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.
This tiny Thai takeaway started out as a side project without a permanent address, but it put down roots in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood late last year. Chef Wiley Frank, formerly of Lark, and his wife, Poncharee Kounpungchart, first sold their cuisine in two restaurants and a farmers market for a series of pop-ups before finally committing to a brick and mortar location. Little Uncle has a short, but deeply flavorful, menu that showcases Far Eastern favorites like sala bao neua buay (steamed buns with braised beef cheek), pad Thai, and housemade hibiscus soda.
In 2010, the humble burger was getting the gourmet makeover everywhere you looked. Last year, the simple sandwich finally got the respect it so richly deserves. At Graham Elliot’s Chicago sandwichery, which opened just before Christmas, guests can choose from gourmet options like the Waldorf Chicken – multigrain piled with flame grapes, candied walnuts, gorgonzola crumbles, shaved celery, and grilled chicken – and the Grilled Cheese – sharp cheddar, cheese curds, tomato marmalade, and cracked pepper pressed between slices of hearty Pullman loaf. The MasterChef star rounds out his menu with housemade pickles, and snacks like peanut butter oatmeal cookies dotted with chocolate chips.
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace
This ambitious shrine to shellfish has helped turn Washington, D.C.’s 14th Street corridor into one of the hottest dining districts. Since opening last fall, it has been packed to the gills. Since the restaurant doesn’t accept reservations, there’s usually a long line of diners looking forward to digging into icy platters of oysters, NOLA-inspired entrées, and comfort-focused desserts. To make sure that customers don’t go somewhere else before their names are called, owners opened Black Jack bar upstairs. The theory is that time always seems to pass quicker when you’re enjoying craft cocktails and playing a few rounds of bocce.
Beauty & Essex
Walking into this restaurant can be deceiving, since it’s styled like a funky pawnshop. But get beyond this fantastical facade and you’ll find a sprawling 10,000-square-foot establishment that includes three dining rooms, a private dining space, a bar, and a lounge. This not-so-hidden gem in New York’s Lower East Side focuses on shareable plates. Many dishes are clever reinterpretations of well-known dishes, such as the grilled cheese, smoked bacon, and tomato soup dumplings, and General Tso’s monkfish. Since it opened just over a year ago, Beauty & Essex has been able to transcend the considerable hype the surrounded its debut and simply concentrate on putting out memorable food in a truly unforgettable setting.
The burger craze isn’t over just yet. Luckily for Angelenos, these primo patty pushers are keeping things interesting. A collaboration between chefs Nancy Silverton and Amy Pressman, who met while working at Spago three decades ago, Short Order focuses on burgers, melts, and open-faced “rafts”—all cooked on a wood-fired grill. Though Pressman died in early fall of last year after a battle with cancer, her legacy looms large. One of the most popular items on the menu is Amy’s Turkey Burger, which is topped with sage cheddar, melted celery, leeks, and mustard-laced mayonnaise. It’s inventive creations like this one that prove there’s still room for burger concepts to grow and flourish.
Chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi has a history with the space that houses his award-winning trattoria, Fiola, which he opened in the spring of last year in Washington, D.C.’s bustling Penn Quarter district. The same site was the home of Bice, the first restaurant that Trabocchi worked at in the mid-’90s when he moved to the States from Italy. A lot has changed since then. He’s won a James Beard Award, written a critically acclaimed cookbook, and become a standard-bearer for traditional Italian cuisine presented with a modern twist. He brings this prodigious wealth of experience to bear on his latest venture, which Trabocchi believes has found success because it offers the fine-dining experience in multiple formats. “The customer is in the driver’s seat,” Trabocchi says. “Yes, you can sit down for a long meal with a variety of courses, or you can have a quick business lunch or meet with friends over a glass of wine and a single dish.”
Wedge + Fig
This adorable hole in the wall focuses on carefully curated cheese boards, hearty salads, and inspired sandwiches like the Betty Draper, which presses truffled egg salad, cucumber circlets, and a light shower of lemon salt between two pieces of whole wheat. To complete the Mad Men-inspired sammie, a few candy cigarettes are served on the side. Fun, casual, and creative, this talented rookie ensures that Philadelphians have a neighborhood joint where flavor and friendliness are always on the menu. That’s a concept that would work well in any city.
This cozy 34-seat restaurant focuses on American cuisine created with classic European techniques. Diners can opt for either an eight- or 12-course tasting menu. The $90 shorter option is aimed at mainstream diners, whereas the longer $140 version is intended for the more adventurous. “That’s when I go out there and take some risks by putting on sweetbreads, foie gras and more unexpected ingredients,” says executive chef-owner Chris Nugent. He opened Goosefoot with his wife and business partner, Nina, in Chicago late last year. The idea was to give Lincoln Square locals an option that didn’t require them to drive into the heart of downtown. “We wanted to offer neighborhood-driven fine dining,” Nugent says. Dishes are designed to showcase seasonal and regional ingredients, such as Capriole goat cheeses, vegetables from Green Acres Farm, and berries from Prairie Fruits Farm. So no matter what time of year you dine there, you’re guaranteed to enjoy the finest flavors of the Midwest in artful compositions that have already earned Goosefoot glowing reviews and a growing following.
Located in San Francisco’s trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood, this Japanese-inspired izakaya specializes in small plates boasting big flavors. Whether it’s grilled-on-skewer chicken thigh with tare and shichimi, pan-seared duck tongues, and Tokyo turnips dressed with bacon-chile vinaigrette or miso soup boosted with nettles, kuri squash, and maitake mushrooms, the driving ethos is to use hyper-fresh ingredients to create traditional dishes imbued with chef-owner Greg Dunmore’s personal flair. Nojo distinguishes itself further by offering Eastern-styled kikubari service, where everyone in the floor staff oversees all the guests’ needs.
After winning Top Chef: All-Stars, everyone wondered what spiky-haired Richard Blais would do next. One of his first post-reality TV projects was the artisanal hot dog concept HD-1, which opened in Atlanta last fall. This isn’t anything like the Nathan’s in your local food court. “I didn't want it to be a hot dog stand or a theme park eatery,” he says. “When you know what a hot dog is – and the craft involved in sausage making – you want to respect that.” To ensure they’re serving nothing but top dogs, Blais and his business partner Barry Mills source primal cuts and whole animals to grind their own wieners, or they source them from top-notch purveyors. The menu is more than just bunned wonders, though. “We do a few more main plates each day,” Blais says. “I want HD-1 to be a great hot dog place where you can also get amazing chicken wings and a farro salad.”
San Diego doesn’t receive the same attention that San Francisco and Los Angeles enjoy, but its food scene is well worth keeping an eye on. Case in point is this bustling ramen joint, which started serving Japanese-styled noodles in the heart of the city’s Little Italy neighborhood in the late fall of last year. The spare menu features five kinds of ramen and a few appetizers, like oysters with sake and pickled watermelon mignonette, and shrimp gyoza.
This New Orleans Mid-City restaurant places an emphasis on fresh seasonal ingredients, so it changes its menu weekly. Classic American fare like iceberg wedge salads and roasted chicken sit alongside more adventuresome options, such as oxtail pappardelle, and pan-seared puppy drum fish sitting in an orange broth with mussels, bacon lardons, poblano peppers, and slivers of ruby red grapefruit. This inventive fare has earned the eatery a strong local following and the increasing interest of visiting epicureans.
Sometimes ending up where you began is a good thing. Restaurateur Ian Calhoun grew up near historic Concord, Massachusetts, but never dreamed he’d return for anything more than family get-togethers when he left the area to attend the restaurant management program in Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Years later, when the second floor of a 19th-century train depot became available, the first-time restaurateur couldn’t resist. The space was transformed into a modern restaurant, while still retaining its New England charm. A Vermont soapstone bar dominates one room, while the open kitchen is the center of the attention in the other. Working with business partner and maitre d’ Vincent Vela, who cut his teeth at Per Se and Craft, and chef Carolyn Johnson of Boston’s acclaimed Rialto, Calhoun opened the progressive American restaurant in the early spring of 2011. “The idea was to bring a concept to the area that would do well in Boston,” Calhoun says. He believes that the restaurant’s success is grounded in the fact that fine-dining options are nearly nonexistent in the area. “Commuters want the city experience without having to drive back to where they just came from,” he says. “On the weekends, we’re that place that people from the city can escape to.”
Chef-owner Marcus Samuelsson won Top Chef Masters by mostly cooking the Nordic-accented cuisine that made him a star at Aquavit and modernized Ethiopian dishes inspired by his homeland. However, this friendly, boisterous Harlem eatery eschews those influences to concentrate on good old-fashioned Southern-style comfort food. Start off with peanut soup or dirty rice with shrimp, then move on to blackened catfish or mac and greens. In the past year, it has become a focal point of the neighborhood and a growing reason why foodies from all five boroughs come to visit.
The Asturias region of northern Spain is the inspiration for chef Seamus Mullen’s debut restaurant, which opened in the early fall of last year. The trendy taberna offers both tapas and larger platos familiares, but no matter what the size of the dish, there’s the same careful attention to detail. Smoked pig cheek is graced with a dainty quail egg and a shower of black pepper, while grilled lamb breast is glazed with sherry vinegar and served with creamy farro and cauliflower. This rustic-styled and modern-minded eatery is another sign that the Spanish scene in New York City is finally on the rise.
This sprawling Austin establishment is a three-for-one special. Congress is the fine-dining flagship, Second Bar + Kitchen is a casual-dining concept, and Bar Congress caters to Texan tipplers. “It’s the yin-yang approach,” says VP of operations Scott Walker. “We want diners to have choices.” No matter what the price point, there’s no dress code, because the management team wanted to cultivate a friendly, neighborhood vibe. “And you can’t ask a gentleman to wear a jacket when it’s 100 degrees outside,” Walker says. Chef David Bull oversees the culinary offerings at all three properties. Using sometimes-unexpected ingredients like Wagyu beef tongue and pig’s head, he crafts creative, yet approachable, dishes. This forward-thinking cuisine is raising the bar locally and helping bring a spotlight to Austin’s flourishing restaurant scene.
This Miami Beach late-night luxe lounge focuses on small plates – from crudo and sushi to sliders and skewers. The magic of molecular gastronomy plays a role here from the cocktails–one features a liquid-nitrogen-frozen popsicle–all the way to the dessert course, where nitro ice cream that comes in ever-changing flavors like maple-bacon is a standout. The space is just as futuristic. Floor-to-ceiling LED walls dazzle the eye with constantly shifting projections that can make you feel like you’re in the Himalayas, the Mediterranean, or on some undiscovered planet.
Top Six Trends
Bravo For Bravo It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose; all that matters is that you compete on Top Chef. Former champions and runners-up alike have opened a variety of highly publicized, well-received concepts across the country. Michael Voltaggio brought ink.?? Capitalization?? to Los Angeles, Richard Blais debuted haute dog eatery HD-1 in Atlanta, Mike Isabella made a big splash in D.C. with Graffiato, and Dale Talde is taking Brooklyn by storm with Talde.
Small Plates, Big Winners Whether they’re inspired by northern Spain (Tertulia), Japan (Nojo), or molecular gastronomy (Haven), small plates made a big impact. This tapas style of dining proved to be infinitely versatile by accommodating almost every culinary tradition.
Single-Concept Success Do one thing, but do it well. This past year saw the rise of the single concept restaurant. From Short Order’s hamburgers in Los Angeles to UnderBelly’s ramen in San Diego and the gourmet hot dogs at HD-1 in Atlanta, restaurateurs decided that keeping it simple was the best.
Rise of the Gourmet Sandwich The simple sandwich finally got the respect it so richly deserves. Turns out it has some high-profile fans, including Graham Elliot, who opened Grahamwich in Chicago, and Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio, who debuted Ink.Sack in Los Angeles.
Tasting Menus Triumph Forget a la carte. From Goosefoot in Chicago to Nashville’s Catbird Seat and Rogue 24 in Washington, D.C., tasting-menu concepts have triumphed. Despite the higher price point, diners have embraced the idea of trusting a chef to create a culinary journey.
Pop-Ups Go Brick and Mortar What better way to test a concept, hone a menu, raise investment money, and build buzz than to put on a pop-up. It worked for Thai-centric Little Uncle in Seattle, while Los Angeles’ Burger Parlor plans on making the transition this spring. Even the king of pop-up Ludo Lefebvre is looking to turn Ludo Bites into a post-and-beam operation somewhere in LA later this year.