Today, Esquire magazine announces its Best New Restaurants In America list. For the first time, Jeff Gordinier presides over the festivities, and the ex-New York Times scribe dishes on his methodology in an exclusive email interview, which is edited and condensed for your reading pleasure below. But first, a teaser “top 5” of the top 18; for the whole list, as well as chefs of the year and other categories, visit Esquire.com, or pick up the November issue, on newsstands October 24.
- Felix Trattoria (Venice, CA)
- The Grill & The Pool (New York City)
- JuneBaby (Seattle, WA)
- Coquine (Portland, OR)
- Roister (Chicago, IL)
Your top 5 encompass Italian, classic American fine dining, Southern, French and more casual or new American (in that order). Were you aiming to be so democratic or did it just turn out that way?
Some people grow up as theater geeks. I guess I grew up as a restaurant geek — as a kid I always got excited when my family walked into a restaurant in Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York City. The movement and language and energy of a great restaurant felt like a show to me, whether the place was a taqueria or Michel Richard’s Citrus. I’m always looking for that. You feel that sort of energy at The Grill and you feel it at Tartine Manufactory (San Francisco, #14 on the list), even though they’re very different enterprises. It’s not just about the food. It’s about the hospitality, the music, the lighting, a contagious sense of collective enjoyment. I got that at JuneBaby in Seattle — Edouardo Jordan is a terrific chef but he’s also hosting a party, he’s got this positive spirit that everyone seems to pick up on when he’s in the kitchen. At Han Oak (Portland, OR, #8) you feel like you’re at Peter Cho and Sun Young Park’s house — because you basically are! When I ate there, Peter Cho’s mom was in the kitchen wrapping dumplings. At Tartine Manufactory I wound up sitting at a communal table (I went there directly from the airport so I had my backpack with me) and I fell into a spirited conversation about shelling beans and cucamelons with the other folks sitting next to me — very San Francisco. When I stepped into Tartine Manufactory I actually felt kind of grouchy, I was like, “Screw this, I just got off a plane, I don’t want to wait in line, I don’t want to sit with anyone else,” but that’s the weird magic of what Elisabeth Prueitt has achieved there — within a few minutes I felt all blissed out. I don’t know how the place works but it does.
What else can you tell us about the methodology for the list?
I gave a lot of thought to the list — maybe too much thought, if you ask my editors. What wound up being a crucial factor to me was the simple question of “How did the restaurant make me feel?” Did I feel better when I walked out of the restaurant than I did when I’d walked in? Would I go back? Would I send my friends there? And therefore would I send Esquire‘s readers there? I wanted to choose the sort of restaurants that you ache to return to again and again. Not the places where you go once, obliterate your retirement savings, get strafed with 25 courses, and leave feeling bloated and weary. If I’m in Los Angeles, I’m going to go back to Felix Trattoria. If I’m in Seattle, I’m heading straight for JuneBaby. Here in New York, I find myself swinging back around to Atla again and again — in fact, merely strolling by the restaurant on Lafayette Street has a way of luring me inside, as if Daniela Soto-Innes has attached a tractor beam to the front door — and when friends of mine visit New York City and ask me for restaurant recommendations, I automatically instruct them to go to Chumley’s for Victoria Blamey’s cooking. Why is that? I used to write about music and movies, years ago. I suppose I thought of this task in reference to my previous beats, as a writer. What are the records you keep returning to? There are albums by Prince and the Clash and A Tribe Called Quest and R.E.M. and Cat Power and Erykah Badu, et cetera, that I never seem to grow weary of.
After a year of traveling and trying all these places and more, what kept you feeling inspired, and on the flip side, what trends exhausted you?
What inspires me is seeing a new generation of talent coming up. Edouardo Jordan at JuneBaby, Katy Millard at Coquine, Iliana Regan at Kitsune, Victoria Blamey at Chumley’s, Joseph Lenn at J.C. Holdway, Miles Thompson at Michael’s in Santa Monica (he’s our Rising Star for the year) — journalists tend to get stuck covering the same chefs over and over, so it’s exciting to break out of that rut and take a look at the cooking that’s going to define the next decade or so. As for what exhausted me, well, it’s obvious from a conspicuous absence on Esquire‘s list: marathon tasting menus. We didn’t include any tasting menus — aside from Alter, in Miami, where Bradley Kilgore’s menu is short and affordable. I experienced a lot of long tasting menus and I ate many exquisite dishes and I often admired what the chefs were up to, but at a certain point I had to be brutally honest with myself. “Do I really want to eat this way?” For me the answer was no. The surrendering of choice, the constant interruptions from servers, the overload of calories, the confusing blur of flavors, the feeling of being trapped at a table for hours on end — let’s face it, too often, tasting menus just aren’t a lot of fun. I discreetly started to float the idea with people I know and the uniformity of the reactions surprised me. Other food writers, chefs, restaurateurs, customers, friends — I kept hearing, “Oh, God, I hate tasting menus, please make them stop.” Since we had a strong overarching theme for this Esquire list — restaurants that you keep going back to, restaurants that deliver simple pleasures — I had to wonder whether tasting menus qualified, since they’re often once-in-a-lifetime experiences. You don’t become a regular at a tasting menu restaurant. Philosophically I sort of think of tasting menus the way we used to think of double (or triple) albums by bands. In the hands of Prince or the Clash or Magnetic Fields or the Rolling Stones, sure, I’m willing to go the distance with Sign O’ the Times, London Calling, 69 Love Songs, and Exile on Main St., respectively. But most of the time, with your average band, a double or triple album is too much damn music. Same with tasting menus. It’s a “don’t try this at home” sort of thing. Just let us order stuff.
These lists always inspire some backlash. Anything that you are bracing for?
I’m sure I missed some place that’s great. I’m already torturing myself about that. (Pete Wells recently mentioned one to me, argh.) Because of the realities of time and budgets and family demands (I have two kids whom I love to spend time with), it turns out that it’s impossible to hit every single city in America in the course of a few weeks, although I tried my best. This is my first time putting together such a list. I welcome feedback. If I missed certain restaurants and chefs, I hope our readers will let me know. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to continue doing the list in the years to come, and criticism should, ideally, lead to improvement. A little while ago I had a lively and eye-opening conversation with David Chang about the types of chef-driven restaurants that tend to dominate these lists — and how journalists can continue opening up to a broader spectrum of places. That’s on my mind as we move forward.
“It’s awesome to see chefs of this caliber applying their talents to the welcoming, nourishing grace of a neighborhood restaurant. Bigger isn’t always better.”
The inclusion of Coquine, Olmsted (#11) and Alter (#10) signal the strength of the neighborhood restaurant. Why do you think these chefs choose to focus on a smaller audience when they could evidently go bigger?
Neighborhood restaurants are at a whole new level nowadays. Look at Coquine: chef Katy Millard worked at Maison Troisgros in France and Coi in San Francisco, to name just a couple of places from her resume. (Coquine is a neighborhood restaurant in the best, truest sense: it’s actually sitting there in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and if I lived there I would be a regular.) Greg Baxtrom of Olmsted worked at Alinea and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Victoria Blamey of Chumley’s worked at Corton and Atera! It’s awesome to see chefs of this caliber applying their talents to the welcoming, nourishing grace of a neighborhood restaurant. Bigger isn’t always better.
Besides the list there are a handful of categories, like “year of the classic comeback.” Why are some places coming back when conventional wisdom is to always focus on the new?
Look, there’s a part of me that bucks against this whole “new” restaurant fetish. I think we ought to do more to honor the great restaurants already in our midst. Friends of mine know that if I didn’t happen to have this job, I’d probably just keep going back to the established spots that I love — Via Carota, Prune, Emilio’s Ballato, Mission Chinese Food, Fish & Game, Estela, Roman’s. (A lot of food writers semi-secretly feel the same way.) Way too many classics are fading away right now, getting pushed out by punitively high rents, and it’s encouraging to see counter-examples — Daniel Patterson taking over Alfred’s steakhouse in San Francisco, chef Miles Thompson and restaurateur Chas McCarty (the son of Michael McCarty) bringing new life to Michael’s in Santa Monica, Danny Meyer refusing to let Union Square Cafe go gentle into that good night, Alessandro Borgognone (love him or hate him) restoring and reviving Chumley’s in the West Village. Nothing lasts forever. But these places matter. They’re part of the community. We want them to stick around because we love them and because they are essential to the cultural mosaic of a city. Losing a restaurant like Michael’s — or letting it fade into obsolescence — would be like losing a great theater, a bookstore, a music venue. I was just in Memphis and you can feel how important a place like Cozy Corner is. It’s about history and community.
Last question: You have to choose one dish from all the restaurants listed as the best thing you ate all year. What is it?
When I get hungry I start thinking of the burger at Chumley’s, the fried bologna sandwich at Roister, the lamb ribs at Flora Bar, the pork belly at Han Oak, the roast chicken at Coquine, the fish milanese with fresh tortillas at Atla. But in some ways the dish that summed up the year for me was the round, puffy, olive-oil-splashed, hot-to-the-fingertips sfincione bread that comes first to your table at Felix. The bread is incredibly delicious, but it’s more than that — when I tore off a shred of that bread, I knew in my bones that we were about to get a spectacular meal from chef Evan Funke. The bread said: “This place pays close attention to the details.” My 15-year-old daughter, Margot, was at the table with us when I ate at Felix over the summer. Margot knew I was putting together this Esquire list, and toward the end of the dinner Margot (who is a much tougher critic than I am) said, “How can you not make this place #1?” She had a point. The dishes that followed that sfincione were so good that they generated a kind of euphoria.