“Best restaurant” lists are tricky. How can any sensible eater compare an iconic pizza parlor or the joint that serves that simply transcendent cheeseburger with the lapidary perfection of a French Laundry or the genre-bending inventiveness of a WD-50? On what terms is it possible to stack the culinary monuments of Manhattan, Chicago, or Los Angeles up against the really-very-good but necessarily more modest establishments of, say, Buellton or Murphysboro? Talk about apples and oranges.
And yet here we are offering a best restaurant list of our own. Which means that it’s probably appropriate to explain exactly what this roster of eating places is supposed to be, and how we arrived at it.
We began with a simple premise: Where do we, the editors of The Daily Meal, like to eat? Taking into consideration our mood and our budget and where we happen to be when we get hungry, how would we vote — not with our finely honed critical faculties so much as with our mouths, and our pocketbooks? And where would we send our friends?
Collectively, we came up with a master list of 150 places from every part of the country, from ultra-casual to super-fancy, old-fashioned to avant-garde. Then we divided our choices into categories — according to cuisine, region, and a number of specific factors, including service, wine list, and price level — and invited an illustrious panel of judges, mostly restaurant critics, food and lifestyle writers, and assorted bloggers, from around America to help us narrow down the list. (Two of them requested not to be identified.) The panel and our editorial staff voted anonymously, and the percentages of votes for each restaurant were tallied in order to assemble a ranked list of the 101 best.
The results were, well, thought-provoking. It probably won’t surprise anybody that Thomas Keller’s superlative French Laundry in Napa Valley came out on top, but in a real coup his restaurant Per Se took the number two spot as well. It also might surprise a few people to find three barbecue places and two pizzerias outscoring pricey French restaurants run by Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon — or Katz’s Delicatessen edging out WD-50.
For American cooking, modern or traditional, our judges liked the West Coast: Seven of the 21 restaurants in that category are in the Golden State. Perhaps it indicates that the country looks to the West for revolutionizing America’s culinary heritage. However, New York seems to be the stronghold for maintaining the best ethnic cuisines, taking the top spots in the French, Italian, and Asian categories.
Overall, New York beat out California in the top ten, garnering five spots. Taking a deeper look into the big winners, the more “experimental” chefs like Grant Achatz, Michel Richard, and José Andrès seem to be panelist favorites. What’s America’s favorite cuisine? It turns out that American cooking with French influence makes up about 50 percent of the highest rated restaurants.
In regional breakdowns, our panel thought Bern’s Steak House in Tampa was the best restaurant in the South, Citronelle in Washington D.C. was numéro un in the Mid-Atlantic, and Clio in Boston was the winner in the Northeast (though Frank Pepe Pizza in New Haven was the next one down).
You may quarrel with our results, quibble over the panel’s choices, ask how we could call that dump a “best” or why we left out that temple of gastronomy. It would be astonishing if you didn’t, in fact. We’re not presenting objective truth here. In case you haven’t noticed, there is no objective truth when it comes to taste in restaurants (or anything else).
Rather, think of this list as the Senate of Culinary Greatness in our country — every region, cuisine and price level is represented, and if you wonder what some of them are doing there, hey, ask the voters. It’s the best of the best from each league, which is the reason why Katz’s sandwiches can stand alongside Peter Luger’s steaks and Arthur Bryant’s barbecue alongside Bazaar’s molecular gastronomy. We think our list turned out pretty well, and sincerely thank our panelists for helping us refine it. We stand behind these restaurants — and would sit down happily at any of their tables.
Note from the editor: A number of readers have commented that they found our slideshow format cumbersome to navigate. We present our choices that way not to satisfy advertisers or in some blind quest for “clicks” but because we like to see what restaurants look like and read a little bit about them before we go and assume you do too, and this is the presentation that does that best. Nonetheless, we understand that going through 101 pages to see the entire list might not seem terribly efficient, so here are all of them, in reverse order, in one place. Click on any one that interests you to learn more about it.
Best 101 Restaurants: