Every year since 2011, we’ve set out to compile a comprehensive ranking of the 101 Best Restaurants in America. However, we’ve been hit with a dilemma: Does a restaurant like, say, the legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut, as stellar as it is for what it does, really belong in the same ranking as a place like Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park, with its three Michelin stars? While they’re both legendary establishments that serve incredibly delicious food, there’s simply no way to compare the two; it’s apples and oranges, pizza and foie gras. That’s why two years ago we decided to separate out the casual from the fancy with an initial ranking of 50 casual restaurants, expanded to 101 last year. From hot dog shacks to taco joints, from neighborhood hangouts to legendary barbecue spots, these are amazing restaurants where price is no bar to entry and you'll feel right at home in jeans.
With all that in mind, what makes a restaurant casual, exactly? It goes far beyond the dress code. Our main criterion was the price factor: Can two people fill themselves up and get out for less than $50, excluding tip and alcohol? Other factors we took into account were an overall comfortable and relaxed ambiance, a “destination” status (that is, is the place worth traveling for?), and how long each restaurant has been around.
To assemble our ranking, we took a similar approach to the one that we used when compiling our 101 Best Restaurants in America in years past. We began by reaching out to a panel of more than 500 of the nation’s leading food writers, bloggers, and journalists, representing a wide spectrum of the American culinary landscape, and asked them to send us the names of their favorite casual restaurants.
Of course, we didn’t stop there. We beefed up our initial list with additional restaurants culled from our existing rankings of America’s best purveyors of pizza, burgers, hot dogs, tacos, and more, ending up with more than 500 restaurants that we believe represent a vast cross-section of America and the casual restaurants that make it great. From there we assembled a survey, classifying each restaurant according to both location and cuisine, and sent it back out to our initial panel. We asked them to vote for their favorites, but only ones that they’d dined at within the past two years.
In the end, we were left with a comprehensive ranking of the 101 Best Casual Restaurants in America. It’s a list we can fully stand behind, and also one that rounds out our ranking of the 101 Best Restaurants in America — which admittedly focuses on restaurants that are out of many people’s price ranges — with a collection of restaurants that are affordable and accessible to all. (We didn’t consider large chains like Shake Shack, and also left off restaurants like Portland's Pok Pok and San Francisco’s Flour + Water, casual though they may be, because they made it into our earlier ranking of the 101 Best Restaurants in America.
Our list spans the country as well as the entire gastronomic spectrum. The majority of the restaurants in our ranking are located in New York, California, and Texas (27, 16, and 11, respectively); however, 24 states and the District of Columbia are represented. Some 19 pizzerias, 11 barbecue spots, 12 Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants, 11 Asian places, nine burger joints, six fried chicken and soul food joints, eight hot dog stands, five Jewish delis, 13 sandwich shops, three diners, and four establishments in categories of their own (like Ethiopian) made the cut.
So loosen your belt and get ready for a culinary tour of the best that America has to offer, from the restaurants where burgers and Buffalo wings were invented to a classic railroad-car-style diner, from cutting-edge ramen houses to time-tested barbecue shacks. Read on to learn which 101 casual restaurants are America’s best, or head to page two for the full ranking.
Additional reporting by Arthur Bovino.