Here now as the mostly-garbage year 2016 comes to its end, Eater takes a look back at what actually happened in America’s dining capitals. This year, empire-builders kept on building, hot dining neighborhoods kept sprouting up further and further out from typical downtown centers, and there was plenty of noise to be made about Instagram-abetted trends like poke, rainbow food, tricked-out milkshakes, and fish cone ice cream.
"In 2016, American dining was characterized by ever-clearer extremes of traditionalism and modernism."
"Overall, it felt like a year where mainstream predilections only grew more popular," says Eater restaurant editor and roving critic Bill Addison. "And yet there also existed a sense of possibility for small restaurants serving unfamiliar but astonishing food to succeed like never before."
Those smaller restaurants are riding a wave that "perhaps mirrors the divides that define current national politics," Addison says, in that "this year in American dining was characterized by ever-clearer extremes of traditionalism and modernism." According to Addison, French cuisine, the pillar of restaurant cooking that gave way to the New American approach in recent years, is making a comeback. "And yet at the same time," he says, "small, independent restaurants everywhere serve foods that come from more personal perspectives and are wonderfully harder to label. Italian cuisine — I'm thinking particularly of pasta savants like Missy Robbins at Brooklyn's Lilia and Sarah Grueneberg at Chicago's Monteverde — has become a space of individual expression."
Some other patterns: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco’s restaurant scenes buckled under the weight of soaring rents. Fast-casual or just plain-old casual restaurants dominated openings in Austin, Minneapolis, and Seattle while fancy chains sunk their claws ever-deeper into the national dining psyche. "The relentless expansion of concepts like Shake Shacks shows that so many of us still look to the burger, our national dish if ever we had one, for sustenance and comfort," Addison says. In D.C., diners pledged allegiance to the tasting menu, while in Chicago a new breed of steakhouses reaffirmed the city’s reputation for the genre. From Philadelphia to Denver, "our hunger for sushi only grows more rabid," notes Addison.
Here now, a snapshot of the year in dining in each of Eater's 23 cities:
"Major developments — food halls and the mixed-use variety — that have crammed stables of notable restaurateurs into tight quarters kept Atlantans' attention in 2016. But some, including longtime Atlanta restaurant critic Christiane Lauterbach, argue this modern idea of urbanity actually hinders urbanism by taking pedestrians off the street. The influx of so many new eateries in such a short amount of time has also taken its toll on some established restaurants in the city. When chef Jay Swift announced the shutter of his lauded eight-year-old dining room 4th & Swift in July, he did not mince words in attributing it to an oversaturated market. 'You can look at the calendar,' Swift said, 'and when Ponce City Market and Inman Quarter opened, our sales dived.'" — Chris Fuhrmeister, Eater Atlanta editor
"Austin's 2016 was full of restaurant shutters and, more interestingly, major switcheroos. Chefs and owners saw which way the wind was blowing and decided to change things up while holding onto their valuable real estate. A prime example of this is the transformation of high-concept Gardner, which focused on elegant vegetables, into the more comfortable and rustic Chicon, which seems more aligned with its parent comapany, the Contigo restaurant group, anyway." — Nadia Chaudhury, Eater Austin editor
"Cambridge's Kendall Square was unexpectedly the Boston area’s star dining neighborhood in 2016. Typically more of a weekday lunch zone due to its saturation of tech companies, labs, and other offices, its night and weekend scene has really begun to pick up recently. In particular, the development One Kendall Square is now packed with great options: Four restaurants (the Blue Room, Belly Wine Bar, Flat Top Johnny's, and Beantowne Coffee House) reopened, better than ever, after a devastating fire a year ago; Mamaleh's (a Jewish-style delicatessen) and the Smoke Shop (barbecue) opened to much fanfare; and State Park held down the fort. Plus, the Automatic just opened down the street, owned by Cambridge food and beverage royalty, serving up comfort food and nostalgic cocktails (Sex on the beach! Mudslides!)." — Rachel Leah Blumenthal, Eater Boston editor
"A lot of big-name chefs opened their anticipated projects this year: Damon Wise, John Lewis, Michael Toscano, and Sean Brock. Charleston is keeping an eye on how these projects turn out. Wise has already headed back to NYC, but the others forge ahead into 2017." — Erin Perkins, Eater Charleston editor
"Two opposite, upscale trends ruled Chicago in 2016: the return of creative fine dining and the blossoming of new-school steakhouses. The opening of Michelin-starred newcomers Oriole and Smyth, alongside the well-reviewed and brand-new Entente, the just-opened Elske, and Temporis, have brought back the groundbreaking high-end, risk-taking cooking the city was known for in the recent past. On the flipside, the other high-end cuisine the city is known for — steakhouses — got a breath-of-fresh-air transformation thanks to newcomers Maple & Ash, Boeufhaus, GT Prime, Swift & Sons, and Knife." — Daniel Gerzina, Eater Chicago editor
"There really wasn't an earth-shattering moment in the Dallas dining world this year. Chef Bruno Davaillon left his post at the Mansion Restaurant to strike out on his own and Shake Shack came to town, but it was an otherwise pretty quiet, relatively boring year." — Amy McCarthy, Eater Dallas editor
"The Mile High City scene grew by leaps and bounds in 2016. The Denver Central Market and Stanley Marketplace joined existing food halls like Avanti, a trend that is continuing to grow. If one type of restaurant saw a major upswing this year, it was sushi spots. In fewer than 12 months, Denver added Matsuhisa, Sushi Ronin, Mizu Izakaya, and Bamboo Sushi, among others." — Andra Zeppelin, Eater Denver editor
"Whereas previous years saw a focus on New American food, 2016 restaurant newcomers like Katoi, with its Thai-inspired offerings, and La Rondinella's Northern Italian fare helped diversify Detroit's dining landscape. This was also a big year for pizza and Japanese cuisine in the metro area, and Detroit continued to be a favorite target market for big names and chains to open outposts (Wahlburgers, Calexico, Granite City Food & Brewery, and Shake Shack to name a few). Detroit also saw several big closures and chef shuffles — particularly in Corktown — this fall. It's still not clear what to make of these changes in the neighborhood. The area continues to be extremely popular with up-and-coming restaurants and vacancies aren't staying on the market for long." — Brenna Houck, Eater Detroit editor
"This year was really huge for Houston in terms of being recognized on a more national scale: Justin Yu won the Beard for Best Chef: Southwest; Bourdain filmed Parts Unknown; it earned praise from the New York Times; and David Chang penned a love letter to the city for GQ. The biggest locally important news of 2016 came when Yu announced in late November that he would close Oxheart next year. He plans to reopen a new a la carte concept in the space, which may indicate something about how Houston feels in general about tasting menus." — Amy McCarthy, Eater Houston editor
"This year, Las Vegas saw the rise of the poke bowl and sushi burrito. Great restaurants such as DB Brasserie announced closing in early 2017, while Miami giants Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and Chica, a new concept from John Kunkel's 50 Eggs, announced their arrivals. Chick-fil-A has two locations on the horizon, firsts for Las Vegas, while In-N-Out Burger finally plants stakes on the Strip." — Susan Stapleton, Eater Vegas editor
"2016 was the year that the small, plucky, chef driven restaurant came back to prominence. Sure we have Trois Mec and the like, but places like Baroo, Kato, Destroyer, and even spots like Shibumi, Raku, and Kali show that small is the way to go for creative culinary minds. That said, it was contrasted by a couple of massive new openings like Pok Pok, Otium, Catch, and 71Above, and some incredibly anticipated openings on the horizon.
The real estate market is really putting a pinch on restaurants, and with minimum wage hitting $12 an hour next year (up from $8.75 a few years ago), the game is getting much more difficult. Hence, you either go big budget and large scale, or small, nimble, and budget-friendly. Looking ahead, since Los Angeles is now unquestionably at the center of the nation's most fervent dining discussions, chefs/restaurateurs from every other city in America are poised to descend. That means the Slanted Door from SF, an unnamed project from Jenn Louis out of Portland, and of course all things NoMad from New York City and the Broken Shaker concept out of Miami." — Matthew Kang, Eater LA editor, and Farley Elliott, Eater LA senior editor
"This year, Miami saw Asian-fusion flavors at almost every big opening. Wynwood remained hot, but MiMo is right on its tails. Doughnuts finally found their way down here, but fast-casual healthy concepts shined, too. And vodka sodas be damned, the skills and maturity of our craft cocktail scene proved that our bars are worthy of attention." — Olee Fowler, Eater Miami editor
"In a trend continuing from last year's La Belle Vie closure, Minneapolis continued its long goodbye to innovators of fine dining, such as Vincent A Restaurant and Saffron. We also showed we aren't fans of crudo with a spate of openings and closings of Italian eateries like Il Foro, Parella, and Scena. It seems Twin Cities diners are still looking for the casual, neighborhood eateries like Mucci's." — Joy Summers, Eater Minneapolis editor
"There was angst aplenty this year as restaurateurs and the general public debated whether a long stretch of Notre-Dame Street — home to numerous high-profile restaurants, including Joe Beef — had hit peak restaurant. Since Joe Beef set up in 2005 and countless other restaurants followed (including two more from Joe Beef's owners), Notre-Dame and the surrounding streets have gentrified at warp speed, and residents of the historically working class areas of Saint-Henri, Little Burgundy, and Griffintown expressed concern that their neighborhoods were transforming into fine-dining playgrounds for the moneyed condo crowds, with too many restaurants and not enough of anything else (see: grocery stores). Municipal government stepped in with a new law requiring that any new restaurant will need to be at least 25 meters from another one — ideally freeing up space for non-food businesses." — Tim Forster, Eater Montreal editor
"In 2016, Nashville showed no signs of slowing in terms of the sheer volume of new openings, continuing what is going on a nearly three-and-a-half year restaurant boom. And it was a big year for bars as well, with what are already being considered some of the best in the city opening up in the past 12 months." — Matt Rogers, Eater Nashville editor
"Without a doubt, 2016 in New Orleans was the year of expansions. Over half a dozen of the major restaurant openings this year were expansions from major name chefs including Emeril Lagasse (Meril), John Besh (Caribbean Room, Pigeon & Prince), Susan Spicer (Rosedale), and Isaac Toups (Toups South). Cocktail pros Cure Co. and Leblanc + Smith both expanded in 2016, with Cafe Henri and Cavan respectively. New Orleans' restaurant empire-builders Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts— owners of some 14 restaurant concepts including Broussard's and Kingfish, along with dozens of daiquiri shops— opened no less than four expansions this year, including a family-friendly daiquiri cafe and high-end revamp Tommy's Wine Bar, with plans to renovate three major spaces in 2017, including former dining hotbed Maurepas Foods in the Bywater. Big name chefs Michael Gulotta of Mopho and Phillip Lopez of Root also have big expansions on the way before 2016 ends." — Gwendolyn Knapp, Eater NOLA editor
New York City
"New York has always been a tough place to run a restaurant, but 2016 was the year when the industry, including some of its most high profile chefs and operators, started reacting to the impossible rents and razor-thin margins by either closing their marquee establishments or moving them. Danny Meyer relocated Union Square Cafe because he got priced out. Tom Colicchio pulled the plug on Colicchio & Sons. Fatty Crab went up in smoke. Lowlife, a critical darling, only lasted six months. Bill had to say goodbye to Telepan. And Bouley announced plans to completely consolidate his Tribeca empire. Heck, even Keith McNally griped about the rent, and how some of his establishments don't break even these days. Meanwhile, NYC saw an influx of chains of every sort — including many higher-end Japanese restaurants. Foreign money, and deep pockets in general, will play a big role in how the NYC dining scene evolves in 2017." — Greg Morabito, Eater NY editor
"For a while there, Philly’s Japanese scene never grew out of its Morimoto phase. Sure, there were a few stand-out neighborhood sushi bars, but for the most part, Japanese dining in Philadelphia was a weak contender, especially on a national scale. 2016, however, gifted the city with two outstanding new restaurants, Royal Sushi & Izakaya and Double Knot: both izakayas, both helmed by some of the region's best Japanese chefs." — Alex Tewfik, Eater Philly editor
"The biggest story in Portland in 2016 was how hard it became to open a restaurant in this city. Major spots many thought couldn't fail, like Smallwares and P.R.E.A.M., closed, whereas others, like Americano, Honky Tonk Taco, and Common Law — restaurants and bars opened by Portland's heavy-hitting chefs and restaurateurs — lasted a matter of months. (Americano was even named The Oregonian's Bar of the Year shortly before it closed.) 2016 is the year restaurant competition got real in Portland, and it's lit a fire under Portland chefs." — Mattie John Bamman, Eater PDX editor
"This year, San Diego continued its discovery of Baja's culinary treasures, from wine, beer, and spirits to ingredients from the land and sea, via cross-border chef collaborations and new and upcoming restaurant concepts celebrating the region. Tiki ruled the bar scene, with tropical drinks befitting the city's sunny scene taking over cocktail menus." — Candice Woo, Eater San Diego editor
"San Francisco's year was a series of ups and downs. While there were many openings, there was also a spate of big closures, particularly in the tumultuous mid-Market neighborhood. The city may have reached peak restaurant, while also battling a series of systemic issues like staffing shortages, high rent, complicated and slow permitting, and other hurdles. Meanwhile restaurateurs adapted, ushering in a trend of hybrid fast-casual service meant to stem profit losses from increasing minimum wage, healthcare, and more. The city also saw a year of extreme accolades, welcoming many more Michelin stars to the fold, and boasting some of the nation's most heralded openings like Corey Lee's In Situ." — Ellen Fort, Eater San Francisco editor
"This year, Seattle went all in on poke, an early adopter in the country's craze for Hawaii's raw fish salad. Even restaurants not dedicated to the dish added it to their menus, while the Godfather of Poke, Sam Choy, was one of many who opened brick-and-mortars here with a laser-like focus on fresh fish. It seems to be the perfect fit for a dining populace already in love with fast-casual restaurants where high quality ingredients are served at reasonable prices in a stripped-down setting with Seattle's signature service (aka negligible)." — Adam Callaghan, Eater Seattle editor
"2016 was the year of the tasting menu in D.C. The city was dominated by ambitious — and expensive — restaurants where the chefs called the shots. Some were critical darlings, like Eric Ziebold's comeback with Metier, as well as Aaron Silverman's Rose's Luxury follow-up, Pineapple & Pearls (which also earned praise from Eater's Bill Addison for its daytime forays into fried chicken sandwiches). Others were greeted with more skepticism, such as the opening of the Shaw Bijou from Top Chef's Kwame Onwuachi, which opened to criticism over its price and a tepid first look from a major D.C. critic." — Missy Frederick, Eater DC editor