The 101 Most Iconic Restaurant Dishes in America from The 101 Most Iconic Restaurant Dishes in America Gallery
The 101 Most Iconic Restaurant Dishes in America Gallery
The 101 Most Iconic Restaurant Dishes in America
Iconic dishes occupy a lofty position in the American culinary landscape. They’re the dishes that we make pilgrimages to, the ones that are on The Great Foodie Bucket List, the ones that you can’t leave town without trying. They’re dishes that in many cases can only be found at one restaurant, and those experiencing them for the first time do so in quiet reverence. They’re the dishes that really are that good. In other words, these are the 101 dishes that you really should make an effort to try at some point.
So what, exactly, makes a dish iconic?
If it’s been around for decades, if the definitive version is still served at the restaurant that created it (or another that’s picked up the mantle), and if it’s earned legions of loyal fans, then it might be an icon.
If it’s so good that it’s put the restaurant that serves it on the map and influenced others, it might be an icon.
If it’s become so popular that it’s now a household name, imitated (but never replicated) at countless other restaurants nationwide, even as the restaurant that invented it is still going strong, it might be an icon.
If it’s the signature dish of one of the country’s great fine-dining chefs, and a must-order at their restaurant, it might be an icon.
Clearly, the parameters are rather broad. But there’s one thing all culinary icons have in common: You know it when you taste it.
In order to limit our list to just 101 dishes, we had to set a few boundaries. One, all of these dishes are savory and can be considered an appetizer or main course, so no desserts (sorry, Parker House’s Boston Cream Pie) or side dishes (sorry, Robuchon’s pommes purée) are included. All of these dishes are also readily available in their most iconic form; they’re not fondly-remembered relics of bygone restaurants. Finally, in the interest of fairness, we didn’t include dishes from major chains; there’s no denying that the Egg McMuffin is iconic, but that’s for another day.
Our list truly runs the gamut of American dining, from legendary burgers, hot dogs, pizzas, and fried chicken to lesser-known regional specialties; from dishes that go back more than a century to ones that have only been around for a decade but have accomplished a lot since then; from blue-collar classics whose inventors are long-forgotten to fine-dining touchstones created by legendary chefs. If you have the opportunity to sample any of these, don’t pass on it: These dishes tell the story of American dining through the years, and they’re all undeniably iconic.
Number 19, Langer’s Delicatessen, Los Angeles
Since opening back in 1947, Langer’s Delicatessen has grown to become one of the premier sandwich shops on the West Coast. Many of their fans refer to Langer’s as the best deli west of the Hudson River, and few who’ve tried their sandwiches would disagree. The deli’s crowning achievement, and one of the great Los Angeles sandwiches, is the #19. Essentially a Reuben with pastrami instead of corned beef, it starts with hand-cut, house-made pastrami and is topped with coleslaw, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, served between two slices of double-baked rye bread. It’s a masterpiece.
Barbecue Plate, Franklin Barbecue, Austin
By 10 a.m. on a Friday there will be more than 90 people in line at this modest establishment, which traces its roots back to 2009 and a turquoise trailer. The 90 people who show in the next half-hour wait in vain; a waitress will tell them that there's just no barbecue left. So it goes at Franklin, where Aaron Franklin serves some of the best of Texas's greatest culinary claim to fame (a devastating fire last year destroyed the smokehouse and caused $350,000 in damages, but it reopened four months later without skipping a beat). No single offering here stands above the rest; the mixed-and-matched plates (technically, sheets of butcher paper) of barbecue each lucky guest can order has become iconic in itself. The brisket, with its peppery exterior, falls apart as you pick it up. The turkey is what presidentially pardoned birds aspire to be. The sausage snaps loudly when you slice it, juice splashing out and up... You’ve heard the buzz. You’ve seen Franklin on TV. You’re heard his acolytes’ brisket gospel. It's not hype. It really is that good.
Biscuits and Gravy, Loveless Café, Nashville
In business since 1951, this legendary Nashville restaurant serves what very well might be the best biscuits in the world (not even exaggerating), based on a recipe created by founder Annie Loveless herself and closely guarded to this day. If it’s possible to improve on perfection, it’s done by serving the biscuits alongside rich and creamy gravy. Thankfully, every breakfast plate is served with biscuits, so you don’t have to miss out.
Black Cod With Miso, Nobu, Various Locations
When chef Nobu Matsuhisa opened his eponymous restaurant with pal Robert De Niro and restaurateur Drew Nieporent in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood in 1994, there was no way he could have imagined that more than 20 years later he’d be running more than 30 affiliated restaurants around the world, as well as nearly a dozen Nobu-branded hotels. But there’s a reason why Nobu has become a household name across the globe, as the menu fuses classical Japanese with that of Peru and Argentina, where Nobu trained. The standout dishes include yellowtail with jalapeño and lobster with wasabi pepper sauce, but the dish that Nobu (and Nobu) will be long remembered for is the often imitated, never replicated black cod with miso, which is marinated in white miso, sake, mirin, and sugar for three days before being browned in a pan and finished in a hot oven. It’s one of the planet’s great fish dishes.
Black Label Burger, Minetta Tavern, New York City
Sure, the côte de boeuf, roasted bone marrow, and various ungodly delicious potato renditions are big reasons why Minetta Tavern was called the city’s best steakhouse and awarded three stars by The New York Times. But no less the stuff of legend is the Black Label Burger. Prime dry-aged beef, sourced and aged for six to seven weeks by Pat LaFrieda, is well seasoned and cooked on a plancha with clarified butter, developing a glorious exterior. The fussed-over burger is nestled onto a sesame-studded brioche bun designed specifically for it, topped with caramelized onions, and served with pommes frites. Juicy, savory, salty, soul-satisfying… these words lose meaning in the presence of a burger this good.
Blackened Redfish, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, New Orleans
If you spent any time dining out in the ‘80s, you most likely encountered something that was blackened. You have chef Paul Prudhomme to thank for that, due to one revolutionary dish served at his K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen: blackened redfish. The dish starts with a blend of spices including cayenne, paprika, garlic and onion powders, thyme, and oregano, applied liberally to the Gulf fish before it’s seared with a little clarified butter in a ripping-hot cast-iron pan. The dish was so popular, and became so ubiquitous nationwide, that it caused redfish to be fished to near-extinction. Today the dish is usually prepared with drum instead of redfish, but the best rendition is still served at K-Paul’s.
Breaded Pork Tenderloin, Nick’s Kitchen, Huntington, Indiana
In Iowa and Indiana, the humble pork loin is turned into one of the most delicious sandwiches you’ll ever find, all thanks to some pounding and deep-frying. And this legendary sandwich was reportedly invented by Nick Freienstein nearly 110 years ago in the small Indiana town of Huntington; his restaurant is still in business, and they’re still using his recipe to turn out massive tenderloin sandwiches. A 4-ounce slice of lean center-cut pork loin is pounded down into a huge patty; marinated in buttermilk, eggs, and flour; breaded in saltine crumbs; deep-fried, and served on a 5-inch hamburger bun with onion, lettuce, and tomato. Imitators abound, but the original is still the best.
Brussels Sprout Pizza, Motorino, New York City
Some spaces are cursed. Others? Blessed. When Anthony Mangieri shuttered Una Pizza Napoletana at 349 East 12th Street, left New York City, and headed west, Mathieu Palombino took over the lease and renamed the space Motorino, and the East Village pizza scene hardly skipped a beat.
Motorino offers nine spirited pies, including one with cherry stone clams; another with stracciatella, raw basil, and Gaeta olives; and one with cremini mushrooms, fior di latte, sweet sausage, and garlic. But contrary to every last fiber of childhood memory you hold dear, the move is the Brussels sprouts pie (on which that oft-maligned vegetable is joined by fior di latte, garlic, pecorino, smoked pancetta, and olive oil). There’s a reason why you’ll see it on just about every table: It’s legendary.
Buffalo Wings, Anchor Bar, Buffalo, N.Y.
This is the place that started it all, and many would argue that they’ve been often imitated, never duplicated. The wings are juicy, crispy, spicy, and served to teeming hordes of hungry masses, and those who make a pilgrimage here never leave unsatisfied (especially after knocking back a few tap Genesee Cream Ales).
Burger, Father’s Office, Los Angeles
What do you get when you go to Father's Office, chef Sang Yoon's gastropub in Los Angeles (now in both Santa Monica and Culver City)? No table service. And no pretension. But let’s face it: you're there for the Office Burger, which many people in LA refer to as the city's best and most iconic burger, and which helped to spark a burger renaissance upon its 2000 unveiling. There's nothing frou-frou about it, just arugula, bacon, caramelized onion, Gruyère, and Maytag Blue on a loaf that’s more similar to a baguette than a bun. It's a very, very juicy burger with funk, freshness, and great flavor. The fries are also among America’s best, but don’t forget that there’s no ketchup on the premises.
Burgoo, Stella’s Kentucky Deli, Lexington, Kentucky
You might not have heard of burgoo, probably because it’s still a regional Kentucky specialty that you’d be hard pressed to find outside of the state, but it’s absolutely iconic. So when you’re there, make sure you eat some of this thick, hearty soup loaded with meat and vegetables. The best place for burgoo is Lexington’s homey Stella’s, where it’s made with beef, pork, chicken, and lamb with corn, beans, and other veggies, and is served with four mini corn muffins for sopping.
Canlis Salad, Canlis, Seattle
Canlis is a true Pacific Northwest landmark. It’s been open since 1950, serving fresh, seasonal dishes that are more polished than cutting-edge in a rustic-modern space whose use of native wood and stone evokes forests and streams. Canlis was revolutionary when it opened due to its stunning architecture (Roland Terry and Pete Wimberley collaborated on an original design meant to echo Frank Lloyd Wright) and trailblazing menu of upscale Northwest cuisine (which founder Peter Canlis essentially invented), and it’s still blazing new trails while keeping the classics, such as the famous Canlis salad (romaine, tomatoes, bacon, mint, oregano, croutons, and Romano with a dressing of lemon, olive oil, and coddled egg), served tableside, on the menu. It’s a timeless classic.
Carnitas Burrito, La Taquería, San Francisco
La Taquería is a regular stop for food-lovers in San Francisco, the home of America’s best and most iconic burrito, the classic Mission-style, also known as the inspiration for Chipotle. Either keep it simple and just stick with meat and beans — no rice filler in the burrito here — or upgrade it with all the classic burrito extras and watch your pants tighten with each bite. We suggest you go all the way and load yours up with their unique style of carnitas, which are somehow both crispy and moist, and incomparably delicious. All the praise that this perpetually packed institution receives is well worth it: It really is that good.
Chargrilled Burger, The Spotted Pig, New York City
The burger at the Spotted Pig, a restaurant that is widely considered responsible for launching the high-end gastropub trend, is a wonder. Chef and co-owner April Bloomfield, who left the restaurant earlier this month amid the upheaval of sexual harassment claims surrounding the other owner, Ken Friedman, created a half-pound behemoth of prime grilled beef, topped with a layer of creamy, stinky Roquefort, and sandwiched inside a brioche-style bun. Served alongside rosemary-scented shoestring fries, it’s the kind of burger that will force you to close your eyes after taking the first bite and just be with the beefy, cheesy decadence. This is a burger that you’ll be dreaming about for weeks to come, but you might not be able to experience it for much longer: The new co-owners, Gabrielle Hamilton and Ashley Merriman from the city’s renowned Prune, haven’t committed to keeping it on the menu once they take over.
Charleston Nasty Biscuit, Hominy Grill, Charleston
Left: Michelle R./Yelp; Right: Robert Stehling
At Charleston’s Hominy Grill, chef/owner Robert Stehling has landed upon the perfect formula: comforting Lowcountry cuisine made with the highest-quality ingredients. The perfect expression of that philosophy is the Charleston Nasty Biscuit (formerly known as the Big Nasty): a light and flaky high-rise biscuit, cut in half and filled with a huge piece of golden-brown fried chicken breast, topped with melted cheese and a giant ladle of creamy sausage gravy. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime sandwich, but if you have the opportunity to eat it even once, you’ll be very fortunate.
Cheese Slice, Joe’s Pizza, New York City
Since 1975, Joe’s Pizza has served fresh, hot, cheesy slices to tourists and residents alike, making it a truly iconic New York City landmark. It’s as synonymous with New York City as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Everyone has a favorite slice joint, but if the city were to have just one, this would be it. It’s made every conceivable best-of list (many of them tacked on the walls and in the windows), and for good reason. The key to Joe's success is their traditional New York City-style pizza with thin crust, great sauce, and just the right ratio of cheese, sauce, and crust (just a bit less of the first two).
Cheeseburger, Gott's Roadside, San Francisco
Back in 2011, popular California hamburger stand Taylor's Automatic Refresher renamed its three locations (Napa, St. Helena, and San Francisco's Ferry Building) because its owners, brothers Joel and Duncan Gott, didn't own the rights to the original name and couldn’t persuade those who did own them to let the Gotts trademark it. It may have been jarring to see the name change and the introduction of the neon-lit red “G,” but one thing didn’t change when they adopted the family name Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet were the storied grilled third-pound Niman Ranch burgers. Cooked medium-well and topped with American cheese, lettuce, pickles, tomato, and secret sauce on a toasted egg bun, Gott’s cheeseburger gets pressed lightly in a machine at the end of the line (employees say this steams the bun but leaves the underside crunchy). It’s an icon.
Cheeseburger, Husk, Charleston
So what’s the secret to the burger at Husk, Sean Brock’s Charleston landmark? Bacon ground right into the patty. Brock has been on a personal quest to perfect the burger, and after eating his cheeseburger you’ll most likely agree that he’s achieved his goal. House-made buns are steamed, sliced, toasted, and smeared with butter and beef fat. The two patties are a blend of chuck and hickory-smoked Benton’s bacon, seared on a ripping-hot nonstick griddle and scraped off to retain their crust. The toppings? Three slices of American cheese, shaved white onions in between the patties, bread-and-butter pickles, a "special sauce" that closely resembles the one at In-N-Out, and lettuce and tomato only when they’re in season. Sean Brock: in relentless pursuit of burger perfection. You: lucky.
Cheesesteak, Pat’s King of Steaks, Philadelphia
On the intersection of South Ninth Street, Wharton Street, and East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia are two cheesesteak giants: Pat’s and Geno’s. They both have a fiercely loyal clientele, each of which will tell you that their favorite is superior. Pat’s claims to have invented the cheesesteak as we know it: As the story goes, in May 1933 brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri, who owned a hot dog stand on the corner, thinly sliced a steak and fried it with onions, and a legend was born.
Pat’s and Geno’s serve a similar product (with both using thinly sliced ribeye steak), but there’s one main difference: Pat’s chops up its meat while it’s on the grill, and Geno’s keeps its slices whole. Which one you order comes down to personal preference, but Pat’s chopped version is more iconic. Just make sure you learn the lingo first — “wit” means with onions, “wit-out” means without onions — and know which kind of cheese you want (Cheez Whiz, provolone, American, mozzarella, or none) before you start your order.
Chicago-Style Hot Dog, Superdawg, Chicago
Topped by what has to be some of America’s best signage — a flexing hot dog showing off his muscles to a winking wiener girl — Superdawg has been an institution on Milwaukee Avenue across from Caldwell Woods since Maurie Berman opened it in 1948. The recently returned G.I. designed the building, devised his own secret recipe, and set up a drive-in at what was then the end of the streetcar line. He planned to sell 32-cent Superdawg sandwiches to "swimming families and cruisin’ teens" for a few months during the summer to help put him through school at Northwestern. In 1950, Maurie passed the CPA exam, but he and wife Flaurie decided to keep operating Superdawg and to open year-round. The family-owned, working drive-in still serves superior pure beef dogs, "the loveliest, juiciest creation of pure beef hot dog (no pork, no veal, no cereal, no filler) formally dressed with all the trimmings: golden mustard, tangy piccalilli, kosher dill pickle, chopped Spanish onions, and a memorable hot pepper." Sadly, Maurie passed away in May 2015 at age 89 and Flaurie died in May, but the family-run operation is still going strong: Maurie’s 11-year-old great-granddaughter worked her first shift there in 2015.
Chicken and Waffles, Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, Multiple Locations in California
This late-night spot, originally located in Hollywood, has been serving up fried chicken and waffles since 1975 — when the owner, Harlem-bred Herb Hudson, brought some recipes from home to the West Coast — and has since expanded into a small local chain of restaurants. The list of celebrity diners is endless (which is no surprise, considering its Los Angeles locale), but regulars include Snoop Dogg and Larry King. The chicken is fried fresh to order, and make sure to ask for your waffles to be cooked extra-crispy.
Chicken for Two, Zuni Café, San Francisco
The late chef Judy Rodgers made waves in San Francisco when she introduced roast chicken to the menu after taking over Zuni Café in 1987. Her chicken (which is still the restaurant’s top seller) starts with a dry brine before being dried, seasoned, and cooked in a very hot oven. It’s served over a warm salad of arugula and chunks of bread, and there’s still no other dish quite like it.
Chili Dog, Martinsville Speedway, Ridgeway, Va.
Eating a chili dog at the Martinsville Speedway is a rite of passage for racecar drivers and fans alike, and this iconic hot dog also happens to be really tasty. Over one weekend, more than 50,000 of the hot dogs are sold, and at just two bucks a pop, they’re a steal. These dogs have been served for more than 60 years in the same way: a soft bun, slaw, cheese, hand-chopped onions, and a secret-recipe chili, wrapped in waxed paper. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has claimed to eat three or four a day on race weekends. When the speedway switched hot dog suppliers (for the first time in nearly 70 years) from Jesse Jones to Smithfield-owned Valleydale Foods a couple years ago, there was a major uproar, but even die-hards say they can’t tell the difference.
Chopped BBQ Sandwich, Lexington Barbecue, Lexington, N.C.
It’s all about the pork when it comes to “Lexington-style” North Carolina barbecue, and though countless restaurants are serving their take on smoked pork shoulder sandwiches, none quite compare to Lexington Barbecue, going strong since 1962. You can order yours sliced or chopped (we prefer chopped), but make sure you don’t skimp on the slaw, a tangy mix of cabbage, vinegar, and pepper. It’s a smoky, porky, perfect expression of a beloved regional barbecue style.
Chorizo-Stuffed Medjool Dates, Avec, Chicago
Chef Paul Kahan is one of Chicago’s most legendary and prolific chef-restaurateurs, and his Avec, with its wide variety of Mediterranean-inspired small plates, fills to capacity within minutes of opening every day. There’s one dish that’s to be found on nearly every table, and it’s one that’s been on the menu since the day Avec opened in 2003: bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates. To make this dish, medjool dates are stuffed with (and surrounded by) fresh chorizo, wrapped in thick-cut bacon, cooked in a ripping hot wood-burning oven, and served in a pool of piquillo pepper-tomato sauce alongside a fresh ciabatta. It’s sweet, salty, smoky, fatty, and an absolute must-order.
Cioppino, Tadich Grill, San Francisco
The word may sound Italian, but cioppino is an American dish invented by Genoese immigrant Giuseppe Bazzuro in the 1950s, and one of San Francisco’s most iconic foods. Tadich Grill, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, serves the definitive version: a heady and luxurious tomato-based stew brimming with fresh local seafood including Dungeness crab, shrimp, halibut, and scallops. It’s the most popular item on the menu here for a reason.
Clam Chowder, Union Oyster House, Boston
The Union Oyster House is Boston’s most famous restaurant, and its New England clam chowder is the definitive version, hands-down. It starts (as all great clam chowders do) with diced salt pork, which is rendered down and combined with butter, flour, onion, and celery to form a roux. It’s combined with house-made clam juice, half-and-half, chopped fresh clams, a couple dashes of Tabasco, and diced potatoes, and end result is thick, creamy, simple, and perfect.
Classic Chili, Barney’s Beanery, Los Angeles
This nearly 100 year-old Los Angeles institution was opened by John “Barney” Anthony, whose chili and onion soup recipes made him popular among his fellow troops during World War I. What started as a small wooden shack on Santa Monica Boulevard soon became a favorite among Hollywood’s elite, and today there are six locations in the Los Angeles area. There are five chili varieties available: classic, Texas-style, turkey, fireman’s, and vegetable, but if you try one, make it the classic, with a recipe dating back to 1920: It’s full of ground beef and beans, and is a timeless classic, just like Barney’s.
Coney, American Coney Island, Detroit
In Detroit, there’s an epic rivalry going back decades between two neighboring hot dog stands — American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island — but American can claim to being there first, and perfecting the now-legendary hot dog style. Family-owned and -operated since 1917, American’s claim to fame is the classic Coney-style dog. A custom-made natural-casing hot dog from Koegel’s gets placed into a warm steamed bun, then topped with a Greek-spiced beef-heart-based chili sauce developed by founder Gust Keros, a heap of diced onions, and a squirt of mustard. No trip to Detroit is complete without a Coney dog.
Crab Toast With Lemon Aioli, ABC Kitchen, New York City
The toast craze was just getting off its feet in 2010 when legendary chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (see Egg Caviar) added this dish to the opening-day menu at his perpetually mobbed New York restaurant ABC Kitchen. The dish is essentially perfect — fresh-picked peekytoe crab and herbs dotted with house-made lemony aioli served atop a slice of house-baked toasted bread. As with many dishes on this list, it’s been often imitated but never duplicated.
Cuban Sandwich, Versailles, Miami
The Cuban sandwich actually originated in Florida, not Cuba, and in many ways it’s the unofficial sandwich of Miami. Just about all Miami Cuban sandwiches contain the same ingredients — ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on Cuban bread, pressed until melty (salami also works its way into it in Tampa) — but quality can vary from place to place. The definitive version can be found at Versailles, located in Miami’s Little Havana. Fresh Cuban-style white bread loaves are baked in house; ham is glazed with brown sugar, pineapple juice, and cloves before being baked; whole pork legs are marinated and slow-roasted for three hours daily; and imported Swiss cheese is sliced thick. A good Cuban sandwich depends on the quality of its ingredients, and the ingredients in Versailles’ version are just about perfect.
Deep Dish Pizza, Pizzeria Uno, Chicago
It’s interesting to note that deep-dish was not an overnight success (they had to give it away until customers became acclimated), and that the thick, buttery pizza wasn’t the first inspiration for Pizzeria Uno. Consider Chicago Tribune’s restaurant critic Phil Vettel’s report about its beginnings, which suggests, “Chicago-style pizza may owe its existence to a bad enchilada.”
Uno founders Ike Sewell (a Texan) and Ric Riccardo first planned to serve Mexican food, “But one of the sample meals the partners tested made Riccardo so sick that he rejected Mexican food entirely.” When Riccardo suggested pizza, which he’d tried in Italy during World War II, Sewell had in mind a more substantial version.
Thus, the style featuring “buttery ‘out-of-this-world’ crust,” and generous amounts of cheese. Sure, the company is now based in Boston. No, you don’t have to visit Chicago to experience it (there are locations of the chain spinoff, now called Uno Chicago Grill, throughout the country). Some pizza experts may quibble about where it should rank compared with the city’s other deep-dish pies, but there’s something to be said about a pilgrimage to the original to try one of America’s most iconic pizzas in the place of its birth.
Dick’s Deluxe, Dick's, Seattle
With six locations, Dick’s is a Seattle institution. Since 1954, they’ve served burgers, hand-cut fries (among the best in the country), and milkshakes, and the owners know that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Double Deluxe is an ideal burger specimen: two patties, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickle relish, on a soft, squishy bun, sold for a whopping $2.90. Want onions? That’ll cost you an extra 5 cents, please.
Egg Caviar, Jean Georges, New York City
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the best chefs in America these days, and the egg caviar is the most famous dish at his flagship New York restaurant and one of New York’s most iconic fine-dining bites. So, yeah, it’s good. To make the dish, heavy cream is lightly whipped with cayenne, salt, and a touch of vodka and fresh lemon juice, and the mixture is added into a piping bag. Egg, salt, cayenne, cream, and butter are whisked into a very soft scramble, and this mixture is spooned into the bottom of an eggshell. It’s then topped with the vodka whipped cream and a massive spoonful of caviar. If this isn’t fine dining, we don’t know what is.
Eggs Benedict, Delmonico’s, New York City
Eggs Benedict is the quintessential brunch dish, a perfect pile of English muffin, Canadian bacon, poached egg, and hollandaise. You can find versions of varying quality on any brunch menu worth its salt, but only one restaurant can make a credible claim to having invented it: Delmonico’s, in business since 1860 in Lower Manhattan. Supposedly invented here for regulars Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict in the late 1800s, the version served at the fancy steakhouse today, with thick-sliced ham, luxuriously creamy hollandaise, and a dab of caviar, is essentially perfect.
French Dip, Philippe the Original, Los Angeles
Philippe the Original/Yelp
Countless restaurants serve French dip sandwiches, but the definitive version can still be found at the restaurant where it was invented: Los Angeles’ Philippe the Original. Because it’s been around for 105 years, the exact origins of the sandwich are disputed. (The most commonly held belief is that it was created as a way to soften up day-old bread, but nobody knows where the “French” part came from.) However, the process behind this masterpiece is no mystery: Bottom round is seasoned with salt, pepper, and mashed garlic, slow-roasted with a mirepoix until medium-rare, and sliced and placed onto a fresh French roll from a local bakery that’s been dunked into jus made with homemade stock and the intensely flavored pan drippings. (The “single dip” means that just the top half is dunked, but the more popular “double dip” includes both halves.)
Fried Calamari, Randazzo’s Clam Bar, Brooklyn
If you’ve ever eaten fried calamari, you have a legendary seafood restaurant in Brooklyn’s waterside neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay to thank for that. Back in 1960, when the dish was popularized by Randazzo’s Clam Bar owner Helen Randazzo, calamari was very unpopular in North America; squid was usually used as bait and only sold for a couple cents per pound. But Randazzo had the idea to slice it into bands, bread and fry it, and serve it for free at the bar alongside some of her (still-)famous tomato sauce, and the rest is history.
Fried Chicken, Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, Mason, Tenn.
The original Gus’s is in Mason, but in recent years it's expanded to 25 locations across the country, with more in the works. The wait is notoriously long — not only because there are plenty of people in line, but also because Gus’s has been reported to take twice as long to complete an order than their estimated time. Still worth it? Most definitely. The golden brown casing keeps the interior juicy, and the simple but effective team of salt and cayenne make for a seasoning that lingers on your lips (and is most welcome there).
Fried Chicken, Willie Mae's Scotch House, New Orleans
You haven’t truly had fried chicken until you’ve had it from Willie Mae’s, the legendary restaurant located in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood since 1956. Look around the two no-frills dining rooms and you’ll see nothing but fried chicken, even though other offerings, like smothered veal, are available (and delicious). But if it’s your first time there, take a cue from the regulars and pilgrims alike. The chicken, perfected by Willie Mae Seaton (who passed away in 2015 at age 99) and today safeguarded by her granddaughter Kerry, is, simply put, otherworldly. Fried to order, the crust is shiny, craggy, light, not greasy, and shatteringly crisp and crunchy, coming away cleanly as you take a bite without dragging the rest of the breading with it. Underneath, the chicken is impossibly moist and juicy. We almost lost Willie Mae’s after it was destroyed during Katrina, but the community banded together to rebuild the restaurant exactly as it was before.
Frita Cubana, El Mago de las Fritas, Miami
The frita is a perfect representation of the American influence on Cuban culture, and vice versa. It was created in Cuba and brought over to the States after the revolution, and the one served at Little Havana’s El Mago de las Fritas is arguably the best. Here’s the breakdown: A fresh-ground patty of spiced beef (possibly with some chorizo mixed in) is pressed flat onto the griddle along with some diced onions and a mysterious red sauce, then tucked into a fresh Cuban roll. It’s topped with freshly fried potato sticks (not from a can here, as they are at some other places), more diced onion, and a squirt of ketchup. It’s mind-blowingly delicious and unlike any other burger you’ll ever try.
Fusilli with Red Wine Braised Octopus and Bone Marrow, Marea, New York City
When it opened, Marea was immediately acclaimed as one of the most original and consistently wonderful upscale Manhattan restaurants in recent memory. And it’s still a must-visit, with two dishes that are so unique and wonderful that they’ve officially entered New York’s culinary canon: a simple crostini with sea urchin and lardo, and fusilli with octopus and bone marrow. The latter, chef Michael White’s homage to surf and turf, starts with house-made durum wheat fusilli. This is tossed with a sauce of braised baby Spanish octopus, sangiovese wine, San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, basil, and chunks of lightly sautéed bone marrow before being plated and topped with toasted bread crumbs. There’s nothing else out there that’s quite like it, and it remains in a league of its own in the competitive New York dining scene.
Garbage Plate, Nick Tahou’s Hots, Rochester, N.Y.
Insanely popular in the Rochester, New York, area but little-known outside of it, the garbage plate gets its name because of the huge quantity and variety of food piled onto a plate. Widely credited with being created at a restaurant there called Nick Tahou’s Hots, it’s prepared by starting with either baked beans or macaroni salad, then piling on home fries or French fries. It’s then topped with your choice of two of the following: hamburger, cheeseburger, Italian sausage, red hot or white hot (local hot dog variations), chicken tenders, haddock, fried eggs, ham, or a grilled cheese. Then it’s topped with onions, mustard, and beef chili sauce. Hangovers be damned.
Gerber, Ruma’s Deli, St. Louis
Popular in and around St. Louis, the Gerber is an open-faced sandwich made with a loaf of Italian or French bread that’s topped with garlic butter, ham, provel or provolone, and paprika, then toasted, and nobody does it better than the place where it was invented, family-owned Ruma’s Deli. The cheese and garlic butter melt, the whole thing gets brown and bubbly, and it’s simple and delicious.
Gnocchi, Spiaggia, Chicago
Chef Tony Mantuano’s refined and modern Spiaggia is the gold standard for Italian fine dining in Chicago (and let’s face it, across America), and it’s constantly breaking new ground and reinventing itself, most notably with a 2014 renovation and menu revamp. There’s one dish, however, that can never be removed from the menu or it might incite riots (or at least polite disapproval): the gnocchi. Super-tender hand-rolled gnocchi are blanched and tossed in a sauce made with heavy cream, milk, ricotta, and a handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a drizzle of truffle oil (the real stuff, infused with preserved Italian truffles). It’s plated after the sauce reduces slightly, and is topped with a spoonful of rich jus and a couple of those preserved sliced truffles. It’s a masterpiece, and a must-order, even with a $60 price tag.
Gnudi, The Spotted Pig, New York City
New York’s The Spotted Pig is the only restaurant that’s on this list more than once, and honestly it could easily make a couple additional appearances as well. Its burger, devils on horseback, and deviled eggs are New York icons, but there’s one dish that’s appeared on just about every table since the restaurant first opened and kicked off the gastropub craze in 2004: sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi with brown butter and crispy sage. These light little pillows of airy ricotta are usually referred to as “naked ravioli,” but they’re so much more than that. A relatively simple Italian dumpling, gnudi were officially introduced to America at the Pig, and nobody does it better.
Goat Cheese Salad, Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif.
A salad of mixed greens topped with a crispy puck of breadcrumb- and herb-coated goat cheese is so ubiquitous a dish — and has been since the 1980s — that most people don’t even realize that it was invented by Alice Waters at her seminal Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1981. Back then, fresh goat cheese was incredibly difficult to come by, and Waters had the ingenious idea to bake it in a crisp crust until warm and slightly melty. It’s still on the menu at the upstairs café, as it has been since day one.
Green Chile Cheeseburger, Santa Fe Bite, Santa Fe
Down the Old Las Vegas Highway (the original Route 66), the green chile cheeseburger served at Bobcat Bite, founded by Mitzi Panzer in 1953, was hailed as not only the zenith of green chile cheeseburgers, but perhaps one of the greatest burgers, period, in the country. A dispute between the Panzer family and John and Bonnie Eckre, who took The Bite over 13 years ago, forced the Eckres to move to a new location on Old Santa Fe Trail and adopt a new name, Santa Fe Bite, but the restaurant’s legendary ginormous burgers — 10-ounce house-ground, boneless chuck patties cooked to temperature preference and blanketed with green chiles under white American cheese on huge, ciabatta-like buns — remain. And for that we should be very thankful.
Green Chile Stew, The Shed, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Going strong since 1960, The Shed is one of Santa Fe’s most renowned restaurants, and quite possibly the best place in the state to get your fix of dishes prepared with New Mexico’s famed Hatch chiles. While the posole is also spectacular, the green chile stew is the one to order; made with roasted chiles, potatoes, and chunks of lean pork, it’s everything that’s great about New Mexican cuisine in one iconic bowl of stew.
Gumbo, Dooky Chase, New Orleans
Dooky Chase is one of New Orleans’ most legendary restaurants, largely thanks to its legendary chef and proprietor, 95-year-old Leah Chase. Her gumbo is the platonic ideal of this Creole classic, made with a dark roux and loaded with shrimp, Creole sausage, smoked sausage, beef, ham, oysters, and chicken wings. It’s thickened with file powder instead of okra, and even the most serious of the city’s gumbo connoisseurs will tell you that hers is the best around.
Half-Smoke, Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.
It might irk some Washingtonians to hear, but as bagels and pizza are to New York, so the half-smoke is to the capital — it stands as one of the District’s most iconic foods along with the jumbo slice. The celebrity (and presidential) photos on the wall are clear indications of Ben's Chili Bowl's city landmark status, but the continuous lines out the door are evidence that the restaurant's chili cheese dogs are some of the best in the country. But those in the know don’t just order "dogs," they get the half-smokes, a half-pork, half-beef smoked sausage, which is a native D.C. specialty supposedly invented by Ben Ali, the original proprietor, whose sons took over the restaurant after his death. As the U Street Corridor/Shaw neighborhood around it has gentrified, Ben’s remains a more-than-50-year-old bastion of down-home D.C. where college kids, old-timers, and celebrities are all welcome, as long as they're willing to stand in line like everybody else.
Hickory Burger, The Apple Pan, Los Angeles
This standalone counter-only burger-and-pie place in West Los Angeles hasn't changed since it opened in 1947 (well, except for the prices). The Apple Pan's signature Hickory Burger is a juicy round of hickory-smoked ground beef on a reasonably standard bun anointed with mayonnaise and a secret sauce that tastes like slightly spiced-up ketchup. Pickles and lettuce complete the package, with Tillamook Cheddar melted on top for an extra 50 cents.
Hickory Smoked BAR-B-Q Chicken, Big Bob Gibson, Decatur, Ala.
Chris Lilly is one of America’s most renowned pitmasters, and with good reason. He took over the pit at the circa-1925 Big Bob Gibson a couple of decades ago, introducing new sauces and rubs to the equation, and suddenly the restaurant was on the map. He’s best known for his Alabama-style white sauce, a tangy concoction that best complements his smoked chicken, and since its introduction it’s become one of America’s most iconic barbecue and chicken dishes. Half-chickens are smoked low and slow over hickory, and dunked in a zippy mayo-based sauce before serving.
Hot Brown, Brown Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky
The Hot Brown is Kentucky’s most legendary culinary contribution, invented in 1926 by Fred K. Schmidt, chef at Louisville’s luxurious Brown Hotel. The hotel is still going strong, and the best place to enjoy this renowned open-faced sandwich is at its point of origin. (It’s served at the hotel’s three restaurants and in-room dining.) To make the definitive version of this classic dish, toast is topped with sliced turkey and doused in a creamy pecorino-based Mornay sauce before being browned in the broiler. Crispy bacon and sliced tomatoes round it out.
Hot Dog, Gray’s Papaya, New York City
The classic New York hot dog comes in many forms, but they’re almost always made by one company: Sabrett. Gray’s Papaya is now down to just one New York location on the Upper West Side, and this colorful purveyor of old-school New York character grills their natural-casing Sabrett dogs on a flat top, nestles them inside a lightly toasted bun, and tops them with mustard, sauerkraut, or the classic "onions in sauce," also made by Sabrett. Lean up against the ledge, wash down a couple with some papaya drink, and be on your merry way, full, content, and out only a few bucks.
Hot Dog, Nathan’s Famous, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The most famous hot dog stand in the country, and still one of the best. Founded by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker in 1916, Nathan’s didn’t just rely on a quality product (the hot dog recipe was his wife Ida’s); its founder was also a shrewd businessman. He sold his franks for just five cents, making them the cheapest around, and reportedly hired actors to dress as doctors and eat there in order to convince folks that they were safe to eat. The business took off, and today there are more than 40,000 outlets selling Nathan's hot dogs.
A trip to the original stand in Brooklyn’s Coney Island is a pilgrimage that everyone should make at least once. Stand in the same line that millions of others have over the years, place your order, and snap into the perfect embodiment of a summer day: the sea, the boardwalk, and an original Nathan’s hot dog. There’s nothing else like it.
Hot Potato, Cold Potato, Alinea, Chicago
The most famous dish at Alinea, chef Grant Achatz’s Chicago flagship and modernist utopia, Hot Potato Cold Potato toys with the senses by pairing hot with cold, turning familiar flavors on their head. Hot potato-truffle soup is poured into a small custom-made paraffin bowl, which allows a pin containing a cold truffle-topped ball of potato and cubes of Parmesan cheese and butter to hover over it, suspended on the pin. When the pin is removed, the cold potato drops into the hot potato, creating a mind-blowing sensory experience. It’s easily the most iconic “molecular gastronomy” dish that’s not affiliated with Ferran Adrià.
Italian Beef, Al’s #1 Italian Beef, Chicago
Way back in 1939, Al’s #1 Italian Beef started as a small food stand, later morphing into an iconic Chicago franchise with 11 locations in Chicago and shops in Las Vegas, California, and Texas. During the Depression, owner Al Ferrari and his family began slicing roast beef very thin and placing it on small fresh loaves of Italian bread, unintentionally creating a legendary sandwich.
To make this beauty, sirloin is rubbed with a secret spice blend, dry-roasted, thinly sliced, made into a sandwich, and then dunked in Al's signature “gravy” (more similar to au jus). Customers can choose how much or little they want, but Al’s encourages customers to get their sandwiches “wet.” When topped with the signature giardiniera, a tart and spicy pickled vegetable blend, this sandwich is a masterpiece.
Jucy Lucy, Matt's Bar, Minneapolis
Ah, the legendary Jucy Lucy (yes, Matt's spells it without the "i"). While the battle rages between Matt’s Bar and the nearby 5-8 Club over who invented this brilliant burger variation (basically a cheeseburger with the cheese inside the patty instead of on top), the one at Matt’s Bar is the superior specimen. Legend has it that shortly after the restaurant opened in 1954 a hungry customer came in and asked for two burger patties with a slice of cheese in the middle. He took a bite, proclaimed it to be "one juicy Lucy!" — and an icon was born. Only fresh-ground beef goes into each hand-formed burger, and the first bite yields a river of molten, gooey cheese. These burgers are much more difficult to make than it may appear, and the one at Matt’s Bar is absolute perfection.
Knoephla Soup, Kroll’s Diner, Bismarck, N.D.
If the word “knoephla” doesn’t ring any bells, then you probably haven’t been to North Dakota, and you definitely haven’t been to Kroll’s Diner, a German-influenced institution that’s been a local favorite since 1972. So what is knoephla? It’s a thick and creamy chicken and potato soup that can trace its roots to Germany, and in North Dakota Kroll’s does it best.
Kung Pao Pastrami, Mission Chinese Food, New York City and San Francisco
Chef Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food, which originated in San Francisco but has a second location in Manhattan (and a third coming soon to Brooklyn), just might be the most fun and exciting “Asian fusion” restaurant in America. Bowien takes traditional Chinese cuisine and turns it on his head, and his wildly iconoclastic ethos is perhaps best exemplified by his mist iconic dish: Kung Pao Pastrami. The dish has many traditional Chinese elements — Shaoxing wine, Tianjin chiles, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, broad bean paste — but it’s the addition of potatoes and big chunks of pastrami that make this dish unlike any other. It’s spicy, smoky, and completely original, and it’s become a culinary icon. It’s made Bowien one, too.
Lasagna, Consiglio’s, New Haven, Conn.
This old-school Italian joint has been a New Haven legend since it opened nearly 80 years ago, and it’s still going strong on Wooster Street today. All the red sauce staples are represented here, but it’s the lasagna that the locals swear by. Pasta sheets, ground beef, ricotta cheese, and tomato sauce are layered, and it’s all baked with a melty topping of mozzarella. It’s lasagna perfection.
Lavender and Honey Duck, Eleven Madison Park, New York City
Eleven Madison Park is one of the world’s great restaurants, and its kitchen is led by the incomparable chef Daniel Humm. Its menu has gone through many incarnations since Humm and business partner Will Guidara took it over from Danny Meyer in 2011, but Humm’s signature dish, Lavender and Honey Duck, won’t be going anywhere any time soon. To make this dish, ducks are aged for at least 10 days, trussed, rubbed down with honey, lavender, cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns, roasted, and presented with a bouquet of lavender before being carefully carved and plated with a drizzle of sauce alongside seasonal garnishes and confited legs.
Lobster Pot Pie, Michael Mina Restaurants, Locations Nationwide
Chef Michael Mina is one of America’s most ubiquitous fine-dining chefs, but he only has one dish that can truly be called his signature: lobster pot pie, served at several of his high-end restaurants including the Bourbon Steak mini-chain and his flagship, Michael Mina, with locations in San Francisco and Las Vegas. Quite possibly the most luxurious pot pie on earth, the dish starts with a generous portion of lobster, swimming in a rich and heady lobster and brandy cream sauce along with a mélange of herbs, potatoes, pearl onions, mushrooms, zucchini, and other seasonal vegetables, with some truffle added for good measure. Like all pot pies, it’s topped with a pastry crust; some restaurants serve it turned out, others in a pot, but the recipe remains the same. It’s elegant and unashamedly luxurious, and it’s a fine-dining icon.
Lobster Roll, Red’s Eats, Wiscasset, Maine
The line is long and the wait begins in your car on the one-lane lead-up to Red’s Eats and the bridge. It hasn’t endeared tourists to locals. But that wait will definitely be worth it: This is the most famous, most iconic, and the best lobster roll on earth. The roll itself is heaping with fresh, wet lobster — so much it falls all over. It tastes just-cooked and picked, and it’s a great deal. No dressing. Get butter (warmed in a kettle on the stove) and mayo on the side. Put simply, it’s lobster roll perfection.
Loose Meat, Taylor’s Maid-Rite, Marshalltown, Iowa
An Iowa staple that’s a true Midwestern regional specialty, the “loosemeat” sandwich (also called a tavern sandwich) can be thought of as a sloppy Joe without the sauce: crumbled seasoned ground beef on a bun, topped with mustard, pickles, and chopped onions. Even though you can find it in plenty of small local restaurants, the one to visit is Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown. Going strong since 1928, it’s a truly historic institution; there are franchised locations all across the Midwest (just called Maid-Rite), but the original is the one to visit.
Matzo Ball Soup, Second Avenue Deli, New York City
There are countless great bowls of soup in New York, and even when you narrow it down to matzo ball soup (the hands-down signature soup of the Big Apple), the restaurants serving very good versions easily number in the dozens. But for the quintessential bowl of matzo ball soup in New York City, go to the Second Avenue Deli. Big stockpots of the stuff are kept simmering in the kitchen throughout the day, and every detail is on point: the broth is crystal clear and rich with chicken flavor, the matzo balls are light and buoyant thanks to the deft hand of the cooks, and the tableside addition of tiny noodles, carrots, and dill bring it all together.
Mole, Guelaguetza, Los Angeles
With the 1994 opening of Guelaguetza, the Lopez family introduced Los Angeles to authentic Oaxacan cuisine. Now the number of local Oaxacan restaurants trails only those of Mexico City and Oaxaca itself, at least according to late critic Jonathan Gold — and much of that can be attributed to the success of this Koreatown spot. Named for Oaxaca’s famous traditional summertime festival, Guelaguetza is a year-round destination for its tamales, memelas (chubby cornmeal cakes similar to sopes), unstuffed enchiladas, and of course, exquisite moles. Six moles are on the menu here, ranging from the dark and intoxicating mole negro to the bright mole verde, and each is a dish unto itself, with dozens of ingredients and hours of labor required to make each one. Guelaguetza, and its moles, showed Angelenos, and America at large, what Mexican food could be.
Muffuletta, Central Grocery, New Orleans
If you’re in New Orleans and looking to try the definitive version of this legendary cold cut sandwich, follow the crowds and head to the place that invented it: Central Grocery. Sliced genoa salami, mortadella, ham, and provolone are layered onto a distinctive round loaf; the bottom loaf is brushed with olive oil, and the top gets a couple spoonfuls of proprietary "olive salad" before the giant sandwich is sliced into wedges.
Mutton Chop, Keens Steakhouse, New York City
Since 1885, this New York institution has done one thing, and done it really, really well: steak. Perfectly charred steaks and chops are served in this labyrinthine shrine to old New York, which is spread over two floors and three townhouses. Before you’re served your expertly cooked, gigantic, dry-aged sirloin, filet mignon, prime rib, porterhouse for two, or porterhouse for three, have a look around. There’s memorabilia from more than 100 years of New York history, including playbills, political cartoons, and photographs, as well as a collection of more than 50,000 pipes, from back when regulars, including Babe Ruth and Teddy Roosevelt, would store theirs there. If you want to try the most iconic dish on the menu, however, make it the famous mutton chop, a 26-ounce lamb saddle that’s nearly two inches thick and dates back to the restaurant’s earliest days.
Nashville Hot Chicken, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, Nashville
Prince’s doesn’t just serve the undisputed best hot chicken in Nashville, it serves some of the best fried chicken anywhere. Before hitting the fryer, the chicken here gets a secret marinade, and what emerges is crisp, juicy, and full of flavor. That crispness doesn’t subside once it hits the hot oil, which kicks the flavor up a notch or 10. Don’t shy away from it just because it’s located in a strip mall off the beaten tourist path: Prince’s is the gold standard, widely regarded as the inventor of this super-trendy fried chicken style, and is about as iconic as it gets.
Oyster Pan Roast, Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York City
The oyster pan roast is the most famous dish served at one of New York’s most famous and long-running restaurants, and it’s been on the menu since the day the Oyster Bar opened in 1913. To prepare this dish, clam juice, clam base, celery salt, paprika, Heinz chili sauce, Worcestershire sauce, half and half, and six freshly shucked oysters are quickly cooked in a stainless steel steam-jacketed kettle and served over triangles of white toast. If this dish seems a bit anachronistic, well, that’s because it is. It’s also absolutely iconic.
Oyster Po’Boy, Domilise’s, New Orleans
Going strong since 1924, this neighborhood joint is the best place in the Crescent City to sample its beloved hometown sandwich, the po’boy. As all good po’boys do, this beauty starts with a long and crusty French-style roll from bakery Leidenheimer’s, and it’s topped with a mound of crispy cornmeal-fried Gulf oysters. Order it “dressed” and it’ll come topped with lettuce, tomato, and mayo.
Oysters and Pearls, The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.; and Per Se, New York City
Oysters and Pearls is chef Thomas Keller’s most iconic and legendary dish; that’s why it’s on the menu at both of his flagship restaurants, Napa’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se. Shucked oysters are submerged in a pool of creamy pearl tapioca and topped with a generous quenelle of caviar; it’s about as luxurious and opulent a dish as you’ll find, and it’s a timeless and iconic fine dining mainstay.
Pastrami on Rye, Katz’s Deli, New York City
Katz’s Deli, on New York’s Lower East Side, is a New York institution. Its corned beef and pastrami, made on site and sliced to order, are legendary, and the simple act of taking your ticket, standing in line, bantering with the counterman, and finding a table has become as New York an exercise as, well, eating a hot pastrami sandwich.
To make the pastrami, beef navel (a fattier and more traditional cut than the more common brisket) is rubbed with a proprietary seasoning blend, cured for up to four weeks, smoked for up to three days, boiled until tender, and steamed for about half an hour before being hand-sliced to order and piled onto rye bread; a little smear of deli mustard completes the dish. Katz’s isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience, and its pastrami is a true labor of love.
Pit Beef, Chaps Charcoal Restaurant, Baltimore
Chaps Charcoal Restaurant came from humble beginnings, but has grown to serve some of the best barbecue-style sandwiches on the East Coast. It opened in 1987 in a 12-by-15 shack with no phones or electricity; fast-forward 31 years and Chaps is still in the same location and thriving (with a much larger space). Their best known sandwich is without a doubt the Pit Beef sandwich, for which they take an entire bottom round and grill it whole before slicing it to order. It’s then grilled again to the perfect temperature and placed on a roll with your choice of toppings. Pit beef sandwiches were once far more ubiquitous in Baltimore than they are today, and Chaps is keeping the (delicious) flame alive.
Pizza With House Cured Smoked Salmon, Spago, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Yes, Spago is full of glamour and glitz — now on display in a sleek, semi-minimalist dining room, renovated in 2012 — but it nevertheless remains a place where food is taken very seriously. As always, the cuisine here is first-rate modern Californian–international, and the menu has changed regularly since Wolfgang Puck first opened it in 1982, but the restaurant’s most famous and influential dish, a pizza topped with house-smoked salmon, chives, and dill crème fraîche, is still available, albeit only at lunch or at the bar. It was revolutionary at a time when pizza meant pepperoni and mozzarella, and the pizza world has never been the same.
Pizza, Di Fara, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Domenico DeMarco is a local celebrity, having owned and operated Di Fara since 1964. Dom cooks both New York- and Sicilian-style pizza Tuesday through Saturday (noon to 8 p.m., and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.) for hungry New Yorkers and tourists willing to wait in long lines and brave the free-for-all that is the Di Fara counter experience. Yes, you're better off getting a whole pie than shelling out for the $5 slice. Yes, it's a trek, and sure, Dom goes through periods when the underside of the pizza can tend toward overdone, but when he's on, Di Fara can make a very strong case for being America's best pizza.
Pollo al Forno, Barbuto, New York City
Chef Jonathan Waxman’s roast chicken is the flagship dish at his long-running Barbuto, and you’ll find an order on just about every table. To make the deceptively simple dish, organic chicken halves are roasted in a ripping-hot oven. Before serving, they’re cut into sections and topped with a flavorful salsa verde made with an assortment of ingredients that include garlic, parsley, capers, anchovies, arugula, and a wide variety of herbs.
Pork Belly Bun, Momofuku Noodle Bar, New York City
Pork belly buns had been around for quite some time before an up-and-coming chef named David Chang added them to the menu of his just-opened first restaurant, called Momofuku Noodle Bar, in 2004, but it was Chang who brought them to the masses, and in the process launched a culinary revolution. For one, Chang sourced heritage-breed pork, spent months perfecting the recipe (he cures the bellies in salt and sugar before slow-roasting them for hours), and tucked the slices into high-quality buns made for him in Brooklyn; two, the dish single-handedly sparked the pork belly craze that’s still going strong; and three, the sleeves-up, sit-on-a-stool style of dining he pioneered sent shockwaves through the industry. But it all started with this humble pork bun, which is still one of the most popular items on Noodle Bar’s menu.
Porterhouse, Peter Luger, Brooklyn, N.Y.
When you sit down at your table at the perpetually packed Peter Luger, located in an off-the-beaten-path corner of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, don’t ask for a menu. Just order the tomato and onion salad, some thick-cut bacon, creamed spinach, hash browns, and a massive porterhouse broiled under extreme heat before being sliced and presented on a platter.
Sure, the waitstaff might be a bit gruff in this surprisingly casual German-styled old steakhouse that’s been here since 1887, but that’s all a part of the show. The star attraction, the porterhouse, is simply the best you’ll find anywhere in America, and the most iconic in all of New York. It’s dry-aged and butchered on the premises, and when it’s presented, in all its crusty, well-marbled, beefy glory, your jaw will drop.
Potato Gnocchi, Restaurant August, New Orleans
August is one of New Orleans' top fine-dining institutions. Chef Todd Pulsinelli's French-inspired menu is heavily influenced by Creole cuisine, but his gnocchi transcends all categorization. It’s ethereally light and soft, and it’s served in a small bowl with a creamy Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce, chunks of fresh Gulf blue crab, and shavings of fresh black truffle. It’s an absolute must-order, a quintessential New Orleans dish.
Prime Rib, Lawry’s, Los Angeles
The Prime Rib, Beverly Hills/Yelp
There are four U.S. locations of Lawry’s The Prime Rib, in Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas, and Las Vegas, but the original — going strong in Los Angeles since 1938 — is the one to visit. It’s upscale, elegant, and old-fashioned, and as soon as you enter you’ll see the hallmark of a great prime rib spot: the steel carts. There are plenty of restaurants across the U.S. serving prime rib in this high-style fashion, including San Francisco’s famed House of Prime Rib, but Lawry’s did it first; the rest are just imitators. Prime rib is available in five sizes and includes salad, mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, and whipped cream horseradish. There are plenty of add-ons, including lobster tails, giant baked potato, béarnaise sauce, and shrimp cocktail. No matter what, make sure you sprinkle on some of the restaurant’s namesake seasoned salt.
Ribs, Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous, Memphis
While there are tons of barbecue joints all over Memphis, Charles Vergo's Rendezvoushas been the standard for Memphis style barbecue ribs for over 60 years. Rendezvous' ribs are served in the Rendezvous signature dry rub that originated from Charlie Vergos' father's Greek chili recipe. These 18-inch racks of meat are grilled for an hour and 15 minutes, and given a vinegar wash to keep them juicy. With its smoky charcoal flavor and its unique dry rub “seasoning,” the moist ribs have a nice complexity in spice and flavor and certainly don't need to be slathered in any sauce to be enjoyed.
Ripper, Rutt’s Hut, Clifton, N.J.
Even if Rutt’s Hut, located in blue-collar Clifton, served their trademark Ripper — a pork-and-beef Thumann’s link that’s deep-fried in beef fat until it rips apart — out of the back of a minivan, it would still be the country’s most delicious hot dog. The fact that this roadside shack has not only a counter to end all counters amid its stand-up dining room, but also an adjoining tap room where you can drink cheap beer and chat with old-timers and fellow pilgrims, propels Rutt’s Hut to legendary status. Whether you order an "In-And-Outer" (just a quick dunk in the oil), a Ripper, a well-done "Weller," or the crunchy, porky, almost-overcooked "Cremator," make sure you get it "all the way": topped with mustard and a spicy, sweet, onion- and cabbage-based relish.
Chicken, The NoMad, New York City
Possibly the most famous and celebrated roast chicken in America right now, this dish is the only one on The NoMad’s menu that hasn’t changed since the restaurant’s 2012 opening. To prepare the chicken, chef Daniel Humm (also chef at the renowned Eleven Madison Park) carefully preps an Amish chicken to make sure that the skin isn’t torn, because it’s pried away from the breast and stuffed with a mixture of brioche, truffles, and foie gras. The cavity is filled with lemon and rosemary, and the chicken is trussed and allowed to chill in order to prevent the foie gras from melting. It’s then brushed with butter and roasted at 450 degrees F. The resulting deep-brown chicken is presented tableside before being carved up in the kitchen. The breasts are served as-is, and the dark meat is served in a separate dish after being tossed with butter, shallots, and seasonal vegetables and topped with whipped hollandaise. At $94, it’s as delicious as it is expensive.
Shaking Beef, The Slanted Door, San Francisco
In 1996, the Slanted Door was a tiny restaurant inside the then-rundown Ferry Building, but chef Charles Phan put it on the map with one now-iconic dish: shaking beef. stead of using the traditional flank steak, the Vietnam-born chef turned to Niman Ranch filet mignon, which is cubed and seared with onions and garlic in a vinaigrette of soy and fish sauce, and the beef is served with a lime-kicked dipping sauce. The crowds showed up in droves and haven’t left, and this traditional Vietnamese dish with a decidedly Northern Californian twist is one of San Francisco’s most iconic.
Silver Butter Knife Steak for Two, Murray’s, Minneapolis
If you’re looking for a classic steakhouse experience and happen to be in the Twin Cities, drop into the recently renovated Murray’s, which has been going strong since 1946. Opened by Art and Marie Murray, the restaurant is still in the family, and many of Marie’s old recipes are still used. Their famed "Silver Butter Knife Steak for Two," a 28-ounce strip loin carved tableside, is one of the country’s great monuments to a well-made steak.
Sliders, White Manna, Hackensack, N.J.
A North Jersey legend, White Manna is one of the last remaining diner-style burger joints that arose in the tradition of White Castle. What’s served here is the perfect interpretation of that form, honed over decades and decades, unchanging. Walk up to the tiny counter, place your order with the grillman, and watch as he smashes a small wad of meat onto the flattop with a handful of thin-sliced onions, keeps careful track of it as it cooks, and sandwiches it into a Martin’s potato roll. Make it a double with cheese, and the burger that will end up on your plate next to some pickle chips won’t be pretty, but it’s astonishingly delicious.
Spaghetti Five Ways, Blue Ash Chili, Cincinnati
There are hundreds of chili parlors in Cincinnati, and most of them are chains of varying quality. But ask around, and plenty of people will tell you that Blue Ash is the place to go, chain or otherwise. There’s a specific way of ordering your chili in this town: Two-way is a bed of spaghetti topped with beefy, umami-rich chili (made with a bevy of spices including cocoa, allspice, cumin, and chili powder); three-way adds cheddar; four-way adds onions or beans; and five-way adds both beans and onions, while six-way adds fried jalapeño caps. A Cincy classic since 1969, Blue Ash has three locations in town as well as a roving food truck.
Spaghetti With Tomato and Basil, Scarpetta, New York City
When chef Scott Conant opened Scarpetta in New York’s Meatpacking District in 2008, nobody would have guessed that its simple plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce would quickly go down as one of the great New York dishes. But it did, and it’s still a must-order, even though the restaurant moved uptown earlier this year and Conant is no longer involved. It’s really as simple as it looks: Fresh-made spaghetti is cooked until just shy of al dente, then tossed in a sauce of canned San Marzano tomatoes, high-quality extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and red chili flakes before being finished with basil, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and butter. It just goes to show that when top-notch ingredients are cooked with deft hand, even the simplest dishes can be elevated to icons.
Steamed Cheeseburger, Ted's, Meriden, Conn.
Most burger purveyors griddle, grill, or pan-sear their patties, but since 1959, Ted's — in the historic community of Meriden, Connecticut, north of New Haven — has steamed theirs. Steamed meat? Yep. Steamed cheddar cheese, too. Cooked in custom-designed steam boxes, the burgers, served on kaiser-like rolls, lose very little bulk while cooking and hence stay very moist. The steamed cheese is spooned over the patties and cloaks them thickly. Add lettuce and tomato (or complimentary sautéed onions and/or mushrooms) and you've got an unusual, and unusually good, burger.
Stone Crab Claws, Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami Beach
In 1918, Miami Beach didn’t even really exist as a town; Collins Avenue was a dirt path, and the only place to eat was a little bungalow run by a Hungarian immigrant called Joe’s. But in 1921, owner Joe Weiss added a local crustacean called stone crab to the menu, and it caught on like wildfire. The bay was full of these crabs, which nobody had even realized were edible, and a simple plate of boiled and cracked crab claws with hash browns, coleslaw, and mayonnaise quickly became a quintessential Miami dish. Nearly 100 years later, Joe’s Stone Crab is in slightly fancier digs but still serving those legendary crab claws (fishermen release the crabs after taking just their claws, which grow back, making the fishery completely sustainable); an order of them, served with a mayo-based mustard sauce, is one of America’s most iconic dishes.
The Cadillac, P.J. Clarke's, New York City
There are now four P.J. Clarke's locations, with one coming soon to Philly, but the Third Avenue Manhattan original is the feisty little brick building that refused to make way for the 47-story skyscraper that now looms over it. It is also the one that created the terrific pub-style burger known as The Cadillac — a juicy patty on a classic bun with smoked country bacon and American cheese as well as lettuce, onion, and tomato, with shoestring fries on the side. The name, by the way, was bestowed on the thing by Nat "King" Cole, who dubbed Clarke's "the Cadillac of burgers."
The Classic, Russ & Daughters, New York City
Benjamin F/ Yelp
The Lower East Side’s Russ and Daughters is a true new York classic (It’s widely regarded as the best spot in the country for lox, smoked salmon, and other Jewish bagel-toppers called “appetizing”), so you know that if there’s a sandwich on their menu called the Classic that it’s going to be, well, a classic. And it is certainly iconic: A fresh bagel from Park Slope, Brooklyn’s Bagel Hole is sliced and topped with house-made Gaspe Nova smoked salmon (thin-sliced by hand, of course), tangy all-natural cream cheese from a California dairy, sliced tomato, onions, and a sprinkling of capers. It’s New York in a bite.
The New Englander, Super Duper Weenie, Fairfield, Conn.
Kirsten S./ Yelp
What started as a humble hot dog truck is now a quintessential Fairfield institution, with good reason: these are some insanely delicious hot dogs. Owner Gary Zemola makes all the chili and condiments from scratch, and they go atop a hot dog that’s split before it hits the griddle, allowing maximum flat-top exposure. Dogs are modeled after Zemola’s interpretations of regional styles, including the Chicagoan, the Californian, and the New Yorker, but the true icon is the New Englander, an ode to the classic regional dog topped with sauerkraut, bacon, mustard, sweet relish, and raw onion. It’s indeed super-duper.
The Original Burger, Louis’ Lunch, New Haven, Conn.
A conversation about Louis’ Lunch is never simple. Is it the birthplace of the hamburger? Supposedly, one day in 1900, a gentleman hurriedly told proprietor Louis Lassen "he was in a rush and wanted something he could eat on the run," resulting in a blend of ground steak trimmings between two slices of toast, with which the gentleman was sent on his way. But was this a "burger," or was it a "sandwich" — because it wasn't a ground-beef patty on some form of yeast bun? Sandwich, hamburger, whatever. So what do you get at Louis'? A flame-broiled burger made in a vertical hinged-steel wire gridiron that cooks the burgers on both sides at the same time; a hamburger sandwich supposedly made from a blend of five cuts of ground steak. If you want condiments, you’ll have to ask. Otherwise, all you’ll get is cheese, tomato, and onion. No mustard, ketchup, or mayo. But do you really need all that? You can practically taste the nostalgia. And that never disappoints.
The Original db Burger, db Bistro Moderne, New York City
The idea of the “chef-inspired” burger, in all its renown and prominence, can be hit or miss these days. Lately, it seems like all chefs feel like they have to have a burger on the menu. But while some are just paying lip service to the trend, some of them really, really hit the mark. In that regard, it’s very hard to disregard the importance of the Original db Burger, created by esteemed French chef Daniel Boulud for his db Bistro Moderne. A sandwich that’s simultaneously very American and very French, the db Burger is a sirloin patty filled with braised short rib, truffles, and foie gras, and served on a Parmesan bun — the ultimate upscale juicy Lucy, so to speak. Indulgent? You bet. Juicy? Absolutely. Salty, sweet, and savory with a bit of a bite? Oh yeah.
Toasted Ravioli, Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill, St. Louis
Toasted ravioli, affectionately known as “t-ravs,” are one of St. Louis’ culinary claims to fame. One reason? They’re absolutely delicious. They were invented in the 1940s in the Italian neighborhood called The Hill, in the kitchen of a restaurant called Angelo’s. When Angelo’s closed down, a restaurant called Charlie Gitto’s opened in its place, and it’s still turning out the original toasted ravioli recipe — made by dredging and breading house-made meat ravioli in breadcrumbs and herbs and serving them alongside marinara sauce — to the hungry masses. There’s no shortage of places in town to get your t-rav fix, but Charlie Gitto’s is still the best.
Tuna Tartare, Gotham Bar and Grill, New York City
Nowadays, tuna tartare is one of the most common appetizers on upscale restaurant menus. But when Alfred Portale added it to the menu at Gotham Bar & Grill in 1988, it was a revelation. The dish may have popped up in a couple other spots before then, but it was Portale’s version — sushi-grade tuna diced up and tossed with scallions, shiso, and ginger vinaigrette before being piled high and served with croutons — that set the gold standard.
Turtle Soup, Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
Turtle soup is one of New Orleans’ truly iconic dishes, and there’s no better place to sample it than at Commander’s Palace, the Garden District institution that’s been going strong since 1893. To prepare the soup, chef Tory McPhail spends three says slowly cooking down veal stock with the Holy Trinity (onions, bell peppers, and celery), garlic, and snapping turtle meat, and it’s finished with egg, hot sauce, Worcestershire, Creole seasoning, spinach chiffonade, and a dash of sherry. The dish dates back more than 300 years, but it was first added to the menu by then-chef Paul Prudhomme, and it’s widely regarded as the city’s finest and most iconic rendition.
White Clam Pie, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven, Conn.
New Haven Conn_Jonathan Y./Yelp
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is a checklist destination, one you’ll have to make a pilgrimage to if you want to discuss the topic of America's best pizzas with any authority. The New Haven icon opened in Wooster Square in 1925, offering classic Napoletana-style pizza made by an Italian-American immigrant. After arriving in the United States in 1909 at the age of 16, Frank Pepe took odd jobs before opening his original restaurant.
There are now seven locations around Connecticut, one in New York State, and one near Boston, operated by Pepe’s 10 great-grandchildren (all of which use original recipes to make their coal-fired pizza).
Two words: Clam pie ("No muzz!"). This is a Northeastern pizza genre unto its own, and Pepe's is the best of all — freshly shucked, briny littleneck clams, an intense dose of garlic, olive oil, oregano, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano atop a charcoal-colored crust. The advanced move? Clam pie with bacon. This pie is so good that we’ve consistently named it the best pizza in America.
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