From the North to the South and from sea to shining sea, we scoured the country for the hottest new independent restaurants. This list highlights a wide range of establishments, including casual concepts and fancy fine-dining hot spots, single-item formats and intricate tasting menus, and big-city ventures alongside small-town endeavors. These 20 top picks stood out above the considerable competition, helping make 2011 one of the most vibrant years ever in the independent restaurant scene.
The Catbird Seat
When you think of Nashville’s food scene, you probably think of barbecue or fried chicken. Chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson want to change that reputation with their 32-seat tasting-menu restaurant. Diners sit at a U-shaped curve around the open kitchen, where the two toques prepare an ever-changing $100 seven-course dinner. The high price point wasn’t a concern when they were fleshing out their concept. “Yes, guests are more focused on their money, so they want to get more quality for their dollar,” Habiger says. “This is more of an experience; it’s like a sporting event.” The menu stays flexible to accommodate the seasonal availability of ingredients and the chefs’ whims. “We can do whatever we want,” Anderson says. “The plating style has a modern look, but what goes on those plates can change at a moment’s notice.”
There’s a Spanish food revolution happening in New York City, and Salinas is helping lead the charge. Since opening in the middle of last year, chef Luis Bollo has earned kudos from The New York Times, Esquire, and Time Out for his thoughtful updates on Mediterranean classics. To complement this cuisine, diners can choose from 75 Spanish wines and a variety of Medi-styled craft cocktails. Located in the center of Chelsea, the 90-seat restaurant is complemented by a 35-seat glass-covered garden with a custom-built fireplace, so patrons can dine either indoors or outdoors year-round.
Michael Voltaggio showed off a lot of ink on Top Chef, but the tattooed toque didn’t debut Ink, his first restaurant, until almost two years after he conquered the reality competition. Since opening in September in Los Angeles, the eatery has earned him even more acclaim for creative dishes that highlight the razzle-dazzle techniques of molecular gastronomy. For less flash, but just as much flavor, head next door to his casual sandwich shop Ink.Sack. There are eight sammies to choose from, including a nod to Voltaggio’s mentor José Andrés. “The Spanish Godfather” comes packed with Serrano ham, chorizo, lomo, and Manchego. It looks as if the talented chef enjoys showing the love just as much as he enjoy showing off his tats.