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).