The French Laundry
America’s best restaurants tend to come across as monoliths, temples of gastronomy that arrived on the scene completely intact and stayed that way over the years. But these restaurants are deep down just businesses run by really talented folks, and they all have really interesting stories to tell.
This three-Michelin starred New York restaurant from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (who’s also widely regarded as the inventor of molten chocolate cake) was hailed by Ruth Reichl at the New York Times as being “an entirely new kind of four-star restaurant… nothing, from the look of the dining room to the composition of the staff to the pacing of the meal, follows a classic model.” Perhaps the most striking line in her glowing review regards a hiring practice that we take for granted in upscale restaurants today: “Mr. Vongerichten has hired both women and blacks, which is worth noting because it is so rare in fancy French restaurants.”
A couple fun facts about Wolfgang Puck’s renowned Beverly Hills flagship: First, the name was suggested to Puck by none other than legendary spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone. And second, the first pizza chef there was named Ed LaDou, who’s widely regarded as popularizing “California-style” pizzas and helping to put Spago on the map; he introduced barbecue chicken pizza, for example. LaDou left Spago to develop the first menu for a chain you might have heard of: California Pizza Kitchen.
Alsatian native Gabriel Kreuther left Danny Meyer’s three Michelin-starred The Modern in 2014 and opened his eponymous restaurant the following year, and unless you’ve dined there, as well as at The Modern during his reign, you might not realize just how similar the two restaurants are. Not only did Kreuther bring along The Modern’s pastry chef, he also copied The Modern’s “two in one” stricture (a low-key and less expensive bar room and a high-end dining room), the four-course $98 prix fixe format, and many of his recipes. Just this week, Kreuther opened up a chocolate shop right next door to the restaurant.
The nouvelle cuisine legend only has one American restaurant, located in Caesars Palace, and it’s been designed to closely emulate its Parisian counterpart. You’ll notice that there isn’t a single flower to be found in this restaurant, and that’s not a fluke: Savoy doesn’t want anything to interfere with the aroma of his cooking. For the same reason, he also doesn’t allow any of his employees to wear perfume or cologne.
In 1982, by the way, a group of investors convinced Savoy to open a satellite restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut (his first American outing), but it proved to be a mistake, only lasting two years.
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
At this world-renowned French chef’s atelier, (French for “studio” or “workshop”), guests can see directly into the large open kitchen from a long kitchen-side counter or directly from their table. Executive chef Steve Benjamin was a member of the opening staff at the original L’Atelier when it opened in 2003; Benjamin told Tiny Urban Kitchen that out of the staff of 22, only eight remained after the restaurant’s first week, largely thanks to the high amount of pressure and 21-hour workdays.
The French Laundry
The building that’s been home to the three Michelin-starred French Laundry since it was first opened by Thomas Keller back in 1994 was originally constructed as a saloon in 1900, but the building was sold six years later when a law was passed prohibiting the sale of alcohol within a mile of a veteran’s home (oddly enough). For a time in the 1920s, the building was in fact used as a French-style steam laundry. And before it was sold to Keller, it spent 16 years as a homey and well-regarded restaurant owned by the husband-and-wife duo of Don and Sally Schmitt, named — what else?—– the French Laundry.
At the restaurant, by the way, no primary ingredient is used more than once throughout the nine-course tasting menu, which changes daily.
Opened in 1998 by none other than legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer, Eleven Madison Park is now owned by the duo of Will Guidara and Daniel Humm, the manager and chef who purchased the restaurant from Meyer in 2011 and turned it into the powerhouse it is today. But when Meyer was planning its first menu, he took some inspiration from America’s first great restaurant: Delmonico’s, which was once located in the area. "The Delmonico's menus have been inspirational for us," Meyer told Food & Wine shortly before it opened. "They would list simply 'Partridge' or 'Snipe' or 'Thrush' instead of the flowery descriptions you see on so many contemporary menus. You'd trust the chef to accompany the dish with whatever was the best, and freshest, at the time."
The space that’s today home to chef Daniel Boulud’s flagship has a pretty fascinating history. It was originally the lobby and public spaces of the Mayfair Hotel, and the space that’s today the restaurant’s private event space (facing 65th Street) was the original location of famed restaurant Le Cirque. The original location of Daniel opened in 1993 on 76th Street (where Café Boulud is now), but when the opportunity to move into the current space presented itself, he couldn’t pass it up, partly because Boulud was executive chef at Le Cirque from 1986 to 1992. Boulud today owns the space; he purchased it from none other than Donald Trump, who still owns the rest of the building.
Chef Michael Cimarusti’s 11-year-old Los Angeles gem is known for its seafood-oriented tasting menus, and thanks to its large space, white tablecloths, and comfortable seating, it’s also one of the country’s best special-occasion spots. Its space is also nothing short of legendary: It was previously the home of the extremely popular Le St. Germain from 1970 to 1989; chef Joachim Splichal bought the building that year and turned it into his Patina, the forerunner of his Patina Restaurant Group. It remained there until Splichal sold the building to Cimarusti and partner Donato Poto (the manager of the famed Valentino and its sister restaurant Primi in the 1980s) in 2005.
America’s best restaurant began its life in Paris, where it was opened in 1972 by partners Gilbert Le Coze and his sister, Maguy. Its original name, Les Moines de St. Bernardin (“The Monks of St. Bernardin” — the name of an old French drinking song celebrating the joys of gluttony), was shortened to Le Bernardin when the duo moved the restaurant to New York City in 1986 (Guy Savoy moved into the space they vacated). Just three months after opening in New York, it received four stars from The New York Times (it’s New York’s longest-reigning four-star restaurant). Twenty-eight-year-old Eric Ripert was elevated to executive chef when Gilbert le Coze died of a heart attack in 1994. Ripert and Maguy Le Coze co-own the restaurant today.