8 of the Most Exciting Restaurants in America

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Opened: August 2016

Location: Chicago

Owners: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

Average check: $28

Description: Peruvian and Argentine influences are tempered by Chicago sensibilities at this rooftop retreat.

It’s not enough to be a luxury hotel anymore. 

The advent of Airbnb and the experience economy has presented traditional hotels with a new mandate: finding an X-factor to set them apart from the competition.

For Chicago’s Kimpton Gray Hotel, the beguiling bait came in the form of Boleo, the 15th-floor lounge that showcases South American flavors—in beverage form. Jessica Lambert, the head bartender of Kimpton Gray, was sent to Peru for research purposes ahead of Boleo’s opening. She returned with not only recipe inspirations but also a fresh approach to menu ideation.

“I was able to spend time down there really exploring the drinking and eating and culinary cultures … specifically in Peru,” Lambert says. “Their culture is centered around these moments of eating and drinking with family. I was really inspired by that, and I tried to take as much of what I learned and discovered back to Boleo.”

Housed within the 123-year-old New York Life Insurance Building in the heart of the Loop, Kimpton Gray opened last August with a robust food-and-beverage program. In addition to Boleo, the second-floor lobby bar, Vol. 39, serves caviar and top-shelf classics. Its flagship restaurant Steadfast (part of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group) has a refined yet understated ambiance complete with an exhibition kitchen. 

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Opened: August 2016

Location: Austin, Texas

Owners: BDG Hospitality

Average check: $60

Description: The supper club makes a comeback at Sophia’s in Austin, where diners are encouraged to linger—or just pop in for a drink.

"Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.”

So said Italian actress Sophia Loren many years ago. Despite today’s carb-wary world, the sentiment—that indulgent dishes like pasta are tied to full-bodied and glamorous living—is very much alive and well at Sophia’s in Austin, Texas.

“Even the name, Sophia’s, we felt that it really evoked the idea of a strong, powerful, sexy Italian woman,” says co-owner James Brown of Chicago-based BDG Hospitality.  

For an industry that oftentimes casts a wide net, Sophia’s is comfortable exuding a very specific tenor. It’s not that the restaurant strives to appeal only to a certain customer base, but rather the unusual operation will intrigue some and potentially deter others. Sophia’s has fashioned itself as a retro supper club, one that welcomes patrons for a hearty meal, a glamorous night out, a swanky lounge, and everything in between.

“We were very conscious from the beginning that people don’t necessarily want to eat in a nightclub nor do they necessarily want to party in a restaurant. We always knew we’d be walking this line,” Brown says. 

Read more about Sophia's here.

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Baran’s 2239

Opened: March 2016

Location: Hermosa Beach, California

Owners: Jonathan and Jason Baran and Tyler Gugliotta

Average check: $35–$50

Description: Cuisines collide in this modest Hermosa Beach establishment with subtle nods to a family legacy.

Perhaps no city in the country lives by the rule “location, location, location” more than Los Angeles. In a sprawling metropolitan area where traffic dominates many a conversation, business success is often inextricably linked—for better or for worse—to geography. 

But Baran’s 2239 is proving the old logic may be broken. The casual bistro with fine-dining chops opened last spring in an Hermosa Beach strip mall. It’s only a mile from the ocean, but the route crosses the Pacific Coastal Highway, a seemingly arbitrary line that in reality marks a deeper divide.

“It took about three months until the outside public started hearing about it because we’re in an unassuming location. … It wasn’t the norm when we opened. The norm was to go down to Manhattan Beach or downtown L.A. for the quality of food that we’re putting out,” says cofounder Jonathan Baran.“To be on this side of PCH—not the highlighted area of the South Bay—was our biggest challenge at first.”

But the word got out and business has been booming ever since—to the point that reservations are often necessary, even on a weekday. What started as an Achilles heel has actually turned into a superpower for Baran’s 2239. As one writer observed in an LA Weekly review, the understated opening is one reason “why it’s so easy to fall in love with the place.” Diners who have discovered Baran’s 2239 become part of a faithful legion of fans. 

Read more about Baran's 2239 here.

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Randy Schmidt
Pontchartrain Hotel’s Food & Drink

Opened: June 2016 

Location: New Orleans

Owners: AJ Capital Partners

Average Checks:
     - Caribbean Room: $80
     - Bayou Bar: $22
     - Silver Whistle: $13
     - Hot Tin: $30

Description: In a historic New Orleans hotel, a division of Besh Restaurant Group spruces up with the addition of four concepts.

Ask any restaurateur: The first year of any new restaurant is a herculean labor. But opening seven in less than a year? The word insane comes to mind.

Not so for the team at Our House Hospitality, a fledgling hospitality group specializing in hotel food and beverage programs. “We discovered that our limits are way further than we thought they were,” says Emery Whalen, CEO of Our House Hospitality, a division of Chef John Besh’s eponymous restaurant group. Last summer, she and her business partners, Chef Brian Landry and Octavio Mantilla, revitalized three historic restaurants and created a new rooftop bar at Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans. Just months later, the team opened three new properties at the luxury hotel Thompson located in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee.

After Chicago-based AJ Capital purchased Pontchartrain Hotel for $19.8 million in 2014, it approached Besh Restaurant Group to develop a F&B beverage program that would match the caliber of the renovated property. (Earlier this year, Travel + Leisurenamed Pontchartrain Hotel one of the “Best New Hotels in the World.”) 

Originally built in 1927, the Garden District hotel was once the toast of the town, but it fell into a state of neglect, Whalen says. Through the years, the building has evolved from an apartment hotel to a conventional hotel to an assisted living facility, and back to a hotel.

“It felt like our duty. We consider ourselves stewards of the New Orleans cuisine and the culinary heritage of our city,” Whalen says. Like Besh Restaurant Group, Our House Hospitality is based in the Crescent City. “There is a huge hole in the market, and if you think about the lifestyle hotels—your Kimptons, your Aces, your Thompsons—they don’t want to be in the food and beverage business. They want to be in the rooms business.”

Read more about Pontchartrain Hotel’s Food & Drink here.

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Stark Photography
Han Oak

Opened: January 2016

Location: Portland, Oregon

Owners: Peter Cho and Sun Young Park

Average Check: $50; $35 prix fixe menu

Description: After a decade in New York City, an Oregon chef returns to his roots and explores a new culinary heritage.

To call Han Oak a restaurant would be selling it short. The Portland, Oregon, establishment is more of a shape shifter—part reservation-only supper club, part noodle-and-dumpling house and brunch destination, plus a venue for pop-ups and special events. The James Beard Foundation semifinalist adapts to the occasion with preternatural ease.

For Chef Peter Cho worked under April Bloomfield for a decade before returning to his home state to open Han Oak. He credits the open-minded community in Portland for the restaurant’s warm reception.

For chef and owner Peter Cho, the variety isn’t taxing; it’s liberating.

“I prefer that than trying to grind it out being open seven days a week. I think that’s more difficult,” he says. “The dining public here in Portland is way more savvy. They’re accepting of a whole new thing or a different concept, different formats.”

Still, Chef Cho concedes that Han Oak’s first year has been a whirlwind. He spent about a decade in New York City under celebrated chef April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig and The Breslin. The pull of family—Cho’s parents and brother are here and he and his wife wanted to start a family—brought the Oregon native back to Portland a couple of years ago. The move also offered him an opportunity to try his hand at an unconventional restaurant model. For years, he’d watched from afar as chefs in smaller cities created concepts with a DIY mentality. Such experimental approaches were cost-prohibitive in New York City, he says.

Read more about Han Oak here. 

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Beauty & Essex

Opened: May 2016

Location: Las Vegas, Nevada

Owner: Chris Santos, Rich Wolf, TAO Group

Average Check: $70

Description: The second location of Beauty & Essex champions the original spirit, but with an extra shot of opulence. 

Chris Santos wouldn’t be offended if you compared walking into Beauty & Essex to falling down a rabbit hole and landing in Wonderland. The famed chef and perennial “Chopped” judge took as much care in developing the ambiance of his glittery concept as he did the menu. 

Since the original location opened in New York’s Lower East Side in 2010, Beauty & Essex has garnered praise for its global mix of small plates—as well as notoriety for its playful atmosphere. From the streets of New York City, the restaurant appears to be nothing more than a garish pawnshop. But go through that deceptive entrance and the space suddenly expands into an opulent arena.

Last year Santos brought Beauty & Essex to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Some menu and décor features have been tweaked, but the “gritty-but-pretty” pawnshop façade was non-negotiable.

“Because both restaurants feature such crazy, opulent, over-the-top design, the idea is to come into this very small, slightly cramped space that doesn’t begin to reveal what’s happening behind the wall. It’s almost this pseudo-speakeasy situation to walk into this big, giant restaurant,” says Santos, who in addition to Beauty & Essex, also founded New York’s popular Stanton Social. 

A frequent guest at the Cosmopolitan, Santos has developed a relationship with the proprietors over the past 15 years. The luxury hotel exudes a similar bourgeoisie in its design with flourishes like a giant chandelier that cloaks the Cosmopolitan’s bar and stretches three floors tall. Chef Santos recalls thinking, “This place is dying for a Beauty & Essex.”

Read more about Beauty & Essex here.

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Indian Accent
Indian Accent

Opened: February 2016

Location: New York City

Owner: Chef Manish Mehrotra

Average Check: $125

Description: A fine-dining establishment in midtown Manhattan introduces guests to a new kind of Indian cuisine.

If you ask Chef Manish Mehrotra, Indian cuisine has stalled—and not just at American restaurants. Even in his native India, flavors and techniques that have long been heralded in the home have not moved beyond residences to restaurants. 

In 2009, Mehrotra opened Indian Accent in New Delhi, bringing forth home-cooked flavors in a fine-dining setting. By all metrics it has been an enormous success: Last year it was the only restaurant in India to make The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; it has also been named the No. 1 restaurant on the subcontinent by TripAdvisor three years and counting.

“What we did eight years back was completely different—for India itself, it was completely different,” Mehrotra says. While guests in New Delhi had not encountered such foods in restaurants, most diners outside India had never been even exposed to them. “As a chef, I really want to change that, and I really want to tell people that India isn’t all chicken tikka masala. Indian cuisine is quite refined. We have dishes for every palate in the world.” 

The second location of Indian Accent (and the first outside of India) opened last February in New York City. As with the original restaurant, it highlights spices and techniques that hitherto were found only at home. Rather than flame-spitting kebabs, Mehrotra opts to braise meats in the oven; his kitchen staff also use a karahi (similar to a wok) to sauté spice mixes. Popular dishes include potato sphere chaat served with pea mash, as well as sweet pickled ribs with sundried mango and onion seeds.

The New York location also has a wider selection of seasonal foods and proteins like beef, lamb, and shellfish. Scallops are not a traditional Indian food, but the chef says they pair well with Indian spices, and when they’re in season, he’ll serve them in a cauliflower and saffron soup. Soft-shell crab is another addition to the Manhattan location. Although the dish (crab claws with a pepper-garlic butter and cauliflower) was inspired by western Indian fare, Mehrotra says it can be more difficult to source in India.

Read more about Indian Accent here.

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Lisa Gotwals
The Durham inside The Durham Hotel

Opened: October 2015

Location: Durham, North Carolina

Owner: Gentian Group

Average Check: $55

Description: Contemporary adaptations of “old American” hotel fare, plus rooftop dining.

For Chef Andrea Reusing, her second restaurant undertaking started with a text.

She and Craig Spitzer, the general manager of the soon-to-open Durham Hotel, had a mutual friend who connected the two.

“One of the partners in the project texted me a 1968 picture of when this building was just completed. I’d driven by the building, but seeing it in that context intrigued me, and I immediately responded. I don’t know that I’d ever immediately responded to anyone asking me to look at restaurant space,” Reusing says.

Reusing was no stranger to the Triangle area of North Carolina, with her first restaurant, Lantern, just down the road in Chapel Hill. Over its 15-year history, Lantern has clinched many accolades—including top mentions in publications like Gourmet and Food & Wine—for its Asian-inspired fare that showcases North Carolina ingredients. Reusing is a James Beard Award winner and an early proponent of the farm-to-table movement in the Southeast.

The Durham Hotel was also garnering attention. Converted from a Home Savings Bank, the hotel cum restaurant is one of many structures being revitalized in the heart of Bull City. Commune Design transformed the building into a luxury boutique hotel, sporting a contemporary take on the classic mid-century style.

Shortly after that first communiqué, the Gentian Group, which owns The Durham Hotel, asked Reusing to helm the hotel’s foodservice programming. And so she began collaborating with the Gentian team even before construction was underway. The hotel opened in July 2015 and its restaurant, The Durham, quickly followed in October. 

Beyond Reusing’s culinary expertise and restaurant experience, the group also wanted to incorporate her sourcing philosophy into its own operation.

Read more about The Durham here.