Every year since The Daily Meal’s 2011 founding, we’ve set out to compile a comprehensive ranking of the 101 Best Restaurants in America. Each time, however, we encounter a dilemma: Does a restaurant like, say, the venerable 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 celebrated 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 five years ago we decided to separate out the laid-back from the lavish with an initial ranking of 50 casual restaurants, expanded to 101 in 2015. From hot dog shacks to taco joints, from sandwich shops to legendary barbecue spots, these are amazing restaurants where price is no barrier 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 a proven reputation and longevity.
To assemble our ranking, we took an approach similar to the one that we have used when compiling our 101 Best Restaurants in America. We compiled a list of America’s best purveyors of pizza, burgers, hot dogs, tacos, fried chicken, breakfast and brunch spots 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, and sent it out to a panel of hundreds of America’s leading culinary authorities. 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 supplements our ranking of the 101 Best Restaurants in America — which admittedly focuses on restaurants that are out of many people’s price range — with a collection of restaurants that are affordable and accessible to all. (We didn’t consider large chains like Shake Shack, and we left off restaurants that made it into our earlier ranking of the 101 Best Restaurants in America, as well as Asian restaurants, which are so varied and expansive that they’re worthy of their own rankings.)
So loosen your belt and get ready for a culinary tour of the best that America has to offer. Read on to learn which 101 casual restaurants are America’s best.