Like fashion, the world of restaurants is constantly changing with the times, with trends rising and falling over the years that alter what we eat and even how we eat it. As we celebrate our 30th anniversary of our Best of the Best awards, where we recognize the top places, products, and people from the past year across everything Robb Report covers, we wanted to step back and see which restaurants have left the most indelible mark on the food scene.
We spoke to some of the world’s leading chefs and restaurateurs about the places that have changed the game in ways both big and small. Sometimes those influences are wide and varied, as when El Bulli ushered in an era of wildly creative molecular gastronomy, and other times it can be very specific and regional, like Enrique Olvera changing the perception of Mexican cuisine and making it possible for other chefs to look at it through a fine-dining lens. Here are the 30 most influential restaurants of the last 30 years.
Drawing on flavors from around the world—one course may be a chicken thigh with Mexican spices, while another may be a rare Japanese fish—Alinea’s modernist cuisine is a combination of old and new. Grant Achatz cut his teeth learning outstanding technique under Thomas Keller, but he was also influenced by his brief stage at the high church of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. What Achatz has created since opening Alinea in 2005 is uniquely his own, all the while producing a bumper crop of chefs that have passed through his kitchen to run their own successful restaurants around the country.
“Alinea has really pushed and changed the food scene to a whole different level. It’s technical, it’s whimsical, it’s super tasty, and it’s so creative. Look at its balloon—it’s magnificent. It floats, but you can eat it. There’s so much fun and emotion behind it, but it’s just one of the dishes. They keep on changing their menu; they keep on pushing for creativity. It’s one of the most influential restaurants in the world.” —Dominique Ansel
“He’s found a balance between being super molecular but also having a focus on product, which I think gets lost a lot of the time with that kind of food.” —Jessica Largey
“The determination and the pure willpower that that guy has is uncanny. Grant deserves all of the praise that he gets. Alinea is much different than El Bulli, though he comes from that school. He brings such an understanding of food and how things work to what he does. I spoke with Greg [Baxtrom] at Olmsted and Alex [Stupak of Empellon], and I asked them, ‘Do you guys still have every recipe memorized?’ and they’re like, ‘To the gram.’ That’s just amazing.” —Matty Matheson
Around the world, great chefs are building kitchens with giant, adjustable wood-fired grills and hearths to cook food over flames. The style may seem primitive, but harnessing an organic heat source can be extremely difficult. In Spain’s Basque country, self-taught chef Victor Arguinzoniz is cooking every dish on his grills—even caviar—and has brought live-fire cooking to a new level.
“I walked away from that meal feeling like the fire was the method and an ingredient. It’s so nuanced in the food. For one dish, when it’s in season, you’re eating this little bowl of wood-fired baby eels, and the fire is used to celebrate the texture and the flavor of them. That was the first time I got that feeling of, ‘This is someone who is taking this thing—the fire—and bending it around ingredients.’ And that’s a really unique way of thinking.” —Ashley Christensen
“It’s totally amazing and worth every penny. You just sit there in a relatively casual place—considering how high it ranks on the World’s 50 Best List—and you eat this guy’s unbelievable, world-class food that’s all just grilled. It’s the best restaurant in the world.” —Mario Carbone
Martin Picard has taken gluttony and decadence to a new level. Rare is a dish he couldn’t improve with foie gras, whether it’s adding the fatty duck liver to poutine or stuffing it inside pig trotters. The over-the-top comfort food he serves explores classic Québécois fare, elevating those traditions in a clash of high and low. And while it may come off as rustic, Canada’s “Wild Chef” is still regarded for his technique.
“Au Pied du Cochon, in Canada specifically, there’s a rite of passage being a young chef and going there. The first time I went, one course was a pot-au-feu, which was just a roasting pan with half a brisket, short ribs, like five quail, and a whole ox tongue. I was just like, ‘What is this? There’s four of us, and this is one course.’ And it wasn’t them even like peacocking; it was them just being like, ‘This is how we cook, and this is how we want you to enjoy food.’ One of the biggest differences about the culinary tapestry of America and the culinary tapestry of Canada is we don’t have soul food, right? And I think the closest thing to soul food that we have is Québécois. Martin celebrates that.” —Matty Matheson
While at this point the idea of farm-to-table is pretty commonplace, Dan Barber is taking that to a whole new level. He’s not just creating relationships with the right farmers; he practically is the farmer. And by realizing our food system is largely created to grow food that’s meant to be more shelf-stable than delicious, he’s been working to create seeds and growing conditions that optimize the flavor of food. Because he knows that a chef is only as good as the ingredients. Barber opened the original Blue Hill in New York’s Greenwich Village in 2000, and the restaurant at the Blue Hill agricultural center debuted in 2004.
“There was this kind of strange, very counterintuitive gap between what chefs want to cook and what farmers were growing. And he started the dialogue where farmers are actually changing what they’re growing so that they’re providing chefs with what they want to cook.” —Corey Lee
“Dan Barber’s approach to everything that goes into what makes a great meal—agriculture, harvesting, and animal husbandry—is above and beyond finding a good vendor or teaming up with a local farm. He’s done what he can to actually create better food—whether it’s breeding or crossing strands of plants for flavor rather than yield. It’s something that, at least in America, is foreign and contrary to everything that the normal agricultural market stands for. For me, that’s huge. If more people can continue to get on that path and support it and celebrate it, there’s actual room for some change or at least moving the needle in how we eat, what we eat, the appreciation for what it is. The restaurant is a place to just showcase and highlight a much bigger impact that he and they are having.” —Ray Garcia
The mercurial chef who opened his eponymous restaurant in 1987, Charlie Trotter helped elevate American cuisine, define what fine dining could be Stateside, and put Chicago on the culinary map. His 1994 cookbook became a bible to countless young American cooks, much as Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook would for the generation coming of age in the ’90s and ’00s. After 25 years, Trotter closed the Lincoln Park restaurant in 2012, and he died a year later at 54.
“I might have a bias because I’m from Chicago, but seeing how menus are written today and how we source ingredients, as well as how many chefs have come out of his kitchen, a lot of credit goes to him. Chef Trotter left us early but made a huge mark on this generation of chefs and cooks.” —Dale Talde
“When I first made the decision to cook professionally, Charlie Trotter was one of the most inspiring chefs that I had ever been exposed to. This was pre-Internet, so cookbooks and magazines were the way to find out about chefs and restaurants. Every kitchen I worked in had a copy of chef Trotter’s books, and he was the first American chef that I had heard of [that was] held at the same level as French chefs of that time. Add to that that he was young, mostly self-taught, and had his restaurant in Chicago—not New York, LA, or San Francisco—[and it] signaled that you can be different and chart your own course to success.” —Adrienne Cheatham
“I was 20 years old, and the Charlie Trotter book was the one that just blew my mind. I saw that before I saw the French Laundry Cookbook. I mean, I came from a town of 3,000 people. I thought you had to be from France to be a chef. I didn’t know that was anything that I could ever even aspire to be. My first job was in a diner, so the Charlie Trotter cookbook and being like, ‘Whoa, this is food.'” —Josh Habiger
Alice Waters has been at this for much longer than 30 years, and what may have been her most fruitful partnership—pairing with Jeremiah Tower in the kitchen to create an early incarnation of California cuisine—happened well before 1988. But Chez Panisse’s influence didn’t stop there. The restaurant, which Waters opened in 1971, has continued to be a beacon of farm-to-table cooking in America decades into its run.
“The core of its food philosophy combines the most social and economically responsible methods with the highest-quality ingredients, and nothing less. Even the most modern chefs should always look at them so they can remember what food is and where it comes from.” —Genevieve Gergis
“Chez Panisse is at the forefront of farm-to-table. It’s an American classic.” —Mashama Bailey
When the French Acadians were bounced out of Canada by the British, they ventured down to Louisiana to make their new home. And although Donald Link’s family came to the area from Germany in the 1800s, they absorbed the cooking traditions of the region. When Donald eventually arrived on the scene, it was the food he grew up on. At Cochon, he’s taken that Cajun fare with its fried alligator, shrimp gumbo, catfish, and more and then elevated it.
“Donald Link has a rustic style and he’s very close to the culture, but he’s refined Cajun food. He’s not just making what he thinks people want; he cooks food that shows who he is and where he was brought up. He understands the area, lives it and breathes it, and makes delicious food. It just tastes right to me.” —Tracy Vaught
“It’s awesome. Cochon is my first stop when I’m in town. It’s an ability to believe in cooking delicious food and how that food makes people feel. I always sit down at the bar, and I’ll be about to order the chargrilled oysters, and without fail, someone who’s getting up from the bar—this is one of my favorite things that happens in restaurants—they’ll see me sitting there reading the menu by myself and say, “Make sure you get the oysters.” You have those iconic dishes that people feel it’s their responsibility to make sure that people in that room experience it. When your guests become your marketing team and people carrying the torch for what you do, it’s a really cool thing.” —Ashley Christensen
Another restaurant that opened well before 1988—it started in 1941—Dooky Chase is still a vital part of the New Orleans food scene, carrying the torch for Creole cooking. But while the food is delicious, the Treme restaurant is known just as much for the community the restaurant has created—notably acting as a place where leaders of the Civil Rights movement met—and has remained a gathering place for politicians, artists, and musicians ever since.
“A restaurant that was opened by Leah Chase and has served as a beacon of goodwill and diversity and just tradition in New Orleans. To me, that place is more than just a restaurant; it’s a community center for so many people. It has endured for so long because the soul that created it has been a part of it the whole time. And Miss Leah has never wavered from her love of hospitality and her intention to bring people together. And she influenced a style of cuisine that made New Orleans famous. She was influencing Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, and Ella Brennan—the people who’ve made New Orleans cuisine what it is today.” —Alon Shaya
There may not have been a more influential restaurant in the last three decades than Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. The restaurant opened in 1954, but it really began to change when Adrià took over in 1987. Adrià didn’t just create a restaurant; this was practically a think tank where the greatest minds in cooking passed through to work for him and learn. Great chefs including Jose Andres, Grant Achatz, Massimo Bottura, Rene Redzepi, and many more worked at El Bulli before it closed in 2011.
“It’s not the technique Ferran Adrià was using; it’s the idea. The message was, ‘Chefs, don’t think about the high-end cuisine as a place where you have to serve foie gras and lobster and that kind of stuff. You can transfer more emotion through sardines or a Parmigiano-Reggiano rind than using farm-raised lobster.’ These kinds of messages are revolutionary, and they changed everything.” —Massimo Bottura
“This is the restaurant that introduced molecular gastronomy to the world, allowing diners to experience ingredients and their flavors in a brand-new way. Ferran Adrià and El Bulli opened the doors for chefs around the world to look at the infinite possibilities of how one can manipulate ingredients and flavors.” —Junghyun Park
Heston Blumenthal, the chef at this experimental three-Michelin-star restaurant in Bray, England, creates not just a meal, but also an entire story and journey to trigger a nostalgic feeling. The temple of modernist cuisine opened in 1995 inside a building dating back to the 16th century. This restaurant, formerly world’s No. 1, mixes traditional and molecular techniques for a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience, where the menu is a map of an imaginary island and each course is a new location to visit. Once you’re in his world, he’s not afraid to get a little weird, mixing up expectations with savory lollipops or egg-and-bacon ice cream.
“What makes Heston so good and interesting was that he was creating the idea that the food was part of a bigger sensory experience. There was a speaker buried in the plates on one of his dishes that was making ocean sounds that kind of helped frame the bite for you. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fascinating.’ There are plenty of chefs from around that time who have taken that ‘meal as a larger experience’ idea and run with it, but for me, he was one doing it in a really thoughtful way.” —Ray Garcia
Around since the early 1900s, the French Laundry was transformed by Thomas Keller into a leader of American fine dining after the chef took it over in 1994. Rooted in his love of French food and technique, the nine-course menu features dishes like cauliflower velouté with toasted marcona almonds, John Dory with creamed black-trumpet mushrooms, squab with sunchokes, and venison with caramelized Brussels sprouts. One of the greatest testaments to the French Laundry’s influence has been the sheer number of alumni who have opened acclaimed restaurants of their own—from Grant Achatz’s Alinea and Corey Lee’s Benu to Rene Redzepi’s Noma and Jordan Kahn’s Vespertine. Like his idol Paul Bocuse, Keller has created a proving ground for exceptional chefs.
“The French Laundry showed the importance of nostalgia in food. It traces what triggers you to take you to that same place when you first had a dish and it made you so happy. That’s all that matters sometimes about food.” —James Syhabout
“Thomas Keller brought an Americanness to fine dining. He opened the door for so many of us.” —Will Guidara
“In my lifetime, being a chef has gone from a profession with a lot of stereotypes to a place where it’s a totally acceptable career. Keller is a big part of that. He implemented a level of professionalism in the kitchen.” —Julia Sullivan
This restaurant is beloved not just by New Yorkers but also by industry professionals across the country, too. It opened in 1994 with restaurateur Danny Meyer and chef Tom Colicchio running the show. Colicchio left in the mid-aughts, making way for Michael Anthony to arrive from Blue Hill to create not a daring, avant-garde menu but one where great dishes come from sourcing excellent product and combining it with flawless execution. But what really made Gramercy Tavern influential was taking great food and combining it with outstanding service that has become Meyer’s trademark. The restaurant has become a model for sustained excellence.
“My whole approach to service is built on the foundation of Danny Meyer’s idea that you take what you do seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. At Gramercy he took the idea of a tavern—a place that’s intrinsically welcoming—and then added the delicious food and impeccable service.” —Will Guidara
“Gramercy Tavern set a lot standards of service for the industry. It has been a model for how to operate, market, and do business. For a long time they’ve shown how to do it the right way.” —Noah Sandoval
“Your customers over there at Gramercy Tavern are still returning customers from like 15 to 20 years ago, and you don’t get those customers just because you’re nice. The customer sees this place is really genuine, and their food speaks for itself, too. They don’t do anything flashy; they really keep it true to what chef Michael Anthony does with his cuisine.” —Simon Kim
At just the age of 25, Marco Pierre White opened Harvey’s in 1987, and accolades quickly followed. Within the first year he had a Michelin star, and by 1990, he became the youngest chef ever to run a restaurant with two. But White’s persona—especially upon publishing his cookbook-slash-memoir White Heat—changed the perception of chefs to the public and also how chefs regarded themselves. Anthony Bourdain would regularly cite how influential that book was, writing in the 25th-anniversary edition of White Heat that “Marco Pierre White gave us all a voice, gave us hope, a new template for survival. We were no longer alone in the world, a despised, underpaid minority, reeking of garlic and salmon. Soon, people would become interested in us. Our customers would actually be curious about our opinions on what they should eat.”
“The book is important, but the technical stuff he did is beautiful and stunning—not a lot of chefs can do a dish like his trotter. He also brought to life an identity for chefs and kitchens and cooking, and he showed an inspiring amount of passion—not always positive. But for chefs enduring the struggles and the pain of kitchen life, reading his book was the precursor to Kitchen Confidential. It impacted chefs and kitchen culture, and I don’t think that you can really separate the culture from the actual plate.” —Ray Garcia
You could have called Highlands Bar & Grill the Susan Lucci (ask your parents) of the James Beard Awards. For nine straight years it was nominated to be America’s most outstanding restaurant, and each time it went home empty-handed. This year, the 10th nomination proved to be lucky, with the restaurant finally taking home the coveted prize while pastry chef Dolester Miles also captured the award for best pastry chef. Highlands opened in 1982, and in the South, owner Frank Stitt has become legend. At Charleston Food and Wine Festival the best chef award is actually named after him, and he’s been named the “Godfather of Southern Cuisine.”
“Highlands paved the way for new Southern cooking. Frank Stitt had studied in France for a long time and basically brought back all his knowledge and sensibilities and his passion for French food and applied it to Southern cooking. He then created a great experience—both food and service—that hadn’t been achieved of yet in the South. It’s around 35 years old, and it’s still recognized today as being a restaurant that has changed so many people’s outlooks on what was possible with Southern food.” —Mike Lata
Sean Brock‘s project is larger than merely creating a great restaurant—he’s exploring the roots of Southern food and fighting against the stereotype that it’s just heavy, fattening, and cheap. He’s working with producers like Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills to revive heirloom grains native to the South so he can cook classic dishes and have them taste as they once did. He’s so committed to studying Southern food that he doesn’t just explore cooking in the South; he’s even gone to West Africa to understand how those traditions came to America.
“Husk is just an amazing restaurant, and it’s defining a regional cuisine. It’s about looking at what’s around you and not just thinking what you do has to be classic French cuisine anymore. Sean not only brought the cooking to the forefront, he also brought the producers, too. It’s not just doing food from the South; he’s doing historical food, which I think is pretty brilliant.” —Chris Shepherd
In 2001, Alain Passard shook up the fine-dining world when he removed meat from his three-Michelin-star restaurant’s menu, focusing on the finest vegetables instead in his tasting menu. Meat has made its way back into his restaurant, but his vegetable-centric cooking has inspired chefs around the world to approach their craft in new ways.
“Really, to me, the best food I’ve ever eaten, and my favorite chef. The best restaurant experiences I’ve ever had in my life are at L’Arpège. His cuisine encompasses no trickery. There’s incredible technique but all techniques that he’s mastered and created on his own. That level of mastery of craft and knowledge of ingredients is something that everyone should aspire to.” —Michael Cimarusti
“L’Arpège was this incredibly revered bastion of classic fine dining and French cuisine. And then it changed everything and went to a vegetable-only program. And that put vegetables at a place on menus that it hadn’t been before. It really ushered in this new time where cooking with vegetables and less protein and less meat and less fish was a global trend.” —Corey Lee
Joël Robuchon has built a worldwide culinary empire, collecting accolades like “Chef of the Century” and more Michelin stars than any other chef along the way. His technique is lauded by his peers, and he’s also helped influence the layout of high-end restaurants. Admittedly, sushi counters have been doing it long before he did, but Robuchon helped bring that chef’s counter concept to Western dining culture.
“Robuchon was really good at elevating lower-end ingredients to the three-star level. He changed everything with how meticulous he was. Like his potatoes everyone has copied. There’s a lot of technique that goes into that. It’s in how you boil the potato, and it’s not just about the butter. It’s so brilliant.” —Josiah Citrin
“I’m big on integrity. When I go into a restaurant, I see how the somm drops the wine glass. I move the silverware and see what the server does. I wish I didn’t notice these things, but I do. With Robuchon, the integrity of every single thing is just spot-on. If you look at that fish, you look at the soup, every single thing, the integrity of it is perfect. There’s a mastery of technique. That’s why he’s so successful. You can’t knock it, you can’t question it, because it’s not a gimmick. ” —Thomas Raquel
The three-Michelin-star midtown-Manhattan restaurant is led by Eric Ripert, but it was originally opened by Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze in 1986 in New York after moving from Paris. Ripert took over the kitchen in 1994, continuing the approach of exceptional seafood simply prepared. The menu is divided into three preparations: “Almost Raw,” where geoduck sashimi is dressed with ginger ponzu; “Barely Touched,” where yellowfin tuna and langoustines get the lightest sear; and “Lightly Cooked,” where you may find pan-roasted monkfish with squid-ink fideos and a chorizo emulsion.
“Maguy and her brother’s focus was about creating great food to complement great wine. Throughout the years, Le Bernardin has maintained a high level of service and a devotion to great food. Even with all of the trends and changes to the culinary world, Le Bernardin has always stayed on track. They’ve done all the necessary adjustments but stayed true to themselves. Their level of excellence has always been a marker for all other restaurants. It truly has withstood the test of time.” —Jimmy Lau
“When this restaurant opened, it changed the relationship most diners had with seafood— several chefs, as well. Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze offered a variety not widely seen at restaurants and showed a way of cooking and serving fish that was unlike anything else at the time. Sushi was beginning to gain traction on the West Coast but was still not common. This restaurant dedicated itself to exploring the bounty of the sea and to challenge and change the way diners were used to not only cooking and consuming, but also purchasing seafood.” —Adrienne Cheatham
In the 2000s, the bistronomy movement brought new energy to the Paris culinary scene. For years the pinnacle of food had been the grand palaces of gastronomy: the three-Michelin-star fine-dining restaurants. But people began to feel dissatisfied with that style of cooking and started going to bistros, where, inside smaller, more casual restaurants, chefs cooked with voice and creativity. One of the great leaders of the movement was Iñaki Aizpitarte’s Le Chateaubriand. If you find yourself dining on creative fare made without overly expensive ingredients, and paired with natural wine, then you’re at a place likely influenced by this Parisian bistro.
“Chateaubriand, for me, is the most influential. He just cooks in a way where there’s seemingly almost no influence from other restaurants or other chefs. It’s like no apologies. It’s not because he’s not aware. But you get a lot of dishes that are kind of polarizing and challenging. It’s still affecting a lot of people, especially in Paris for sure.” —Jeremiah Stone
Chef Michel Bras’s eponymous restaurant, which opened in 1992, changed both the substance and aesthetics of cooking the world over. Bras was an early innovator in adopting vegetable-centric cuisine, and his colorful platings with swooping streaks of puree greatly influenced how food looked. Like many great chefs, his influence was multiplied with the publishing of a landmark cookbook, as his Essential Cuisine became a bible to countless chefs.
“Michel Bras was a forager before foraging became cool. He produced my most favorite cookbook ever and broke the idea of French food having to be all butter and cream.” —Nicholas Elmi
“Everyone started plating just like Michel Bras. He plated unlike anyone had seen before. I call it ‘tap-tap-swoosh.’ Put two taps of a puree down, and they swoosh it across a plate. Whether people recognize it or not, that’s Michel Bras. It took on a real cult following, and then all of a sudden, everyone plates like that.” —Mario Carbone
David Chang’s opening of Noodle Bar and then Ssäm Bar in New York in the early 2000s was akin to punk emerging in town in the 1970s. Chang stripped dining to its core to find what was really important about food. Gone were the tablecloths and stuffiness of fine dining, but the quality of the food remained. That high-low mix has been emulated across the country. Chang’s food also expanded Americans’ palates, breaking them of leaning only on Western flavors and techniques and helping them to embrace Asian fare in a way they hadn’t before.
“Momofuku showed it doesn’t have to be really expensive tasting menus to be delicious. It can be culturally driven food with really good technique that shows you not only the food but the people and the cultures behind it. And to do that in a setting where it’s casual and very comforting, that’s great.” —Chris Shepherd
“Momofuku put Asian food on the map. It shaped what Asian food is today by breaking it down into a language we can all understand. And like with the pork belly bao, he was the first to do that, and all around the States, restaurants have it on their menus now. There’s even a chef in Hong Kong who serves bao, and she credits David Chang for that.” —Mei Lin
“David Chang’s gung-ho level of confidence and fearlessness gave a lot of hope to younger chefs and restaurant professionals.” —Simon Kim
Born in Tokyo, Nobu Matsuhisa moved to Peru, where there’s a large Japanese diaspora. For three years, he observed how Japanese and Peruvian cultures were merging and incorporated it into his style of cooking. He eventually made his way to LA to serve Peruvian-inflected sushi. Robert De Niro became a fan and encouraged Nobu to open a restaurant in New York, which they eventually partnered on in 1994. Since then, they’ve grown a global restaurant empire serving craveable and now iconic food.
“Nobu changed how Japanese cuisine is seen, how it’s consumed. He was indigenous to the nature of that cuisine but knew it so well that over time he carried it to something new. He was such an authority on what he did, he could give us a new iteration of it. That comes from Jedi-level experience of the cuisine. And after all these years, they’re still doing a great job.” —Mario Carbone
“Matsuhisa paved the way for sushi to be accepted in America, and without him I would probably not be a sushi chef today.” —Yoya Takahashi
“Miso black cod and yellowtail with ponzu and jalapeño—every time you see these items on any menu, just thank chef Nobu and his restaurants.” —Dale Talde
It’s hard to quantify the impact Rene Redzepi’s Noma has had on the culinary world. From aesthetics to techniques, the restaurant ushered in a naturalistic and locavore-driven style that chefs the world over have emulated. His cooking put Nordic cuisine on the map, but it also encouraged countless chefs to not just look to France or Japan or somewhere outside their region for inspiration, but instead create food that is firmly rooted to a time and place and to their immediate surroundings.
“That restaurant told people that they could go and cook their own food and look at themselves in the environment they live in and the relationships you can grow to further what you do. That’s what the message has always been. It was never about cooking with spruce or fermented things. René Redzepi has such a clear vision of what he wants to do, and that’s inspiring.” —Fabián von Hauske Valtierra
“Noma was very influential in food and restaurant aesthetics. If you look at that shift from something that looked very manipulated—that defied the normal kinds of cooking—to something that was all about being very natural and organic, almost like it was unearthed from somewhere, I associate that shift with Noma.” —Corey Lee
Founded in 1945, Prince’s has long been a Nashville staple, serving blazingly spicy chicken that can wring sweat out of anyone’s brow. But in the last decade, that trademark heat hasn’t been confined to Tennessee. Across the country, from Howlin Ray’s in L.A. to Peaches Hothouse in Brooklyn, restaurants are offering their homage to the hot chicken trend Prince’s started. But it’s not just chicken shacks—even fine-dining chefs are inspired by the flavor. At the tasting-menu-only dining counter Catbird Seat, former chef Erik Anderson created a first course with the chicken’s spice profile in mind. In 2013 the James Beard Foundation awarded it the honor of its “American Classic” recognition.
“Look at all the people doing hot chicken—it’s because of Prince’s!” —Mei Lin
Gabrielle Hamilton’s little 19-year-old restaurant is small, and almost unassuming, but it brims with confidence. There has to be a level of self-assuredness to present simple dishes, well done, without a ton of ego-boosting culinary pyrotechnics on the plate. And as the New York dining scene the last two decades has been littered with the bones of failed restaurants, she’s shown that this personal—and sometimes eclectic—style of food can endure.
“I can taste every dish I’ve had there. I can think about how it made me feel. Seeing deviled eggs on her menu was what gave me the confidence to be a Southerner putting deviled eggs on a menu, which is kind of a funny thing. The food at Prune has zero ego, and it’s just delicious.” —Ashley Christensen
“It doesn’t matter if it’s out of the can or if it’s shrimp toast on Wonder Bread or it’s like perfectly braised rabbit with cornichons. It doesn’t matter. It’s just delicious.” —Miles Thompson
Born in Mexico City, Enrique Olvera moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America. When he returned home to open Pujol in 2000 at only 24 years of age, his cooking leaned heavily on the Eurocentric techniques he’d learned. But eventually he was challenged by a fellow chef to cook food inspired by his upbringing, not his training. He then set about creating a modern, upscale version of Mexican food, helping the cuisine gain the respect from the food world it had long deserved.
“He understood that he can elevate to 10 degrees’ difficulty on the presentation but also the flavors. For the first time, Mexican food was very elevated from a very artistic point of view also. You can eat with your eyes, too.” —Hugo Ortega
“Enrique, chefs in the U.S. who are Mexican, and chefs in Mexico were all looking toward Europe or New York City or other places for inspiration on what it meant to be a successful chef and what it meant to be in fine dining. People like Enrique and others in Mexico and in the U.S. are kind of just rejecting that idea and embracing Mexican food for what it is.” —Ray Garcia
Along with Michael’s and Chez Panisse, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago is a pioneer in California cuisine. Originally opened on the Sunset Strip in 1981, he moved to Beverly Hills in 1997. Spago was a pioneer in fusion cuisine, mashing up European and Asian flavors to create innovative and original food. Spago also helped push forward gourmet pizza in America, creating pies with unconventional toppings like smoked salmon and caviar. And in LA, many of the city’s best chefs, from Evan Funke at Felix to Michael Cimarusti at Providence, have cut their teeth inside Spago’s kitchen.
“Spago is an institution. They have those classics on the menu still, but they’re constantly evolving. They’re up-to-date with the trend of different ingredients and techniques. What I appreciate about Spago is you go in and the service is on point, the food is great, but it’s very LA. Like, you’re having a good time whether or not you’re sitting inside or outside on the patio.” —Mei Lin
“Wolfgang doesn’t get enough credit for being the person who really knocked down the physical wall between the dining room and the kitchen. And now all of my places are pretty much like that and open-air; you can sit right in front of the person who’s grilling your fish.” —Richard Blais
There are some restaurants that are so new that it’s hard to really judge how lasting their impact will be. But what Jessica Koslow’s daytime café Sqirl has created is an indelible vision of modern LA cooking. What started in 2011 as a place to make her unique preserves has turned into a café that eventually had a line to get its grain bowls or famous toasts. Even the cover of Koslow’s 2016 cookbook has countless imitators.
“Just look at what Jessica has created. How many places around the country want to be Sqirl?” —Miles Thompson
A big reason why the culinary world started focusing on nose-to-tail cooking again can be attributed to Fergus Henderson and St. John. He was creating dishes where even snouts, bone marrow, brains, and kidneys wouldn’t go to waste. It was an old style of cooking that hearkened back to a time when people really did have to make use of the full animal, but he showed that it wasn’t just the skeletal cuts that were delicious—the nasty bits were, too. He’s a chef’s chef who gave his peers confidence to serve food that pushed diners out of their comfort zone.
“I went to St. John. It was beautifully simple. There’s part of me [that was] like, “Oh, this is it?” As far as there was no pomp and circumstance. It was doing something that other people weren’t doing, which is highlighting and having a comfort with using the whole animal. And it triggers the conversation that is even more than just eating offal, but farm-to-table, nose-to-tail sustainability and using your resources and being creative about it. No part of edible food should be discarded. It’s making something beautiful out of what everyone else was kind of ignoring, or food that has been relegated to poor people.” —Ray Garcia
“Fergus cooks extremely bold. Lots of offal, lots of—you know—boom, boom, boom. Sauce, veg, meat, or something really simple, but high acid, high flavor. It’s very intense, bold cooking.” —Jimmy Papadopolous
Tucked in New York’s Lower East Side, Wylie Dufresne’s 65-seat restaurant was about exploring cutting-edge cuisine but also just asking the question “Why?” So much of cooking is traditions handed down through generations with the dictum of “This is how things are done” and not much more explanation beyond that. Dufresne wanted to use all available tools to understand the effects of techniques on food and flavor, and then take that knowledge to create new and unexpected dishes as well as advance our knowledge of food.
“Wylie Dufresne showed America that technical, molecular gastronomy can also be fun and tasty. He influenced and trained some of the best chefs around today.” —Nicholas Elmi
“Just his thought process on how Wylie wanted to put a dish together was very interesting. He was playing with different textures, playing with different flavor profiles, but making everything taste good together. And look at people that came from WD~50, like Christina Tosi, Alex Stupak, Rosio Sanchez, Malcolm Livingston. A bunch of these people went to work at Noma to be their pastry chef. He’s kind of built these people to be where they are today, and I really think that he’s an important and influential chef in the industry as well as the restaurant.” —Mei Lin
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