To bring you the ultimate in American dining today, we turned to restaurant critics in 15 cities across the country. We asked them to recommend something old (a tried-and-true gem for celebrating a birthday or anniversary), something new (a dazzling arrival that's the talk of the town), something borrowed (Cantonese, Brazilian, Pakistani). Something blue?Well, it looks like foie gras and truffles could be the 21st century's blue-plate special.
Traveling east to west, these are the country's 50 best restaurants-from soul food to seafood. Some critics couldn't help throwing in a few more tips and hot trends, and we included those too. We also added an essential list of the dives that never let you down. Then we found ourselves wondering where we'd be going next, so we ferreted out five restaurants that are sure to be this spring's splash.
Mat Schaffer, restaurant critic, Boston Herald
CLASSIC Rowes Wharf Boston Harbor Hotel, 70 Rowes Wharf; 617/439-7000; dinner for two $85. Grounded in New England cuisine, chef Daniel Bruce forages for mushrooms, smokes his own salmon, and changes his menu daily. Some highlights?The lobster sausage, pan-seared swordfish, and herb-and-ginger-crusted rack of lamb.
NEWCOMER No. 9 Park 9 Park St.; 617/742-9991; dinner for two $80. Barbara Lynch's incredibly sophisticated Italian-and-French country cooking produces pastas and gnocchi so light they float off the plate. And don't miss the crisp duck with foie gras ravioli, pasta-wrapped oysters in lemon broth, and vanilla bread pudding with figs.
ETHNIC King Fung Garden 74 Neeland St.; 617/357-5262; dinner for two $40. This Cantonese place is a triumph of substance over style. Oh, those scallion pancakes!
Jessica B. Harris, restaurant critic, Village Voice
CLASSIC Four Seasons 99 E. 52nd St.; 212/754-9494; dinner for two $134. An homage to Modernism. You always get über-treatment and the food is never less than wonderful, from the Maryland crab cakes to the fillet of bison with black-truffle sauce.
NEWCOMER Surya 302 Bleecker St.; 212/807-7770; dinner for two $60. Heralds the trend of putting "ethnic mama" food on white tablecloths. Its southern Indian menu has great vegetarian choices as well as dishes for omnivores: pepper shrimp, dosai (lentil and rice crêpes) with sea bass and chutney, halibut moli (with ginger and coconut cream), rack of lamb chettinad (a brown sauce with layers of spices).
ETHNIC Churrascaria Plataforma 316 W. 49th St.; 212/245-0505; all you can eat, $30.95 per person. Pure Rio! Help yourself to salads and appetizers from the buffet, then sit back while waiters bring you huge skewers of grilled red meat, turkey, and sausages. Accompany it with caipirinhas (lime juice and cachaça).
Craig LaBan, restaurant critic, Philadelphia Inquirer
CLASSIC Monte Carlo Living Room 150 South St.; 215/925-2220; dinner for two $100. The kind of place where they fillet your Dover sole tableside. Unsung chef Nunzio Patruno sets new standards with northern Italian classics (try the tiramisû, which is just like his mom's).
NEWCOMER Buddakan 325 Chestnut St.; 215/574-9440; dinner for two $85. An enormous golden Buddha bathed in red light dominates this former post office turned restaurant, setting the tone. The pan-Asian food-wasabi-crusted filet mignon, lobster fried rice-does the rest.
ETHNIC Vietnam Restaurant 221 N. 11th St.; 215/592-1163; dinner for two $28. A straightforward Formica Chinatown spot that has consistent, fragrant standbys such as fried vermicelli with crisp spring rolls and a barbecue platter-and the price is right. One of my lunchtime favorites.
Phyllis Richman, restaurant critic, Washington Post
CLASSIC Obelisk 2029 P St. NW; 202/872-1180; dinner for two $100. A small dining room, sophisticated clientele, and amazingly pure northern Italian flavors: baby cuttlefish with polenta, salt cod ravioli with cockles and chives.
NEWCOMER DC Coast 1401 K St. NW; 202/216-5988; dinner for two $75. A splashy, soaring space with an open kitchen and a menu that's mainly seafood: Tahitian tuna tartare, Chinese-style smoked lobster, mushroom-crusted halibut in porcini broth.
ETHNIC Makoto 4822 MacArthur Blvd. NW; 202/298-6866; dinner for two $76. Slip off your shoes and indulge in a beautifully orchestrated Japanese meal with dozens of exquisite miniature offerings. The sushi is great, too.
BELTWAY BLISS Galileo, Kinkead's, and—surprise!—Bread Line, a lunch stop for White House honchos (go to see the faces you know from TV, or simply for the best sandwiches and soups in the city). At Teaism, 40 kinds of tea and wonderful bento boxes provide Zen-like detachment.
John Kessler, restaurant critic, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
CLASSIC Dining Room Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Rd. N.E.; 404/237-2700; dinner for two $130. Simple, glamorous French-Mediterranean food with Asian accents. The whole adds up to a dreamy memory: oysters in chilled lemongrass broth with mango chutney; sardine tempura with butternut mousseline and truffle dressing; caramel vacherin with milk reduction.
NEWCOMER Seeger's 111 W. Paces Ferry Rd.; 404/846-9779; tasting menus from $62 per person. Where I'd go to spend my own money. It's like a performance piece: minimalist and slightly risqué. Park your own car (unheard-of in Atlanta), have a drink at the sexy little bar, and watch the chef, Guenter Seeger, walk around in a headset. His food-Belon oysters with lime powder, quince soup with goat-milk yogurt sorbet-is clean and spare, and the wine list is crammed with German and Alsatian finds.
ETHNIC Soto 3330 Piedmont Rd.; 404/233-2005; dinner for two $55. It's a funny place in a mall, but the owner—from a Japanese fishing family—has special theories about treating raw fish, which he pairs with unexpected ingredients such as truffles or pine nuts. Sit at the sushi bar, where he'll serve you personally.
SOUTHERN TRIED Thelma's Kitchen for fried chicken and Southern vegetables; Harold's BBQ for cornbread with cracklings; Pano's & Paul's, in Buckhead, for diamonds and seersucker; the Food Court at the CNN Center for games of who's who.
Viviana Carballo, restaurant critic, Miami Herald
CLASSIC Norman's 21 Almeria Ave.; Coral Gables, Fla.; 305/446-6767; dinner for two $95. Chef Norman Van Aken's tropical fusion is exquisite and cerebral, but don't analyze it, just abandon yourself to the luxury. Try stone crab on "fire and ice" (something hot, something cooling); brioche French toast with curaçao-scented foie gras; pork tenderloin with Haitian grits and mole. And the wine list just can't be improved on.
NEWCOMER Bocca di Rosa 2833 Bird Ave., Coconut Grove, Fla.; 305/444-4222; dinner for two $65. This two-year-old Italian is my favorite in all Miami. What you want from Italian food: gnocchi with mascarpone cheese and porcini mushrooms; grilled langoustines with lemon citronette; lamb chops with radicchio and goat cheese.
ETHNIC Havana Harry's 150 Giralda Ave., Coral Gables, Fla.; 305/461-5903; dinner for two $24. Cuban home cooking with a few nuevo flourishes—creamy malanga soup ("Cuban penicillin"), vaca frita (garlicky sautéed shredded beef). Always packed, a terrific bargain, and quite stylish.
MIAMI VICES Breakfast by the pool at the Delano. Tropical juices at Palacio de los Jugos, a fantastic collection of Latin food stalls on Flagler Street. A fritas (shoestring potatoes) sandwich at El Rey de las Fritas in Little Havana. At Versailles, Cuban coffee and rumors (they assassinate Castro at least three times a day). Beautiful people, cocktails, and dinner at Red Square—I'd follow chef Frank Copstick anywhere.
Phil Vettel, restaurant critic, Chicago Tribune
CLASSIC Gordon's 500 N. Clark St.; 312/467-9780; dinner for two $80. With its innovative New American food and eclectic look, it was always ahead of the pack in Chicago. Here you can cut into sweet ricotta wontons and calamari stuffed with merguez.
NEWCOMER Savarin 713 N. Wells St.; 312/255-9520; dinner for two $70. After cooking at some of Chicago's best restaurants, chef John Hogan finally steps out on his own, with plats du jour that just knock you out. Have the ragoût of spring morels and escargots, squab pot-au-feu, and sautéed Bing cherries with goat-cheese ice cream. Those portraits of famous chefs on the walls?I call them Hogan's Heroes!
ETHNIC Rhumba 3631 N. Halsted St.; 773/975-2345; dinner for two $55. TV sets play Brazilian soaps, and there's a male Carmen Miranda impersonator. On weekends the place morphs into a nightclub. The menu is fun, and the clientele ranges from hip urban gay to post-grunge to families with children.
Gene Bourg, former restaurant critic, Times-Picayune
CLASSIC Galatoire's 209 Bourbon St.; 504/525-2021; dinner for two $65. The French-Creole menu—fried oysters en brochette, lamb chops with béarnaise sauce—hasn't changed in a century but this place retains energy and flexibility, which is as contradictory as it sounds. Go on a Sunday afternoon for the cocktail-party atmosphere and all those women in fabulous hats.
NEWCOMER Gerard's Downtown 500 St. Charles Ave.; 504/592-0200; dinner for two $70. Gerard Maras, the ex-chef at Mr. B's Bistro, has opened a place with a view of Lafayette Square and luscious contemporary food. Some of the must-haves: mussel soup Provençale; seared foie gras with black-currant-and-onion compote; garlic-roasted chicken with eggplant casserole; theobroma (chocolate soup).
ETHNIC Pupuseria Divino Corazón 2300 Belle Chasse Hwy., Gretna, La.; 504/368-5724; lunch for two $12. A simple Salvadoran café whose specialty is out-of-this-world pupusas (thick corn tortillas stuffed with pork and cheese).
Dotty Griffith, dining editor and restaurant critic, Dallas Morning News
CLASSIC French Room Hotel Adolphus, 1321 Commerce St.; 214/742-8200; dinner for two from $45. In a neo-Baroque room, you get progressive American flavors such as miso-marinated Alaskan halibut and pan-seared Nassau black grouper wrapped in oven-dried tomatoes.
NEWCOMER The Mercury 11909 Preston Rd., Suite 1418; 972/960-7774; dinner for two $70. Pan-cultural food with a Mediterranean twist in a sleek L.A.-style setting. The pearl couscous with poached egg in truffle vinaigrette is one of the best dishes I've had-anywhere.
ETHNIC Nuevo Leon 2013 Greenville Ave.; 214/887-8148; dinner for two $30. People come to Dallas wanting Tex-Mex; here's Mex-Mex. The place is more elegant than your usual serape-and-paper-flower affair, and besides the standards, it does great norteño specialties, such as goat with guajillo sauce.
MEAT AND POTATOES If nothing defines Dallas quite like bone-in prime rib at Bob's Steak & Chop House, then consider this: Dallas ranks third in the country (after New York and Chicago) in beef consumption. Yet for every steak house (Pappas Bros. is great), there are three new sushi joints (try Chaya Sushi). Also big (and nowhere bigger): foie gras, sake bars, and cigar bars.
Muriel Stevens, restaurant critic, Las Vegas Sun
CLASSIC Palace Court Caesars Palace Hotel, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd.; 702/731-7110; dinner for two $110. Schmaltzy romance. The first restaurant to bring glamour to Vegas dining, it still sweeps you away with its updated French food-anything from simple grilled fish to elaborate Gallic concoctions. Start with a drink in the lounge and finish with soufflé (it's a real production).
NEWCOMER Picasso Bellagio Hotel, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/693-8105; tasting menus from $70 per person. Where else can you eat surrounded by fountains and $30 million worth of Picassos?Try the warm quail salad with sautéed artichokes and pine nuts, roasted scallops with corn flan and saffron sauce, or lamb with truffle crust.
ETHNIC Fortunes Rio Suite Hotel & Casino; 3700 W. Flamingo Rd.; 702/247-7923; dinner for two $90. Authentic Cantonese food for Chinese VIP's—businessmen and high rollers. The chef does a superb lemon chicken.
S. Irene Verbila, restaurant critic, Los Angeles Times
CLASSIC Campanile 624 S. La Brea Ave.; 323/938-1447; dinner for two $80. Somewhere between Spago and Chez Panisse, it defines California cuisine. The menu, with dishes like braised veal cheeks and rustic pear galette, is driven by the market and the seasons-and the wines are marvelous.
NEWCOMER Vincenti 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; 310/207-0127; dinner for two $90. Chef Gino Angelini worked in Rimini, and his food is true to Italy: you won't get more exquisite and interesting pasta in town. For the most adventurous experience, ask the chef to invent a meal; sit at the marble counter, hypnotized by the rotisserie, while you wait for it.
ETHNIC Charming Garden 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Suite 351, Monterey Park, Calif.; 626/458-4508; dinner for two $30. Driving out to Monterey Park for Chinese is a very L.A. experience. At this small, impeccably designed Hunan place, the tiny appetizers and mushroom dishes are especially exciting.
Patricia Unterman, restaurant critic, San Francisco Examiner
CLASSIC Chez Panisse 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, Calif.; 510/548-5525; dinner for two $80-$140. Simple cooking with raw materials that are on the cutting edge. If a farmer's got a new kind of persimmon, Chez Panisse has it.
NEWCOMER Jardinière 300 Grove St.; 415/861-5555; dinner for two $90. Traci Des Jardins gives California produce classic> treatment. Seared scallops, mashed potatoes with truffle sauce, and Pacific grouper with celery-root confit are among the best dishes.
ETHNIC Shalimar 532 Jones St.; 415/928-0333; dinner for two $20. An off-the-wall Pakistani storefront with bad air, hideous lighting, and food that's fresh, alive, and sparkling. Go for tandoori specials and breads.
A SAN FRANCISCO FOOD DAY Start with an "Africano," a little glass of perfect espresso, at Café Greco in North Beach. Stroll around the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and dote on the first produce of spring—asparagus, artichokes, peas. Go to Yak Sing for dim sum. Drive to Tomales Bay (about 1 1/2 hours out of town), buy three or four dozen briny Pacific oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co., and shuck them yourself on a picnic bench outside; then get a little cheese or dessert from Cowgirl Creamery. After a slow drive back to town, have a late dinner at Hawthorne Lane, a quintessentially modern San Francisco restaurant. Go for a nightcap at the upstairs bar of Le Colonial, which used to be Trader Vic's.
David Sarasohn, restaurant critic, Oregonian
CLASSIC Genoa 2832 S.E. Belmont St.; 503/238-1464; tasting menu $55 per person. A wonderful seven-course menu draws on Italian regional cuisines. Try the grilled porcini with ricotta crêpes or the tonnarelli with lobster sauce.
NEWCOMER Café Azul 112 N.W. Ninth St.; 503/525-4422; dinner for two $55. In the Pearl district—Portland's SoHo—the Azul is a wonderful sunny-yellow upscale Mexican bistro with industrial accents. The food has a similar twist: spot prawns and rock cod in salsa verde veracruzana, barbecued goat. End your meal with dessert tamales with brandied raisins.
ETHNIC Lemongrass 1705 N.E. Couch St.; 503/231-5780; dinner for two $40. The best ethnic food in the city is Southeast Asian, and at this remodeled house the Thai flavors are particularly vibrant and spicy.
Nancy Leson, restaurant critic, Seattle Times
CLASSIC Canlis 2576 Aurora Ave. N.; 206/283-3313; dinner for two $95. Imagine a Northwestern steak house-huge copper grill, silked-up waitresses, a distinctly regional menu, a timeless view of Lake Union, and lots of "Happy Birthday"s going on. Then tuck into grilled salmon with apple-cider butter or pear-shaped chicken stuffed with forest mushrooms, and finish with the chocolate lava cake.
NEWCOMER La Medusa 4857 Rainier Ave. S.; 206/723-2192; dinner for two $45. Sicilian peasant food and great thin-crust pizzas illuminated by votive candles and twinkly lights in a formerly funky area now being gentrified. Choose from salt cod fritters, Gorgonzola-and-arugula pizza, pasta with fresh sardines and raisins, and tagliarini with bottarga (salted and dried tuna roe).
ETHNIC Kingfish Café 602 19th Ave. E.; 206/320-8757; dinner for two $30. Can soul food be "ethnic"?Well, it is in Seattle! Done up in dark wood with old family pictures, this restaurant is run by three stunning sisters who give wonderful Southern food, such as buttermilk fried chicken and sweet-potato pecan pie, a modern spin.
John Heckathorn, editor and restaurant critic, Honolulu Magazine
CLASSIC Roy's 6600 Kalanianaole Hwy., Honolulu; 808/396-7697; dinner for two $80. Though Roy Yamaguchi has founded a food empire, you'll often find him in the kitchen of his original restaurant wearing a baseball cap. He still does East-West fusion better than anyone, and his cuisine is as real and deeply flavored as ever. Don't leave without having: nori-seared ahi with wasabi ogo seaweed; Maryland crab cakes with sesame butter sauce; miso-seared hamachi with black-bean dragon sauce; the melting chocolate soufflé.
NEWCOMER Sansei Seafood & Sushi Bar 115 Bay Dr., Kapalua, Maui; 808/669-6286; dinner for two $45. You've never been to a sushi bar like this: the Pacific Rim "tapas"—such as foie gras and nigiri sushi, Japanese BLT roll—will just kill you. And Maui's best chefs hang out here.
ETHNIC Oodles of Noodles 75-1027 Henry St., Kailua, Kona, Hawaii; 808/329-9222; lunch for two $30. A talented local chef, Amy Ferguson Ota, has put together this smart, unpretentious café on the Big Island. You'll get a world tour of noodles, from Italian pasta to a "new Hawaiian" take on tuna casserole, to Thai tamarind soup.
new york pan-Latin; Indian everything; Wall Street's restaurant bull market; rum cocktails
philadelphia sake bars (even the Ritz-Carlton has one); crêpes (check out Beau Monde); small plates; preserved lemons
boston cheese course; cheeks (as in veal and halibut); Korean; micro-regionalism
miami still nuevo latino but no plantains with truffle oil; name restaurants in hotels, like the new Bice at the Grand Bay
san francisco South of Market restaurant scene; Pacific Rim revisited (in places like Oritalia, Asia SF, Shanghai 1930)
portland high-minded, high-style vegetarian options
chicago bistro-mania (La Sardine, Bistrot Zinc, Mon Ami Gabi); the new restaurant row on Randolph Street
seattle out-of-town invasion: Roy's, ObaChine, Sazerac; spin-offs of classics run by big-name Seattle chefs like Jim Malevitsis's Adriatica, Ponti Seafood Grill, and Axis
los angeles supper clubs with a Rat Pack sensibility (Rix); French bistros; tall food; Asian fusion—still; vegan...maybe next year
vegas steak houses; Brazilian; cilantro
hawaii li hing mui, an Asian sour plum, as the flavor of the month, in anything from gummy bears to cigars
chicago Hongmin 221 W. Cermak Rd.; 312/842-5026. In Chinatown. Zero atmosphere, ancient glassware, great oyster dishes.
new orleans Fiorella's 45 French Market Place; 504/528-9566. A French Quarter joint with almost no light, it's a classic for beans and rice, fried chicken, and po'boys.
las vegas Freddy G's Deli & Diner 325 Hughes Dr.; 702/892-9955. A refined sort of dive that's great after a losing night at the casinos. Super breakfasts, and the staff really knows how to nurse your hangover.
los angeles Philippe The Original 1001 N. Alameda; 213/628-3781. Home of the French-dip sandwich.
seattle Pecos Pit BBQ 2260 First Ave. S.; 206/623-0629. A former gas station with picnic tables, and mean beef-brisket sandwiches.
boston Radius 8 High St.; 617/426-1234; dinner for two $60. Waiters in hip gray uniforms serve up chef Michael Schlow's equally stylish creations: lobster-and-mango tart, crunchy sweetbreads with carrot confit. All this buzz, all this supper-club glamour: can it really be Boston?
new york Palladin Time hotel, 224 W. 49th St.; 212/320-2925; dinner for two $95. Finally the hour strikes for the Big Apple debut of chef Jean-Louis Palladin, known for his Watergate restaurant in D.C. Expect a brasserie as imagined by Adam Tihany, reasonable prices, and captivatingly earthy flavors: oxtail stew with bone marrow flan; crustacean saucissons with polenta and squid ink.
las vegas Aureole Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/623-7401; dinner for two $90. Charlie Palmer, king of all-American culinary couture, is taking his show to Vegas. Feel cool amid all the water and glass (Adam Tihany again). Order a '34 Bordeaux from the astonishing wine cellar to go with your grilled shell steak with caramelized onion-potato tart.
los angeles Lucques 8474 Melrose Ave.; 323/655-6277; dinner for two $75. L.A.'s restaurant du jour, Lucques, is snugly ensconced in a brick carriage house that once belonged to Harold Lloyd. Campanile alumna Suzanne Goin turns out grilled sea bass with Meyer lemons, and bittersweet chocolate cake.
seattle Brasa 2107 Third Ave.; 206/728-4220; dinner for two $50. Have roast suckling pig, swordfish tagine, yogurt-sambuca cake. Bracing tastes from the earth and the hearth to combat the Seattle drizzle. The luxurious textiles don't hurt either.