The last two years saw the closure of many celebrated restaurants. While the loss isn’t easily reconciled, a growing legion of creative, new concepts are offering hope for the future of independents—a hope that’s best illustrated by these 11 restaurants.
Independents are the lifeblood of the foodservice sector. Per the National Restaurant Association, seven out of 10 restaurants are single-unit operations. So when the coronavirus, followed by supply chain gridlocks and a labor crisis led more than 100,000 restaurants to close, the question on many minds was: Will the full-service independent category survive?
While independently owned restaurants accounted for more than their fair share of COVID casualties, a new cycle of regeneration is underway. The 11 restaurants that follow opened over the last two years and represent the best of what independents bring to the dining scene. They also offer an indelible answer to the question hanging over our heads: Yes, independent restaurants will survive. If anything, they will thrive.
Above: Chef Sean Sherman (pictured) and partner Dana Thompson hope Owamni serves as a proof of concept for other Indigenous restaurateurs.
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Owamni by The Sioux Chef has been a long time coming. In 2016, owners Dana Thompson and chef Sean Sherman began raising funds on Kickstarter to start a restaurant that focused on Indigenous cuisines; their campaign even became the most-backed restaurant on Kickstarter. Shortly thereafter, the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board put out a request for proposals for businesses to fill the forthcoming Water Works Pavilion building at Mill Ruins Park. Collaborations with the city, architects, and others followed, and construction began in 2019. The restaurant finally debuted last summer.
“We just had to sit tight because it was a massive project. They made a brand-new park around that building and had to strip that building down all the way and rebuild it on historical bases,” Sherman says.
But the wait has been worthwhile. In June, Owamni took home the James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant. The mission behind Owamni dovetails with the park’s own history as a gathering place for Native tribes. Even the name “Owamni’’ is a nod to that heritage; the waterfall, also known as St. Anthony Falls, was called Owámniiyomni in the Dakota language.
It’s not uncommon for restaurants to open with a purpose beyond serving exceptional food and creating a singular dining experience. But whereas many focus on local sourcing, wholesome ingredients, and fair wages, Owamni is driving a social revolution, and food is the vehicle.
“A lot of the work is just raising awareness to Indigenous peoples, Indigenous histories, and showcasing this kind of invisibility of how Indigenous people have been treated,” Sherman says. “And [it’s] opening up a lot of conversations of why that is and why there aren’t Native restaurants in every single city when you can find food from all over the world [at restaurants], just not the food that’s from the land you’re standing on.”
On paper, Tiffany Derry and Tom Foley couldn’t be more different. Originally from Louisiana and then Texas, Derry is a “Top Chef” alum and fan favorite with an uncanny knack for building dishes from scratch and blending cuisines. Foley, on the other hand, is an attorney turned businessman and university professor with a nascent “New York sense of humor.”
But in terms of values and business mission, the two are perfectly aligned. Six years ago, they founded T2D Concepts, a hospitality/retail group that encompasses apparel, a spice line, and a growing collection of restaurants. The latest, Roots Southern Table, opened in Farmers Branch, Texas, last June, and has already become an industry darling. The restaurant clinched a James Beard Foundation nomination for Best New Restaurant, while Derry was a finalist in the Best Chef: Texas category.
“There was always the desire to have a full-service restaurant where, No. 1, I could play,” Derry says with a laugh. “It allows people to gather at the table. It’s a place where you have common ground.”
At face value, Roots Southern Table may seem like another elevated take on Southern classics; the menu includes the requisite shrimp and grits, cornbread, and hoppin’ johns, but, true to its name, the restaurant’s roots run much deeper. Southern cuisine is often presented as a blend of English and African influences, but as Derry has uncovered in her career, so many other global traditions come into play.
Spanish paella translated into gumbo while the prevalence of andouille and other sausages from France and Germany also worked their way into Southern cooking. Even seafood-centric Vietnamese cuisine entered the mix. And while Derry’s native Louisiana has long embraced its multicultural identity, other parts of the South have yet to follow suit.
James Beard semifinalist Jeff Chanchaleune had been cooking Japanese cuisine for 20 years, most recently at Gun Izakaya and Gorō Ramen in Oklahoma City, when COVID struck. As the fate of those restaurants and others under the parent company 84 Hospitality fell into limbo, Chanchaleune felt a tug to create a restaurant that honored his Lao heritage.
From the beginning, the chef was facing an uphill battle. The pandemic was still hampering restaurant foot traffic, and at the same time, Chanchaleune was introducing Oklahoma City to a new cuisine.
“I already had a good following with opening up Gorō Ramen and then the James Beard nomination. I believed I had the trust of Oklahoma City to finally go back to my roots,” he says. “The challenge has been just educating the community on what Lao food is.”
His work came to fruition last fall when Ma Der Lao Kitchen debuted in OKC’s Plaza District. In many ways, the restaurant is an homage to his family gatherings, where the phrase “ma der” (roughly translated to “come eat”) is used with frequency. The restaurant plays ’90s hip hop that Chanchaleune grew up listening to, and he describes the overall vibe as “fun, cozy, and energetic.”
In terms of cuisine, Laos has long been overshadowed by its neighbor to the west (Thailand), as many signature dishes, like papaya salad, have been conflated with Thai food. To this end, Chanchaleune makes a point to keep Ma Der’s menu as close to the source material as possible.
“People always ask me, ‘Is this authentic or did you chef it up?’ This menu is pretty much authentic. I just fine-tuned a bunch of the recipes, made it more consistent,” he says. “We do monthly pop-ups where I can be more creative with this food and elevate it.”
As an introduction to Lao cuisine, the chef recommends guests try the Nam Khao, a crispy rice salad with pork sausage, ground chile, lime, peanuts, and a medley of mint, cilantro, and green onions.
“I didn’t want their first experience to be watered down because Lao food is unapologetic,” Chanchaleune says. “It’s like a punch in your face, like this is what you’re getting.”
When Tommy Patrick tasted chef Rhabbie Coquia’s cooking during a pop-up at Filipino restaurant Musang in Seattle, he knew it was time to add a new restaurant to his portfolio—one with Coquia at the helm.
The chef, who hails from the Philippines, has spent much of his career in the New American category, cooking everything from seafood to small plates. Most recently, it was Cajun-inspired, farm-to-table dishes at one of Patrick’s other concepts, Parish Northwest. Opening Bunsoy, which means youngest child in Tagalog, was the first opportunity for Coquia to cook food from his country of origin.
“This process was more of a pursuit of knowledge for myself, as well as prying into the otherwise humble and shy Rhabbie Coquia’s past about where he came from and how all of his incredible stories made him who he is today,” Patrick says. “Setting up a restaurant is in my wheelhouse; Filipino cuisine was not, so I leaned on him an extensive amount.”
Filipino food has been on the cusp of zeitgeist status for several years. And while some new restaurants have garnered media buzz, the cuisine has yet to pierce mainstream dining, instead staying on the periphery. Patrick says it’s about time Filipino food gets its due.
The menu features classics like Kare Kare (braised oxtail with seasonal vegetables, bok choy, peanut sauce, and shrimp paste) and Lechon Porchetta (roasted pork belly, pork liver sauce, and pickled papaya). But Coquia also throws in some French flourishes, as with the Duck Confit Adobo.
Six months into operation, Bunsoy is already toying with the idea of adding a late-night program, though Patrick emphasizes it would be a group decision, not one that forces the team to take on too much too soon. It speaks very much to the restaurant’s culture and dynamic.
“Opening a new restaurant while collaborating with a chef like Rhabbie, whom you’ve known for a long time, is fantastic,” Patrick says. “Rhabbie is clearly the leader but is also very humble and takes input from many people around him.”
Pinky Cole knows that some believe the plant-based movement is too trendy and will die out. Even with those predictions, the restaurateur can’t help but feel confident after the success she’s seen with Slutty Vegan, a fast casual that debuted in 2018 and has since grown to four locations across Georgia, with locations in New York and Alabama slated for this year.
Cole’s follow-up, Bar Vegan, opened in early 2021 and has already garnered as much enthusiasm as its predecessor. The truth, Cole says, is that people want to live better, eat better, and think better.
“I haven’t eaten meat in eight years, and I keep hearing it doesn’t taste the same,” Cole says. “That’s the word on the street, and everybody says that.”
Bar Vegan was founded as a place where vegans and non-vegans can enjoy the vibe and atmosphere. The No. 1 selling items are cheesesteaks and egg rolls created by Cole’s boyfriend, Derrick Hayes, who owns Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks in Atlanta. She describes it as “fast-casual food that tastes good” with alcohol that customers can drink and still feel light.
When Cole first started Bar Vegan, she did a drink tasting, but she’s been pregnant multiple times since then, so she hasn’t had the opportunity to try more. She trusts what the customers say, however.
“Although I don’t know how they taste now, we get rave reviews of the alcoholic drinks because we’ve just turned it up,” Cole says. “We brought in people to support us—making our drinks more exotic, making them better. Everything about Bar Vegan is a whole vibe, and that’s why people love it.”
Cole has heard COVID horror stories from other restaurant openings during the pandemic, but she’s been fortunate not to have felt the same pressures. She notes that Bar Vegan has been full since its inception, something she credits not only to its flavorful, plant-based fare and craft cocktails but also to its earthy, laid-back environment.
“Top Chef” winner Joe Flamm was as prepared as he could be when his first concept, Rose Mary, opened in Chicago.
He spent years as chef de cuisine of Michelin-starred Spiaggia, so he knew how to create menus and teams. Working for founder Tony Mantuano and earning his trust gave Flamm the confidence to strike out on his own.
But as much as he planned for it, Flamm quickly discovered just how much of a task opening a restaurant can be, especially with COVID throwing in massive obstacles. He left Spiaggia in October 2019 with the idea of taking about three months off to open Rose Mary. Because of pandemic-related restrictions and delays, it wasn’t until April 2021 that Flamm fulfilled his dream.
“I was a stay-at-home dad for a year and a half,” Flamm says. “That was a big pivot for me personally. From being in the restaurant for the last 15 years to being a stay-at-home dad of a toddler. The [changes] were nonstop. There was no one pivot that we had to make.”
Rose Mary features flavorful dishes from Italy to recognize Flamm’s heritage, and vibrant foods from Croatia to honor his wife’s background. He refers to the menu—including Grilled Clams and Zucchini Fritters—as “Adriatic drinking food,” hearkening to the Adriatic Sea, which separates the two countries. Rose Mary is named after the actual herb, which grows along the Adriatic Coast, and his grandmothers, named Rose and Mary.
The interior, designed by Studio UNLTD out of Los Angeles, showcases whitewashed brick walls and pale stone surfaces, reminiscent of Croatian taverns known as konobas.
It can be challenging for Oma’s Hideaway co-owners Mariah and Thomas Pisha-Duffly to explain their concept to the uninitiated because neither the menu nor the interior design fit into typical descriptions.
When they were first brainstorming ideas, Mariah declared she wanted the restaurant to “almost exist outside of the space-time continuum.” The response received puzzled looks, but Mariah knew what it would look like when she saw it.
The result is a “pretty wild space,” with custom wallpaper made by local artist Kate Blairstone, including psychedelic-looking deep-sea life found in Malaysia. There’s also a Chinese barbecue meat case holding game hens, racks of ribs, and pork belly, all of which are chopped and served in the center of the dining room. The hook-shaped bar is equally flashy thanks to rhinestone tiles.
“It doesn’t feel like any other spaces you would walk into,” Mariah Pisha-Duffly says. “You walk in and you immediately know a little bit about me and Tom because it’s so personal to us.”
The menu is inspired by Tom’s grandmother, who was Chinese, but born in Indonesia and lived in Malaysia, Singapore, and Holland before arriving in the U.S. The food borrows elements from all those countries—fusion in its truest form, Pisha-Duffly says. The top-selling drink is a tropical boba Jell-O shot.
The restaurant began as an off-premises-only pop-up shop called Oma’s Takeaway, which eventually moved into its own brick-and-mortar space. During the winter of 2021, the concept shut down for a few months, giving the couple time to completely redesign the space and reopen as Oma’s Hideaway.
“Simply, you could say it’s a Chinese, Malaysia-inspired lounge restaurant, but that really wouldn’t even begin to touch some of the joy that’s in Oma,” Pisha-Duffly says.
As James Beard–nominated chef Greg Collier and his wife Subrina conceptualized Leah & Louise, the duo landed on the idea of a bistro evoking energy and liveliness, specifically one of Black influence, given the restaurant would be based in an African American neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. But that begged the question, what is a Black bistro?
The answer, Greg Collier says, is a modern-day juke joint, known historically as an entertainment venue and safe space for Black workers during the days of Jim Crow. The restaurant is filled with old and new school blues, R&B, and soul music, while the menu pulls from Southern cuisine, by way of Memphis, Tennessee, and the Mississippi River Valley. The food names are directly linked to Black culture and heritage, such as Jive Turkey and the Say it Witcha Chest pheasant breast. The menu also includes a pay-what-you-can item, letting customers know that all people—no matter social status or financial means—are more than welcome.
Leah & Louise originally opened in March 2020, but because of the initial wave of COVID, it didn’t reopen its dining room until three months later, on Juneteenth, a federal holiday honoring the emancipation of slaves.
“I mean honestly, Subrina and I say, we’ve had to pivot since 2012,” says Collier, noting the year that he and his wife first moved to Charlotte. “It was definitely hard, but Subrina and I both knew that we just had to adjust.”
Tropezón’s relaxed atmosphere, warm, neutral color palette, and throwback energy are an outlier in Miami’s otherwise flashy South Beach area. The bar’s tiled façade, cognac leather stools, cane chairs, and antique wooden furniture are reminiscent of Spain in the 1960s (think: if “Mad Men” was set in Southern Spain near the Alhambra). That yesteryear vibe is further accentuated by vintage posters of Western films, but with their titles translated into Spanish.
“The idea was to create a playful space with a combination of Western and Spanish touches,” co-owner Randy Alonso says. “We took our inspiration from our recent travels through Spain and combined that with our love of old Western films.”
Rather than serve dishes from across the country, Tropezón focuses on Andalucía, Spain’s southernmost region, whose cuisine is influenced by its Moorish past and coastal location. The menu features dishes like Chicken Andaluz, served with white beans and ham seasoned with pimenton (Spanish paprika) and Arroz Caldoso, blended with roasted peppers, and saffron sofrito.
The restaurant puts just as much care into its beverage program as its food, which is no surprise, given that Alonso and business partner Chris Hundall’s first concept is the celebrated downtown neighborhood bar, Lost Boy. Tropezón’s extensive gin collection speaks to the spirit’s popularity in Andalucía. While the bar serves up several variations of the classic gin and tonic, the showstopper is its selection of 20-plus infused gins, featuring ingredients like tea, fruits, nuts, and even cured meats.
The word tropezón means “to stumble” in Spanish, and that’s exactly what the owners hope visitors will do.
“We want the space to be a destination where you can stumble in with friends for a cocktail or tapas,” Alonso says.
The newest restaurant in our Top Independents report just so happens to be located in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the country: Philadelphia’s Old City district, which dates back to colonial times.
Amina Restaurant & Lounge is a 70-seat concept from newly minted restaurateur Felicia Wilson and chef Darryl Harmon, who has cooked for the James Beard Foundation and was the former executive chef at Philadelphia’s Water Works Restaurant. Under Harmon’s direction, the menu melds African ingredients with Southern fare and Big Easy flavors, too.
“We want to bring out the African American soul,” Wilson says. “We play music from old and new African American artists and fill your soul even further with Southern cuisine.”
Harmon also turns to his own spice blends—including fenugreek, bird’s-eye chili, and ground coriander—to enliven dishes like Peri-Peri Wings and Nigerian Hot Chicken.
The restaurant shares a name with Wilson’s daughter whom she named after a Nigerian warrior queen from the 16th century. This namesake is also reflected in the restaurant’s physical space through gold accents and African motifs and furnishings like vases and lighting fixtures. A mural depicts female warriors “guarding” the entrance to the kitchen.
Wilson says Amina is different from other restaurants in the neighborhood because it’s owned and operated by a Black woman, something she takes great pride in.
“Opening a restaurant has always been a retirement goal of mine,” she says. “An opportunity presented itself to open a restaurant in an amazing location, and I didn’t want to pass it up.”
Newcomer Bésame breaks from typical New Orleans fare of Cajun, Creole, and French-forward dishes. Instead, chef-owner Nanyo Dominguez and his team have created an eclectic menu, inspired by his time in New York, where he says he was exposed to the vast array of foods and culinary traditions from Latin America.
Bésame serves tapas that apply flavors from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America to Gulf-fresh seafood. Dominguez hopes the dishes impart a sense of place, transporting guests to different locales across Latin America. For example, the Peruvian ceviche (with aji amarillo, leche de tigre, sweet potato, and crispy corn) is an altogether different experience from the Oaxacan ceviche (marinated in mezcal, with roasted guajillo, cucumber, and tomato).
“If you’ve traveled and you dine with us, we want to bring you back to those memories,” Dominguez says. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Located in NOLA’s Arts/Warehouse District, Bésame exudes a colorful atmosphere that mirrors its ambitious but approachable menu. Tile floors, funky artwork, and tightly packed tables all lend a homey feel to the space.
Bésame opened last October after overcoming numerous hurdles. In addition to navigating pandemic complications, the restaurant also had to grapple with none other than a natural disaster. Just as Dominguez was waiting on the final business permits, Hurricane Ida barreled into New Orleans as a category 4 storm.
“Everything just shut down again,” he says.
Business has been gradually picking up since last fall, and Dominguez expects that once conventions and tourists return to the Big Easy, tables at Bésame will be full.
“Things finally seem to be improving,” he says.