Brian Sheehan previews our list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America. Be sure to check out the complete story in the Eat/Dine section.
What makes a good restaurant a "best?" Food that's better than just good, of course. A dining room and a level of service that suit the quality of what's on the plate. A good wine list (which doesn't always mean an encyclopedic one), good beers and/or cocktails where appropriate. And then the less easily quantifiable stuff: personality, imagination (or intelligent commitment to a lack of same), consistency.
When we were a young website, way back in 2011, we drew up our first 101 list ourselves, making a list of the places where we, The Daily Meal’s editors, liked to eat. Taking into consideration our mood, our budget, and where we happened to be when we get hungry, how would we vote, we asked ourselves — not only with our critical faculties but with our mouths and our wallets? Where would we send friends? Where would we want to dine if we had one night in this city or that?
By this method, we ended up with a shortlist of 150 places. Then we argued, advocated, and cajoled each other on behalf of restaurants ranging from old-fashioned to avant-garde, ultra-casual to super-fancy. Finally, we invited an illustrious panel of judges (restaurant critics, food and lifestyle writers, and bloggers) from across America to help order restaurants via an anonymous survey and tallied results to assemble a ranked list.
The following year, we refined the process and made it less about our own preferences and more about those of the growing number of writers and other food-conscious folk who were contributing to the site or commenting on what other people contributed. Since 2012, then, our 101 best have been chosen by a voting pool that includes our city editors and special contributors, members of The Daily Meal Council (excluding chefs and restaurateurs), and a growing list of other panelists who have agreed to participate in the ever-increasing number of "Best" surveys we conduct.
For this year's 101, we reached out to hundreds of restaurant experts of various stripes around the country, asking them to vote on an admittedly rather long "shortlist" of some 638 establishments. Here are the results.The task of choosing our nation's best restaurants — as our panelists would surely tell you — becomes more difficult every year, because the number of excellent places to eat continues to grow.
The task of choosing our nation's best restaurants — as our panelists would surely tell you — becomes more difficult every year, because the number of excellent places to eat continues to grow. As our interest in, and appreciation of, good food continues to increase — as more great chefs train more younger good ones — fantastic food continues to spread across America. Exceptional culinary landscapes in big cities get better, while new and different dining scenes in every corner of the country are born, in turn attracting and inspiring more talented cooks. All this makes trying to rank the country’s best restaurants more and more challenging, but also more and more worthwhile and intriguing.
You'll find many of the expected names on this list — restaurants run by Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, José Andrés, Thomas Keller, Danny Meyer, and other luminaries of today's American restaurant scene. You'll find Italian places both modest (Al Di La, No. 90) and extravagant (Del Posto, No. 12). Some of the nation's most celebrated and refined Japanese restaurants are included (Masa, No. 16, and Ippudo, No. 69, among others). Carnivores will delight at finding places like Bazaar Meat (No. 70) and The Continental (No. 101), while those more piscatorially inclined will savor Peche (No. 32) and Oyster Club (No. 77). Our number-one choice won't surprise anybody who follows fine cooking in America; our numbers 47 or 83 might.
Read: 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2015
Read: 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2014
Read: 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2013
Read: 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2012
Read: 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2011
We expect to hear complaints about this ranking, not just because any list of this kind is subjective to a degree, no matter how many experts weigh in, but also because we haven't included any of the doubtless excellent restaurants in, say, Providence, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, the Twin Cities, Santa Fe, Phoenix, San Diego — or any of the hundreds of smaller towns across the U.S. where good cooking is practiced and skillfully run dining rooms are pleasing devoted clienteles. Yes, we're food snobs who recognize only the restaurants of New York City, Chicago, the West Coast, and a few token municipalities scattered around other corners of the country. Yes, we've neglected your favorite local eatery where, you can guarantee us (and you may well be right) the food is better than at half the places on our list.
But here's the thing: There are more than 600,000 restaurants in America, counting fast-food outlets, dinner house chains, small places where the food might be fine but the amenities are slim, and places with no particular pretensions to quality at all. Bracket all these out and we've still got — what? — maybe four or five thousand places that are striving to be "best restaurants" and possibly think they already are.
Our list has room for only a tiny fraction of these, and not surprisingly they tend to be concentrated in those cities that are, for reasons that are probably cultural as well as economic, our best "food towns." Chief among these are Las Vegas (four restaurants), San Francisco (six restaurants), New Orleans (six restaurants), Chicago (seven restaurants), Los Angeles (12 restaurants), and (grumble if you wish) New York City (27 restaurants). Those are the places where our panelists have found the most top restaurants because those are the places that the most talented chefs and restaurateurs from other regions gravitate to, and the places with large and enthusiastic support groups to encourage them and make them profitable. We realize that there are more than 70 urban areas in the United States with populations of 500,000 and above, all of them chockfull of restaurants — but does every one of them have even a place or two that can really be compared with America’s best? Even now, probably not.
This year, we’re welcoming 22 restaurants into the fold for the first time, including relative newcomers Shaya (No. 43) and Gabriel Kreuther (No. 8), as well as four returning restaurants from 2014’s ranking, The Walrus & The Carpenter, Al Di La, Pok Pok, and Cochon. Only two restaurants in last year’s ranking are no longer open: Ken Oringer closed his Boston landmark Clio on New Year’s Day, and Chicago’s Alinea has taken its show on the road while the restaurant undergoes a facelift, slated for a reopening later this year.
If you have quarrels with our results, please let us know. We do read all comments, and will take them into account for next year's 101. In the meantime, we plan to publish a follow-up, a "reader's choice," with your opinions. If you turn us on to truly deserving places that we and our panelists somehow missed, so much the better.
We also, incidentally, plan to publish — as we have in past years — a ranking of America's 101 Best Casual Restaurants, accommodating the pizzerias and taquerías and gastropubs and such that aren't included here, but that we all love (and sometimes, frankly, prefer to the more serious places ranked here).
We’re excited about our 2016 list of America’s best restaurants (you can view the complete list on the next page if you'd prefer not to spend time with our slideshow). The sheer quality and diversity demonstrate that we live in an exciting time for food in America.
Additional reporting by Dan Myers and Arthur Bovino.