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Most important restaurants in America

Andrew Knowlton
February 13, 2013


No, we're not talking the fanciest, trendiest or even the ones with the most stars. These are the places that define how we eat out. They're the fearless spots that drive chefs to innovate, restaurateurs to imitate, and the rest of us to line up. In short, these are the restaurants that matter -- right now.

Los Angeles, CA

In the history of American cooking, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo will probably go down as the guys who introduced stoner cuisine to the masses. Their signature dishes, like Buffalo-style pig tails, melted petite Basque cheese with chorizo, and foie gras biscuits and gravy, may share an entry with Doritos Locos Tacos and deep-fried Twinkies. That would be a shame. Animal's food is smart, not smart-ass. Every dish is generous and freewheeling, but also exacting, disciplined, and balanced—in other words, very unstoner. By serving a menu of upscale munchies in a gritty, minimalist space in the old Jewish neighborhood of Fairfax, the two also changed the dining culture in L.A., making food, not the scene, the centerpiece. Not bad for a pair of self-made chefs, who deserve to be remembered for creating dishes rooted in satisfaction and comfort—no matter why you crave them.

New York City and beyond

David Chang wasn't the first to transform brussels sprouts from a side to a star. He wasn't a pioneer when it came to playing any music he wanted, and loudly. Backless chairs and no tablecloths were nothing new. And his world-renowned pork buns? Chang admits he ripped those off. But Michael Jordan wasn't the first guy to dunk, either. What Chang did was put it all together and turn a tiny East Village storefront into the most important restaurant brand of the past decade—on his own terms. Momofuku is fun, unexpected, and full of attitude (too bad if you want something served "on the side"). The food avoids easy categories, and it is always evolving. Pork buns and ramen led to bo ssäm, crudo, and Fuji apple kimchi with jowl bacon, each dish addictive and, above all, on the leading edge of where food was—and is—going. Chang's empire, which has expanded to include Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Ko, Milk Bar, Má Pêche, and Booker and Dax,  plus spots in Sydney and Toronto, has changed our dining culture for good (and for the better). I know because I see it—and taste it—every time I eat out.

The Restaurant at Meadowood
Napa, CA

I wasn't around when Alice Waters started the locavore revolution at Chez Panisse or when Thomas Keller gave American fine dining an identity at The French Laundry. But I did eat Christopher Kostow's food in 2012. Like other modern chefs, he has a love affair with vegetables, many of which come from Meadowood's garden. A plate of salt-baked rutabaga is paired with woodsy matsutake mushrooms, goat's milk, maple, and shaved white truffles. But these aren't proverbial "figs on a plate." Kostow's elegant dishes arrive fresh from a precision dance routine with tweezers. And while the kitchen may work Momofuku-loose (is that Rick James on the speakers?), there's nothing dressed down about the experience. From the pressed white tablecloths to the artisanal tableware, everything reminds you that this will be a special meal. To see a chef at the peak of his powers, eat here now.

Charleston, SC

"The secret to delicious food is good dirt and plant varieties." That's chef Sean Brock's mantra, and at Husk, the proof is in the (heirloom corn) pudding. Brock is also an evangelist for the Southern pantry. Everything he serves in this elegant 19th-century mansion comes from below the Mason-Dixon line, including many rare fruits and vegetables he cultivates himself. Here are a few of his staples.

Brooklyn, NY

To say that Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, and Chris Parachini had a larger vision when Roberta's opened in 2008 would be wrong. "We didn't," Hoy says. "Everything happened, for lack of a better word, organically." Today, the ramshackle space serves as a model for Brooklyn's mashup of high and low. Where else can you eat the city's best pizza, hit a Tiki Disco party, or go deep on a $180 tasting menu at sister spot Blanca? Here we lay out their D.I.Y. evolution.

Le Bernardin
New York City, New York

Since 1994, Eric Ripert has captained the greatest seafood restaurant in the world. No matter what "lightly cooked" fish and sauce combo he conjures, it tastes revelatory. He's a chef's chef whose dedication is unmatched. Trends may come and go, but Le Bernardin—and Ripert—endure. To find out why, we asked some of his peers.

"If I were a fish, I would want to end up in Ripert's hands, where I know I'll only be softly swathed with herbs, bathed in a fragrant broth, and barely cooked!"—Daniel Boulud, Daniel, NYC

"He radiates integrity and tranquillity, which inspires chefs to be more like him, both in the kitchen and out." —April Bloomfield, The Spotted Pig, NYCadd citation

"He's the best of what a modern French chef should be. He makes me proud to be a chef."—Jacques Pépin, The International Culinary Center, NYC

"He is very open to change, but his curiosity, commitment to quality, and French hospitality will always be there." —Marcus Samuelsson, Red Rooster, NYC

"He's not a snob. He'll take inspiration from flavors and eating experiences high and low—as long as they are delicious. I wish I had filmed him trying Cap'n Crunch." —Anthony Bourdain, CNN, 'Parts Unknown'

Shake Shack
NYC and points beyond

Danny Meyer didn't just redefine the fast-food experience—the meal, the look, the level of service—he created a damn good burger. With its custom-blend patty (and nostalgic nods like gooey American cheese and a soft bun), it is a burger worth standing in line for—and you will likely have to, for up to an hour. Like all fast-food chains, consistency is king, but here that means beef supplied by meat guru Pat La Frieda; cool, urban-chic spaces by architecture firm SITE; and a definitive menu, though they do tailor the "concretes" (frozen custard with mix-ins) to each location. (We'll have the "Fudge-eddaboudit.") In under a decade, they've grown to 22 locations, from NYC to Dubai. Look for five more in 2013, including Istanbul.

Franklin Barbecue
Austin, TX

The world of barbecue is ruled by tradition. The older the pits (and the pitmaster) smoking your brisket, the better. So how is it that 35-year-old Aaron Franklin, who opened Franklin Barbecue in a trailer in 2009, attracts longer lines and more accolades for his meat (which sells out by noon every day) than anyone else in the country? We asked the man himself.

How'd you get into barbecue?
My parents used to run a place when I was a kid. Nine years ago I asked them how to cook brisket and they said, "Just throw it on and pull it off when it's done." I ended up getting a little weird with it and eventually going super nerdy on barbecue.

Why has Franklin Barbecue been so successful?
It's not just the food, it's the vibe. You stand in line and you share beers with the people around you. It's like coming to Grandma's house.

How are people okay with you running out of meat?
Maybe because I tell them how we can only make so much of it and that I'm real sorry. But now running out of food is, like, a cool thing to do.

Is that a positive trend in barbecue?
Yes, if the place is choosing to run out because they don't want to reheat meat the next day. But there are a ton of places that put out a sign that says "11 a.m. Till Sold Out" and say, "Watch, this'll be a great marketing thing for us!"

How long would you wait for barbecue?
I can't eat barbecue anymore. I'd stand in line for a good salad, though.

Rockland, ME

Just about every big-city chef I've met dreams of finding a quiet spot with a little plot of land in the country and opening a small restaurant with a garden. But Melissa Kelly actually did it. Thirteen years ago, she and her husband, Price Kushner, bought an old Victorian on a hill in mid-coast Maine. What started as a humble country restaurant has grown to be one of the country's most sincere and exciting expressions of farm to table. The wide-ranging charcuterie program rivals any in the U.S., and Kelly's wood-burning oven does amazing things to local Pemaquid oysters and house-made breads alike. There are greenhouses filled with tomatoes and fields of Padrón peppers, lolla rossa lettuce, and other of-the-moment ingredients. Honeybees buzz, and pigs, chickens, ducks, and guinea hens play in the dirt. It's a reminder that the best things often start from the ground up, far off the beaten path.

Swan Oyser Depot
San Francisco, CA

If the food world, myself included, is guilty of anything, it's overhyping the latest and greatest at the expense of the timeless classics. Which brings me to Swan Oyster Depot, a fish store with an 18-seat counter that just might be my favorite restaurant on the planet. From the minute it opens (10:15 a.m.) to the minute it closes (5:30 p.m.), there's a line. I don't wait in lines, but I make an exception for Swan's cracked Dungeness crab, clam chowder, smoked salmon on rye, and ice-cold Anchor Steam. Food is only part of the allure. There's the look of the place (sports memorabilia, seafood posters, a hand-painted menu tacked to the wall) and the devastating charm of the Sancimino brothers, whose family has run the place since 1946. (It opened in 1912.) Swan isn't a boardroom concept; it's proof that honesty, passion, and hospitality will bring you longevity and fans. It's the kind of restaurant that makes you ask, "Why aren't there more places like this?"

See full story: 20 Most Important Restaurants in America