You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

America’s 38 Essential Restaurants

Eater logo Eater 11/13/2018 Bill Addison
food on a table © Courtney Pierce

The fine dining stunners, neighborhood charmers, and regional vanguards that show us who we are and how we eat.

Plenty of smart, useful articles appear each year directing people to the nation’s buzziest restaurants, highlighting emerging trends and up-and-coming chefs. This annual guide, compiled after 34 weeks of travel and almost 600 meals in 36 cities, aims to accomplish something else: It’s a distillation of the foods and the communities to which I’ve borne witness. It’s the undertaking that has defined my work — my life, really — for nearly the last five years as Eater’s national critic.

The one-word mantra that steers my thinking, and also the city-based Eater 38 maps upon which the list is modeled, is essential. Which places become indispensable to their neighborhoods, and eventually to their towns and whole regions? Which ones spur trends, or set standards for hospitality and leadership, or stir conversations around representation and inclusivity? Which restaurants, ultimately, become vital to how we understand ourselves, and others, at the table?

Every year the list changes substantially; this time around, we welcome 17 newcomers. They’re the places where I had especially meaningful aha moments, where I thought, “Of course New Mexican cuisine should be lauded,” or “Absolutely this is the one Korean barbecue restaurant where everyone should eat,” or “It’s crazy how these Pakistani-Texan dishes summarize the heart of Houston dining.” The bleeding-edge vanguards among this crew include a Los Angeles maverick where the chef grafts cuisines from around the world with astounding grace, a San Antonio barbecue upstart ushering Mexican flavors to the forefront, and America’s most impactful Southern restaurant — which happens to be in Seattle.

This being the fifth of these roundups I’ve agonized over, I’ve also observed, over these years, a shifting national consciousness, where diners from many backgrounds increasingly embrace cuisines with which they were previously unfamiliar. It’s the new paradigm, not an exception. Coded culinary language denoting “them” and “us” — as “American” or “other” — is slowly but inexorably dissolving. Each of these restaurants cooks American food; I can’t imagine our dining landscape without them. Sure, they’re wonderful places to eat. But they all engender belonging, possibility, and connection — things we surely need in our country right now.

America’s Essential Restaurants 2018

★ – an Eater 38 Icon, on this list five consecutive times

The 2017 list | The December 2016 list | The January 2016 list | The 2015 list

2M Smokehouse, San Antonio, TX | Al Ameer, Dearborn, MI | Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, CA | Bad Saint, Washington, DC | Bateau, Seattle, WA | ★ Benu, San Francisco, CA | Bertha’s Kitchen, Charleston, SC | ★ Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, NY | Brennan’s, New Orleans, LA | Compère Lapin, New Orleans, LA | FIG, Charleston, SC | ★ Franklin Barbecue, Austin, TX | The Grey, Savannah, GA | Here’s Looking At You, Los Angeles, CA | Highlands Bar & Grill, Birmingham, AL | Himalaya, Houston, TX | Jose Enrique, San Juan, PR | JuneBaby, Seattle, WA | Kachka, Portland, OR | Koi Palace, Daly City, CA | Mariscos Jalisco, Los Angeles, CA | Mary & Tito’s Cafe, Albuquerque, NM | Milktooth, Indianapolis, IN | Momofuku Ko, New York, NY | Mud Hen Water, Honolulu, HI | n/naka, Los Angeles, CA | Palace Diner, Biddeford, ME | Parachute, Chicago, IL | Park’s BBQ, Los Angeles, CA | ★ Prince’s Hot Chicken, Nashville, TN | Smyth & the Loyalist, Chicago, IL | Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis, MN | Staplehouse, Atlanta, GA | Superiority Burger, New York, NY | Via Carota, New York, NY | Xi’an Famous Foods, New York, NY | Xochi, Houston, TX | ★ Zahav, Philadelphia, PA

Meet the Newcomers

2M Smokehouse

San Antonio

a box filled with different types of food: Barbecue and sides at 2M Smokehouse; the restaurant’s exterior
Barbecue and sides at 2M Smokehouse; the restaurant’s exterior
graffiti on a wall

In an ever-more-crowded genre, pitmaster Esaul Ramos and fellow San Antonian Joe Melig transcend the Texas smoked-meats melee by also serving a frictionless combination of dishes that express their Mexican-American heritage. The uniformly blackened, near-custardy brisket rivals the efforts of the Austin superstars; chopped poblanos and blots of queso Oaxaca punctuate their stellar pork sausage. Fold them into speckled flour tortillas, topped with pickled nopales and interspersed with forkfuls of “Chicharoni Macaroni” (mac and cheese dusted with fried pork skins) and borracho beans. This is how the leading edge of Lone Star barbecue looks, smells, and tastes. 2731 South WW White Road, San Antonio, TX, (210) 885-9352, 2msmokehouse.com

Atelier Crenn

San Francisco

a person sitting at a table with a plate of food: Tableside service at Atelier Crenn
Tableside service at Atelier Crenn

With an artist’s sense of constant reinvention, Dominique Crenn has been bending flavors and meditating on design since her flagship restaurant’s 2011 debut. More masterfully than ever, Crenn and her team (including pastry chef Juan Contreras) mine the middle ground between intellect and emotion — between heady presentation and flat-out deliciousness. Crenn narrows the modernist kitchen’s focus onto seafood and vegetables, using impeccable Bay Area ingredients while musing over her upbringing in Brittany, France, for inspiration. Stunning black-walnut tables, part of the dining room’s 2017 renovation, show off swirling wood grains that resemble turbulent cloud patterns; the effect is mirrored in tableside theatrics like platters of billowing dry ice that soon reveal tiny geoduck tarts. 3125 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA, (415) 440-0460, ateliercrenn.com

Brennan’s

New Orleans

a piece of food on a plate: Gulf fish amandine at Brennan’s
Gulf fish amandine at Brennan’s

Ralph Brennan and his business partner, Terry White, rescued this French Quarter monolith in 2014, shepherding $20 million worth of reconstructive surgery on a building the size of a small cruise ship. Among the city’s Creole restaurant institutions, Brennan’s now takes the lead with its balance of timeless pageantry and relevant, finely honed cooking. Executive chef Slade Rushing nails the classics — eggs Sardou laced with creamed spinach for breakfast, snapper amandine or blackened redfish for dinner, bananas Foster for dessert any time of day — but also rotates in fresh twists like frog legs with basil tempura and tomato escabeche. 417 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA, (504) 525-9711, brennansneworleans.com

Here’s Looking At You

Los Angeles

a bowl of food on a table: Yellowtail at Here’s Looking At You © Wonho Frank Lee
Yellowtail at Here’s Looking At You

Jonathan Whitener, the chef who owns HLAY with front-of-house ace Lien Ta, is arguably the country’s most creatively energized practitioner of the “global plates” aesthetic. Salsa negra, smoked beef tongue, nam jim, carrot curry, blood cake, almond dukkah, sprouted broccoli, New Zealand cockles: All have a place on his menu; all make sense in his electric, eclectic compositions; all reflect Los Angeles’s wondrous pluralism. The cocktail menu takes cues from Tiki culture but spirals off in similarly wild and amazingly cohesive directions. 3901 West 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA, (213) 568-3573, hereslookingatyoula.com

Himalaya

Houston

a bowl of food on a table: Goat biryani, fried chicken, and curries at Himalaya
Goat biryani, fried chicken, and curries at Himalaya

Effervescent, always-present owner Kaiser Lashkari and his wife, Azra Babar Lashkari, turn out nearly 100 distinct dishes at their boxy strip-mall restaurant in the city’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Numerous curries, including Hyderabadi chicken hara masala coursing with green chiles, evince several regional Indian cuisines, but it’s key to order the gems inspired by Kaiser Lashkari’s native Pakistan. He excels in “hunter beef,” a preparation similar to pastrami, best served cold in thick slices with head-clearing mustard. He links the Pakistani affinity for beef with Texas in specials like his weekend-only smoked brisket masala. The restaurant’s excellent, mildly spiced fried chicken bridges cultures just as successfully. 6652 Southwest Freeway, Houston, TX, (713) 532-2837, himalayarestauranthouston.com

Jose Enrique

San Juan, PR

a close up of a plate of food: Jose Enrique’s whole fried fish over yuca
Jose Enrique’s whole fried fish over yuca

There is no sign outside the self-named restaurant of Jose Enrique Montes Alvarez; there’s also no missing the building, a cottage spangled with Art Deco geometries and painted bright pink. Jose Enrique served as the initial headquarters for José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen, which eventually served over 3 million meals in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria’s destruction in 2017. And it rightly remains the island’s most lauded dining destination. Whiteboards propped around the dining room list the daily-changing menu, a narration of the island’s comida criolla in which local seafood keeps diners rapt. Build a meal around an Enrique classic: whole fish fried into a kinetic sculpture, crowned with a chunky salsa of papaya and avocado and set over mashed yam. The crowd is drinking local rum. Join them. 176 Calle Duffaut, San Juan, Puerto Rico, (787) 725-3518, joseenriquepr.com

JuneBaby

Seattle

a close up of a plate of food: Fried pig ear at JuneBaby
Fried pig ear at JuneBaby

Edouardo Jordan grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, with family roots in Georgia, but it wasn’t until he opened his second Seattle restaurant, in the spring of 2017, that he chose to focus professionally on the foods of the South and his African-American heritage. The decision, and the restaurant’s immediate success, has made him one of the nation’s towering figures of Southern cooking. Among the menu’s familiar, gorgeously rendered comforts, the truest treasures (oxtails, vinegared chitterlings, collard greens with ham hock) are the ones that most resonantly invoke Jordan’s upbringing. 2122 Northeast 65th Street, Seattle, WA, (206) 257-4470, junebabyseattle.com

Koi Palace

Daly City, CA

a bowl of food on a table: A dim sum feast at Koi Palace; the restaurant’s interior
A dim sum feast at Koi Palace; the restaurant’s interior
a group of people sitting at a table eating food

Dim sum is among my favorite meals; I took a particularly obsessive deep dive through the Bay Area and greater Los Angeles this past year while researching the Eater Guide to California. A Sunday jaunt to the original Koi Palace (the flagship of its three locations) reminded me why it’s the indispensable cornerstone among the region’s many stellar dim sum options. Once you wade through the chaotic crowds, a euphoric whirlwind of food and service awaits. In a blur of dumplings, noodles, congees, sweet and savory cakes, piled greens, and crisp-skinned meats, a through-line of freshness and craftsmanship gives the feast cohesion. Finish with the last dregs of tea and the custardy fritters called “Sugar Egg Puffs.” 365 Gellert Boulevard, Daly City, CA, (650) 992-9000, koipalace.com

Mary & Tito’s Cafe

Albuquerque

a plate of food on a table: Carne adovada and enchiladas “Christmas-style” at Mary & Tito’s Cafe
Carne adovada and enchiladas “Christmas-style” at Mary & Tito’s Cafe

The foodways of New Mexico are even more regionalized and misconstrued than Texas’s Tex-Mex traditions. In restaurants, New Mexican cuisine boils down to the quality of two dominant chile sauces: the dusky, fruity, slightly spicy red variation, made from dried pods, and the chunkier, vegetal roasted green chile version. There is no better indoctrination into the state’s culinary nucleus than the cafe started by Tito and Mary Ann Gonzales in 1963. Both have died, but their daughter Antoinette Knight, her family, and the restaurant’s longtime cooks keep the recipes and spirit alive. The crucial dishes: carne adovada (pork marinated in bright, silky, near-perfect red chile sauce and then baked) and stacked blue corn enchiladas with both red and green chiles — which is to say, “Christmas” style. 2711 4th St NW, Albuquerque, NM, (505) 344-6266, no website

Momofuku Ko

New York

a piece of broccoli on a plate: Foie gras and duck puff pastry, a chef attends to a steak on the grill at Momofuku Ko © Louise Palmberg/Eater NY
Foie gras and duck puff pastry, a chef attends to a steak on the grill at Momofuku Ko
a person standing in front of a fire

The wit and technical command behind the tasting menu at David Chang’s toniest outpost perpetually makes Ko one of Manhattan’s worthiest splurges. A course of frozen foie shavings, melting on the tongue like otherworldly snowflakes, is a forever trademark; it’s hard to look at the split shape of the “Ko egg” and not envision an alabaster Pac-Man gobbling dots of caviar. But this past year the restaurant hoisted itself to another dimension by adding a walk-ins-only bar with a separate, experimental, and sneakily brilliant menu by executive chef Sean Gray and his team. Consistent pleasures have included quadruple-fried chicken legs, served cold. They’re so outrageously good, Harland Sanders only wishes he were picnicking on them in the afterlife. 8 Extra Place, New York, NY, (212) 203-8095, ko.momofuku.com

Palace Diner

Biddeford, Maine

a piece of cake on a plate: French toast at Palace Diner
French toast at Palace Diner

In 2014, Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell took over a decades-old, 15-seat restaurant housed in a Pollard train car built in 1927 and turned it into the ideal realization of a daytime Americana diner. Eating here haunts me: I can’t find better light, lemony, buttery pancakes, or a more precisely engineered egg sandwich; theirs is the only tuna melt I ever hunger after. Location plays a charming role: Sleepy but quickly burgeoning Biddeford, Maine (also home to Rabelais, one of the country’s finest food-focused booksellers), sits about 20 miles south of Portland. It’s all worth the trek. 18 Franklin Street, Biddeford, ME, (207) 284-0015, palacedinerme.com

Park’s BBQ

Los Angeles

a bunch of food sitting on a table: Tabletop barbecue and banchan at Park’s BBQ © Wonho Frank Lee/Eater
Tabletop barbecue and banchan at Park’s BBQ

In America, the meaty magnetism of Korean barbecue restaurants often serves as a gateway to the country’s cuisine. Park’s, ensconced in a Koreatown strip mall, is more of a journey’s culmination — the pinnacle of the genre. Certainly the tabletop-grilled meats (especially the kalbi, or short ribs, and anything offered as an American wagyu upgrade) deliver with their sizzling edges and smoky depths. Before the main event, tiny plates of chef-owner Jenee Kim’s meticulous banchan (kimchi; gyeran mari, or rolled egg; battered slices of squash) rev the appetite. The cooking alone distinguishes the restaurant; the engaged, near-telepathic staff propels the experience even higher. 955 South Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, (213) 380-1717, parksbbq.com

Smyth & the Loyalist

Chicago

a bowl of food: Smyth’s duck liver mousse over dried corn
Smyth’s duck liver mousse over dried corn

Chicago is a stronghold of tasting-menu restaurants all nearly on par in their intellectual heft. At Smyth, husband and wife John Shields and Karen Urie Shields certainly show off brainpower through 12 courses that uniquely coalesce Japanese, Nordic, and Southern-American flavors and techniques. But their close relationship with a farm 20 miles south of the city in Bourbonnais, Illinois helps give Smyth’s cuisine a literal and spiritual grounding. I taste the honest Midwest in dishes like end-of-summer green gooseberries paired with uni. At the Loyalist downstairs, the duo apply their formidable know-how to the Americana fare, including killer biscuits with cheddar and what may be the most righteous cheeseburger in Chicago. 177 North Ada Street, Chicago, IL, (773) 913-3773, smythandtheloyalist.com

Superiority Burger

New York

a close up of a sandwich: The signature dish at Superiority Burger
The signature dish at Superiority Burger

Brooks Headley departed from his top-of-the-food-chain gig as pastry chef at Del Posto in 2015 to channel his punk-musician origins into a solo project: a seditious, moshing, 270-square-foot Lower East Side restaurant that specializes in a remarkably gratifying vegetarian burger. The place is an ever-rarer reminder of individuality and tenacity in New York City. At its busiest moments the crowd streams from the six-seat storefront out onto the sidewalk, a breadth of humanity sharing the moment as they consume meat-free sandwiches and spontaneous vegetable creations, straight from the farmers markets. Every menu item costs under $10. Headley doesn’t entirely abandon his previous title: He channels every ounce of his dessert genius into two transcendent gelato and ice cream flavors that change daily and come squashed together in a paper cup. 430 East 9th Street, New York, NY, (212) 256-1192, superiorityburger.com

Via Carota

New York

a piece of cake on a plate: Tagliatelle with Parmesan and prosciutto
Tagliatelle with Parmesan and prosciutto

I’ll just say it: This is my favorite place to eat in New York. While no one “quintessential Manhattan” restaurant exists, Via Carota exquisitely inhabits one version of the mythology. It’s the filtered, shifting light that seeps through the picture windows overlooking a narrow West Village street. It’s the crowd’s smart air (especially at lunch, the ideal time to drop in). And it’s certainly the assured Italian cooking, heavy on vegetable dishes but also with soul-soothing pleasures like tagliatelle showered with Parmesan and draped with prosciutto. An unusually harmonic partnership animates the place: Chef couple Rita Sodi and Jody Williams each started still-successful restaurants nearby before combining forces on their joint darling. I always feel cheered by their doting brand of culinary co-parenting. 51 Grove Street, New York, NY, (212) 255-1962, viacarota.com

Xi’an Famous Foods

New York

a close up of a plate of food: Hand-ripped noodles with spicy cumin lamb at Xi’an Famous Foods
Hand-ripped noodles with spicy cumin lamb at Xi’an Famous Foods

Jason Wang and his father, David Shi, began their success story out of longing: The dishes they first served out of a basement stall of the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing, Queens, channeled signatures of their native Xi’an, the capital of China’s northwestern Shaanxi Province. Hand-ripped noodles with spicy cumin lamb (its complexly seasoned chile oil reflective of Xi’an’s Eastern point along the spice routes), liangpi “cold skin” noodles, and a lamb burger stuffed in a hamburger-bun-shaped bao became phenomenons. Now with over a dozen locations in three New York boroughs, the chain remains in the family, and the food — remarkable in its consistency and affordability — rightly persists as a cult obsession. 41-10 Main Street, Flushing, NY, (212) 786-2068, and other locations, xianfoods.com

Xochi

Houston

a plate of food on a table: Chicken tacos at Xochi © Provided by Vox Media, Inc.
Chicken tacos at Xochi

Each of Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught’s four Houston restaurants lend distinction to the world-class greatness of the city’s dining scene. Since opening in early 2017, Xochi quickly ascended as the finest of their bellwethers. Ortega and his chefs delve into Oaxaca’s earthy, exhilarating, spicy-sweet cuisine, with its color wheel of moles and its masa-based specialties shaped into irresistible geometries. Look for memelas (a thicker tortilla cradling roasted pork rib), tetelas (blue-masa triangles stuffed with house-made cheese), and molotes (crisp oval cakes painted with creamy and spicy sauces). Lunch rates equal to dinner in excellence, a blessing for Downtown’s visitors and local workers alike. 1777 Walker Street, Houston, TX, (713) 400-3330, xochihouston.com

Returning Greats

Among those reappearing on the list, only five standouts remain from the original guide Eater published in January 2015. The quintet — consider them Eater Icons — comprises the progenitor of hot chicken, the nation’s ranking barbecue lodestar, two luminaries where I’d most readily recommend celebrating a special occasion, and the restaurant that shifted how many of us perceive Middle Eastern foods. These are the ones I could never bring myself to rotate out. They all exemplify cuisines and ideas that dominated the decade, but their influence also clearly surpasses momentary fad.

Al Ameer

Dearborn, Michigan | Among Dearborn’s cache of Lebanese restaurants, this is the paragon. Kahlil Ammar and Zaki Hashem’s family business includes an in-house butcher facility, so the unrivaled stuffed lamb (and also lamb liver, a traditional breakfast dish) exhibit exceptional freshness. 12710 West Warren Avenue, Dearborn, MI, (313) 582-8185, alameerrestaurant.com

Benu

San Francisco

An abalone course at Benu
An abalone course at Benu

No culinary leader in America deserves the honorific of “chef’s chef” more than Corey Lee. Easy labels don’t stick to his visionary cooking. Lee runs three San Francisco restaurants, including the bistro Monsieur Benjamin and In Situ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but it’s at his flagship where his virtuosic talents most hold sway. Lee was born in Korea, and he most often summons the cuisines of China, Japan, and his native country for his intricate, striking dishes. Lee was born in Korea, and he most often summons the cuisines of China, Japan, and his native country for his intricate, striking dishes. Lobster coral soup dumplings, mussels stuffed with glass noodles and layered vegetables, a combination of potato salad and caramelized anchovies that recalls two staples of banchan: After thousands of meals consumed for Eater, I don’t know another place in America that serves food more dazzlingly, gratifyingly singular than Benu. Master sommelier Yoon Ha’s beverage pairings keep pace with Lee’s kitchen — another of the restaurant’s near-impossible achievements. 22 Hawthorne Street, San Francisco, CA, (415) 685-4860, benusf.com

Bad Saint

Washington, D.C. | The challenge: a no-reservations policy, 24 seats, and a line that begins several hours nightly before opening. The payoff: Tom Cunanan’s peerless Filipino cuisine. Inspirations like piniritong alimasag (fried soft-shell crab in spicy crab-fat sauce) also brilliantly signal the Chesapeake region in which he cooks. 3226 11th Street NW, Washington, D.C., no phone, badsaintdc.com

Bateau

Seattle | At Renee Erickson’s revolutionary overhaul of the American steakhouse, she and her partners dry-age the beef they raise on nearby Whidbey Island. Servers maintain a nightly running list of steaks on a chalkboard; lesser-known cuts like gracilis (the lean top round cap) receive equal billing with New York strips and ribeyes. Gallic-accented sides (kale gratin) and desserts (baba au rhum) trumpet the country’s renewed obsession with French cuisine. 1040 East Union Street, Seattle, WA, (206) 900-8699, restaurantbateau.com

Bertha’s Kitchen

Charleston | Sisters Sharon Grant Coakley, Julie Grant, and Linda Pinckney carry on the culinary traditions of their deceased mother, Albertha Grant, serving red rice and shrimp, garlic crabs, lima beans, okra stew, and other specialties of the Gullah — former slaves who made their home in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. 2332 Meeting Street Road, Charleston, SC, (843) 554-6519, no website

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Pocantico Hills, NY

a bowl of fruit sitting on a table: Squash in the guise of guacamole at Stone Barns
Squash in the guise of guacamole at Stone Barns

If pushed to pinpoint one restaurant that I consider to be the “best” in America, I will time and again name Dan Barber’s Westchester County destination, the centerpiece of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Four-hour-plus meals here are elegant, interactive experiences: They begin with the front-of-house staff asking about interests and appetites, and then the first bites comprise a procession of “vegetables from the field” served raw and impaled on spikes with the lightest gloss of vinaigrette. From there… who knows? Barber and his seasoned improvisers run the show, orchestrating scenarios of experimental squash varietals and no-waste animal cookery; perhaps there’s a mid-evening field trip to the bakery or a course or two in the refurbished manure shed (yes, it’s a thing) or the kitchen. Diners ultimately leave with altered definitions of place and time around food. What Barber creates is a life-affirming reset of what a restaurant can and should be. 630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, NY, (914) 366-9606,bluehillfarm.com

Compère Lapin

New Orleans | Nina Compton, a native of St. Lucia, revives New Orleans’s often-forgotten connections to the Caribbean; at her three-year-old restaurant, she knits together cultures with dishes like snapper with vinegary pepper escovitch and carrot beurre blanc. 535 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans, LA, (504) 599-2119, comperelapin.com

FIG

Charleston | The first place you should eat in Charleston? And maybe the last? Mike Lata and Jason Stanhope’s ever-creative, always-consistent fixture, where the daily catch from Southern waters steers the nightly menu. 232 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC, (843) 805-5900, eatatfig.com

Franklin Barbecue

Austin, TX

food on a table: A classic spread at Franklin Barbecue © Courtney Pierce/Eater
A classic spread at Franklin Barbecue

Things Americans willingly wait in line for: rides in Disney theme parks, Black Friday sales, the latest smartphone release, Aaron Franklin’s sublime array of smoked meats. I’d argue the latter leads to the greatest rewards. Texas barbecue functions as a ferocious, intensely observed sport unto itself; who crafts the most rapturous beef rib or the snappiest sausages fuel constant debate. What isn’t disputed is how Franklin raised the discourse around barbecue when he and his wife, Stacy, stoked the first pit at their barbecue trailer in 2009. (The business moved to its current midcentury modern digs in 2011.) His brisket alone altered my brain chemistry, and did the same for a lot of other souls, forever changing our expectations of that Lone Star staple. A spread of brisket, ribs, pulled pork, potato salad, and pinto beans still merits the wait, which every omnivore should brave once in their lives. 900 East 11th Street, Austin, TX, (512) 653-1187, franklinbarbecue.com

The Grey

Savannah, GA | Eater’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year resides in a former Greyhound bus station, restored to its original 1938 Art Deco grandeur in a multimillion-dollar renovation. Mashama Bailey culls Southern port city flavors into a jubilantly personal expression, with triumphs like salt-preserved grouper on toast and quail scented with Madeira. 109 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Savannah, GA, (912) 662-5999, thegreyrestaurant.com

Highlands Bar & Grill

Birmingham, AL | A victorious year, with James Beard Awards for Outstanding Restaurant (after nine previous nominations) and a long-deserved win for pastry chef Dolester Miles, only emphasizes the timeless relevance of Frank and Pardis Stitt’s affable Southern-French haven. 2011 11th Avenue South, Birmingham, AL, (205) 939-1400, highlandsbarandgrill.com

Kachka

Portland, OR | Bonnie and Israel Morales recently moved their Belarusian-Georgian-Russian restaurant to a larger, splashier space without displacing an ounce of its inimitable spirit; their new lunch service offers the same signature dumplings, caviar, and newly supersized blini, and world-class vodkas. 960 SE 11th Avenue, Portland, OR, (503) 235-0059, kachkapdx.com

Mariscos Jalisco

Los Angeles | Raul Ortega’s mariscos truck, parked in LA’s Boyle Heights community, serves what is arguably the most perfectly constructed taco in the whole blessed country: The taco dorado de camaron, filled with spiced shrimp, emerges sizzling from the fryer before being swathed with salsa roja and avocado slices. 3040 East Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, (323) 528-6701, no website

Milktooth

Indianapolis | Dutch baby pancakes with fluffernutter and grape jelly, sourdough-chocolate waffles with oolong-infused maple syrup, bacon and beef sloppy Joes: Jonathan Brooks is a mad genius of the morning meal. There’s no more inspired destination for relentlessly inventive breakfasts in America. 534 Virginia Avenue, Indianapolis, IN, (317) 986-5131,milktoothindy.com

Mud Hen Water

Honolulu | Hawaiian food exists in its own delicious, swirling cosmos. In dishes like his version of grilled squid lūʻau, whole fish cooked in coals, and chicken long rice croquettes, O‘ahu native Ed Kenney connects the cultural dots like no one else on the islands. 3452 Waialae Avenue, Honolulu, HI, (808) 737-6000, mudhenwater.com

n/naka

Los Angeles | Reservations open three months in advance and book out instantly, but tenacity rewards with the country’s most poetic kaiseki meal. Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida’s menus careen through cooking techniques (sashimi, steaming, frying, searing), but the whole is a meditation on the ties between culinary tradition and individual imagination. 3455 Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, (310) 836-6252, n-naka.com

Parachute

Chicago | Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark’s dishes crisscross continents in their exceptionally vivid flavors, but the road always leads back to Korea with seasonal journeys like dolsot bibimbap and sesame-laced beef stew. 3500 N Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL, (773) 654-1460, parachuterestaurant.com

Prince’s Hot Chicken

Nashville

a piece of food on a plate: The one-and-only hot chicken at Prince’s
The one-and-only hot chicken at Prince’s

Nashville-style hot chicken can no longer be considered a trend or a local delicacy; its countrywide popularity over the last five years cemented its place in the foundation of American dining. But no matter how many people succumb to the masochistic pleasures of capsaicin and the endorphin rush that follows, or how many restaurant groups fashion their own variations, credit for the dish should — and will — always go straight back to the business that made it famous. James Thornton Prince founded the restaurant in the 1940s; his great-niece André Prince Jeffries is the guardian of the recipe. The heat levels range from plain to “XXX Hot.” The “Hot” version is as far as I go, and as a full-body sensory happening, it’s plenty. Everyone should visit North Nashville and face the flames for themselves. 123 Ewing Drive, Nashville, TN, (615) 226-9442, princeshotchicken.com

Spoon & Stable

Minneapolis | This is the Twin Cities’ restaurant of the decade. Gavin Kaysen brought New York star power back to his native Minnesota but keeps himself grounded with local ingredients and compelling yet comforting plates. Pastry chef Diane Moua echoes the Midwest charm with creations like root-beer semifreddo. 211 North First Street, Minneapolis, MN, (612) 224-9850, spoonandstable.com

Staplehouse

Atlanta | Ryan Smith crafts the right-now model of the midpriced tasting menu, serving a dozen or so constantly evolving courses; dishes might involve modernist mousses and powders but never spiral too far from an end goal of accessible pleasure. Co-owners Jen Hidinger and Kara Hidinger (Smith’s wife) lead the front of house with Southern graciousness. 541 Edgewood Avenue Southeast, Atlanta, GA, (404) 524-5005, staplehouse.com

Zahav

Philadelphia, PA

a close up of a plate of food: Smoked lamb shoulder with chickpeas at Zahav
Smoked lamb shoulder with chickpeas at Zahav

The recent limelight on Middle Eastern foods in America, which is overdue and still very much emerging, can in large part be traced to Michael Solomonov, the chef who owns Zahav (and about a dozen other restaurants) with Steve Cook. Solomonov, born in Israel, brings a respectful and contemporary translation of that nation’s clearinghouse adaptation of its region’s varied cuisines. Dinner should always begin with salatim — warmly spiced vegetable salads that light up the table in their shades of red, green, gold, and purple — and Solomonov’s justly lauded hummus, maybe in a Turkish variation bathed in melted butter. Grilled duck hearts, roasted carrots with labneh, the signature smoked lamb shoulder lacquered with pomegranate molasses, riffs on kanafeh (a shredded phyllo dessert) with seasonal fruits: These communal plates all foster kinship, further cultural understanding, and of course bring immense enjoyment. 237 St James Place, Philadelphia, PA, (215) 625-8800, zahavrestaurant.com

Editor: Erin DeJesus

Art director: Brittany Holloway-Brown

Shooter: Gary He

Video editor: Murilo Ferreira

Photographers: Katie Acheff, Joshua Brasted, Frank Wonho Lee, Reese Moore, Courtney Pierce

Social media editors: Milly McGuinness, Adam Moussa

Copy editor: Emma Alpern

Special thanks to: Matt Buchanan, Amanda Kludt, Francesca Manto, Stefania Orru, Stephen Pelletteri, Mariya Pylayev, and Eater’s city editors

AdChoices

More from Eater

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon