What factors make any given restaurant that much better than another? In a country with so many great eating places to choose from, seeking out the best ones can be a daunting feat and could quite possibly inspire blood-boiling debate. Just how good is that cozy neighborhood spot with the best spaghetti and meatballs you've ever had? What about that impossible-to-get-into sushi bar that serves 20 perfectly executed courses to a handful of lucky diners every night? And who's to say the best restaurant in America isn't a barbecue place so incredible that both visitors and locals are willing to wait in line for three hours for sliced brisket and ribs? Bearing this in mind, we offer The Daily Meal's list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2012.
Click here to see The Daily Meal's 101 Best Restaurants in America 2012
This is our second annual attempt to acknowledge and rank the multitude of great restaurants, on every level, with which our country is blessed, and it should be noted that while a third of last year's restaurants fell off, 68 of the places that made the cut last year also secured a spot in 2012. That turnover made room for a considerable handful of new, fresh places and familiar spots that didn't show up in 2011.
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The list includes all kinds of restaurants - there are pizza places (such as Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Conn., and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix), taco joints (like La Taqueria in San Francisco) and a handful of real down-home spots serving up food without frills (like Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., and Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Mo.). Right beside those more casual eateries are fine dining restaurants that are constantly bringing innovation to the culinary scene, and ones that stand as iconic beacons of light that have guided the industry for decades. It appears that The New York Times' revered dining section would agree with this philosophy, given Pete Wells' review of Shake Shack.
Click here to see the Best American Restaurants Across the Country
You may question the final results ("Katz's Deli is better than Next?"), and wonder aloud how on earth one restaurant made the list when it's so clear to you that another one that didn't is much more deserving ("Ben's Chili Bowl made it but Meadowood didn't?"). But given the nature of the content being ranked, with restaurants and dining experiences as subjective as they are, it would be surprising if there weren't some disagreements. Please do let us know what you think we've missed or misranked, though. We'll publish a follow-up with your comments and opinions - and, hey, if you turn us on to some great places we've somehow missed, so much the better. There's always next year.
#20 Cochon, New Orleans
A serious cult favorite since it opened in 2006, Cochon is the domain of pork-loving chef Donald Link, proprietor of the popular Herbsaint and winner of a James Beard Award for his cookbook Real Cajun. Inspired by Cajun and Creole culinary traditions, Link serves dishes like shrimp étouffée and Louisiana cochon (roast pig) with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins', as well as such non-porcine delights as fried alligator with chile garlic aïoli and rabbit with dumplings. Things are still on fire at this Nola hot spot - chef Stephen Stryjewski won a 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South. cochonrestaurant.com
#19 Daniel, New York City
This very grown-up restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side maintains standards of service and cuisine - French haute cuisine, very much an endangered species today - that hark back to an earlier era. But the cooking is up-to-date and really, really good. It's so good in fact, that President Obama is a regular of sorts - he held a $15,000 (per person) fundraiser in January and has already visited again since then. danielnyc.com
#18 Peter Luger, Brooklyn, NY
Peter Luger is a New York classic - an institution even. Serving steak since 1887, the restaurant presents a simple menu. Single steak, steak for two, steak for three, or steak for four. In other words, how many people are you going with? OK, so there's a little more selection than that, but the point here is high-quality, expertly prepared beef, along with the famous house sauce, sliced tomato and onion salad, and of course, the celebrated thick-cut bacon appetizer. Many imitators, one original. peterluger.com
#17 ABC Kitchen, New York City
ABC Kitchen, a trendy New York City restaurant, is a celebration of the best ingredients that each season has to offer, all served in the classically elegant style that Jean-Georges is widely known for. Market-fresh dishes, like roasted kabocha squash toast with fresh ricotta and apple cider vinegar, stand alongside Vongerichten mainstays like pretzel-crusted calamari. The décor is fresh, with an utterly cool urban sophistication that pairs perfectly with the style of the home furnishings store it's connected to, ABC Carpet and Home. The restaurant was awarded the recognition of Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2011. abckitchennyc.com
#16 Jean Georges, New York City
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the few chefs in New York City with the distinction of four stars from The New York Times. At his eponymous restaurant in the Trump International Hotel and Tower, his classic French technique bridges old and new worlds, eschews heavy sauces, and embraces the spice and flavors of Asian cuisine. jean-georges.com
#15 Franklin Barbecue, Austin, Texas
By 10 a.m. on a Friday there will be more than 90 people in line at this modest new establishment. The 90 people who show in the next half hour wait in vain a waitress will tell them that there's just no barbecue left. So it goes at Franklin, where Aaron Franklin serves some of the best of Texas' greatest culinary claim to fame. The brisket, with its peppery exterior, falls apart as you pick it up. The turkey is what presidentially pardoned birds aspire to. The sausage snaps loudly when you slice it, juice splashing out and up... You've heard the buzz. It's not hype. It really is that good. franklinbarbecue.com
#14 Babbo, New York City
While Mario Batali certainly made headlines this year, Babbo stayed a New York essential. What can you say about this place that hasn't already been said? The pasta! That pork chop! Mario Batali is a genius! Rock music in a fine dining restaurant? Brilliant! At this longtime darling of the critics, after almost 14 years, you're still at the mercy of the reservation gods if you want to get in - buona fortuna. babbonyc.com
#13 Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, N.Y.
High-profile organo-loca-sustainavore Dan Barber has found the perfect home at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a beautiful restaurant in a bucolic but hardworking setting on a year-round farm and educational center. Most of what you eat here will be grown, raised, and/or processed on the property, and Barber's modern American food is full of color and flavor. www.bluehillfarm.com
#12 Pok Pok, Portland, Ore.
When Andy Ricker opened Pok Pok in 2008, he took the Pacific Northwest (and many of the nation's most devoted eaters) by storm with his uniquely refined approach to Southeast Asian street food. In fact, his Vietnamese-inspired chicken wings and boldly flavored array of house specialties are in such hot demand that Ricker opened a location dedicated specifically to wings in New York City this year. To top it off, the James Beard Foundation named Ricker the best chef in the Northwest in 2011. www.pokpokpdx.com
#11 L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, New York City
Multi-Michelin-starred chef Joël Robuchon's swanky restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel offers peaceful solace amidst the noise and bustle of midtown Manhattan. A sleek, minimalist interior is the backdrop for executive chef Xavier Boyer's classical, French-inspired menu. (The beef and foie gras burgers with caramelized bell peppers are a must.) www.fourseasons.com/newyork
#10 Citronelle, Washington, D.C.
With his Santa Claus build, amiable nature, and obvious passion for his métier, Michel Richard sometimes looks like the happiest chef alive as he leans over a plate at Citronelle that holds one of his imaginative, brilliantly executed specialties, smiling and putting on the finishing touches - a sight you can witness through the glass wall that encloses his sparkling kitchen at this D.C. classic. Though Richard's other spots, Central and Meatballs, have gotten a lot of play in the last year, Citronelle remains a D.C. star. citronelledc.com
#9 Gramercy Tavern, New York City
Gramercy Tavern is among the finest of the new wave of classic American restaurants. With Danny Meyer running the show and Michael Anthony taking control in the kitchen, the restaurant continues to excel at serving refined American cuisine without pretension. Anthony has become known for his simply prepared fish dishes in particular, such as sea bass with spaghetti squash, walnuts, and sherry sauce. And let's not forget that this is the restaurant that helped to jumpstart Tom Colicchio's career; he was a founding partner with Meyer before eventually leaving to open his collection of Craft restaurants. gramercytavern.com
#8 Momofuku Ssäm, New York City
Meals at this East Village hot spot wowed former New York Times critic Frank Bruni into a praise-filled three-star review in 2008, and no wonder. Chang's food offers bold, Asian-inspired flavors - like his duckaholic lunch and popular bo ssäm dinner (slow-cooked pork shoulder, oysters, rice, kimchee, and sauces to be wrapped in bibb lettuce leaves). David Chang continues to be the culinary cool kid. With Lucky Peach (his new magazine) and lots of buzz around Momofuku Milk Bar's Christina Tosi, he has definitely done something right. momofuku.com
#7 Per Se, New York City
This elegant dining room overlooking Central Park in the Time Warner Center remains a must-have experience in New York, even for Sam Sifton, who chose the restaurant for his final review as The New York Times' restaurant critic last year - giving it four stars. Per Se upholds the standards set by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, winning a James Beard Award in 2011 for Outstanding Service and being named the 10th best restaurant in the world in this past year by Restaurant Magazine. perseny.com
#6 Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Nancy Silverton, whose La Brea Bakery changed the game for artisanal bread in America, teams up here with New York-based Italian-food moguls Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in this lively urban restaurant, complete with a mozzarella bar, unusual pasta (calf's brain ravioli, spaghetti with marinated white anchovies), and main dishes ranging from sea trout with lentils to grilled pancetta-wrapped quail. In 2011, Mozza pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez was named a James Beard Award finalist. osteriamozza.com
#5 French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.
How did a chef whose innovative restaurant in Manhattan failed and who headed west to cook in a downtown L.A. hotel suddenly emerge in the Napa Valley to create a restaurant to rival the great three-star establishments of rural France? Hard work and outsize talent, most probably. Taking over what had been a good but far simpler restaurant, chef Thomas Keller approached contemporary American food with classical technique, and his French Laundry established new standards for fine dining in this country. In 2012, Keller and the French Laundry received a coveted AAA Five Diamond Award, just another honor to add to the pile. frenchlaundry.com
#4 Eleven Madison Park, New York City
Like many of the finest things in life, Eleven Madison Park is a restaurant that seems to get better with age. Although it opened to much fanfare and subsequent acclaim in 1998, Danny Meyer's hiring of Swiss-born Daniel Humm to helm the kitchen in 2006 elevated the place to the level of the finest restaurants in the country. Humm - who has won such plaudits for the restaurant as four stars from The New York Times, three from Michelin, and a number 24 ranking on last year's Restaurant Magazine list of the world's 50 best restaurants - bought Eleven Madison from Meyer last year, in partnership with his front-of-house counterpart, Will Guidara, so standards aren't likely to fall. elevenmadisonpark.com
#3 Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif.
Celebrating 40 years in business and still going strong, Chez Panisse was instrumental in changing the American food scene; before this restaurant, practically nobody in America served only fresh local foods and wrote menus daily, according to the season. Alice Waters, an organic-living pioneer, is also the founder of The Edible Schoolyard, a foundation that is bringing healthy breakfasts and lunches to schools across the nation. It has become fashionable to criticize this culinary icon as irrelevant or pretentious, but the truth is that her restaurant's food is still superb, both in the one-menu-a-night downstairs restaurant and the lively, diversified upstairs Café. chezpanisse.com
#2 Alinea, Chicago
There's little question that Grant Achatz, whose training includes stints with Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Ferran Adrià, deserves the title of America's most creative chef. The menu at his Alinea sounds deceptively simple (bass with black pepper, vanilla, and lemon), but what shows up on the plate is absolutely original and almost always dazzlingly good. However, there are rumors going around that he and partner Nick Kokonas have plans to make some major changes to the Alinea concept, now that they've successfully launched two new ventures, Next and The Aviary. alinea-restaurant.com
#1 Le Bernardin, New York City
Think Le Bernardin and you think accolades: Michelin, The New York Times, James Beard Foundation. Is it a little stuffy? Sure… But with a super sleek renovation recently completed and a lengthy new lease, this iconic restaurant isn't going anywhere. And if cooking fish well is an art, then chef Eric Ripert is a Michelangelo; his contemporary French touch has led some to call his creations the world's best seafood. le-bernardin.com
Click here to see all of The Daily Meal's 101 Best Restaurants in America 2012.
- Molly Aronica, The Daily Meal
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