Thomas Jefferson helped popularize mac and cheese when he served the dish at an 1802 state dinner (after lugging home a pasta machine from France). Ever since, chefs have been whipping up their own incarnations of this quintessential comfort food.
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At Queens Kickshaw in New York, for instance, cooks throw green beans into a mix of fancy Gruyère and smoked mozzarella, while San Francisco’s Blue Plate submerges its noodles in wine-drenched goat cheese.
Other restaurants, like Community Q in Atlanta and The Old Fashioned in Madison, WI, win over diners by perfecting the mac-and-cheese basics.
No matter how they prefer it, enthusiasts would surely agree on two points: mac and cheese can be so much tastier than the kind that comes in a blue box, and it’s worth traveling to sample the very best. Check out our favorites below.
Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Seattle and New York
Located in Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market, Beecher’s wins multiple American Cheese Society awards each year and has been heralded by die-hard fans as well as The Martha Stewart Show as the “world’s best.” The dish gets its special oomph from Beecher’s Flagship cheese, which is aged 15 months to develop its signature nutty flavor. A dash of chipotle adds a hint of smokiness. No plans to venture west? Swing by Beecher’s New York City outpost—or try the recipe at home.
Cheesetique, Arlington and Alexandria, VA
In 2004, Cheesetique owner Jill Erber ditched a cushy office job developing software to open her very own cheese emporium (and wine bar, as of 2008). We’ll be forever grateful she did: the shop’s decadent mac features a mix of rich goat Gouda, zesty Asiago, and tangy Cacio di Roma. For extra crunch, Erber tops her gooey masterpiece with crispy bread crumbs coated in truffle oil. cheesetique.com
Mizuna Mac and Cheese, Denver
Inspired by mentor Thomas Keller’s famous lobster mac and cheese with orzo, chef Frank Bonanno makes his version by drenching sweet, poached lobster meat in mascarpone cheese and heavy cream—along with good old-fashioned macaroni noodles. Bonanno’s saucy take strikes the perfect balance between refined flavor and careless indulgence. It’s best savored after a day spent exploring Denver’s many outdoor attractions. mizunadenver.com
Crave Kitchen & Cocktails, Mount Pleasant, SC
Some restaurant menus make vague claims of “award-winning” recipes, but Crave’s mac and cheese is the real deal. Voted the “most life-changing mac ‘n’ cheese in America” by Esquire’s readers, the dish also dominated the People’s Choice Award at Charleston’s annual Mac Off competition—three times in a row. Credit goes to the corkscrew-shaped cavatappi noodles, which give the dish an ultra-chewy texture, plus a few top-secret ingredients suggested by the chef’s daughter. cravemtp.com
Little Bird, Portland, OR
Known for its local produce and artisanal foods, Portland’s foodie scene doesn’t mess around (just check out these hilarious Portlandia clips). And neither does Little Bird’s mac and cheese. Gabriel Rucker, a 2011 James Beard Rising Star Chef, combines Tillamook cheddar and Emmi Gruyère with one rotating cheese to make the restaurant’s “macaroni gratin” worth coming back for repeatedly. Chives add a note of freshness. littlebirdbistro.com
Queens Kickshaw, Queens, NY
The mac at Queens Kickshaw contains the typical ingredients you’d expect in a fancy mac and cheese: smoked mozzarella, Gruyère, and…green beans? The popular Astoria restaurant sells an incarnation of the dish many mac purists would consider blasphemous. But chef Youngsun Lee knows what he’s doing, having worked at some of New York’s best restaurants—like Annisa and Momofuku Noodle Bar. Still unsure? It’s worth the trek to Queens to decide for yourself. thequeenskickshaw.com
Community Q BBQ, Atlanta
Look up Atlanta barbecue joint Community Q online, and you’ll quickly notice a pattern: almost every review of the down-home restaurant near Emory University contains fervent declarations like “Unbelievably delicious!” and even “Inspiring!” Owner David Roberts makes his signature baked mac with rigatoni pasta and a medley of cheeses including sharp cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Parmesan. It’s the perfect accompaniment to classic southern barbecue favorites like pulled pork and sliced beef brisket. communityqbbq.com
The Blue Plate, San Francisco
The ultimate mac and cheese for adults can be found in a cozy little restaurant on Valencia Street in the Mission District. The Blue Plate’s recipe is so revered among locals that it hasn’t changed since 1999. The star ingredient is “Drunken” Goat Cheese, cured in Spanish red wine for two months. To offset their cheesy indulgence, patrons can pair the mac with a side of fresh local vegetables. blueplatesf.com
Purple People Eatery, Miami
Don’t be fooled by the single healthy ingredient in The Purple People Eatery food truck’s Mac ‘n’ Jack. This ultra-rich mac may contain broccoli, but it’s the perfect dish for foodies who love to rationalize. The mac features noodles smothered in Monterey Jack, sharp cheddar, and Gouda—and for $2 more you can add bacon. purpleppleatery.com
The Old Fashioned, Madison, WI
Wisconsinites know cheese, and The Old Fashioned’s mac is stuffed with the best varieties the region’s small producers have to offer, among them seven-year-old Vern’s cheddar and SarVecchio, a special type of Parmesan. But the restaurant isn’t content to showcase just one of Wisconsin’s culinary delicacies: for $3 more, the creamy dish can be served with bologna from Fendt Brothers Meat Market in Watertown. theoldfashioned.com
See All of America’s Best Mac and Cheese