The Big Idea: The Golden Age of Restaurants Shows Tarnish
For much of the past year, America’s restaurant scene was as rich, varied and exciting as it has ever been—a continuation of dining’s golden age. Our top 10 this year is a shining example of that culinary energy. We found chefs breathing new life into the seemingly stale tasting-menu format by making it more fun and interactive; we saw live-fire cooking approached with the precision of fine dining; and we were able to understand specific regions, such as the Levant, in a much deeper way than we had before. In mid-March, much of that thriving landscape came to a halt as the Covid-19 pandemic forced the industry to close. The sad truth is that many—some say up to 75 percent—of these independent restaurants will never reopen. This is the end of an era.
The Covid-19 shutdown laid bare the difficulties restaurants faced long before the pandemic arrived. Roiling beneath the surface of this period of inventiveness and creativity was a growing belief that the industry’s economic model was broken. The rising costs of food, labor and real estate were conspiring to reduce already thin margins even further. Add to the mix the growth of fast casual and third-party delivery apps, which had decreased traffic to dine-in establishments, and it is clear why restaurateurs have been feeling squeezed. Then Covid-19 robbed them of that last little bit of cushion that allowed them to keep operating.
What made these restaurants so frail in the face of this pandemic is also what made them so good. The best ones simply became more labor intensive. That reality calls to mind an old Julia Child quote about fine dining: “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate—you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.” Chefs’ fingers became involved in every step of the process. Kitchen staffs foraged, fermented, made more in-house from scratch, sought out farmers to supply the perfect products and embraced an ethos of endless innovation. In contrast, the restaurants most able to absorb this shock to the system will be the ones using commodity products and relying on automated processes. They’re the antithesis of the restaurants we’ve come to love.
It may be the end of an era, but it’s not the end of the restaurant industry. We won’t lose the desire to break bread with friends and family outside of the home, and chefs won’t stop wanting to express themselves through food. So while there may be fewer in the immediate future, including the excellent Auburn in Los Angeles, which closed as we were planning to include it among our Best of the Best winners, exceptional restaurants will still exist—especially ones like our top 10, which combine delicious food and outstanding service in a way that will stand the test of time.
Along the back wall of Hestia’s open kitchen, an impressive 20-foot-long hearth anchors the restaurant. The fire burning inside imparts flavor to nearly everything on the menu, from the onion ash on the rolls to the char on the Wagyu. The smell of smoke perfumes the place, activating something almost primal in you.
Kevin Fink leads the savory side, with Tavel Bristol-Joseph handling the sweet. The duo made their mark on Austin with the acclaimed Emmer & Rye, known for meticulously sourcing ingredients. Chefs at Hestia similarly take a hands-on approach, also serving as the waitstaff so they can share the work that went into creating the meal.
They make dishes with a rugged heartiness that doesn’t sacrifice precision in flavor. And though Hestia looks like a modern steak house, it’s so much more inventive, exemplified by the lion’s mane mushroom. It sits atop a sauce of smoked oil and miso, shrouded by thinly sliced rounds of Badger Flame beet. The mushroom has a deep, satisfying char, while the flesh retains the chewy unctuousness of fatty pork—even the vegetarians get to feel like carnivores. And the restaurant named for the Greek goddess of the hearth proves itself worthy of its moniker.
Along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria constitute the Levant. Featuring more lemon and sumac, the region’s cuisine is lighter and brighter than food on the Arabian Peninsula. And it’s what chef Michael Rafidi grew up eating with his Palestinian family outside Washington, D.C.
At Albi he’s helping diners understand the region without being rigid. For some dishes, Rafidi stays true to his grandparents’ recipes, perhaps with a chef-y twist. Take his hummus, which he packs with raw garlic and fresh lemon juice but then adds some chickpea miso for a layer of fermented flavor. Other items, such as his manti dumplings, may make grandmothers across the region raise their eyebrows. There he’s turned a yogurt-and-dumpling stew into lamb-and-eggplant-stuffed dumplings that are served with a dollop of yogurt and a Chinese-influenced Urfa chili crisp.
Rafidi’s cooking excels in the hearth, where his triumphs include coal-fired beets with walnuts and fermented muhammara and his lamb dish of molasses-covered ribs served alongside a kebab and a minced-lamb kefta that’s molded around a cinnamon stick. Across the entire menu Rafidi proves he’s a master of balancing acid, smoke and spice.
Gavin Kaysen’s Demi defies easy pigeonholing. In truth, his 20-seat, tasting-menu-only restaurant is a deeply personal representation of what he thinks dining should be at its highest level. The journey begins with a broth infused with lemongrass from the Twin Cities’ Hmong market that Kaysen visits. The ensuing parade of courses crosses borders with aplomb. There’s a foie gras terrine with chocolate that hints at his time at Café Boulud, a Midwestern venison in the style of spicy Thai larb and a decadent triangle of pasta filled with cauliflower, lobster and vadouvan (a French curry powder).
Sitting around the U-shaped counter where chefs double as servers, you can’t help but notice that everyone is having a great time, with the atmosphere more akin to a cocktail bar than a stuffy fine restaurant executing a tasting menu of this caliber. Kaysen understands the grace notes that create exceptional hospitality. Take the final surprise of the evening. After the desserts, even after the mignardises have signaled game over, a sauce pan filled with freshly made Rice Krispies Treats arrives. You learn it was Kaysen’s favorite thing to eat as a kid, and it puts one last smile on your face before you go.
At the beautiful little bar Kumiko, Julia Momose has connected with her Japanese heritage to create elegant cocktails showcasing ingredients and spirits native to the country where she was born. To execute her vision, she partnered with the Michelin two-star chef Noah Sandoval of Oriole, located just around the corner in Chicago’s West Loop. The duo brought over young chef Mariya Russell from Oriole to help create the small bites for the bar, but Russell and Sandoval went on to create much more.
Tucked in the basement beneath the cocktail den is the restaurant Kikko, where Russell truly shines. Diners perch at the intimate eight-seat tasting counter, while Russell and a sous chef prepare the seven-course omakase experience. There’s osetra caviar with finger lime and yuzu kosho, a selection of sashimi and nigiri, crispy fried tofu, Miyazaki A5 Wagyu with parasitic mushrooms and more. In between her intense focus while plating the courses, Russell’s personality comes out. Whether she’s cheerfully engaging diners about ingredients or bopping her head to the beat of a Gil Scott-Heron song playing in the background, her joy brightens the dark room.
At K’Far, Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook’s new all-day café, Camille Cogswell* channels the bakeries of Israel. Along with pistachio sticky buns, flaky bourekas and mini babkas, she devotes a section of the morning menu to the pillowy soft Yemeni bread kubaneh, which can be topped savory or sweet, such as with smoked salmon or brown-sugar ricotta.
At dinner, the menu shows off Israeli cuisine’s influences from throughout the region, such as the hearty Iraqi one-pot dish t’bit, served for two in a small Dutch oven filled with rice and beef.
At another new Solomonov and Cook restaurant, Andrew Henshaw runs an ode to an Israeli shipudiya, or skewer house. Ordering is simple: Just choose your meat, and along with it comes a sprawling selection of dips, pickles, vegetables and salads called salatim that have roots across the Middle East—perfect for dragging your fresh pita through or slathering on lamb merguez.
Laser Wolf’s concrete walls and servers in Hawaiian shirts make it appear casual, but underneath the easy-going façade is a high level of craft. From the perfectly grilled chicken to the bartender creating the ideal pairing with a funky natural wine, you can tell that Laser Wolf is serious fun.
*After the issue went to press, Cogswell left the company, but K’Far continues to offer takeout during Covid-19 closures.
Kawi—New York City
Eunjo Park has done what few others have managed to accomplish: Inside the gleaming antiseptic towers of Hudson Yards, she has created a restaurant with heart and soul. Kawi is part of the Momofuku empire, but the Seoul-born chef leans into Korean tradition more than previous David Chang restaurants. There are spicy rice cakes, steamed whole chicken and kimbap—seaweed and rice rolls that look like Japanese sushi at first glance but are quite different. At Kawi she fills them with ingredients such as pickled vegetables, foie gras or pork belly.
Many of Park’s smaller plates really stand out. Her thin slices of pickled brisket are fall-apart tender; the raw crab in a gochujang-based marinade that’s served over rice with trout roe and toasted seaweed is spicy and satisfying; and her simple soft tofu starter is an unexpected hit. For that dish Park begins by topping house-made tofu with Demerara sugar, then brûlées it with a torch. It’s served with trout roe, caramelized soy and crushed seaweed. The dish is an impeccable mix of salty and sweet, and it shows she’s getting even the little things just right.
Pasjoli—Santa Monica, Calif.
The duck press is an antiquated contraption. Yet this 19th-century relic still manages to turn heads when chef Dave Beran wheels it out to a table at Pasjoli, his upscale take on a French bistro. It’s a testament to how Beran has managed to mine the old (in this case, Auguste Escoffier’s recipe for duck, from more than a century ago) to find what appeals to people today: a tableside theatricality that has diners reaching for their camera phones.
Beran’s nightly show involves a little cart that arrives carrying the press, a burner and a duck with the legs removed (the limbs are confited for a salad to arrive later). He carves the bird tableside and then puts all the bones and nasty bits in his press and cranks a wheel that compresses everything inside. Out from the rudimentary machine’s spigot flows a rich jus, which is then simmered in a pan. Along with red wine and pepper, the chef adds Cognac for flavor and a burst of pyrotechnics, then serves the jus with the carefully sliced and arranged breast. The whole presentation is beautiful and delicious and, like many dishes at Pasjoli, highlights Beran’s knack for showcasing cooking that’s timeless.
Berlu is the culmination of a globe-trotting culinary journey for Vince Nguyen, the 34-year-old chef who ventured from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, on to Dunkeld, Australia, and back to San Francisco before finally arriving in the Pacific Northwest. The Southern California native worked in some of the world’s great kitchens, developing a minimalist, produce-driven style that now feels uniquely his own.
The restaurant he has built is a nightly stage and a reflection of his reserved but inviting personality. Inside his small, crisp white room, Nguyen welcomes two seatings of 12 a night and addresses his crowds from the counter at the head of the dining room, where he plates dishes. He shuttles back and forth to the kitchen, pausing as each course arrives to lower the music a little and describe the dish the whole room is about to enjoy.
There’s a playfulness to the earnest chef’s menu, as in beets that are cooked and smoked to resemble tartare and then arrive with a roasted apple and eucalyptus tea in a test tube. And the final savory course is a stunner, showing off different parts of the duck, including a grilled leg, duck-fat popovers, breast tartare and tongues wrapped in mint and sorrel. His food is light, bright and fresh, and though he doesn’t tout it as such, it’s lactose- and gluten-free, too.
The scallop crudo at Gabe Erales and Philip Speer’s modern Mexican restaurant offers a glimpse into what makes the restaurant so exciting. The chefs’ fealty isn’t to traditional Mexican dishes; instead, they look to flavors and ingredients to drive their creativity. They hit upon their scallop dish when they were playing around with tepache, the fermented pineapple drink they had in the bar, and combined it with a rare variety of pasilla pepper that’s found only in Oaxaca and is smokier and spicier than other pasillas. The crudo arrives in its own colorful shell, swimming in the spicy-sweet broth they created, the flavors of pineapple and chile conjuring thoughts of porky tacos al pastor. It’s an original dish that simultaneously feels so familiar.
The same approach extends throughout the meal, from Erales’s savory dishes to Speer’s dessert creations. The co-owner and pastry chef throws down some unexpected sweet treats, such as his tres leches cake, covered in torched merengue like a Baked Alaska. In a city where outstanding Tex-Mex is ubiquitous, Erales and Speer have created their own must-try vision of Mexican cuisine.
Nami Nori—New York City
This serene little 40-seat restaurant in the West Village is not some sushi-bro-filled omakase experience. That’s by design. Taka Sakaeda, Jihan Lee and Lisa Limb worked together at Masa—America’s premier sushi destination, where dinner starts at $600 per person—and long had the desire to create something a little more laid-back. At Nami Nori, the trio introduced their ode to temaki, or hand rolls. Each order arrives tucked into little wooden holders, standing the U-shaped rolls upright with ingredients bursting out the top in a way that practically begs you to post them on Instagram. Yet the vessels are a clever bit of architecture that allows for flourishes of daikon curls and mounds of uni to perch on the rice without compromising the crispness of the perfect square of nori.
As for what fills the rolls, the flavors venture outside of Japan, with influences from China (XO sauce on scallops) and Korea (the sweet, tangy spice of chojang) that offer a creative break from tradition. Of course, the finer things in life are more than welcome here: You can add truffle or caviar to any temaki you order.