T+L Editors' Favorite Restaurants
What makes a good restaurant great, and keeps us coming back for more? In advance of our annual food issue, we posed that question to Travel + Leisure’s editors, who shared their favorites from Japan to Germany, and a whole bunch closer to home.
For New Media Editor Sarah Spagnolo, it’s the everyman neighborhood vibe of a bustling pizza place in Brooklyn she first discovered with her husband—and has since made an appearance on HBO’s Girls—that keeps her on the carb train. (That and the stuffed peppers.)
Managing Editor and ski bum Laura Teusink admits that she looks forward to the healthy, Asian-inflected fare at Lotus Café almost as much as she does hitting the slopes of Jackson Hole, WY. When it comes to researcher Sebastian Girner, it’s a half-century of history and schnitzels the size of his head that he can’t pass up when passing through Cologne, Germany.
With her pick in Portland, OR, Associate Editor Kathryn O’Shea-Evans puts her finger (and maybe a bird) on what makes all these restaurants great: a fantastic sense of place. In Stumptown it means tattooed chefs slinging mac-n-cheese in Seedy-ville (under the Morrison Bridge). For Senior Digital Editor Ann Shields, it means family time over a bucket of crabs in Virginia Beach, VA. The vibe, the location, the décor, the company, and, of course, cuisine all combine to stake out a place in our hungry hearts.
So what makes a great restaurant? Take a trip with T+L to find out. —Justin Ocean
Few upscale restaurants in Boston are able to maintain a sense of exclusivity once they’ve had a dose of media attention. But at chef Chris Coombs’s first restaurant, tucked away on a quiet corner of Commonwealth Avenue, the dining room is always comfortably full, while service remains relaxed and smooth. You still feel as though you’re in on a neighborhood secret—especially if you’re able to snag a fireside table. deuxave.com
Must-Order: Whatever the season, look for the salad presented in a potato basket “cornucopia.” In the summer, it’s filled with a variety of local vegetables. But come winter, you can break a two-hour egg over a tangle of wild mushrooms dressed in black Périgord truffle vinaigrette.
Le Bistro Montage, Portland, OR
Hidden away in Seedy-ville (under the Morrison Bridge), this Creole hole-in-the-wall is anything but sophisticated: tattooed waitstaff shout orders over the din of packed communal tables; doggie bags are wrapped in quirky tinfoil “sculptures”; and a no-reservation policy means the line sometimes stretches down the block. But you’re not there to be coddled—you’re there for the macaroni. There are nine types, including roasted garlic and bacon; buffalo with blue cheese crumbles; and green basil pesto. montageportland.com
Must-Order: Despite a downright Starbucksian macaroni selection, you want the basic Old Mac: a homey mix of garlic, Parmesan, and heavy cream (ask for seared alligator on the side. Protein is important).
Chi Spacca, Los Angeles
No slight to the great Osteria Mozza or Pizzeria Mozza, but the latest opening from Silverton/Batali/Bastianich may be the finest of their mini-empire in Hancock Park. A dark, clubby room with floor-to-ceiling wine racks and 30 perpetually occupied seats, Chi Spacca (“to chop”) is a temple to meat, glorious meat: flame-grilled, oven-roasted, or cured in-house (chef Chad Colby has one of L.A.’s few on-site curing licenses). Try for a spot at the chef’s counter, inches from the grill, and watch Colby and crew work miracles out of massive, juicy slabs of beef, pork, and lamb. chispacca.com
Must-Order: Is the 42-ounce bistecca fiorentina the best steak you’ve eaten in years? It was for me.
Ochre, Cairns, Australia
Maybe it’s the tropical heat or the edge-of-the-world remoteness, but you’ll try things in Cairns that you wouldn’t even think of doing in Sydney. Amid the cool, woody comfort of Ochre, when someone asks you to eat a crocodile, it doesn’t seem odd to say yes. Tentative bites from a tasting plate, grimly at first, then with gusto: smoked kangaroo with mango chutney, pulled emu on betel leaf, and, wait, was that a crocodile wonton? Crikey! And none of them tastes like chicken. ochrerestaurant.com.au
Must-Order: Nothing goes so well with a plateful of roasted ‘roo than a bottle of Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2010.
Speedy Romeo, Brooklyn, NY
I stepped into Speedy Romeo when my husband and I were first looking to move to Brooklyn’s east side. We loved it immediately. A three-piece band was playing for Sunday brunch, and the wood-burning oven was ablaze. But what made me fall in love with the Clinton Hill joint was the diverse crowd: fathers and sons, friends, the young and old, all eating stuffed peppers (my favorite) and meatball pizza. In the most recent season of Girls, this neighborhood spot had a starring role as Hannah’s coffee shop. But now that I’m a local, I get the real thing. speedyromeo.com
Must-Order: Mushroom frittata, with two slices of sourdough.
Lotus Café, Jackson, WY
Barely visible to the tourist’s eye and tucked down a side street, the simple, gastronomically enlightened Lotus Café (all dishes are available gluten-free and/or vegan) is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. With a multitude of healthful-but-satisfying choices such as cashew-porcini cakes with roasted garlic aioli, elk lasagna, or a greenmarket’s worth of vegetables atop vermicelli in the Imperial Bowl, deciding on just one meal can cause a moment of anxiety—luckily I make a point to visit multiple days. Wrap it all in natural wood floors, Asian art, and a super-mellow vibe, and you’ve got one sublime experience for this wannabe ski bum whose food supports her passion. tetonlotuscafe.com
Must-Order: The Oh Snap Martini (ginger-infused vodka, molasses, agave, and fresh lemon) is the perfect après-ski warmer.
Commerce, New York City
You really have to look for this unmarked gem, secreted on a crooked cobblestoned street in the West Village. But once you’re there, you’ll never forget it—the dimly lit space, a former speakeasy, hums with in-the-know locals there as much for the scene as the food. Bookend any meal with the bread basket (with a dozen varieties still warm from the oven) and birthday cake (sprinkles and candle included); you’re guaranteed a great meal no matter what goes in between. commercerestaurant.com
Must-Order: Marinated hamachi crudo with yuzu and chili, based on a recipe from chef Harold Moore’s Japanese grandmother.
Louis’ Basque Corner, Reno, NV
New owners may have injected some youthful energy into this 46-year-old institution on a grimy corner just east of downtown, updating the wood-paneled interior and adding a bar menu—garlic fries and lamb dip, a perfect lunch—but Louis’ is a must-visit pocket of history for what remains the same: hearty family-style Basque meals at communal tables and boisterous conversation that rises with each new carafe of wine. Daily specials (rabbit, salmon) supplement the traditional mains (sweetbreads two ways, lamb chops, top sirloin) on top of unending bowls of salad, stewed beans, and soup sopped up with crusty French bread—enough food to feed any modern-day sheepherder. louisbasquecorner.com
Must-Order: Dessert means dry jack cheese and a Picon Punch (or three), a knock-ya-back Basque-American cocktail of bitter orange–flavored Amer Picon (an herbal digestif) tempered with club soda and grenadine, topped with brandy.
Chick’s Oyster Bar, Virginia Beach, VA
Arrive by boat at sunset (or car, I guess, if you don’t have a brother-in-law with a boat), sit on the deck with a beer, and watch the fishing boats return to the inlet from the Chesapeake Bay. Egrets wade in the reeds, the summer air finally cools a little, and if your timing’s lucky, the lights are on at Pharrell Williams’s mansion, right across the water. This restaurant makes me… happy! chicksoysterbar.com
Must-Order: Fish tacos, oysters, a bucket of steamed crabs, and plenty of beer.
Bei Oma Kleinmann, Cologne, Germany
This classic German corner bar, named after the legendary “Granny” Kleinmann, its culinary matriarch for more than 50 years, brings locals and travelers together for one reason: to worship at the altar of schnitzel. Bring an appetite—the 14 different schnitzel are almost comically large, spilling right over the edge of your plate. The meats are tender, the breading a near-perfect golden brown. Add one of the delicious house-made sauces, a couple drafts of Kölsch, and a proper schnapps to end, and you’ll understand how this place has kept its laid-back luster in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood. beiomakleinmann.de
Must-Order: The hearty Holzfäller (Woodcutter’s Schnitzel) served with baked onions and potatoes—afterward, you’ll feel like you could tear out trees yourself!
Mezzaluna, Fargo, ND
Just off Fargo’s hip (yes, hip) downtown drag, Mezzaluna is the city’s finest fine-dining locale. In true North Dakota–nice style, a manager greets each guest at the door of the early-20th-century brick building. Inside, the high-backed, seashell-style booths could feel kitschy if the warm interiors weren’t so polished and the contemporary American food so refined. Drop in during happy hour, and you’ll get an enticing selection of entrée-size appetizers—all priced at just $7. It’s fine dining that’s friendly, filling, and frugal. Try finding that in New York. dinemezzaluna.com
Must-Order: Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp or a heaping artisan cheese plate during happy hour.
Gervais & Vine, Columbia, SC
Whenever I head to my hometown of Columbia, SC, I love to sit down for a bite at this reliably delicious wine and tapas spot. The servers always know their stuff about the wines on offer, and the oft-changing menu excels at simple dishes done very well. Once I had these baby gnocchi that were so, so good that I ended up having to order a second serving because my husband wouldn’t stop stealing them off my plate—alas, I’ve never seen them on the menu again. gervine.com
Must-Order: Perfectly seasoned crispy fingerling potatoes with herbed aioli, warm pimento cheese, and if it ever makes a reappearance on the dessert menu, old-school peanut butter pie.
Sotto Sotto, Atlanta
Atlanta’s dining scene has grown and matured in the eight years since I moved away, but this cozy Italian spot is still a favorite when I return. It opened in Inman Park when the now-buzzy neighborhood was still a little rough around the edges and remains warm and welcoming, perfect for both a romantic date night and dinner with friends. The pasta section is the highlight of the menu, and the best part is they’re all available in appetizer portions; I always like to order a few and share. urestaurants.net
Must-Order: Ravioli Nudi (Naked Ravioli), which are spinach and ricotta gnocchi without the pasta wrapping.
Zuni Café, San Francisco
My must-stop every time I’m in town (sometimes two or more stops) is this classic California-Mediterranean café on Market Street. The oysters, the polenta, the Caesar salad: everything here reflects the ingredient-focused perfectionism of chef Judy Rodgers, who sadly passed away from cancer in December 2013. Rogers would try a recipe over and over again, making one subtle change each time, until it reached its platonic ideal (my partner, who worked here as a server in his youth, recalls a time when she criticized a pasta dish by saying it had one too many noodles). With its copper-topped bar and wood-burning oven, the dining room feels like home.
Must-Order: The roast chicken for two, simple but satisfying with its salad of bread, mustard greens, currants, and pine nuts.
Old Inn on the Green, New Marlborough, MA
I’m obsessed with this atmospheric colonial restaurant in the Berkshires. The candlelit dining room at the former stagecoach stop turned inn has wide-plank floors and Windsor chairs, and there’s a cozy backroom tavern. In winter, wood fires crackle. In summer, the menu overflows with fresh produce from the inn’s garden. Chef Peter Platt’s seasonal American cooking is remarkable for its creativity and quality local ingredients—red beets from the kitchen garden, Hudson Valley foie gras, Berkshire blue cheese. No matter the time of year, I love dining surrounded by so much history.
Must-Order: Roasted Hudson Valley chicken with lemon-thyme jus and herbed spaetzle. Stay the night at the inn and enjoy homemade pastries and warm stewed stone fruits over local yogurt—another showstopper—the next morning.
Ten you, Kyoto, Japan
This 10-seat temple to tempura in Kyoto showcases seasonal ingredients—kamonasu (Japanese eggplant), saltwater eel, seaweed-wrapped sea urchin—all coated in an impossibly light batter. 324-1 Ebiyacho, Gokomachi Sanjo Sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; +81 75-212-7778
Must-Order: The restaurant is omakase style (chef’s choice), so you never know what you may be getting, but I assure you: every morsel is delicious.
Oleana, Cambridge, MA
Ana Sortun’s food transports you to an exotic land of her own creation, adrift in the Mediterranean somewhere between Turkey and Tunisia. The fact that every fourth word on Oleana’s menu may be unfamiliar is testament to the journey she takes you on. Bonus points for the gorgeous backyard patio, the happiest place in town on summer nights.
Must-Order: Consider her quail kebab with pistachios, barberries, and baharat seasoning, a case study in how to blend assertive flavors and wildly fragrant spices with unerring balance.