The first thing you'll hear about Ethan Stowell, the 30-year-old chef-owner of Union (1400 First Ave.; 206/838-8000; dinner for two $70), is that his parents are the celebrated artistic directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Next, locals will say that he has transformed a previously hexed restaurant space into an inviting glass-framed haunt with dark wood tables and walls the color of ripe tomatoes. Then they'll rave about the food. Driven by the season and changing each day, the menu reflects Union's location just a clam-toss away from the Pike Place Market. Your meal might progress from kohlrabi-purée soup with a cloud of truffle cream, to spaghetti-like umbricelli carbonara brightened with English peas and made creamy with duck eggs, to 30-day-dry-aged beef loin paired with grilled tongue and roasted artichokes. Not to forget the vivid sorbets in flavors like blackberry or lady apple. The final thing you'll hear about Union is that, at $48 per person, Stowell's sophisticated eight-course tasting menu is the best bargain in town.
With its urban ski lodge look and an extensive small-plates menu, Lark (926 12th Ave.; 206/323-5275; dinner for two $60) pushes all the right buttons. Have a fondness for artisanal charcuterie?Order a goose confit with greens and olives, or guanciale (smoked pork jowl) served with mostarda di uva, a grape-must preserve. Need a fix of organic vegetables?Chef Johnathan Sundstrom sends out a cocotte of spinach enlivened with Meyer-lemon butter. Can't wait to sink your teeth into Pacific seafood?Vanilla-sweet Dungeness crab with green mayonnaise coming right up. Portions tend to be minuscule and decibels high, but these are small gripes for a place this fun and food this satisfying. Every city should have a restaurant like Lark.
When Gabriel Bremer bought and transformed the Cambridge restaurant Salts (798 Main St.; 617/876-8444; dinner for two $90) last March, the Boston food press instantly announced "a star is born." We agree. A veteran of the progressive Maine restaurant Fore Street and of Cambridge's Rialto, 27-year-old Bremer offers an intensely personal vision that combines modernized riffs on country-French cooking with a guerrilla approach to sourcing (his microgreens are overnighted from Ohio). Heirloom beets, golden purslane, and braised veal tongue team up in a beautifully composed salad; Niman Ranch pork keeps company with hazelnut-accented polenta. Expect an enthusiastic welcome from Bremer's fiancée, Analia Verolo, in a warm, rustic room anchored by a huge vase of white blooms. The brioche-stuffed roast duck (carved tableside) approaches the Platonic ideal of poultry.
It's easy to roll your eyes when the amuse-bouche arrives in a test tube. Well, lighten up. Boston's dining scene has gotten a much-needed spark ever since Pino Maffeo, last seen at the stoves of New York's AZ, moved back to town, bringing with him a clever take on fusion and AZ's famous recipe for panko-crusted duck schnitzel. His new playground is the former Café Louis at the posh clothing emporium Louis Boston, now brightened with Mondrianesque abstract panels and rechristened L (234 Berkeley St.; 617/266-4680; dinner for two $110). Here, Maffeo satisfies both food lovers and shopaholics with clever stunts like pairing goose liver and barbecued eel in a neat parcel topped with caramelized sugar, or marrying shiso-tinged tuna tartare with a creamy soy zabaglione. With the check comes a small cone of cotton candy. Now you're smiling.
Kevin Rathbun knew with all the certainty in the world that there wasn't a soul in Atlanta who could resist oysters two ways (cornmeal-fried and lemongrass-stewed) or banana-peanut butter cream pie. What really matters, however, is this: the Southern-leaning New American dishes at Rathbun's (112 Krog St.; 404/524-8280; dinner for two $60) taste as good as they sound. One would be happy to eat his food in a mess hall. Yet Atlanta's fashionable Johnson Studio has transformed the 19th-century warehouse space, once home to a potbellied-stove factory, using mod shades of gray, a luminous open kitchen, and oversized stovepipe pendants that cast a fuchsia glow on the city swells who tuck into veal chops with sweet corn and Gouda fondue or Rathbun's cloudlike fresh mozzarella. They leave lusting after all the stuff they didn't manage to order.
Neither a chile-suffused ethnic dive nor a pink box in the mall serving flavorless pad thai, Nan Thai Fine Dining (1350 Spring St. N.W.; 404/870-9933; dinner for two $67) reinvents the genre with a sleekly opulent crimson and gold room that hosts le tout Atlanta: Buckhead charity-ball queens, pro golfers (Vijay Singh is a friend of the owners'), and sweater-vested academics from Georgia Tech. It's hard to tell which detail is most enchanting: the silk-draped gamins who deliver your tea rose-colored dumplings, the elaborate carved fruits that appear as part of chef Nan Niyomkul'sappetizer lollapalooza, or the coconut-milk extractor that the owners imported from Thailand (read: fabulous curries).
Impresario Stephen Starr is the Steven Spielberg of restaurateurs, and like the director he yearns to be recognized for being more than a blockbuster-machine. Witness his Oscar-worthy remake of Striped Bass (1500 Walnut St.; 215/732-4444; dinner for two $90), the city's soaring temple of seafood. The original marble columns and coffered ceiling are still here, but lengths of gray velvet now lend the room a coolly masculine look. Starr has cast Alfred Portale—the perfectionist chef of Manhattan's Gotham Bar & Grill—for the part of executive chef. With fellow New York chef Christopher Lee in a supporting role, Portale skillfully manipulates gorgeous ingredients into sophisticated compositions like soft-shell crab with a frothy cinnamon-tinged emulsion, or a pristine slab of halibut paired with fava beans, leeks, morels, and fiddlehead ferns. The Philadelphia Cheese Skate (short ribs, wild mushroom, and caramelized onion stuffed between pieces of breaded skate and sauced with a Parmesan cream) is a classic in the making.
In a time of flash-in-the-wok fusion trends and concept-by-number restaurants, Meritage (500 S. 20th St.; 215/985-1922; dinner for two $90) feels like a throwback to a more civilized era. Wine is the restaurant's raison d'être, with the menu of beautifully prepared retro hits of European cuisine (remember Veal Oscar?) devised by the globe-trotting owners to flatter their serious cellar. Provençal artichokes barigoule make perfect sense with the crisp rosé; the caramel notes in the Recioto di Soave echo the perfectly ripe figs in the Italianate tart. The warm, 34-seat dining room, with Tuscan-rust walls, and the personal attention lavished on guests bring to mind an intimate dinner party. Are you one of those guests who like to linger?Settle into a leather club chair in the lounge and nurse one of the 40 single-malt scotches on offer.
Okay, so here's Table 8 (7661 Melrose Ave.; 323/782-8258; dinner for two $85), a meta-hip boîte located below a Melrose body-piercing parlor and patronized by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Jennifer Aniston, and helmed by a chef who has been featured on People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list. Will food be an afterthought?Well, no. Handsome as he is, Puck-trained Govind Armstronghas put impeccable artisanal ingredients before his ego, distilling them into clean, compulsively edible dishes. He makes sardines glow with a hint of celery-leaf pesto, introduces you to sunchokes or Kurobuta pork, hooks you on oak-grilled sweetbreads with hand-torn pasta. You'd rather just stare?There's Elton John sneaking into a private room. He'll be having a salt-crusted porterhouse. Feel free to follow suit.
A light-bathed, split-level room packed with sleek blondes, La Terza (8384 W. Third St.; 323/782-8384; dinner for two $90) is the second restaurant from Gino Angelini, a chef whose urban-rustic Italian idiom fits L.A. like a Gucci glove. The emphasis here is on grilled and rotisserie meats, but for all the wood-fired pleasures of Sonoma lamb or Jidori chicken (L.A.'s "it" fowl), what you might remember is the sophistication of the smoked branzino carpaccio, or the lingering flavor of the pappardelle with beef cheeks. Order a nutty Umbrian Moraiolo from the olive oil menu, so you can watch the waiter ceremoniously pour it onto your plate from a long silver ladle. It would be reckless not to gorge on La Brea Bakery breads—La Terza's co-owner and frontman is the former La Brea vice-president—or try Nancy Silverton's divine dolci, such as ricotta fritters with sour-cherry compote. Even the sprout-loving locals can't resist.