It took nearly forever for American restaurants to understand what American customers want, but now they have it right. We yearn for restaurants that are like us: casual, kindhearted, original, and a little too loud.
MORE FROM GQ
- » 5 Best Beer Cities in America
- » 10 More Must-Try Restaurants
- » Best Ice Cream Shops in the Country
The food doesn't have to be American, the setting doesn't have to be stylish, and the waiters can put on whatever they want, even the T-shirt they wore the night before. All we ask is that the chef exhibit a little inspiration and the owner understand that customers can't have a good time without great service. These days, American spirit has triumphed over European tradition.
Fine dining, once the purview of the prosperous, has become a democratic institution. The beneficiaries of this culinary repositioning are customers who don't mind standing in line in the slim hopes of snagging a table at Little Serow in Washington, D.C. (boy, do they wait), and those willing to sit on benches, stools, and the extraordinarily hard chairs at Central Kitchen in San Francisco (cushions are so 2005). Even our culinary combinations have been updated. Deviled eggs with domestic draft beer is the food-and-beverage pairing of 2013. Peculiarities have become part of the fun.
Last year meals in tiny, unusual restaurants matched and usually exceeded those in conventional dining venues. Small spots got better, a new breed of restaurant unbound.
These eight restaurants on GQ's list of places to go for a perfect night out will make you feel coddled, welcome, and well fed. You can't ask for more than that.
A New Spanish Revolution
Cúrate is a prototype of how genuine tapas—the kind from Spain—might flourish throughout America. It's that accessible, and it's so appealing that the restaurant is packed day and night. Nothing here seems odd or incomprehensible, including the bocata de calamares, which is a fried-squid sandwich. The squid rings are engaging, soft inside and crunchy outside. Want fries with that? The patatas bravas are topped with squiggles of a tomato-based Spanish sauce that challenges ketchup as the ideal match for fried spuds.
A variation on the famous potato omelet of Spain is prepared individually and served hot. It resembles a personal pan pizza. (I always beg tapas restaurants in Spain to serve my tortilla de patatas hot instead of at room temperature. They never listen, of course.) The chicken croquetas, small, rounded fritters that too seldom taste of chicken, deliver the punch of a chicken pot pie. Spinach sautéed with apples, raisins, and toasted pine nuts is impossible to resist when prepared this way.
Cúrate also has a sensational Spanish wine list that includes nearly unattainable classics as well as reasonably priced wines by the glass, starting at $6. Yes, $6.
Little Serow is the creation of Johnny Monis, whose four-star Komi stunned Washington years ago. Little Serow, much less ceremonial, seats 28, including eight at a counter. By the time it opened on that Saturday night, I stood at the front of a line numbering 79.
Little Serow is kind of ugly, too.
It's cinder blocks and poured cement, a tin roof, aqua walls. The music is country and western, and the staff is patient. No, it's better than that. It's fabulous. You'll be briefed on the prix fixe menu of northern Thai cuisine and told which wines best pair up with food that is often so spicy it can obliterate weak-willed beverages. By the time I got through charcoal-grilled eggplant that had soaked up a lake of chile-saturated dressing, I questioned the likelihood of surviving the meal.
I had the best Brussels sprouts I've eaten in the brief time chefs have learned to cherish them. These were whole and enhanced with palm sugar and tamarind. The finale was marinated pork ribs on the bone, as gentle as can be.
Little Serow is transformational. The preparations are exquisitely focused. The spicing ascends and then descends, as harmoniously as musical scales. This was my finest eating experience of 2012.
Amazing Vegan. (Yes, Vegan!)
I've dined in more vegan restaurants that I can recall, always for professional reasons and always in despair. I've never had a vegan meal I more than tolerated until I walked warily into Vedge, located in a spiffy burnished town house in Center City.
Looks very meat-and-potatoes," I said to the maître d' with my customary joviality.
"Not to me," the host snapped, as humorless as, well, vegans always are.
After that, my dining experience didn't merely get better. It got great. The food and service traveled to a dimension in the culinary world where veganism has never been and where vegetables in general rarely go.
Every dish tasted better than I expected it would. Fingerling potatoes with a creamy—no cream, of course—Worcestershire sauce were intense, an attribute of most Vedge dishes. Beets arrived in a ring mold, an example of French classicism without the butter and cream that exemplifies French extravagance. Crisp celery-root fritters lacked nothing, while squash pierogi were more delicate than pierogi ever get. All the dishes had extraordinary balance and savoriness. Nothing was absent from this meal, and let's not forget that meat and fish weren't present.
The customers looked, I have to say, like regular folks. None of the men were pale and languid. None of the women wore a belt made from a garden hose. On the way out, I passed a woman coming in sporting calf-high shearling boots. Nobody showed a hint of displeasure, including the previously brusque maître d'.
Uchi might be the only restaurant I know where not securing a reservation is a plus. I arrived very early, which guaranteed me a seat at the brightly lit and inexplicably friendly sushi bar.
Start with kakiage, a tempura tangle of vegetable strips. On this night it consisted of potatoes and onions, $3. Does it take a New Yorker to unearth such a bargain? My sushi guy said, "Ninety-nine percent of our customers have it." Houston is becoming the most electrifying food destination in America, so I'm not surprised that customers are well-informed.
The baby yellowtail with ponzu, Thai chiles, and orange slices is so exquisite, so balanced, your eyes might roll back in your head. I credit Nobu Matsuhisa for introducing America to raw fish and chiles, maybe raw fish and ponzu, too. But fish and fruit? To my knowledge the Uchi restaurants—the group originated in Austin and now numbers three—came up with the idea. The dish is silky, sweet, tart, and even a little salty, an all-time great. If you've been bored by sashimi, you won't be here.
My brilliant and perceptive sushi chef handed over a combo of octopus, sea urchin, and scallop. He told me to eat it all at once. I did. What an invention: triple-decker sashimi.
French Cuisine Gets Smahter
West Bridge looks like a cross between an Ikea and a casual college dining hall. It's both a restaurant and a refuge, a jumble of slouching students, oddball decorative touches (is that really rope wrapped around the chandeliers?), coats strewn across unoccupied spaces, and, unexpectedly, pristine food and drink. Nothing is low-key about the kitchen or the cocktails. I ordered a Love and Fear, a meticulously assembled gin-and-Aperol-based drink that nicely summed up the gestalt of the neighborhood.
The food is a little French but mostly from the imagination of chef Matthew Gaudet. Mussels came in a broth loaded with pure, buttery uni essence, trapping the scent of the sea. Egg in a Jar was a tiny tower of food, including a duck egg, potato puree, and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. I loved everything liquid at West Bridge, including a honey-and-thyme vinaigrette and a chowder with clams and smoked pork. By the time my friend and I departed, thoroughly pleased, she decided it was "the best damn college bar I ever went to."
California's New Champ
The food is by Thomas McNaughton, who proved himself a pasta savant at his wonderful Flour + Water, located a few blocks away. With the ascension of Central Kitchen, the gifted and obsessive McNaughton moves up in the ranks of America's least recognized great young chefs.
Central Kitchen is his contribution to the still vague but nevertheless storied concept of California cuisine, which got under way more than thirty years ago with such dishes as Wolfgang Puck's Chinese chicken salad. More significantly, Central Kitchen demonstrates the range of McNaughton's modern haute cuisine.
His composed plates have so many ingredients I couldn't keep track of them all. My cauliflower amuse-bouche seemed to have dozens of elements—pureed, fermented, pickled, and whatever else a kitchen can do. It looked like a tiny potato and was gone in a gulp. Much simpler but just as satisfying are a plump marinated mussel.
The room is decidedly eccentric. An ornamental touch immediately inside the front door is an oversize water-department pipe filling a small pool. It's yet another step forward in the brave new world of rustic decor meets glossy cuisine. Chairs are rock hard. The ceiling is raw wood and the floor is concrete, although particularly nice concrete. The noise level, mostly from rock 'n' roll, is way too high unless you live in New York, in which case it's average.
L.A. on the Mediterranean
In Los Angeles, which is becoming the shared-plate capital of America, no restaurant carries out the concept as imaginatively and flawlessly as Bäco Mercat. Give chef Josef Centeno a few square inches for plating and something startling appears, a mesmerizing amalgam of influences that seem based in America but travel worldwide.
Bäco Mercat is named for Centeno's "bäco," which is a flatbread sandwich. He invented it. He's proud of it. Each version is undeniably tasty, and his signature bäco wrapper reminds me of the flour tortillas made by hand in Tex-Mex spots throughout San Antonio. Other dishes on the menu thrilled me more, but the customers were transfixed by everything. They were remarkably quiet, spellbound by the food.
The first dish to stun me was Abkhazian-chile-spiced hamachi crudo with avocado and, of all things, a crisp potato pancake. The hamachi was stellar and the potato pancake better than any I've eaten in any of the Jewish delicatessens throughout L.A. This was Jean-Georges Vongerichten meets Barney Greengrass. Geoduck was cooked a la plancha, with a small bowl of luscious chowder on the side. Pork di testa, which is fatty, came in olive oil, which is also fatty. It sounds excessive but somehow was not.
Spain Like You've Never Tasted It
La Vara doesn't feel romantic, except on a warm night when you might enjoy sitting outside on the tree-lined Cobble Hill street, waiting for your table. It doesn't look particularly romantic, either, unless brick walls make your heart skip. But Spanish cuisine always seems a little dreamy, and here you can try dish after dish of food that's vaguely familiar but not quite like anything you've had before. It's ideal for a first date. Your partner will think he or she has been taken to another part of the world.
Even better, when the magnificent, fresh, bright red Spanish prawns in a preserved-lemon sauce come to the table, reenact the legendary eating scene from the film “Tom Jones.” Suck on the heads. Slurp a little. Gaze seductively. You'll crave each other, unless of course you'd rather have another order of prawns.
La Vara isn't accidentally exotic. The cuisine, by Alex Raij and Eder Montero, best known in New York for tapas, is a mélange of the Jewish and Muslim cooking that once thrived in what was a very Christian Spain.
Not all the dishes are quixotic. You've had red-wine sangria before, although the version here seems unusual, more like a well-crafted cocktail. Within the croquetas are tiny teases of ham. Sardines are cured in olive oil and accompanied by soothing strips of sweet pickled red and green peppers. You might never have had batons of fried eggplant to dip into cheese sauce. They're the healthy Spanish equivalent of mozzarella sticks.
Be daring. Order the pasta with goat butter and ground goat. The pasta is almost as tender as gnocchi, and the goat ingredients are unusually mild, absolutely easy to eat. Suckling pig, a special one night, came on the bone, the meat sweet and the skin crunchy.
See more of the best restaurants of 2013.