Spoon and Stable: Eliesa Johnson

How to Name 100 Top Independent Operators

The FSR list salutes chefs and indies who are elevating the dining scene in cities around the U.S.—it’s not about the restaurants making the most money in the major markets; it’s all about the restaurants and people who are transforming their markets into culinary destinations.

Three things will likely happen when you read our list of Top 100 independent operators.

One, you”ll see some names you recognize and agree they should be included.

Two, you’ll wonder why certain restaurants aren’t on the list, and you may even pick restaurants you’d pull off to make room for your choices.

And three, you’ll see restaurants you’ve never heard of, and hopefully your curiosity will be piqued.

The result I’m hoping for? Hundreds of emails with suggestions for restaurants that should have been on the list—so, bring it on, the rants and the raves!

Before you do, however, consider please the arduous process that naming 100 top independent operators entails.

For every restaurant on the list there could be another 100 operators worthy of that spot. That’s the beauty (and the beast) of creating lists in this amazing full-service industry.

As for our identification process, suffice it to say there were hundreds of restaurants considered and our team of writers and editors spent considerably more than 100 hours in research, discussion, evaluation, and selection. After committing to our strategy for naming top restaurants in cities that are gaining traction as culinary destinations, we looked at national recognitions of restaurants in those towns. We also studied local rankings, consumer ratings, and asked chefs and operators in the markets who they considered to be the best.

Of course, I had my own list of the best dining spots in cities I frequent, like Richmond, Virginia.

Richmond plays nicely into the profile of a thriving secondary market: It’s the state capital; there are numerous universities and colleges that keep demographics diverse; the arts and museum districts are renowned; and it’s home to one of the 12 Federal Reserve Bank locations. It’s only natural the city’s dining scene is well established and expanding.

Among my top picks for where to eat in Richmond: The Black Sheep and Perly’s. (Neither is on this year’s FSR list, but an argument could be made to consider either one.)

The restaurant Comfort and chef/owner Jason Alley are names that come up often in discussions of Richmond dining, but having never visited Comfort, I was inclined to take it out of the running based solely on an ill-conceived perception that it was just one more trendy interpretation of the farm-to-table movement. Wrong!

I ate there when I visited Richmond before finalizing our Top 100 list. Incredible food, inventive interpretations of farm to table, and yes, Comfort warrants a spot in the Top 100.

Key takeaway for naming Top 100: Resist the temptation to select personal favorites. Equally important, don’t discount a restaurant simply because it isn’t one you know.

My one regret, I haven’t had a chance to eat in every one of the 100.

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