There’s a mysterious but immutable formula for a great restaurant. For one thing, the moment you walk in the door, you immediately feel a certain calm, even if the host area looks like Shibuya Crossing at rush hour. Your eyes grow brighter, the moment feels electric. There’s a sense that a great meal — a memorable evening, a wonderfully long lunch — is just ahead. Perhaps it’s your first time, or your 50th. Some restaurants just know how to deliver, every time.
They succeed not by achieving one great thing, but through the sum of a thousand things big and small. Yes, the food is excellent — not just delicious but memorable, complex but not fussy, awakening you to something new while making you feel like you’ve eaten that dish forever. The service feels as welcoming as an old friend you just encountered in the park. Maybe the décor evokes the open kitchen you wish you had, or your Architectural Digest fever dream, or the bistro that one time in Paris that you’ll never forget.
We live for restaurants like this. We know you do too. They’re places we love, and we know you’ll love them as well. Why? Because they feel, if not like home, perhaps home-adjacent. If they’re a trek, you wish they were nearby. If they’re in your neighborhood, you appreciate your good fortune.
Some are quite new — maybe a couple years old, maybe just a few months old. Yet you struggle to remember a time they weren’t there. Take Tropezón in Miami, where the stools are new and the concrete walls are very 2020s, but the feeling is of a sedate corner of Sevilla, where fried seafood and gin and tonics have been served up since time immemorial. (OK, maybe not with yuzu.) In Houston, Aaron Bludorn and his team have fine-dining credentials from both coasts, yet the cooking at Bludorn — dishes like Gulf cioppino — is deeply rooted in the simple bounty of nearby waters. At Oakland’s Daytrip, where lines are never clearly drawn between wine shop and hangout, the ambient feeling is of a party you happened to stumble into, disco ball and all.
That’s the magic Amy Brandwein has pulled off at D.C.’s Centrolina for nearly a decade. Her pastas, like the artichoke cacio e pepe pici, always feel both novel and familiar. Much the same in Miami at Macchialina, where Michael Pirolo’s cavatelli with baby meatballs feels like someone took your afterschool-meal dreams and adult-sized them.
Or take the Gallic glow of L’Oursin in Seattle, a town that has always appreciated its French food. As rainy season looms, there’s something comforting about knowing that a toasty portion of cassoulet — complete with Rancho Gordo beans — and a hearty bottle of Hervé Souhaut syrah are a quick ride away. It’s utterly Northwest (Alaskan scallops, with morels) yet transports you to an approximation of Paris on a damp evening.
But that’s just one element. We love such places — and we know this matters to you, too — because, no matter the level of fame they achieve, they never forget the importance of regulars. At Boccalupo in Atlanta, regulars know that no matter how packed it is, a bit of flexibility — and a chill attitude — will likely land you a seat at the bar before too long. In Nashville, at Rolf and Daughters and its sister restaurant Folk, years of national attention haven’t shifted a sensibility that what matters foremost are their locals in Germantown and McFerrin Park. Even if Leon’s Oyster Shop has become a perennially packed destination for Charleston visitors, you can almost always grab a spot after a short wait to enjoy fried chicken, grower Champagne, and coconut daiquiris. And for all the attention lavished on San Francisco chef Ravi Kapur, it’s noteworthy how his Liholiho Yacht Club works overtime to make sure that everyone has a seat.
Of course, like any good friend, a great restaurant knows when and how to push us just a bit out of our comfort zones. At Phoenix’s Bacanora, dishes can sound almost too familiar, but that’s where chef René Andrade catches you, with his deep, grill-driven exploration of Sonoran flavors. That you’ll get your hands dirty tearing through the pollo asado is very much the point.
You’ll find similar intent at Cebu in Chicago’s Wicker Park, where the Tan siblings are having almost too much fun remixing Filipino flavors, as with their wagyu sisig — with an only-in-Chicago addition of foie gras and sport peppers. In downtown Los Angeles, Junya Yamasaki has found a way to evolve both his London dining roots and his experience running a sashimi food truck into a nonstop party at Yess, perhaps the least stuffy tasting menu found on either coast.
Yet comfort never gets lost in this equation. Stephen Satterfield, of Atlanta’s Miller Union, more or less redefined modern Southern cooking not only with a farm-to-table ethos but with dishes like fried okra with harissa aioli, or steak with eggplant and snap beans, that happen to be exactly what we’d love to cook for ourselves, except we’d never do it so well.
Lula Café in Chicago’s Logan Square has thrived in a similar vein for a quarter-century, with simple-seeming salads that you swear you could never prepare so well; or the now iconic pasta yiayia. Its bucatini and brown butter and feta is for sure the kind of thing you’d throw together late at night — but not like that. Or step into Altro Paradiso, in downtown Manhattan, and find yourself almost deceived by the simplicity of spaghetti pomodoro, and a fennel salad with olives, dishes you’ll be relishing days later. It’s almost too easy to forget this is the domain of Ignacio Mattos, one of the city’s most innovative chefs.
These restaurants are, more than anything, reflections of the people who have created them. They have just as deep an emotional connection to these places — deeper, even, since these are such personal creations.
This brings us to the truly essential aspect: These restaurants are, more than anything, reflections of the people who have created them. They have just as deep an emotional connection to these places — deeper, even, since these are such personal creations. You would not, for instance, feel the verve of the menu at L.A.’s Alta Adams if it weren’t such a distinct expression of chef Keith Corbin’s sensibilities (a notion perhaps inspired by his partner, Daniel Patterson, whose Michelin-starred cooking was always deeply personal). The dishes at Anton’s, in New York’s Greenwich Village, are in the end a vehicle for chef Nick Anderer and his wife and business partner Natalie Johnson to relate their families’ European and Jewish histories.
And of course there’s that most personal of expressions: pizza. Regulars know there’s only one way to experience Una Pizza Napoletana, now in the Lower East Side but having occupied space on both coasts, and that’s if Anthony Mangieri is in the kitchen, baking in his unstintingly classic way. Same in Philly, where Joe Beddia takes a beautiful kitchen-sink approach at Pizzeria Beddia, topping pies or filling hoagies with what suits his fancy, and pouring the latest wines he’s discovered.
These proprietors and their teams always welcome us and find us a seat. They understand that all these elements roll up to become a place worthy of a long and meaningful relationship. And that’s exactly why we keep going back: because we understand that a great restaurant is one we experience not in the moment, but over years. It’s always there as we live our lives.
Where We Want to Eat This Fall
- 18 Restaurants Across America We Can’t Wait To Try Right Now
- Where to Eat and Drink When You Play Hooky in Chicago
- Where New York’s Top Chefs Plan to Dine This Fall
- The New Baroo Is Worth the Wait
- Why Burdell’s Debut Is So Special and Inspiring — Especially For Chefs
- The Resy Guide to Autumn in Atlanta
- The Resy Guide to Autumn in Houston
- The Resy Guide to Autumn in Boston
- The Resy Guide to Autumn in Charleston
- The Resy Guide to Autumn in Washington, D.C.