Each year when we set out to compile our ranking of America’s 101 Best Restaurants, we’ve been hit with a dilemma: Do restaurants like the legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria, as stellar as they are, really belong in the same category as Eleven Madison Park, with its three Michelin stars? While they’re both legendary establishments and serve incredibly delicious food, there’s simply no way to compare the two; it’s apples and oranges, pizza and foie gras. So this year we decided to separate the upscale restaurants out from the casual ones. We named the 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2014 last month, and from hot dog shacks to beloved neighborhood institutions, now we can reveal the 50 best casual restaurants in America.
So 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 alcohol? Other factors we took into account were an overall comfortable and relaxed ambiance, a “destination” status, and how long the restaurants have been around for.
To assemble our ranking, we took a similar approach to the one that we’ve used when compiling our ranking of the 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, asking 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 hundreds of additional restaurants culled from our existing rankings of America’s best purveyors of pizza, burgers, hot dogs, wings, and more, ending up with nearly 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, asking them to vote for their favorites, but only ones that they’d dined at within the past two years.
In the end, we’re left with a comprehensive ranking of the 50 Best Casual Restaurants in America. It’s a list we can fully stand behind, and also one that helps to round out our ranking of the 101 best restaurants in America (which admittedly focuses on restaurants that are out of many peoples’ price range) with a collection of restaurants that are affordable and accessible to all.
Our list includes many different types of restaurants, from all across the country. There are six Asian restaurants including Oakland’s perpetually packed Ramen Shop, eight barbecue spots ranging from the legendary (Arthur Bryant’s) to the newfangled (BrisketTown), five burger joints (including the rockin’ Kuma’s Corner), three Jewish delis from New York to Los Angeles (Langer’s), one diner (Little Goat), four hot dog stands (thankfully there’s one Gray’s Papaya left), four Mexican or Tex/Mex eateries (nobody should leave San Francisco without visiting La Taqueria), four neighborhood institutions (like the birthplace of Buffalo wings, Anchor Bar), ten pizza and Italian spots (even high-end pizzas like those at Pizzeria Bianco are inexpensive), and five soul food restaurants (Willie Mae’s might serve the best fried chicken on earth, unless Gus's does). Many of the results were surprising: for example, while New York is thought of as a pizza capital, there are just as many pizzerias from California on our list as there are from New York. As for barbecue, our ranking proves that there really are capitals of ‘cue: Austin and Lockhart in Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and Alabama are represented, as well as the country’s newest barbecue melting pot, New York. Thirteen of the restaurants on our list are in New York City and 12 are in California, but five are from New Orleans, affirming the Crescent City’s status as a great place to eat well inexpensively. Other well-represented states include Texas and Tennessee, with cities including Chicago, Portland, New Haven, and Santa Fe rounding it off.
So come with us on a journey through 14 states and the District of Columbia, through 10 different cuisines, from tiny soul food spots to sprawling temples of barbecue, as we present our inaugural ranking of the 50 Best Casual Restaurants in America. Head to page two for the full list, and let us know if we missed any in the comments.
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers. Additional reporting by Arthur Bovino.