By Thane Peterson What's the best restaurant in the U.S.? That question can provoke big arguments among businesspeople who travel frequently and are passionate about good food. Being first in your set to discover a great place to eat during a business trip can make up for an awful lot of flight delays, kidney-jarring taxi rides, and soggy room-service salads.
The October issue of Gourmet magazine offers up its list of the top 50 U.S. restaurants -- and it deserves attention as we move back toward normal daily life. It's already giving a big boost to some of the eateries that made the cut. "Our business is out of control," says Paul Kahan, the 38-year-old chef-owner of Chicago's trendy Blackbird (No. 33), which also earned a recent rave review in The New York Times.
As far as I know, this is the first time a magazine with Gourmet's credentials has flat-out tried to rate the best U.S. restaurants -- as opposed to rating the best in each city or the ones with the best new chefs or top wine cellars. "It takes tremendous resources. There's lot of traveling, eating, and fighting [among the editors]," says Ruth Reichl, Gourmet's editor-in-chief, who was previously the top restaurant critic for The New York Times. Says Reichl: "You have to be nuts to try it."
LAND OF PLENTY. The list is significant because it could be a major step toward creating a national arena in which fine restaurants anywhere in the U.S. can compete with one another, rather than against other local champions. That's the way things are in France, where every halfway decent restaurant is regularly rated by critics from the Gault Millau and Michelin guides.
"This is much more of a Michelin approach, where a lot of the [top] restaurants are out in the country and really tied to the land," notes Clark Frasier, co-chef and co-owner of Arrows in Ogunquit, Maine, which ranked No. 26.
What really struck me about Gourmet's list is that only one of the top eight choices -- Jean Georges, at 1 Central Park West -- is in New York City. The other three restaurants in the top four are all in California: Chez Panisse in Berkeley is No. 1, while the French Laundry in Napa Valley is No. 3, followed by Spago in Beverly Hills at No. 4.
Many of the other entries are in out-of-of-the-way spots not generally associated with fine cuisine. No. 5, for instance, is the Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Ala. A lot of New Yorkers would be astonished by the suggestion that Alabama has produced a restaurant that outranks all but one of the Big Apple's best.
POSITIVE INFLUENCE. Other entries in Gourmet's top 50 are in places like Madison, Wis., Whitehouse, N.J., Durham, N.C., and Farmington Hills, Mich. Improbably, Portland, Ore., Cleveland, and the state of Maine each landed two restaurants on the list. "It isn't about what kind of wine glass or table linen a restaurant has. It's about what's on the plate," says Parker Bosley, whose Parker's restaurant in Cleveland was No. 30. "Three or four years ago, we never would have been included." Adds Judy Rodgers, chef-owner at San Francisco's Café Zuni (No. 36): "It's a statement that good food is now happening all over the country."
The Gourmet list spotlights a sea change in American cooking. Many of the choices are renowned big-city restaurants in the grand tradition of American fine dining: Jean Georges (No. 2) and Le Bernadin (No. 10) in New York City, and Charlie Trotter's (No. 7) in Chicago belong in that category. But Gourmet gives equal billing to smaller restaurants that are part of a new tradition of American cooking that largely stems from the culinary style of Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse (No. 1) in Berkeley.
A subtext of the list is the extraordinary influence Waters and Chez Panisse have had on American cooking in the 30 years since the restaurant opened. I called chefs from half a dozen of the smaller restaurants included on the list, and all but two of them had worked at Chez Panisse at one time or another. Now they're following and expanding upon the Waters approach of using fresh, simple ingredients from local farmers to create an ever-changing menu of seasonal dishes served in unpretentious surroundings.
GREEN GIANTS. "Chez Panisse is really why I do what I do," says Frank Stitt, chef-owner of the Highlands Bar & Grill, who helped out at Waters' restaurant while he was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. "It was the paradigm."
Many of these restaurants are strong supporters of organic growing techniques and the other principles of sustainable agriculture. Arrows has its own huge organic garden and greenhouse tended by three full-time gardeners. Stitt is on the board of Chef's Collaborative, a group of 1,500 chefs and others who promote sustainable agriculture. He also advises Alabama's governor on sustainable agriculture and promotes the cause on a talk-radio show.
Another important trend evident in the Gourmet list is the growing importance of Mexican and other Latino food. Chicago's famed Topolobampo, whose founders Rick and Diana Bayless are the pioneers of haute Mexican cuisine, is No. 20. But the list also includes the little-known Café Azul (No. 47) in Portland, Ore., which does its own take on Mexican food. "We were really surprised to be included. Until the fact checkers called, we didn't even know the list was happening," says Canadian-born Claire Archibald, the restaurant's chef and co-founder (and another Chez Panisse alum).
ON A ROLL. Happily, it doesn't always cost an arm and a leg to get a good meal at many of these restaurants. Bosley, for one, is planning to turn Parker's into more of a bistro early next year and to cut its already reasonable prices. At San Francisco's Café Zuni, Rodgers is proud that you can still dine on a bowl of polenta for $5 or a hamburger for $9.50.
That's not just any hamburger, either. It's made of organic beef hand-ground at the restaurant, served on a homemade bun with homemade mayo and pickles and organic lettuce. "If everyone ordered it, I'd go bankrupt," Rodgers says. "People have no idea how much labor goes into something like that."
Reichl says she isn't sure if Gourmet will take another run at the ranking next year. "We'll only do it again if it looks like the list would change significantly," she says. I hope Gourmet does make it a regular, perhaps every three years -- if not annually. And I hope other critics decide to create their own national top-restaurant lists. If restaurateurs benchmark themselves against the best in the nation, instead of the best down the road, it can only be good for the important cause of cooking and eating well.
Gourmet's Top 10
Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif.
Jean Georges, New York City
The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.
Spago, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Highlands Bar & Grill, Birmingham, Ala.
Alan Wong's Restaurant, Honolulu
Charlie Trotter's, Chicago
Ginza Sushiko, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Daniel, New York City
Le Bernadin, New York City
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online