Chefs' Favorite U.S. Restaurants
When Chef Nick Curtin first arrived in New York, he stumbled upon a West Village restaurant disguised as a town house. He had discovered tapas heaven—otherwise known as Alta restaurant—and has returned many times for the sangria and bacon-wrapped dates.
Everyone wants to know where to eat, but there’s no need to wander any further. Curtin is one of the 51 talented chefs who’ve clued us in—revealing favorite local haunts in each state and D.C. Their picks reflect the remarkable ethnic and cultural range of American cooking today. Looking for the best kimchi-fried-egg hot dog in Ohio? It’s here. How about beef-cheek bourguignonne in Oregon? We’ve got you covered.
Many of the chefs’ recommendations share a humble, hearty, no-fuss appeal. After all, the last thing a chef wants—after spending eight hours a day arranging microgreens on sea bass—is more haute cuisine. In Washington, for instance, chef Matt Dillon (of Sitka & Spruce) can’t get enough of the Japanese street snack takoyaki at Maneki, Seattle’s longest-running restaurant. “They’re like little donut holes filled with diced baby octopus, plus a bottom layer of barbecue sauce and a top layer of bonito flakes,” he says.
Personal service can also make the difference. Texas chef Bryan Caswell of Reef, in Houston, loves the atmosphere at the Indian-Pakistani restaurant Himalaya, where the chef, Kaiser Lashkari, provides personal suggestions to patrons, then takes their orders and cooks. “[Lashkari] makes a goat biryani that truly blows my mind.”
These chefs need not only mind-blowing food, but a restaurant that keeps up—literally—and food trucks are often just the convenient thing. In Boulder, CO, chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson (Frasca Food & Wine) refuels at Comida, a hot-pink vending truck that whips up Mexican street food such as braised beef short ribs and sweet potato mash.
Still hungry? We’ve barely scratched the surface. Read on for the best restaurants and dishes from coast to coast, brought to you by America’s celebrated chefs. —Nina Fedrizzi
Interviews by Francine Maroukian
“There’s a stretch of 18th Street between Guerrero and Dolores that’s known as the Gastro, since it neighbors the Castro and houses some of San Francisco’s best food spots: Tartine Bakery, Bi-Rite Market (3639 18th St.; 415/241-9760; dessert for two $10), and one of my long-standing favorites, Pizzeria Delfina (dinner for two $55). I get the broccoli rabe pizza with mozzarella and caciocavallo cheese, olives, and hot peppers. I’ve never once been disappointed.” —Melissa Perello, Frances
“Over in Atlanta, Hector Santiago—who was a Top Chef contender and is one of the hardest-working chefs I know—has this place called Super Pan Latino Sandwich Shop (1057 Blue Ridge Ave. N.E.; 404/477-0379; lunch for two $22), where he turns out phenomenal combinations such as smoked pork belly with tamarind sauce on a steamed coconut bun, or Mexican tuna with shaved-iceberg salad on focaccia. It’s simple food done right.” —Hugh Acheson, Five & Ten
“Oasis (206 N. Linn St., Iowa City; 319/358-7342; dinner for two $18) is a funky, rock-’n’-roll falafel joint, and their tagline—‘Hummus where the heart is’—remains one of my favorite slogans ever. The food is tasty and approachable, from the house pickles to the grilled lamb, the tabbouleh, and, of course, the top-notch falafel.” —Matt Steigerwald, Lincoln Café, 117 First St. W., Mt. Vernon; 319/895-4041.
“Three Penny Taproom (108 Main St., Montpelier; 802/223-8277; dinner for two $40) is a cool, divey place with 23 rotating craft tap beers and a compact gastropub menu, which might include Chimay-braised rabbit or pork liver with pickled prunes. Everything comes with Vermont’s distinctive Cyrus Pringle bread from the Red Hen Baking Company (961B U.S. Rte. 2, Middlesex; 802/223-5200).” —Eric Warnstedt, Hen of the Wood
“During my first year in New York I was wandering through the Village—with no money and not a clue where to eat—when I stumbled upon Alta (64 W. 10th St., New York City; 212/505-7777; dinner for two $60). Disguised as a town house and located on one of the city’s most beautiful blocks, Alta is tapas heaven. How many nights since have I spent sipping sangria; nibbling on lamb meatballs, bacon-wrapped dates, and the most amazing roasted brussels sprouts; gazing out onto ivy-lined West 10th Street? It’s still one of my all-time favorites.” —Nick Curtin, Compose, 77 Worth St., New York City; 212/226-1444.
“I love the Boiler Room (1110 Jones St., Omaha; 402/916-9274; dinner for two $80), a refurbished industrial space in the Old Market neighborhood. You can belly up to the bar, nurse an old-fashioned Sazerac, order some house-cured charcuterie with strong mustard, and watch the kitchen from just a few feet away.” —Clayton Chapman, Grey Plume, 220 S. 31st Ave., Omaha; 402/763-4447.
“I always track down Comida (eatcomida.com or twitter.com/eatcomida; lunch for two $20), a pink vending truck—nick-named Tina—that dishes out fresh Mexican street food: bistec tacos (char-grilled skirt steak, roasted onions, refritos, and queso fresco), costillas de res tacos (braised beef short ribs, sweet-potato mash, roasted onions, and crema), and ‘truck-made’ guacamole and chips.” —Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, Frasca Food & Wine
“Burger Rush (119 N. Robinson St., Oklahoma City; 405/605-7874; lunch for two $14) is a hidden gem downtown that not only puts out a mean standard burger but also does some irresistible variations—like a soft-shell crab burger with avocado and spicy mayo.” —Robert Black, Red Primesteak, 504 N. Broadway Ave., Oklahoma City; 405/232-2626.
“If I’m lucky, in the afternoon I can slip away to Soup’s On (842 W. 36 St., Baltimore; 410/366-7687; lunch for two $16), where they always have a perfect selection of 10 soups and four seasonal salads, often made with ingredients from the same farms I use. Two to look out for: spring-green soup with a side of black-lentil salad, and a pozole of local pork paired with a sweet-potato salad.” —Spike Gjerde, Woodberry Kitchen, 2010 Clipper Park Rd., Ste. 126, Baltimore; 410/464-8000.
Soup’s On has since closed.
“Maneki (304 Sixth Ave. S., Seattle; 206/622-2631; dinner for two $30) is a century-old Japanese place—and the longest-running restaurant in Seattle—with authentic food and loving service. Besides excellent sushi and fried chicken with lots of lemon, they have dishes you don’t normally see, including my favorite, an Osaka-style street snack called takoyaki. Made with crêpe batter, they’re like little donut holes filled with diced baby octopus, plus a bottom layer of barbecue sauce and a top layer of bonito flakes—crisp and gooey all at once.” —Matt Dillon, Sitka & Spruce
“At the Little House Bistro (6651 Moffett Rd., Mobile; 251/447-2623; dinner for two $50), Marc Walden makes all the classics—pimento cheese; fried catfish; buttermilk mashed potatoes—from well-sourced ingredients. But he’s also got some ‘new-old’ ideas, pairing a rooted Southern favorite like tomato jam with a savory modern cheesecake pumped up with hickory bacon from Benton’s, in Tennessee, the best smokehouse in the country.” —Wesley True, True Restaurant, 9 Du Rhu Dr., Mobile; 251/344-3334.
“New Orleans is known for its dive bars, which are great for a late-night beer or whiskey—but when I want cocktails with great style, I go to Bouligny Tavern (3641 Magazine St.; 504/891-1810; dinner for two $40). These are serious, honest drinks, made with quality ice and spirits and served in the proper glass. And they come with well-made bar food, such as thin-sliced, seared short ribs and a genuine fritto misto.” —Donald Link, Cochon
“After a busy Saturday night I crave a fix from the food cart Happy Pig (happypigbloomington.com or twitter.com/thehappypig; dinner for two $12), where everything is made from scratch: biscuits and sausage gravy, topped with a sunny-side farm egg, or a pork-belly slider on a brioche bun with maple gastrique.” —David Tallent, Restaurant Tallent, 208 N. Walnut, Bloomington; 812/330-9801.
“Nichole’s Fine Pastry (13 S. Eighth St., Fargo; 701/232-6430; lunch for two $10) is an awesome little shop with a small-town atmosphere and big-city desserts, along with an eclectic assortment of sandwiches, soups, and salads. But the real star of the show is the quiche, with a light, flaky crust and a mammoth layer of eggs, ham, and cheese.” —Timothy Fischer, HoDo Restaurant, Hotel Donaldson
“Rising Sun Bistro (549 Wisconsin Ave., Whitefish; 406/862-1236; breakfast for two $18) is my breakfast and lunch sanctuary; I feel transported to a quaint little cottage in the south of France. They have six different kinds of Benedicts, some served on croissants, alongside caramelized potatoes with just the right amount of sweet onions. For lunch, the roast chicken salad is made with the chef’s own mayonnaise, a touch of tarragon, grapes, and mixed greens—simple, yet divine.” —Andy Blanton, Café Kandahar, 3824 Big Mountain Rd., Whitefish; 406/862-6247.
“On the rare occasion that I can get out of my own kitchen, my wife and I love to go to the Press Room (129 W. German St., Shepherdstown; 304/876-8777; dinner for two $65). The food is always fresh and seasonal, from morels and ramps in the spring to a hearty cassoulet in winter, and there are always plenty of oysters.” —Damian Heath, Lot 12 Public House, 117 Warren St., Berkeley Springs; 304/258-6264.
“My first choice is Miyake (470 Forest St., Portland; 207/871-9170; dinner for two $90), a little, chef-owned Japanese place. The menu goes beyond a typical sushi bar—it’s full of nontraditional dishes like soy-braised pork belly. Plus the whelks and sea urchins are sourced locally.” —Rob Evans, Hugo’s
“Every time I go to Uptown I stop at Ba Le Bakery (5016 N. Broadway St., Chicago; 773/561-4424; lunch for two $12). It’s always Ryan vs. Sandwich, but 10 times out of 10 it’s Sandwich 1, Ryan 0. Their banh mi are incredibly consistent: soft yet crisp bread, fresh vegetables, flavorful meats. My favorite—maybe surprisingly—is the vegetarian, with pickled carrots and radish on top of avocado and tofu tempura.” —Ryan Poli, Tavernita, 151 W. Erie St., Chicago; no phone.
“On my days off I love grabbing a meal at Norwalk’s Fat Cat Pie Company (9-11 Wall St.; 203/523-0389; lunch for two $20). The thin-crust pizza is amazing, as is the kale-and-quinoa salad and the oatmeal-sunflower-seed bread with almond butter: simple and perfect.” —Bill Taibe, LeFarm, 256 Post Rd. E., Westport; 203/557-3701.
“After service I like to unwind with a beer, so I’m nuts about a new geeked-out beer bar called Holy Grale (1034 Bardstown Rd., Louisville; 502/459-9939; dinner for two $20). I’m there four nights a week these days—relaxing at the end of the bar, nursing an obscure Belgian beer, and ordering chorizo tacos or a fried Scotch quail egg that’s to die for.” —Edward Lee, 610 Magnolia, 610 Magnolia St., Louisville; 502/636-0783.
“Life on the edge of the Black Hills revolves around the seasons. I know it’s summer when I hit the Dairy Twist (12647 S. Hwy. 16, Hill City; 605/574-2329; lunch for two $15), a classic little shack beside a two-lane highway and next to a mini-golf course. Their corn dog is mighty tasty after a day of kayaking.” —M. J. Adams, The Corn Exchange
“Qui Tran draws chefs from all around to his rustic-yet-polished Vietnamese place, Mai Lee (8396 Musick Memorial Dr., St. Louis; 314/645-2835; lunch for two $25), for tamarind shrimp, banh mi sandwiches, and the most soulful pho in town. Amazing food, good beer, great service—and it’s pennies!” —Gerard Craft, Niche
“Shalimar (307 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734/663-1500; dinner for two $48) is my longtime favorite Indian restaurant. I go there when I’m feeling nostalgic about my days as a chef in London early in my career; it reminds me of eating on Westbourne Grove. I love the way they use spice in their dishes, especially the lamb vindaloo.” —Alex Young, Zingerman’s Roadhouse
“I go out of my way to eat lunch at Ethel’s (232 Kalihi St., Honolulu; 808/847-6467; lunch for two $15), a Japanese-style grill where the food is like home cooking—and the portions are like Mom’s, too. I’ll order ahi tataki, beef with watercress and crisp noodles, and deep-fried turkey tail. There’s never anyplace to park, but you find a way. It’s that good.” —Kevin Chong, Chef Mavro, 1969 S. King St., Honolulu; 808/944-4714.
“I love El Palacio de los Jugos (5721 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305/264-4557; dinner for two $25), because it’s a microcosm of Miami itself. You can get freshly made tamarind or guanabana (soursop) juice, then have a fantastic lechón asado (barbecued suckling pig) with plantains, black beans, and yellow rice, served on the patio while a one-man Latin band belts out impassioned ballads.” —Norman Van Aken, Norman’s, Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes
“The Latin Grill (901 W. Main St., Carrboro; dinner for two $12) is my taco-truck source for consomé de borrego, a lamb soup/stew with chickpeas, cilantro, and red onion. Life’s not bad when you’re dunking rolled corn tortillas in a broth so lamb-y you want to cry. Amen.” —Kevin Callaghan, Acme Food & Beverage Co., 110 E. Main St., Carrboro; 919/929-2263.
“I hang at the Happy Dog (5801 Detroit Ave., Cleveland; 216/651-9474; dinner for two $16), a retro 1940’s bar with great beers, live music, and killer hot dogs with an endless array of toppings. After a hard night there’s nothing better than a dog topped with kimchi, hot sauce, bacon, and a fried egg, with a side of Tater Tots and a cold Great Lakes IPA. And does anything say ‘Cleveland’ better than ‘polka happy hour’?” —Michael Symon, Lola Bistro, 2058 E. Fourth St., Cleveland; 216/621-5652.
“I go to the Main Street Pub (7140 Main St., Clifton; 703/266-6307; lunch for two $30), housed in an old Texaco station and run by a local family that knows everyone and everything going on in town. They have the best classic sandwiches—BLT’s, turkey melts, French dips, beer-battered cod—each made correctly and priced right.” —Clayton Miller, Trummer’s on Main, 7134 Main St., Clifton; 703/266-1623.
“I usually go for the familiar—something downright and down-home good, like the perfectly pan-grilled trout at the Copper Onion (111 E. Broadway, Ste. 170, Salt Lake City; 801/355-3282; dinner for two $60). The fish develops a really crispy skin, and they pair it with a fantastic salad of baby beets, fennel, and marcona almonds. The result is soul-satisfying.” —Viet Pham, Forage, 370 E. 900 S., Salt Lake City; 801/708-7834.
“My go-to, off-the-Strip spot is Sen of Japan (8480 W. Desert Inn Rd., Las Vegas; 702/871-7781; dinner for two $60), for top-tier sushi as well as specialties like spicy salmon with these amazingly earthy seaweed flavors. But what cemented my loyalty is their avocado tempura. Superlight but crispy, warm, and creamy—it’s the wildest ride in your mouth.” —David Walzog, SW Steakhouse, Wynn Las Vegas
“Lexie’s Joint (212 Islington St., Portsmouth; 603/319-4055; dinner for two $25) is a little burger place with a great philosophy and an admirable commitment to cooking from scratch. Their burgers aren’t the typically obscene American flesh bombs—you can have one with french fries, fried pickles, and beer and still stand up afterward. They also have a killer collection of culinary books that I like to browse through while waiting.” —Evan Mallet, Black Trumpet Bistro
“For the tastiest Korean fried chicken wings, I head to Café SoHo (468 W. Cheltenham Ave., Philadelphia; 215/224-6800; dinner for two $40), located in a random strip mall at the northern end of the city. Double-frying to order takes time, so my cooks and I call ahead for the spicy-glaze and the soy-glaze wings, which come with some lightly pickled daikon radish to balance the heat. We plow through them while the TV flashes and the K-pop blares.” —Michael Solomonov, Zahav
“Although Boston’s Chinatown is fairly small, the spicy Sichuan fish soup at Gourmet Dumpling House (52 Beach St.; 617/338-6223; dinner for two $30) is as addictive a dish as you can have anywhere in the world. At first you think the soup will be too strong, with all of the chili oil, peppercorns, and aromatics. But once you brave the second or third spoonful you just can’t stop.” —Ken Oringer, Clio
“The best Delta tamales are over in Rosedale at Joe Pope’s White Front Café (902 Main St.; 662/759-3842; lunch for two $10). The place is nothing but a shack, with a huge penny-candy counter, a couple of bubbling pots on an old stove, and a crew of women hand-rolling tamales. It is what it is, and it could not be any more perfect.” —John Currence, City Grocery
“When you think of Wyoming, Thai food isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But at Teton Thai (7342 Granite Loop Rd., Teton Village; 307/733-0022; dinner for two $45), the pad gar pow with crisp-skinned duck breast just lights up your mouth with chili and garlic and fresh Thai flavors. They’re always busy, and I usually know almost everyone in the place, which makes it a great social outing. And the husband-and-wife owners welcome everyone as if they were entertaining at home. That’s as authentic as it gets, no matter where you live.” —Roger Freedman, Rendezvous Bistro
“My favorite ‘local’ is Maxine’s Bistro (301 Crow Creek Rd.; 907/783-1234; dinner for two $65), in Girdwood, which is like Alaska’s version of Aspen. The menu is seasonal, but one dish that never changes is the meze plate, with hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, harissa, tzatziki, tahini, olives, citrus-infused slaw, pickled veggies, and house-made pita. It’s the reason I drive those 30 miles.” —Guy Conley, Ginger, 425 W. Fifth Ave., Anchorage; 907/929-3680.
“Located in a beautiful historic hotel with crown moldings and marble floors, Harry’s (418 Poyntz Ave., Manhattan; 785/537-1300; dinner for two $70) makes a perfect end to a long workday. My order: lump crab cake served with a jalapeño béchamel, red-pepper aioli, and field greens, paired with a crisp, bubbly Mont-Marçal Vinícola Reserva Brut Cava.” —Kurstin Harris, Chef Café, 111 S. Fourth St., Manhattan; 785/537-6843.
“In summer, I escape the heat and head for Sedona and the Elote Cafe (771 State Rte. 179; 928/203-0105; dinner for two $40). The tamales, made with sweet local corn, are awesome; the masa is delicate and fluffy and the all-natural Idaho-pork carnitas are melt-in-your-mouth tender. They also serve Sombra, my favorite mescal, which is young but still smoky. Mixed with fruit juice, it’s super-refreshing.” —Chris Curtiss, Noca
“At Brasa (600 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612/379-3030; dinner for two $30), James Beard Award winner Alex Roberts serves Creole soul food: slow-roasted pork shoulder, smoked and braised beef, plus great side dishes such as pigeon peas and rice, collards, grits, and corn bread. Alex was a local trailblazer with the whole farm-to-table philosophy, so you know you’re getting the highest-quality ingredients.” —Isaac Becker, 112 Eatery
“Just down the road from us, in Pawtucket, La Arepa (574 Smithfield Ave.; 401/335-3711; lunch for two $12) started out as a food truck; five years ago it became a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Arepasare Venezuelan corn cakes that are griddled and then stuffed with various fillings—shrimp; pulled pork; chicken salad. I always get the pabellón arepa: braised beef, black beans, avocado, and freshly grated cheese.” —Nemo Bolin, Cook & Brown Public House, 959 Hope St., Providence; 401/273-7275.
“My best-kept secret is Santi’s (1302 Meeting Street Rd., Charleston; 843/722-2633; dinner for two $26), for a damn good margarita and a dish that has become an all-time favorite: camarones a la diabla. It’s grilled shrimp in a spicy ketchup-and-garlic sauce with avocado and saltine crackers—and while that may not seem overly authentic, it’s really tasty, and has real personality.” —Mike Lata, FIG
District of Columbia
“There’s a Chinese take-out place next to my restaurant called Yum’s II (1413 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C.; 202/232-5608; lunch for two $18) that has the best cheesesteak outside of Philly. Seriously. But you have to say ‘steak and cheese,’ not ‘cheesesteak,’ or else they’ll give you cheese sticks. And you don’t want those.” —Kyle Bailey, Birch & Barley, 1337 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C.; 202/567-2576.
“Everyone’s first impression of Little Rock is always surprise; this misunderstood town is full of uncelebrated charm. It’s also home to a guy from New Jersey known as Hot Dog Mike (hotdogmike.com or twitter.com/hotdog_mike; lunch for two $12) who wears signature black-rimmed glasses and a fedora. He’s developed dozens of creations-on-a-bun, from a Frito-pie dog to one with macaroni and cheese. For me it’s Thee Chicago Dog, topped with tomato, pickle, neon relish, onion, mustard, celery salt, and sport peppers. My day always starts with a quick check of Mike’s Twitter feed to see if he’s parked within a reasonable detour of my ride to work.” —Lee Richardson, Ashley’s Restaurant, Capital Hotel, 111 W. Markham St., Little Rock; 501/370-7011.
“No matter who you are or where you’re from, there’s nothing as comforting as a bowl of soup. Especially when it comes to the table boiling hot—and you get to crack an egg into the bowl. The silken-tofu-and-kimchi soup at So Gong Dong (1310 Antioch Pike, Nashville; 615/781-2022; dinner for two $30) is so damn good you’re going to burn your mouth, because you can hardly wait to eat it.” —Tandy Wilson, City House
“Two of the best dishes I’ve eaten all year were the grigliata mista (mixed grill of pork) and the budino di caramello (butterscotch pudding) at the rustic Osteria Papavero (dinner for two $70), which has great service, a proper wine program, and an impressive amaro selection. Every time I go I feel like I’m back in Emilia-Romagna.” —Tim Dahl, Nostrano, 111 S. Hamilton St., Madison; 608/395-3295.