The fact is, you won’t find better French haute cuisine than you will at Le Bernardin in New York or better Italian food than at Spiaggia in Chicago or better sushi than at Urasawa in Beverly Hills. For seafood, Seattle is paradise; for vegetarian, head for Berkeley; and for the grandest deluxe, Las Vegas is an international contender.
So, what are America’s best restaurant cities — in order of excellence?
1. New York — No contest, really. With more than 20,000 restaurants and eateries — and an increasing number of really good food carts — NYC rules, not least because New Yorkers and 35 million visitors are willing to spend the money for the best and because expense-account breakfasts and lunches drive a phenomenal amount of restaurant business. It was at the Four Seasons, opened in 1959, that the term “power lunch” was coined by Esquire; the “power breakfast” started at the Regency Hotel. The tradition of great food (at sometimes-towering prices) continues with remarkable new openings including Osteria Morini, Lambs Club, Compose, Ciano, and ABC Kitchen (pictured above). Then there’s Eataly, the sprawling new food hall that draws daily crowds that rival those at MoMA or Yankee Stadium.
In downtown neighborhoods from Tribeca to Nolita and everywhere in between, there is hardly a block that doesn’t have two or three restaurants on it. The pizza, hamburger, pork, hot dog, and bao sandwich wars are real and raging, and the Jewish delis still pile phenomenally good pastrami on rye without let-up.
2. Chicago — Chicagoans love to eat with abandon and refuse to be gouged by the bill. So you almost always get a square meal for a square deal, now more than ever with the rise to eminence of the gastro-pubs like Longman & Eagle, the Purple Pig, Avec, the Girl & the Goat, and the Bristol, each with its own swagger and exaltation of charcuterie culture.
Chi-town’s historic restaurants, like Gene & Georgetti’s steak house, are now few in number, but waves of conventioneers keep longstanding classics like Charlie Trotter’s, Spiaggia, and Tru packed. There’s no better or more seminal Mexican restaurant anywhere than Topolobampo, and the city is America’s epicenter for avant-garde, molecular cuisine.
3. San Francisco — Even if you don’t accept San Franciscans’ insistence that the stellar restaurants of Napa and Sonoma Valleys are part of their gastronomic landscape, no city (except New Orleans, below) is more serious about its food and wine than San Francisco. It was here that the New American Cuisine movement was born at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where Mediterranean was married to Northern California provender at places like Piperade, where Cal-Ital took flight at Oliveto and Quince, where vegetarian food was lifted beyond its polemics at Green’s, and where Asian cuisines have flourished ever since the Chinese emigrated here in the 19th century.
4. New Orleans — The standard greeting in New Orleans is, “Where’d you have lunch and where you going for dinner?” Which makes perfect sense because the city’s principal tourist attraction is its high-class Creole restaurants and lowdown Cajun eateries. Five years after Katrina and just months after the Gulf oil spill, the Crescent City is back on its feet, and its cooks are invigorated, shaken from their shock and stupor, so that old-timers like Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace are better and brighter than ever, newcomers like Stanley are making prole favorites like po’ boys into great dishes, and a veteran soul-food eatery like Willie Mae’s Scotch House is still doing their nonpareil fried chicken and red beans with rice. Life on the Mississippi is good again.
5. Los Angeles — Although L.A.’s most exciting, edgy decade was from 1985 to 1995, its restaurants’ showiness and celebrity idolatry have faded in favor of more solid innovation and honest cookery. Wolfgang Puck continues to surprise everyone, not only by keeping Spago at the glamorous top of its form but with a stunning morphing of the American steak house at Cut and, this past year, Chinese food at WP24. Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino in Santa Monica still ranks among the top five Italian restaurants in America, and the city’s Japanese food mavens are as manic about discovering great new restaurants as any sushi addict in Osaka. And, everywhere, restaurants are done with a whole lot of La-La-Land style.
6. Las Vegas — Say what you will about Sin City and its expensive tinsel, but developers like Steve Wynn and Carl Icahn have put their billions where their mouths are. Even if most of the marquee names like Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, and Pierre Gagnaire are absentee chefs, there is no disputing the high quality of their restaurants, from décor and table settings to cuisine and wine lists. Those chefs who are in their kitchens, like Paul Bartolotta of Bartolotta Ristorante, Alessandro Stratta of Alex, and Julian Serrano of Picasso, have proven themselves among the very best anywhere. What Vegas lacks are the kinds of ethnic neighborhoods other great resto cities have, but that may come in time when the recession leaves town.
7. Houston — Solid, across the board, describes Houston’s food scene, from Goode Co. Barbecue to Hugo’s Mexican restaurant, from the New Texas Cuisine of Robert Del Grande’s RDG + Bar Annie to the opulently grand Italian food at Tony’s. Américas pioneered Nuevo Latino cuisine here, and the Vietnamese immigrants, who control the city’s seafood industry, have contributed enormously to Houston’s vitality.
8. Washington, D.C. — Money, lobbyists, and lawyers fuel the Capital’s dining scene, even if our stalwart legislators can’t accept dinner from BP, the NRA, the AMA, or the NFL. D.C., especially for its size, has the country’s best Spanish restaurant, Taberna Alabardera; its best Indian restaurant, Rasika; and an increasing number of first-rate Italian restaurants, like Bibiana downtown and Capri in nearby McLean, Virginia. And few would dispute that chef Michel Richard is not a national treasure and an inspiration for chefs everywhere, both at Citronelle in Georgetown and the brand-new Michel’s in Tyson’s Corner.
9. Boston — Boston long ago outlived its Beantown nickname (in fact, it’s tough to find baked beans anywhere in town these days), evolving into an East Coast version of San Francisco, where a 1980s generation of chefs including Lydia Shire, Ken Oringer, Jody Adams, Jasper White, and Gordon Hamersley took the New England cornucopia and exacted their own imaginations to create restaurants of refinement, innovation, and honest good taste. By the same token, its historic restaurants, like Durgin Park and Locke-Ober, shook off their rust and are no longer considered tourist traps, instead serving up true and traditional Boston fare with the kind of ingredients you can only find off its shores.
10. Seattle — Were it not for Pike Place Market, I’m not sure Seattle would be a great restaurant town, but its importance cannot be underestimated in a city so perfectly situated to take advantage of the bounty of the Northwest and the Pacific — not to mention access to terrific wines from local vineyards. The quality of the food at Pike Place Market challenges local chefs to do their best with the best, and to treat those ingredients with respect, not gimmickry. Well-established places like the always exciting Canlis and Tom Douglas’s Dahlia Lounge and Etta’s Seafood, and the well-positioned Ray’s Boathouse on Shilshole Bay, have been joined by wonderful, down-to-earth restaurants like Café Juanita, the always packed Salumi run by Mario Batali’s father Armandino, and Anchovies & Olives.
ELV note: Let’s hope this puts to rest once and for all, all the p.r. whining about how “John Mariani hates Las Vegas.”