It’s been said a million times, but it’s truer than ever: Dining is now a fundamental part of the cultural experience in America. My job, as Eater’s restaurant editor, is to study — more specifically, to devour — the nation’s culinary landscape as it constantly evolves. I crisscross the country almost nonstop, eating hundreds of meals annually to pinpoint the restaurants that not only serve remarkable meals but also define how we think about food and its meaning in our lives.
Each year I have two overarching goals: Identifying the essential modern classics for our Best Restaurants in America list, and seeking out the new paragons — the restaurants that energize their communities and will come to define national excellence. I use the Heatmaps on our 22 city-based Eater sites across the United States (and beyond) as guideposts for my journeys.
The following dozen restaurants, which opened between May 2016 and May 2017, collectively answer the question, “What’s happening in dining right now?”
New York is reveling in a blockbuster that brings midcentury continental grandeur sailing back into vogue; Seattle scores a groundbreaker that establishes a different (and vital) direction for Southern cooking; and a hotel restaurant in Houston arguably serves the most exciting Oaxacan cooking in the country. I might walk in to an Austin izakaya serving Japanese-Texan mashups or an eccentric sandwich shop in New Orleans not knowing what to expect, but I know national-caliber cooking when it arrives at the table.
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Eater’s Best New Restaurants 2017
Elske, Chicago | Felix Trattoria, Los Angeles | The Grill, New York City | Himitsu, Washington, D.C. | In Situ, San Francisco | J.C. Holdway, Knoxville, TN | JuneBaby, Seattle | Kemuri Tatsu-ya, Austin, TX | Turkey and the Wolf, New Orleans, LA | Vicia, St. Louis | Xochi, Houston | Young Joni, Minneapolis
Among Chicago’s latest celestial tasting-menu entrants and its fresh cache of inventive neighborhood restaurants, David and Anna Posey’s West Loop hideaway lands squarely in rich middle ground. Elske translates to “love” in Danish; the 1960s-era tables and chairs, in a dining room of exposed brick and shiny dark floors, equally conjures cool Danish modern and swinging Mad Men poshness. The food mines the same aesthetic, melding Nordic austerity with Midwestern warmth. It’s a marriage of thrilling highs and lows. (And with many dishes presented as layered landscapes, it’s also textbook New Romanticism.) The kitchen puts forth both tasting menus and a la carte options. I lean toward choosing my own plates to mix and match: In May, I savored stewed white asparagus paired with smoked trout, roasted quail spiked with garlicky walnut skordalia and dill, and artichoke barigoule zigzagged with contrasts of escargot and whipped sorrel. 1350 West Randolph Street, Chicago, (312) 733-1314, elskerestaurant.com
LA lays out a singular feast of worldwide cuisines (and remains my favorite food city in America), but like the rest of the country, it’s experiencing a surge of Italian restaurants — the kinds serving the carby, saucy, cheesy, herby, garlicky sustenance for which the human soul lusts. The finest of the past year’s lot, not just in LA but all over, is Evan Funke’s Venice sensation, which sits on boho-hip Abbot Kinney Boulevard in a beautifully renovated 1920s building. (Love the floral wallpaper in the back “nonna room.”) Disappear into a tempest of gluten: focaccia that reinstates that often-botched bread’s good name, battered squash blossoms filled with delicate fior di latte and green garlic, and pastas, so many pastas. The exquisite, bar-raising pappardelle with ragu Bolognese is only the beginning. Reservations can be tough, so go early and perch in the sunny front bar. 1023 Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice, (424) 387-8622, felixla.com
NEW YORK CITY
One can forgive skepticism of Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick — the principals of Major Food Group — for having the audacity to take over Manhattan’s iconic Four Seasons space and attempt to restore its theatrical, continental, midcentury heyday. Upshot? They pulled it the hell off. The place is a literal spectacle: servers in $6,000 uniforms designed by Tom Ford; Richard Lippold’s timeless sculpture of brass rods, levitating over the square bar like magical organ pipes in a Harry Potter flick; trolleys (some costing $10,000) from which ebullient staffers slice prime rib, flip omelets tableside, and merge cherries jubilee and peach Melba in a flambeed finale. The defining dish: “pasta a la presse,” in which a strong-armed soul wrings roast duck, squab, pheasant, and bacon through a duck press to extract their juices; they become the sauce for a smoky tangle of egg noodles. Like most everything about the Grill, it’s excessive, it’s swish, it’s smashing. The owners have subverted the Four Seasons paradigm, which was all about the power lunch. Now dinner is the move. 99 East 52nd Street, New York, (212) 375-9001, thegrillnewyork.com
Among the restaurants on this list, Carlie Steiner and Kevin Tien’s 24-seat spot is the hardest to package neatly into an elevator pitch: “Sushi plus global plates” doesn’t nearly capture its charisma or quality. The menu is certainly a daily-changing moving target, and it does kick off with 10 or so options for nigiri and sashimi, reflecting the most sterling seafood that Tien, who runs the kitchen, can find. From there the dishes spin into a fantasia on Asian themes: amberjack bathed in coconut milk punched up with cured squash, lime, and peanuts; yellowtail zapped with fish sauce vinaigrette; an insane braised pork shank marinated in soy and sesame; an even more righteously bonkers take on Korean fried chicken, thighs glossed in gochujang (chile paste) and served on a silver platter with biscuits. In the tradition of indie D.C. exemplars like Rose’s Luxury and Bad Saint, Himitsu doesn’t take reservations: Go early or late, or prepare for a lengthy wait. 828 Upshur Street NW, himitsudc.com
How might a restaurant emulate the qualities of a museum? That was the challenge entrusted to Corey Lee, one of the Bay Area’s (and the country’s) most brilliant chefs, by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of its $610 million expansion. In Situ is his answer. He highlights the masterworks of dozens of chefs from around the world; each of them chooses a specialty and works closely with Lee so his kitchen can interpret it faithfully. Dishes rotate through the menu like artworks in a gallery: “Creole BBQ shrimp and grits,” a soothing bowl of happiness from Tanya Holland of Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, might give way to “Tomato Velvet and Shrimps,” a study of soup and seafood by Carme Ruscalleda of Spain’s Sant Pau. It’s magnificent to parse these self-expressions, to consider all the styles and nuances and details on dazzling display. And beyond its high-mindedness, the food is also deeply pleasurable. Read my full review of In Situ here. 151 Third Street (San Francisco Modern Museum of Art), San Francisco, (415) 941-6050, insitu.sfmoma.org
Joseph Lenn, a Knoxville native who named J.C. Holdway after his gourmandizing great uncle, doesn’t necessarily delve into Appalachian favorites like “greasy beans” and dried apple stack cake. Riches from the land define his grounded cooking, though. In the winter I shoveled down grits made startlingly, gloriously caloric by hollandaise and by crumbled sausage from bacon maestro Allan Benton. Summer brings peanut brittle parfait with peaches and caramel corn, and okra given Indian and African accents with cumin and benne seeds. Lenn previously led the kitchen at nearby Blackberry Farms; here his creativity feels unchained and fully owned, a virtuoso in the fullest command of his voice. 501 Union Avenue, Knoxville, (865) 312-9050, jcholdway.com
To glimpse the future of Southern cooking in America, look to the Pacific Northwest. Chef and owner Edouardo Jordan landed on 2016’s Best New Restaurants list with his modern American pleaser Salare. If Salare’s menu reads (and tastes) like a biography of Jordan’s impressive culinary career, with JuneBaby he reaches back to his Florida and Georgia roots, mapping out a survey of the region: Easy comforts like biscuits and pimento cheese segue to salads made with “swamp cabbage” (Sunshine State lingo for hearts of palm) and pickled strawberries, oxtails in consomme made from the meat’s poaching liquid, and chitterlings jeweled with carrots and rice. This is personal, scholarly cuisine, and it distinguishes Jordan as one of the country’s most accomplished and farseeing chefs devoted to Southern food. Read my full review of JuneBaby here. 2122 Northeast 65th Street, Seattle, (206) 257-4470, junebabyseattle.com
Chili cheese takoyaki? Guaca-poke? Brisket ramen? I scanned the Japanese-Texas mashups on offer at this izakaya (in a space last occupied by a barbecue restaurant), and I thought: Welcome to Gimmick Town. Then my fork disappeared into the takoyaki. The octopus fritters brought ideal crunch against the molten cheese and beefy chili. Smoked jalapeno zapped every other bite. It was Frito Pie from another dimension. Then I thought: Genius. Chefs (and hip-hop DJs) Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto expound on their two local Ramen Tatsu-Ya shops to bridge two wholly different cultures, and the result is winning tension of opposites: a room of smoke-stained walls lined with old Japanese maps and beer ads and beat-up Texas license plates; a menu that includes fish collar with yuzu salt, sticky rice tamales with beef tongue and chorizo, and roasted banana pudding with miso caramel. Have a Matcha Pain Killer (laced, naturally, with buckwheat shochu and tequila) while you wait for a table. 2713 East Second Street, Austin, (512) 893-5561, kemuri-tatsuya.com
NEW ORLEANS, LA
Turkey and the Wolf
Building upon NOLA’s heritage as an iconoclastic sandwich town, Mason Hereford, Lauren Holton, and their crew (including 2017 Eater Young Gun Colleen Quarls) create a new world order with their wild imaginings layered between sliced bread. Fried bologna on white, crowned with molten American cheese and a handful of potato chips; speckled rotis layered with pot-roasty lamb neck or spicy fried chicken salad; a tomato sandwich buried under basil and dill: This is Ph.D.-level stoner food. Potent cocktails, an over-the-top salad or two, and smart desserts like a hand pie inspired by chicken potpie round out the concise options. The restaurant’s raucous Instagram account is a trip unto itself (and useful for learning about the day’s specials). Read my full review of Turkey and the Wolf here. 739 Jackson Avenue, New Orleans, (504) 218-7428, turkeyandthewolf.com
Tara and Michael Gallina’s remarkable debut restaurant — a modernist dream space of crisp lines; floor-to-ceiling windows; and soothing tones of white, black, and slate with woodsy accents — aims for out-and-out usefulness to its community. Counter-service lunches focus on reasonably priced sandwiches, soup, and quiche. The midday menu tides over hungry souls with charcuterie and pastries. At dinner, the a la carte options center around small plates meticulously anchored in the season and geography. To experience the fullest and most exhilarating breadth of the kitchen’s abilities, order the $85-per-person, 15-course tasting menu. The Gallinas are both alums of Dan Barber’s extraordinary Blue Hill at Stone Barns; Michael Gallina was chef de cuisine there for four years. He channels the Barber aesthetic with an opening sequence of close-to-the-moment vegetables, but the St. Louis native also weaves in some Midwestern witticisms, including fleshy ribs and a bright-orange, breakfast-as-dinner romp of egg yolk, bacon, corn, tomatoes, and cheddar. 4260 Forest Park Avenue, St. Louis, (314) 553-9239, viciarestaurant.com
Ignore the beige corporate blandness of the Marriott Marquis lobby that houses Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught’s latest — and arguably greatest — restaurant. Once you’re settled into the calming dining room, the meal becomes kaleidoscopic in its evocation of place — which isn’t H-Town but Oaxaca, with its prisms of moles and its masa-based specialties shaped into myriad geometries. In the specificity of dishes and the calibration of earthy, sweet, and gently spicy flavors, Ortega’s cooking is as exhilarating as any of the swank Oaxacan restaurants trending in Mexico City. A few keywords to seek out on Xochi’s menu: memelas (a thicker tortilla cradling roasted pork rib), tetela (blue-masa triangles filled with house-made cheese), and molotes (crisp oval cakes swathed in creamy and spicy sauces). Lunch service stands equal to dinner in excellence, a rare feat these days. 1777 Walker Street, Houston, (713) 400-3330, xochihouston.com
Some of the country’s defining restaurants emerge when a chef decides she’s going to serve customers the food that she herself longs to eat nightly. That’s the case with Ann Kim, who earned her reputation with Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza, two modern Twin City institutions. At Young Joni she and her team ace the pies, baked to a light char in a copper Le Panyol oven, but they also deliver on exactingly fine-tuned small plates: lamb kofta kebabs over pureed eggplant; a riotous take on bibimbap featuring two grains du jour, farro and Job’s tears; and Japanese sweet potatoes covered in bonito flakes that undulate from the heat like coral reefs in a strong current. Before or after dinner, stop by the restaurant’s hidden “back bar,” where star bartender Adam Gorski pours refreshingly offbeat cocktails. As for the restaurant’s name: Is it a shout-out to Ladies of the Canyon-era Joni Mitchell? Nope, it’s two first names, paying sweet homage to the mothers of Kim and her business partner and husband, Conrad Leifur. 165 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, (612) 345-5719, youngjoni.com
Photography by Bill Addison unless noted
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