50 Essential Restaurants Every American Should Visit
What makes a restaurant great? What is it about an establishment that makes us excited enough to tell everyone we know that they must eat there? Perhaps it's the service, or maybe the impeccable food. Maybe it's known for its high price tag, or it offers an evening unlike any other, or maybe you just spent formative college years eating a certain sandwich after-hours, and desperately want someone else to validate a practice you once held dear.
Regardless of the qualifications, there are some restaurants you simply have to experience. The nature of a bucket list is that it consists of to-be-checked items you either want to do, or you want to do again; it doesn't discriminate between aspirational, unaffected, and obvious.
Is our system for inclusion sound? Mostly! We're not proclaiming these best in class (though some certainly are) -- the only thing these places truly have in common is that members of our nationwide stable of writers and editors deemed the overall experience -- yes, the food, but not just the food -- so spectacular in its singularity that it's worthy of telling others to seek out before they kick the bucket.
Ultimately, this is about passion. And sliced beef. Feel free to print this out, and amend it in the comments. Good luck. See you on the other side.
If you find yourself in Philadelphia after a few, there is no more important dining destination than Philly's original 24-hour cheesesteak shop. The cheesesteak (whiz wit, or just stay home) with chopped rather than thinly sliced meat is greasy satisfaction, but the al fresco line is the real reason for your pilgrimage. Depending on the time of year, your wait will be either hot and sweaty or cold and sweaty, and the atmosphere will be pregnant with violence and onions, which is considerably more fun than you'd imagine. The bonus is that attendance entitles you to participate in the age-old rivalry between Pat's and its across-the-street competition, Geno's.
Not many restaurants double as support groups, but at Yume Wo Katare (which literally means "talk about your dreams"), people will applaud you for finishing your (reasonably priced!) bowl of ramen, and encourage you to write your life goals on a piece of paper to hang on the wall. Of course, the ramen in question is mountainous -- a simple mix of fatty broth, noodles, and giant chunks of garlicky pork, the exact number of which you get to decide with the chef who's probably standing right in front of you. Finish that bowl and you're well on your way to personal fulfillment.
Under a fluorescent glow, amidst the sizzle of hot dogs, and under the gaze of past presidents whose photos adorn the walls, you'll fight against a writhing mass of locals and tourists for a hot dog that actually is world-famous. Despite the cramped quarters and unfortunate celebrity branding (Bill Cosby's name is somehow still attached to the half-beef, half-pork, chili-topped half smoke), the food here still manages to make you feel at peace: the rich, smoky chili (whether it's on a hot dog, on a burger, or in a bowl) is both the perfect antidote to a long night out or a guarantee that you'll never even make it out in the first place.
Forget, for a second, everything you know about Meg Ryan and her fake orgasm noises and focus on one thing: pastrami. More accurately, a mountain of traditional Jewish deli pastrami that's cured for 14 to 30 days, topped with an even layer of mustard, sandwiched between two slices of rye bread, and served alongside a plate of pickles (preferably sour ones), which, on their own, could have been enough to make Katz's iconic. There are other hits on the menu besides pastrami, of course -- griddle-cooked hot dogs, corned beef, matzo ball soup -- all of which are deeply embedded in Jewish deli canon and can make even your worst day feel immeasurably better, but it's not the pickles or the soup that makes Katz's one of the only restaurants in New York beloved by tourists and locals alike.
While it's still unclear what happens if you actually do lose your ticket (murder? Arrest? Lifetime ban on smoked meat?), one thing is for certain -- a pastrami on rye at 12am on a Friday will never, ever get old.
The best damn steak in New York is a thickly marbled porterhouse that's been dry-aged in a special room for basically ever. Aging like this is an atypical move because the process shrinks the steaks, but it also adds a level of complexity and a concentration of flavor that you really can't find elsewhere.
First make a reservation super far in advance, then, once you get there, act like a regular and don't bother glancing at the menu. All you want is the steak for two (or three, or four, depending on the size of your party), with the sliced tomato and onions, and the creamed spinach. Soak in the strangely dark German beer-hall interior, and enjoy being mistreated by the famously surly waitstaff. It's part of the experience, and makes those crackling, pristinely seared, jus-swimming steaks with a rosy interior and those perfect little bits of crunchy, crisp fat taste even better somehow.
Set in the fluorescent-lit basement of a Hindu temple (just follow the signs!), this canteen is open to anyone, not just religious visitors. It's got some of the best dosas in America -- buttery, flaky rice and lentil crepes filled with (or accompanied by) spicy veggies -- but pretty much anything on the entirely vegetarian menu is superlative, from the chutneys to the tamarind rice. Among the statues of Ganesh dotting the spaces between columns and cafeteria tables, you'll find people from all walks of life, and the friendly counter staff is more than willing to advise your order… but definitely just get the chili masala dosa. Of course, they'll probably recommend that one as well.
Halfway between Boston and Portland, you'll bypass roughly 8,000 chain outlets on Route 1 to pull into Bob's gravel lot, the model New England seafood shack making the finest lobster roll in Maine year-round. Ordered hot or cold, the roll resonates for its less-is-more approach -- just a tinge of mayo, celery or chives, and no paprika -- and leaves you to focus on the bounty of knuckle and claw meat. The Clams 2 Ways platter offers a nuanced contrast between the lightly floured clam-purist recipe of the original owner Bob, and Lillian's (a beloved longtime employee) breaded-and-battered style popular for its "pure crunch-ification" according to future flea market salesman Guy Fieri. You'd be remiss not to try the state dessert, the traditional, house-made, marshmallowy whoopie pie.
There are plenty of places in this world where you can spend a bucket of cash on Michelin stars and white tablecloths, but Eleven Madison Park isn't just any fine-dining restaurant with exquisite food (though it certainly has that). Here, the service is like nothing you'll ever encounter. This isn't one of those places that makes you feel like you're lucky to eat there. In fact, it's the opposite; from the minute your reservation is booked 28 days in advance, the infinitely accommodating and knowledgeable staff makes you feel like they're lucky you chose to eat at their restaurant. There's a special playfulness and thoughtfulness about it all -- you might get a kitchen tour, or a tableside show, or a gift bag at the end of the meal.
James Beard Award-winning chef Daniel Humm's most recent minimalist menu features seven to nine courses, each more meticulously constructed than the last. Throughout all of its myriad conceptual reinventions over the years, one thing has always remained the same: dinner here is an event above all else.
Primanti Brothers is not just another sandwich shop. It's an encapsulation of the city it calls home, a metaphor for all the things blue-collar, working-class Pittsburgh stands for -- an edible simile of the city, sandwiched between two slices of thick-cut Italian bread. The coleslaw. The fries. The meat. It's an entire meal in the palm of (probably two) hands, designed for steel-working yinzers to scarf down on their lunch break. Poetic waxing aside, it's a damn good sandwich. And for the most authentic experience, eschew dahntahn or suburban locals and hit up the original Strip District joint. Buy a pitcher of I.C. Light, and whatever you do, don't talk shit about the Stillers.
Here's the thing: the food at Halal Guys is great. It's amazing. Really -- the combo of red sauce and top-secret white sauce inspires awe, especially when draped over rice and surprisingly quality shreds of chicken and/or lamb. But, the real treasure here, is eating it at 3am surrounded by like-minded individuals in the streets of NYC, its de facto restaurant space. No offense to your chosen lifestyle, but you haven't felt true freedom until you are sitting criss-cross applesauce after midnight on the corner of 53rd and 6th, a face full of lamb meat, a road soda in one hand, and a cluster of napkins in the other. It's messy, spicy bliss.
At first glance this is just like any other dirty NYC pizza parlor slinging slices to hordes of over-imbibed men and women, but look closer and you'll notice two things: 1. that slice is covered in shredded fresh-out-of-the-fridge mozzarella, and 2. the people eating it are angry. Really, really angry. Inordinately angry. This is partially because anger is a default setting for Long Islanders, and partly because Little Vincent's, which is located in Huntington Village, one of the hardest-drinking towns on the Eastern Seaboard, has a veritable monopoly on the late-night food scene. Basically, every jabrone who was wronged at some point during the night swarms the shop at 4am, pulling hair and/or throwing fists with one hand, and holding a cold-cheese slice in the other. Don't believe us? Watch this Vine. The place is a carnal, beautiful shitshow, and the best part is that cold-cheese slice is actually pretty tremendous-tasting. If a better dinner and show exists, we haven't found it yet.
There are Texas barbecue joints more famous, and certainly more convenient, and you might even argue that there are places with better brisket -- but none is quite as unique as Snow's. Run by an 80-year-old, barely 5ft-tall pitmaster named Tootsie in a small town 50 miles east of Austin, Snow's feels like it was created by the benevolent hand of the barbecue lord, a feeling that becomes literalized once you bite into the ultra-moist and meaty brisket. Making the pilgrimage to Snow's will change you, and, for once, we don't just mean your weight.
If you want an origin story, how about this one: more than 70 years ago, Thornton Prince had a tendency to get into some serious ballyhoo and tomfoolery while out with the fellas at night. And after one particularly festive evening, possibly smelling of another lady's perfume, his wife had had it, and decided to get him back by putting hot peppers in with his fried chicken. But the plan backfired, because Thornton ended up liking the spicier chicken and asking for more of it, and decided to turn his wife's angry reaction to his morally casual attitude into a restaurant. And if that backstory alone isn't good enough reason to get to Prince's, well, then maybe this will help: the hot fried chicken, with its spicy burn and fantastic crunch, is somehow even better than the story.
As the story goes, when the Campisi family first bought the Egyptian Lounge to turn it into what would eventually become the Godfather of Dallas pizza, it cost too much to change the signage. So the landmark Italian place has confused out-of-towners since the '40s. One thing you shouldn't be confused about, though, is Campisi's links to the Cosa Nostra.
The squared-off slices of thin-crust perfection come with that historical backdrop -- this is the place where an MLB umpire was gunned down, and where infamous nightclub owner Jack Ruby dined in November of 1963, on the eve of his assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald.
In a town as legendary in the barbecue world as Memphis, it takes a special kind of place to clearly sit at the top of the throne, and that place is Payne's. The Payne family has taken something as simple and pure as the chopped pork sandwich, and turned it into a damn destination for any barbecue enthusiast (check that -- FOOD enthusiast) thanks to its combination of that moist pork, bright-yellow slaw, and heat-filled sauce. It just might be the world's most perfect sandwich. Sorry, mom.
Apalachicola Bay is the capital of the Gulf's briny, giant, slurpable oysters that are practically unrecognizable beside the delicate, petit bivalves harvested in the rest of the country, and Boss Oyster is the cozy jewel of that harvesting region. Get a seat on the deck and start ordering dozens of the salty oysters; they'll arrive fresh off the boat of the same name. When you've almost had your fill, take a breather and then start back up with orders of the almost overwhelmingly long list of baked oysters, like the Jack cheese- and jalapeño-topped Oyster Jalapeño or the blue crab-, artichoke-, and cheese-covered Oyster a la Artie.
Yes, Mrs. Wilkes (well, her grandchildren) makes some of the best Southern food in the world: fried chicken, beef stew, meatloaf, yams, mac… you name it. If the Wilkes family served this stuff out of an outhouse, it'd still be essential. But they don't. They serve it out of an old boarding house, family-style… and have since 1943. It's pure Savannah, as if you were invited by a stranger to a dinner party in WWII-era Georgia. The circular tables mean you're constantly talking with and learning about people you don't know... and the crowds here are as varied as they come. All united over a perfect bowl of fried chicken. Just like in 1943. It's an increasingly rare experience for most of us. Pro tip: book a room -- that sweet tea and those sausages might put you to sleep relatively fast.
The thing with New Orleans is that its dining legends have helped it grow into a giant stereotype of deep-fried, butter-laden, boozy heritage. And sitting on top of that stereotype is Commander's Palace, the flamboyant grand-dame of the city's restaurants, tucked into the Garden District and serving up Creole standbys since the 1890s. In fact, it helped make those standbys into standbys, and continues to preserve them. Go for dinner -- start with the classic turtle soup -- or just be a real local and check a 25-cent martini lunch off your bucket list.
Mama J's flaky, fried catfish, mac & cheese, and peach cobbler will either you remind you of your grandma's Sunday cooking, or make you wish you had a grandma who cooked on Sundays. Either way, you'll be thankful for the flavors at this Downtown Richmond soul food spot. Portions are as enormous as the place is tiny, both of which inspire 40-minute-long lines just to get in the door, every day of the week, at almost any time. It's very casual, very loud, absurdly friendly, and 100% lives up to expectations.
This place looks like a dive bar, and feels like a dive bar, because it is, in fact, a dive bar -- complete with cringe-inducing open mic and stand-up comedy nights. But don't let that dissuade you from indulging in the genuinely fantastic seafood. The local oysters are so plump and sweet you won't even want to squeeze lemon on them.
The rest of the menu is basically mix-and-match sandwiches, all of which are infinitely better than they have any right to be: a mouthwatering, fresh -- not frozen -- blackened grouper sandwich topped with jalapeños and pickles, or a blackened chicken sandwich, which is great topped with crabmeat (yeah, crab is just a topping here) and blue cheese (just trust). The stools around the bar were hand-painted by a regular who -- according to local legend -- would take one, paint it, bring it back, and take another. We doubt that he had the bar's permission for this.
When you go to Cafe du Monde you have two options for your chicory-infused, dark-roasted coffee (black or au lait) and one option for your food: impossibly fluffy beignets heavily coated in powdered sugar. Both recipes have remained relatively unchanged for ~150 years because both recipes are relatively flawless. And though you could line up and wait in the interminable line that forms along Decatur, the move here is to walk around to the other side, order quickly from the takeout window, then search out a place to sit along the Mississippi River. Visiting NOLA and leaving without a quick stop into the cafe would be like going to Fiji and not visiting the beach; nonsensical and wildly perplexing.
On the edge of Little Havana in Miami is a giant restaurant where waiters wear white coats but patrons eat off of paper placemats. And that's just one of the handful of idiosyncrasies that separate this important Cuban joint from others seemingly just like it, another most notable one being the forum-like space this restaurant offers to Cuban exiles. They come here to eat crazy-inexpensive ropa vieja, drink cafecitos, and talk about what life was like prior to Castro, and what it might be like once his legacy abates. Bay of Pigs was rumored to have been plotted here. Prior to travel restrictions to Cuba being lifted, sitting down for ropa vieja at Versailles was probably the closest an American could get to legally experiencing Havana.
What was once confusingly named Oklahoma Joe's has been rebranded with a more accurate name -- though, the name isn't really what's important here. What's important is the life-changing slab of ribs you're about to tear into after a tantalizing wait in line outside Joe's gas station digs. Check to see when it's serving up burnt ends (usually Monday and Saturday lunches along with Wednesday dinners) for a double dose of mind-expanding meat Nirvana.
There's the expression "the middle of nowhere," and then there's the quite literal, one-stoplight dot on the map that is Perkinsville, IN. Even nowhere's middle has more middle than Perkinsville. And yet, right at that solitary intersection, where Route 280 meets Madison St, this hamlet hidden in the Indiana corn has Bonge's Tavern. The rollicking two-story roadhouse could be easily mistaken for a combination barn/bowling alley, but it's neither. Bonge's Tavern is more accurately described as a scene with a steakhouse attached.
People travel hundreds of miles to tailgate in its parking lot for a chance to get a table for dinner. It's first come, first serve, and come they do, with lavish spreads fit for a stadium parking lot, plus beer, wine, Champagne, and whatever else it takes to keep one's spirits high through four-hour waits under the Hoosier sun. The parking lot gets pretty chummy, with people whose names have been called turning over their half-finished tailgate supplies to their neighbors, then disappearing inside to devour a meat-heavy menu of roast duck, pork tenderloin, and more.
When it comes to Michigan coney dogs, Detroit -- particularly Lafayette and American -- tends to dominate the conversation. But if you want a true experience, that speaks to the power that cased meat has, venture into the Mitten's palm and stop at Angelo's. The dogs -- Koegel's, made at a factory in town with real cuts of meat – are served Flint-style, which means the chili is dry and full of secrets (hearts, kidneys… ground-up hot dogs). They're possibly the best in the country (according to our native senior editor).
The dogs are ungodly good, but it's the experience of this diner -- smack in the middle of Downtown Vehicle City, open 24 hours, and serving dogs with fries & gravy at any time -- that makes it so magical. In Flint's heyday, it was a place where auto workers gathered for lunch (even if lunch was at 3am). At the height of the economic collapse, it was a cheap place to get reprieve from despair. Now, as the city faces yet another crippling crisis, Angelo's remains. It's comfort food, sure. But each bite reminds you that, despite all the hardship, there's still greatness in Flint. Angelo's is a testament to that unshakeable pride and perseverance. At the end of the day, the lights will always be on, and the dogs will always be waiting.
The home of Henry Ford is also the home of one of the largest Middle Eastern populations in the country, meaning you can basically get a great plate of Lebanese, Yemeni, Palestinian, and Iraqi food on every corner of Dearborn. Our favorite, though, is Al-Ajami, not only for those incredible platters of shawarma and kafta (or veal brain, if you really want to throw down), but because every single meal has the feel of sitting in at a wedding, complete with family-style dining in the banquet-like dining hall, and also for the extremely gregarious uncles you are greeted by, who just so happen to run the place. For the duration of a meal, yo'’re transported into a celebration far away. It's all about the hospitality here. And shawarma.
Chicagoans make many obligatory deep-dish and hot dog trips when visitors are in town, but if you ask most locals which native delicacy they're most excited to show off, it's the ubiquitous Italian beef, the finest rendition of which is at Johnnie's in Elmwood Park, just west of the city. The interior is sparse and houses stand-up counters, but rest assured, there's a reason. After you order your beef to your preferred gravy-wetness level (some get the whole damn thing dunked, which is delicious but messier) and make your pepper choice (sweet, hot giardiniera, or both), what you have in your hands is a notorious shirt-ruiner. Hunch over the counter, body away from the beef, and go to town. With this form the only evidence of your prior act of gluttony will be the lingering food coma.
Unless you're a baseball fan, St. Louis isn't the most distinguishable Midwestern city. Minneapolis has Prince, Milwaukee has beer, Cleveland has the Cavs, and Chicago has, well, everything, but St. Louis, St. Louis has toasted ravioli, which is exactly why Mama Campisi's deserves bucket-list status. Known simply as Mama's on The Hill, its responsible for inventing this town's most important culinary export.
In 1940, decades before Cheesecake Factory warmed up its first adulterated version, a cook named Fritz reputedly dropped a handful of ravioli into hot oil and just went with it. The golden-brown squares pleased diner Mickey Garagiola (big brother to baseball legend Joe) so much he demanded they be added to the menu, sentencing generations of hungry St. Louisans to happily scorched tongues and ruined appetites. Visitors to Mama's on The Hill can still order baskets piled high with the palm-sized, molten meat-stuffed pasta, breaded and deep-fried, topped with fresh-grated Parmesan, and served with a side of marinara dipping sauce -- and boy, do they ever.
After a decade-plus run as one of America's defining dining experiences, Alinea underwent a 2016 renovation in which it basically became an entirely new restaurant. Or several new restaurants, depending on your perspective, as there are now different tasting menus attached to different portions of the space. But bottom line, few, if any, American chefs have done for American cuisine what Grant Achatz has done since Alinea opened a decade ago in terms of pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a restaurant. So, if you're the kind of person who cares about such things and doesn't mind throwing down some serious cash for a singular dining experience, keep hounding the resto's website for tickets (yep, that's how it rolls), because it's a meal you're not likely to forget.
Cleveland's in the midst of a revival, fueled by great beer and fantastic restaurants, from butcher-heavy experiences like Greenhouse Tavern (get the pig's head), to house charcuterie and fried-egg pizza at Bar Cento, to Michael Symon's hometown empire. But Sokolowski's has remained mercifully unchanged since it put down its pierogi-flavored stakes (and salisbury steaks) way back in 1923. Eating at the Tremont joint's like showing up to a Polish wedding held in a friend's sprawling basement. Cabbage rolls, chicken paprikash, steaks, kielbasa, and those essential pierogies are served cafeteria-style. Go grab as much as you can. Sit down with a local beer. Repeat until you pop. Doing so has been a tradition for nine decades. It's the essence of Cleveland, served one piping-hot cabbage roll at a time.
Why are you going to this tiny Iowan town that doesn't even have a population of 100? To eat at a national treasure of a country restaurant (six generations now!) that cannot be stopped (it's in a new building after a series of fires in 2007 and 2008 destroyed the original, though what's left of it is on the National Register of Historic Buildings). But it's not just about history here. It's about the juicy, fried pork tenderloin spilling out of its bun that you're going to consume with reckless abandon. It's about the soulful weekend buffets that feel like something out of a movie. It's about the views of the Mississippi River from the bluff on which the restaurant is perched. If that doesn't get your heart fluttering with patriotism/the anticipation of pork fat, what else will?
Americans love to stuff their food with more food. The turducken. Pie-cakes. Bagel dogs. But 'twas Matt's that decreed, "Why would you put cheese on top of a burger when you can jam it all up in there?" OK, Matt's didn't say that. But Matt's did invent the famed Jucy Lucy (there's some debate here… we're sticking with it), a simple confection in which an already-delicious burger is jammed with a molten mouthful of the gooey stuff. Matt's is busy. Matt's is famous. But it never upgraded… it's still the hole-in-the-wall dive it's always been. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And if it is, well, it adds character.
The Old West is dead. Route 66 is a highway that bisects America's ghost towns. Denver was once a cowtown, but it's since grown up into a regular old metropolis. But a remnant of that cowtown still exists in the form of The Buckhorn Exchange -- open since 1893. More than 500 pieces of taxidermy line the walls, like some kind of Old West museum that happens to make food, and it's a little unnerving at first, but you get used to the angry stuffed animals the longer you're there.
Teddy Roosevelt's portrait is framed on the wall. He's eaten here, as have a few other presidents. You should eat here too -- try something you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, like Rocky Mountain oysters, rattlesnake, or buffalo, a Colorado favorite. You could get a regular old steak here, too, but what's the point? Outback Steakhouse isn't going anywhere, but outside of places like Buckhorn, the Old West doesn't have much of a footprint anymore.
Hollywood's full of places that claim to capture the glamour of show-business life, but are really just facades. Which is what makes Musso & Frank stand out: the steakhouse, right in the heart of the most touristy section of arguably the most touristy city in the world, is also an institution virtually unchanged since the days when the Rat Pack spent their off-time there, dining on prime rib and sipping martinis (from a bartender who still is there, and will regale you with stories of Frank and Sammy and Dean as soon as you ask, and maybe even if you don't). The prime rib is good, if not exactly the best you'll ever have, but you're not coming for the food: you're at Musso's to play a part, however small, in the history of American pop culture.
Even if you "don't eat fast food," In-N-Out needs to be your exception, as every person who's ever lived on the West Coast will tell you. Maybe this is because the food really is that good, or maybe it's because hundreds of times a day, road trippers gladly oblige the zagging yellow arrow and steer their way towards food porn at its most explicit, or maybe it's simply because its reputation precedes it in a way that no other fast-food joint's does.
Succulent patties bookmarked with melty cheese are shoved into golden buns, stacked side by side on trays with fries toppling out of their Cali-casual palm-printed dishes. Everything is completely globbed with Thousand Island and diced grilled onions (this is called Animal Style, and as far as you're concerned, it is not optional). It's a near-thousand-calorie meal that you'll refuse to quit on down to the very last gratuitous bite.
Since 1957, Classic 50's has been a staple for literally generations of Oklahoma Sooners. It's located on Norman, OK's decidedly 1950s-ish main drag, and it's about one mile from campus, so there's always plenty of entertaining people-watching. With everything on the menu from burgers and coneys to fried pickles and potatoes, the food's great, but the standout is a comprehensive drinks menu that, with dozens of flavors like White Russian and pina colada, is a not-so-subtle hint at where you should stop for mixers before you start tailgating.
Surely you’ve seen every iteration of bougie chicken and waffles by now, and probably all of them on Instagram. Roscoe’s is an oasis far, far away from all that -- the waffles are huge, the chicken is also huge, and the whole plate is a golden hue that would fluster a food photographer. Founded by a Harlem native who decided to bring the soul food of his youth to the West Coast, it’s got several locations in the greater LA area that all bring a one-two punch of quantity and quality. The signature dish, the Country Boy, has been effectively renamed the Obama Special (after the POTUS ate it a few years back), and you should get it: three crackling, crispy wings and a gigantic waffle with an ice cream scoop of butter on top.
It's an amazing trick to be smack dab in the middle of an epicenter of tourism like Seattle's Pike Place Market and… somehow feel like you've found a hidden gem. That's not an accident. It's a bit of a labyrinthine path to find it, so you aren't going to just stumble in unless you're looking for it, and it seems to like it just fine that way. Call ahead and get yourself a big table in front of the window so you can watch the sunset over Puget Sound while you sample from a steadily rotating menu that makes you realize that while stuff like "farm-to-table" and "we just let what's in the market inspire us" have become restaurant cliches often tossed off without a second thought, they can still be pretty damn amazing when you have a place implementing them with a combination of top-flight execution and total lack of pretension.
You know that whole farm-to-table food trend that exists everywhere in the country now to the point that even saying "that whole farm-to-table food trend" feels hackneyed due to ubiquity? Alice Waters essentially invented that at her 45-year-old Berkeley flagship -- shaping a smarter, healthier, and eco-conscious way of eating and thinking about food that influenced generations of chefs and put us, as a country, towards better and more thoughtful eating. And the fact that you can still visit such a legendary place that altered America's culinary landscape and have an otherworldly meal is just the locally sourced icing on the cake.
If you've had any artisanal pizza in America ever, then you have Chris Bianco to thank. In '88, the Phoenix chef returned home after years studying in Italy and a brief stint in New York and opened Pizzeria Bianco, which single-handedly launched the now-rampant pizza movement as other chefs studied his crisp-yet-chewy crust, and the delicate ingredients and lightly sauced web spread out from Phoenix. Go here, and raise a (perfectly balanced) margherita toast to express thanks that your takeout has upgraded by leaps since you were a kid.
Oregon's way, way more than artisan donuts and long brunch lines. It's also a state that takes its seafood extremely seriously. For the freshest, Local Ocean -- in the fisherman's town of Newport, also home to Rogue Ales -- is pretty tough to beat, no small feat considering the seafood shacks that dot the coastline. But one bite of the tuna mignon -- a rare, bacon-wrapped tuna steak that's basically still wiggling -- will convince even the most ardent lover of East Coast seafood that out west, things are drastically different. And if you need more proof, well, the dude who caught that thing might be sitting next to you. He'd be happy to tell you what makes this so special.
As big and robust as Portland's amazing food scene is -- all those food carts! Beer everywhere! Foraging chefs breaking into your backyard for mustard greens! -- it's still relatively young, making it possible to revisit the places that started all the hype in the first place. Beast, Beard-winning chef Naomi Pomeroy's (she of Knife Fight) amped-up supper club, opened to acclaim in 2007 and never looked back. Six courses can include anything Pomeroy has imagined -- roasted quail, or freshly pickled halibut… maybe some smoked wagyu carpaccio. Whatever it is, you're looking at perhaps the freshest veggies you've ever seen as you pray (and pray hard) that Pomeroy's legendary foie gras bon-bons land on the table. It's a restaurant that helped Portland reach a turning point into destination dining, and at less than 10 years old, it's weird to call it a maverick. But it still stands tall, even as farm-to-table dinner parties have become the norm.
This is the first stop we're making the next time we land in San Diego, and not just because it's basically unavoidable once you've left the airport parking lot. We've been told that this is where you'll find the best fish taco in a city filled with fresh, caught-two-minutes-ago seafood. We'll suffer in the line out the door (thanks for nothing, Papa Fieri) to get to pick a massive filet of fish butchered in-house that day by one of the two brothers who own the place, grilled in whatever marinade we feel like tasting after jettisoning through the air at high speeds (maybe it’ll be bourbon butter! Or maybe lemon-garlic!), and served on a tortilla with cheese already melted on it before the fish goes down, then topped with a handful of cabbage, tomatoes, red onion, and a mysterious white sauce. Another point of intrigue: instead of shellfish, the cioppino is made with three different kinds of tuna, and we gotta know what that's like.
Imagine a questionable strip-mall sushi joint that everyone's afraid to go to in inland states like New York or Ohio, but in this case, it's in Seattle, and it's actually amazing. That's teeny-tiny Musahi's. Sushi, and fish generally, in Seattle is on a whole other level than fish almost anywhere else -- Shiro's comes to mind -- but what makes this place special is just how much of that fresh fish you get and how unbelievably cheap it is. Keep things simple with giant orders of salmon and tuna nigiri, and remember, you're not here for the presentation.
When it comes to green chile options, this cafe does, in fact, have range. It also has "ranges," as in the nickname for the vibrant, vintage toy stoves that adorn the walls. If those last two sentences seemed like a heaping mess, that's nothing compared to the open-faced Rio Grande Gorge burger, topped with white cheddar, grilled onions, and gelatinous green chiles on a tortilla alongside cheesy potatoes. Chiles are also cooked into the restaurant's turkey sausage, the gravy for the country-fried steak, and the tomato jam spread on the sourdough grilled cheese. May the green chile sauce flow as strongly as the Rio Grande and your supply of antacids be bountiful as stucco housing.
Quite frankly, James Beard Award-winning chef Thomas Keller's iconic French prix-fixe in Napa shouldn't even need a write-up, but for the uninitiated, there are two menus: the chef's tasting menu and a vegetable tasting menu, and no ingredient is ever repeated. It's won countless awards (including three Michelin stars), is repeatedly on world's-best restaurant lists (occasionally as No. 1), and is an incubator for world-renowned chefs (Grant Achatz is an alumnus). It's food, it's performance, it's six hours of fine dining at its very, very best. If you get a chance to go here just once, you're doing something right. Don't forget your suit jacket.
In a town built almost entirely on artifice, Lotus of Siam is breath of real, genuine air, tucked a quick cab ride away off the Strip in a shitbox strip mall. Chef Saipin Chutima's absolutely massive menu features all kinds of intriguing ingredients like catfish and jackfruit, and has enough spice to take the top of your head off. Flip to the back and order off the Northern section, as that's undoubtedly her speciality and a type of cuisine you won't find many other places, at least not of this quality. Reservations are a must as drop-in wait times can run as long as the remarkably affordable wine list is deep.
South Dakota blasted a big-ass likeness of Teddy Roosevelt into a mountain. Next door in Wyoming, the Occidental Hotel named a suite after him… in the same building that he ate steaks during hunting trips. We're gonna say the Bull Moose would appreciate Wyoming a little more. Housed in the remarkably preserved Occidental -- the cornerstone of this quiet and beautiful little town since 1880 -- the hotel's aesthetic is unchanged, except now there's less gun violence (bullet holes are still in the wall). And it's not for nothing that the onsite restaurant serves up one of the best damned steaks in a state known for its red meat. The cowboy-cut rib-eye's a steal, but a big-ass bison rib-eye's the move here. There are seafood options here, too. But… yeah, get the bison. It's what Hemingway would do. And probably did when he vied for the title of "manliest guest of all time" with Roosevelt back in the day.
The East Coast has its lobster, but in Alaska, crab is king. King crab, specifically. And of all the great American seafood shacks, Tracy’s King Crab Shack is, well, king. (Sorry, we couldn't resist.) Saying that it prepares the best buckets of crab legs in the country is a bold statement, but it's true, and also sells short the other crabby wonders here: the bisque, poured over rice with rolls for dunking. The cakes, succulent and miles away from the Old Bay-intensive versions of Maryland. Oh, and the snow crabs. And Dungeness crabs… meaning you should probably splurge and get a combo with all of it, then plop down by the water, crack a beer, and take in all the royalty. Literally.
The absolute weirdest thing about Ono is how, through authentic food and outdated decor, it can simultaneously take you back to a time years ago before Hawaii became the tourist hub it is today, while still seating you amongst an excessive number of tourists. The dichotomy isn't entirely unwelcome though. Sure, this tiny mom-and-pop isn't some undiscovered gem, but an obvious pick is often obvious for a reason, and the justification here is that the generous portions of decidedly delicious laulau, long rice, and lomi salmon really are that good. Even native grandmothers have loved coming here for over 40 years. And at the end of it all, isn't the best part of checking something off a bucket list getting to say you did it?
Andy Kryza, Adam Rich, Adam Lapetina, Kevin Alexander, Sean Cooley, Jess Novak, Meredith Heil, Wil Fulton, Lucy Meilus, Aaron Miller, Alex Robinson, Matt Lynch, Dave Infante, Lee Breslouer, Jeff Miller, Laura Reilly, Leanne Butkovic, Matt Meltzer, Tenecia Sicard, Ben Robinson, Scott Alexander, and Adrienne Wright contributed to this story.