Top 10 Restaurants of The Year
Lessons learned after a six-month, 45,000-mile odyssey through hundreds of restaurants in 20 cities: eat more bread, do more day drinking and don't pass up the bologna.
Proclaiming that beer at last has a voice in American dining seems, well, passe. We’ve already extolled white tablecloth establishments that now mind their beer lists as they do their wine menus; we’ve celebrated the advent of the gastropub, whose very soul is in thoughtfully selected pints and homey, hearty plates. Yes, beer has a voice, but this year we discovered it also speaks a few languages. These new restaurants base their menus on varied global cuisines (Asian, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Mexican, Greek and more) and offer dynamic, well-curated beer lists tailored to play with the spice, texture and traditions of food from all corners of the world.
When beloved, decade-old beer bar SmallBar closed in November 2014, neighbors worried that the Division Street storefront would succumb to gentrification and become a bro-magnon sports bar or dainty cupcake boutique. They can exhale now; British-Indian tavern Pub Royale has filled the literal and metaphoric space that SmallBar left. The year-old pub comes from the Heisler Hospitality group, which seems to own half of the hippest bars in town. It’s offered a flavorful take on what a pub menu can be, maintaining an intriguing beer lineup that Heisler beverage manager Michael McAvena describes as “not American or global, but quality-first.” That means Off Color Troublesome gose on heavy rotation, a permanent line for renowned cider maker EZ Orchards, plus here-and-gone kegs of rarities from Local Option, Jolly Pumpkin and Pipeworks. The team sets off the whip-smart beer list with a shareable menu from chef Patrick Harrison: Some dishes lean British (beef cheek pie, for example); others are fusions (salt cod samosas); and still others are traditional recipes that Harris cribbed from his six months living in Northern India (eggplant curry, vegetable samosas). Though the food and beer are thoughtful, the pub is full of playful details that make a meal or nightcap feel whimsical. Take, for example, the frozen, rum-spiked mango lassi that goes down way too easy, or the surreal, colorfully painted wooden faces that grin from the western wall of the room. If the varied food, beers and atmosphere feel like kooky bedfellows, the overall experience is really quite cohesive. After all, Harris says, “India and the U.K. have a 500 or 600 year history of influencing each other. They’ve borrowed so much back and forth.” -K.B
Outside, the setting Santa Monica sun sizzles the Promenade’s pavement. Small dogs in pink harnesses pant listlessly outside juice bars as their owners order kale drinks and smoothies. Skateboarders whiz down sidewalks, headed for hot sandy beaches. Inside Cassia, though, the temperature feels as cool as can be.
Maybe it’s the concrete walls, polished metal light fixtures and spidery air plants that seem to take the heat down. Or maybe a cold, 4-ounce glass of Modern Times’ Fruitlands apricot gose slakes one’s thirst, paving the way for the spicy, flavorful dinner about to begin.
Cassia opened to much buzz last June, uniting two husband-and-wife teams, Bryant and Kim Ng and Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan. Food & Wine magazine named Bryant Ng a best new chef in 2012 for his now-shuttered restaurant The Spice Table; Loeb and Nathan own a handful of other Santa Monica restaurants: Rustic Canyon Wine Bar & Seasonal Kitchen, Huckleberry Bakery & Café, Milo & Olive, Esters Wine Shop & Bar and Sweet Rose Creamery.
Cassia doesn’t call itself a “beer restaurant;” it’s a South Asian-influenced brasserie that draws upon Bryant Ng’s ChineseSingaporean background and his wife’s Vietnamese heritage. But it sketches what a smart beer program looks like: a tight draft list, a small selection of impressive bottles and the option for all of those to play nice with your cocktails, wine and food.
“Cocktails, wine and beer function in different ways here,” says beverage director Kenny Arbuckle. “The wine is meant more for pairing with the meal; the cocktail program is what you want to drink before your dinner and there are a couple for after dinner; the beer has some components that are meant to go with the food, but it’s also just eight taps representing local interpretations of different styles.”
That means one or two steady Craftsman Brewing handles, as well as other Cali-brewed beers including gems from Almanac and Pizza Port. Shareable bottles include a handful of fun, global finds like Mikkeller Arh Hvad?! Belgian pale ale, and Pretty Things Field Mouse Farewell rye saison, both of which have enough heft to stand up to the menu’s chile- and funky fish sauce-laced dishes without obstructing them.
The option for 4-, 12- and 16-ounce pours makes it easy to taste, graze, pair, nibble and sip without commitment. And with stylistic variety among the taps, from a Scotch ale to an American lager, beers fit the diverse dishes that include addictive, ultralight tempura-style fried cauliflower florets and slightly nutty Kon Loh Mee egg noodles topped with char siu barbecued pork belly.
“It’s the same idea as having a smaller glass of wine or small plates throughout your meal,” Arbuckle says.
The 4-ounce pours encourage a little fun, too. A tiki-inspired Lava Flow Pina Colada cocktail comes with a tiny glass of the leftover blended cocktail for sharing with a friend. Chase those few ounces of slushy coconut sweetness with a half-pour of the Craftsmen Heavenly Hefeweizen for a tropical one-two punch, or start dinner with a dozen oysters and a glass of Almanac’s Ginger Gose.
Yes, maybe it is the sleek grey interior or fading daylight that makes Cassia feel like such an oasis. But some credit to the frozen pina colada with a hefeweizen chaser is probably in order, too.-K.B.
Full disclosure: Belgian beer is where it all began for me a dozen or so years ago. And fuller disclosure, I was starting to think the whole Belgian thing was disappearing, largely overshadowed by the American beer scene. And then a place like The Sovereign opens in Washington, D.C.—my neck of the woods—as if to smack me across the face for being so foolish.
The Sovereign is the latest project from the greater D.C. area’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which is responsible for much of the beer scene in the nation’s capital. The group also operates local icons ChurchKey, Birch & Barley and Bluejacket.
At The Sovereign, flickering lanterns form a zigzagging path on the driveway-width alley leading to the two-story Georgetown restaurant, which boasts a bar and plenty of candlelit ambiance on each of its floors. The lower level is a bit more subdued and intimate; it lacks the upstairs room’s two flat-screen TVs and has a greater booth/banquette-to-communal-table ratio.
The menu doesn’t adhere to any particular regional traditions within Belgium, but is rather a reflection of the country’s cosmopolitan capital. “It’s more what you’d find dining around Brussels, not Belgium at large. It’s more pan-European with a French slant,” explains Erik Bergman, director of operations at Neighborhood Restaurant Group. “Brussels offers a lot more flexibility for us than, say, a Flemish-type place.”
Choucroute Garnie is a prime example of this continental influence. In its rawest form, the dish common in the Alsace region of France is a collection of about five encased and cured meats served over sauerkraut, usually with potatoes. But Sovereign’s Brusselsinfluenced riff on the Alsatian staple is a complete reinvention: densely pressed—though remarkably tender—pork belly stuffed with bacon lardon, braadworst and juniper-caraway sauerkraut over silky whipped potatoes.
Meanwhile, the Belgian meatballs are like the Brussels-born offspring of Italian and Swedish parents: five spongy, pingpong ball-sized pork-and-beef spheres dressed in a savory witbiermustard cream sauce.
Of course, there must be frites. Sovereign doesn’t disappoint with its upmarket variation on greasy-spoon disco fries: thin-cut, deeply golden-brown fries engulfed in meaty, slow-cooked shortrib gravy and gooey melted cheese.
Dessertwise, it’s hard to go wrong with a Liege-style waffle (Gaufre Liegeoise on the menu), which is available in its basic, sugarcrusted form or with various accoutrements. I opted for sweet, fresh strawberries and billowy Chantilly cream over a fluffy waffle ensconced in pearl sugar caramelized to a creme brulee-like crispiness.
And that’s just the food.
The 50 taps are divided into three arrays, each section cooled to a different temperature that’s calibrated precisely for the family of styles being poured. The 350-bottle inventory occupies a climate-controlled cellar adjacent to the upstairs bar, visible through a glass-paned door.
The lineup gravitates toward farmhouse ales, featuring somewhat off-the-beaten-path (and often exclusive) kegs and bottles from Belgian breweries and the stateside operations they’ve inspired. Among the tap selections on my most recent visit were the spicy, peppery, mildly tart saison Vermontoise, the result of a collaboration between Belgium’s Brasserie de Blaugies and Green Mountain State favorite Hill Farmstead. Brouwerij De Ranke’s Saison De Dottignies, a more classic saison with a balance of floral and fruity notes, was also a standout, Sovereign demarcates its printed beer list by flavor components: “crisp,” “roast,” “malt, fruit + spice-bright,” “fruit + spice-dark,” “tart + funky” and “hop”—a lot of sensory diversity for what’s essentially a narrow stylistic grouping. This is definitely next-level Belgian. -J.C.
Here’s a Greek word to add to your vocabulary: taverna. Sort of a Hellenic cross between a pub and a bistro, the taverna’s a casual restaurant—usually family-run—where the neighborhood gathers for drinks (coffee, beer, wine) and an informal meal. It’s the sort of place Evan Turner fell in love with while spending his formative years between the ages of 11 and 18 in Greece, and it’s exactly the sort of place the restaurateur and sommelier thought was missing from his longtime home city of Houston.
“I wanted to do a modern Greek taverna that would serve regional Greek cuisine, coupled with the idea of ‘What would Greeks be doing if they were living in Texas?’” Turner says.
He explores that question with gusto at his 2015 James Beard Award-nominated restaurant, Helen. Located in Houston’s Rice Village neighborhood, the space’s exposed brick and rows of mirrors have contemporary appeal; a large metal portal housing dozens of wine bottles divides the narrow restaurant’s front and back halves. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” it’s not. “There isn’t blue and white all over the place; we don’t play bouzouki music all the time,” Turner says. “It doesn’t beat you over the head with its Greekness.”
The menu’s equally subtle, mapping thoughtful detours from traditional Greek food: Take stewed chicken paired with okra, baklava made with toasted pecans and topped with ice cream, or dolmades with collard greens in place of the standard grape leaf wrapping. That particular Texan twist is more traditional than you might think. “We found out that on one small Greek island, Ikaria, a traditional dish is collard green dolmades,” says chef William Wright. “We like to find these parallels between Texas and Greece and these small, regional specialty dishes from little villages that may have never left those places.”
The beer list looks a bit unusual, until you unearth its own Greco-Texan angle. “We like to say our beers come from two countries: Texas and Greece.” That means Hellenic lagers Alfa and Mythos by the bottle, constantly rotating drafts from well-known Texan brewers like (512) and gems from smaller Houston locals Karbach and 8th Wonder. (Helen also boasts the second-largest Greek wine list in the U.S., if that’s your thing.)
The cultural mashup at Helen might inspire you to wear cowboy boots and learn a few more Greek words. There’s only one more phrase you need to know, however: Boroume na fame? Its meaning: Can we eat? -Z.F.
There’s something undeniably breezy about Liholiho Yacht Club, the Hawaiian–inspired restaurant mere blocks from Union Square where “Aloha,”—spelled out in blue and white tiles—greets patrons and a long “ohana table” hosts large, convivial groups for family-style dining. An oversized portrait of a beautiful woman caught mid-laugh overlooks the bottled spirits and shiny chrome taps, her long black hair lifted by an ocean breeze. Beneath all of the ease, however, is an intense and artistically skillful menu that’s earned the restaurant critical acclaim; in March, the James Beard Foundation named Liholiho a Best New Restaurant finalist.
The man behind it all is Chef Ravi Kapur, who was born and raised on Oahu—the woman in the photo behind the bar is his mother, circa 1976. He’s a self-described “heritage-driven” chef, drawing from his native Hawaii to plate beautiful Asian-Hawaiian fusion dishes like twicecooked pork belly with pineapple, Fresno chiles, fennel and Thai basil or beef tongue topped with kimchi and tucked in a steamed poppy seed bun. There’s a sense of humor in the menu, too: The Baked Hawaii is a 50th-state take on the classic Baked Alaska, made with caramelized pineapple ice cream, vanilla shortbread and torched vanilla chiffon. Kapur even house-synthesizes his own version of Spam.
Taking cues from the food, Liholiho’s beer selection leans acidic, herbal and fruity (think New Belgium La Folie and Drake’s Hopocalypse on draft or Stillwater Gose Gone Wild and Cascade Blackberry by the bottle), with the occasional appearance by tropically influenced ales like Avery’s passion fruit-flavored Liliko’i Kepolo and Oskar Blues Death by Coconut. “Sour plays well with food the same way wine does, but I also like to get a little playful with it, having Hawaiian influences and playing on Liholiho’s heritage,” says bar director Yanni Kehagiaras.
Island spirit flows through Liholiho, from the food to the drinks to the restaurant’s very foundation. It grips you from the minute you enter, and after you finish your meal, you say “Aloha,” because you feel it—and because the phrase works both ways, of course. -Z.F.
Inspired by the casual cervejarias of his native Portugal, chef George Mendes opened the doors last April to one of the buzziest, beer-forward restaurants in New York City. In contrast to his stylishly clean, strikingly decadent, Michelin-starred ALDEA, Lupulo (the Portuguese word for hops) is consciously toned-down and boisterous: It’s more beer than wine, more hearty octopus stew and fleshy oysters than dainty dishes with sauce swirls. And that’s exactly what Mendes had in mind: “I have a tendency myself to gravitate toward eating at the bar, without too much obtrusive service. That’s what Lupulo aims for: the casualness of people eating at the bar, sitting next to each other. It’s a lot more convivial.”
The easily shared small (but never too-small) plates buoy that concept. Diners bandy flaky cod croquettes, mackerel spread on toast and crisp, roasted Brussels sprouts. And they’re encouraged to do the same with beer; 16 well-selected taps available in 5-ounce pours make for comfortable sampling. Ryan Mauban, formerly of Brooklyn’s Tørst, directs the beer program; he’s mindful of the interplay between food and drink, of the way rustic, shellfish-heavy and gamy Portuguese fare requires beers of a certain design. “You’ll rarely see the draft list run stout-heavy because of the style of cuisine, which includes a lot of raw seafood. Stouts just don’t lend well to it,” he says.
Instead, you’ll see vibrant saisons, lower-ABV Belgian beers, tart goses and Berliner weisses that are most always seafood-friendly. You’ll also see IPAs—more than a few of them—as fresh as can be. When possible, Mauban sources IPAs close to home, whisking beer from nearby breweries, like Brooklyn’s venerable Other Half, within three to six days of kegging.
Despite the considerable care both Mendes and Mauban exert to create the Lupulo experience, it never feels overwrought. It’s simple enough to stroll in after work or after the gym, post up at the bar and have a filling meal and a lovely beer. And that’s precisely the point. -E.R.
When it comes to Baja-style cooking, Tijuana-born Javier Plascencia is royalty; The New Yorker once hailed him the “figurehead of Baja cuisine.” His collection of successful restaurants includes acclaimed “Mexiterranean bistro” Romesco in Bonita, California, and several high-profile spots throughout Mexico, including Mision 19 and Erizo in Tijuana and Finca Altozano in Ensenada. Bracero, then, is another jewel in his crown; the San Diego restaurant opened in July of last year and has a weeks-long waiting list for reservations.
Located on a busy corner in Little Italy, the space spans two stories with both a patio and second-floor terrace, inviting diners to savor the city’s perfect climate. Throughout, modern lines meet rustic touches—antiquated farming implements decorate sandorange walls, wood bowls and clay pottery dot clean, iron shelves. Between both floors hangs a massive metal contraption built of mobile hoes that slowly extend and retreat, tilling an invisible field. It’s a mechanized art installment inspired by the Bracero Program of the 1940s, when the U.S. government imported thousands of temporary Mexican laborers to fill the void left by young Americans fighting overseas. It all ties together: “Bracero” is Spanish for “manual laborer” or “one who works using his arms;” diners get their own glimpse of busy arms inside the glass-ensconced kitchens, where chefs wrangle three-foot fires and man smoking grill tops; on the ground level, they grind masa for made-to-order tortillas in plain view.
The fruit of that labor comes to the table in dishes like Bracero’s Carrot Aguachile, a sort of Mexican-style ceviche in which bhut jolokia—the dreaded “ghost pepper”—is a well-placed accent rather than a culinary stunt. Move next to the stunning Wood Grilled Octopus, in which snappy skin plays against crunchy yuzu-roasted peanuts and smooth olives like a textural orchestra. The star of Bracero’s menu is the Niman Ranch Delmonico Pork Chop: sweet pork cooked to tender perfection atop a bed of dried cherries and an Ancho Reyes-spiked mole sauce we’d be perfectly happy to spread on everything from breakfast toast to pizza. Finish with the Ponche, an apple tart served with Mexican cinnamon ice cream and guava. And, as we’d expect from Mexican cuisine, it all pairs perfectly with a cold pint.
Bar manager Christian Siglin presides over the beer menu; he created the award-winning beer and cocktail program at San Diego’s Craft & Commerce and, later, managed the bar at Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant. Here, he whips up cocktails like the Javier Wallbanger, a superb take on a Harvey Wallbanger twisted with allspice and wellaged tequila, and selects wines mostly from Valle de Guadalupe—Mexico’s Napa Valley. But you’re here for the beer, and his 12 taps are a thoughtful mix of lauded California locals like Modern Times, Alpine and Alesmith. Perhaps more notably, you’ll find easy-drinking craft brews straight from Mexico that are found on draft virtually nowhere else. “The availability of the Mexican beers makes it tough to keep them on draft at all times, but I think it’s important to have them represented,” Siglin says. “When they’re good, they’re good.”
Por ejemplo: the chuggable Tiniebla witbier from Cerveceria Insurgente in Tijuana, Ensenada-based Cervecería Wendlandt’s tropical Perro Del Mar IPA and the smooth Mantarraya oatmeal stout from Agua Mala Cervezeria, also from Ensenada. These gentler-on-the-palate brews are indicative of the entire beer selection, which Siglin designed to play off of chef Plascencia’s plates: “I wanted to select approachable beers and to have them work with the food. They’re a little lighter. I didn’t want someone ordering a giant double IPA or imperial stout and having it overpower the dishes.”
You can, however, amp up the flavor (and ABV) of any beer by turning it into a mezcal- or tequila-chased boilermaker for $7. Why not? The tequila selection is choice, and it’ll be weeks before you’re able to get a reservation again. -Z.F.
This semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant 2015 award isn’t terribly keen on labeling its cuisine: “We’re a nondenominational noodle bar” is as specific as general manager/co-owner Arlin Smith gets. But no matter. The 36-seat, loosely Asian-leaning spot from the owners behind runaway hit (and next-door neighbor) Eventide Oyster Co. found its niche precisely by not defining its niche. The only dish that’s never left the menu since the restaurant’s April 2015 opening is the lobster tartine, a lobster salad served cold atop an open-faced lobster toast with paper-thin radishes and ink-black hijiki seaweed. Aside from that signature plate, you might find handmade extruded Italian pastas mingling with large plates like a huge smoked pork chop with saag; or a whole Korean fried chicken served with skillet coconut cornbread, kimchi and fermented greens. To select beers that jive with this varied, builtfor-sharing menu, the team went decidedly nonlocal with the tap selection (Eventide’s list draws more heavily from Maine breweries), bringing in draft s from Belgium’s De La Senne and St. Bernardus alongside bottled beer made anywhere from Japan to Colorado. The exotic beers, vibrant flavors and even the seating (all counter or communal) are designed to feel unlike anything in Portland, says Smith: “It definitely takes people out of their comfort zone, but once you’re in it, it’s really warm.” The young, bespectacled daters slurping khao soi and listening to the vinyl soundtrack certainly agree. -K.B.
If you don’t know Stephanie Izard—well, how do you not know Stephanie Izard? The accomplished chef was the first woman to win “Top Chef” in 2008; she’s since been named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2011, the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2013, and has authored a cookbook titled “Girl In The Kitchen.” Her two Chicago restaurants, Girl & The Goat and its casual, across-the-street sibling Little Goat Diner, continue to draw crowds, as will her latest project: the casual, 100-seat Duck Duck Goat, which opened nearby at the end of March.
Unlike her first two restaurants, Duck Duck Goat focuses Izard’s talents on one country’s cuisine: China. But under that large umbrella, Izard describes the food as a hodgepodge of authentic and familiar dishes informed by her travels to Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Taiwan and American Chinatowns, including hot soups, fried rice, housemade egg rolls and wontons. Each day, the kitchen whips up 12 types of dough for the varied noodle dishes.
Izard has a literal partner to oversee the beer side of the menu: Her husband, Gary Valentine, directs the beer programs for all three of her restaurants. At Duck Duck Goat, Valentine decided to go with canned, mostly under-7% beers on the standard menu, with a small reserve list of larger-format, splurge-worthy bottles that might include Firestone Walker Parabola or Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.
“I’m not really trying to pair; what I’m trying to do is make sure a great portion of this beer menu can go with a great portion of the food,” Valentine says, citing versatile brews like Boulevard Ginger Radler, Tsingtao lager and Bells Oberon. “It’s simple, but it covers all the bases. There’s nothing on this beer list where you’re going to say, ‘Oh my god’ when you see it, but you can try different beers while you’re jumping around the food menu.”
This approach to the beer lineup is in synch with the way Izard describes Duck Duck Goat’s food: “Choose your own adventure.” -K.B.
NEW YORK CITY, 162 Orchard St., wassailnyc.com
Where does a pagan ritual from England’s apple-growing region find a home in Manhattan’s Lower East Side? Only at Wassail, a cider-focused haunt that’s rooted in the idea of harvest, now blossoming in sleek digs on Orchard Street.
The word wassail has held many meanings through the centuries; the restaurant adopts its English tradition, where the community gathers around the largest tree in the orchard and makes loud noises to ward off evil spirits while pouring cider on the roots to ensure a healthy harvest. The concept springs to life in Wassail’s moody space: A chandelier with laser-cut leather dangles from the ceiling; when the light shines through it, shadow puppets of wassailers and trees are cast across the wall.
The restaurant is the brainchild of husband and wife Ben Sanders and Jennifer Lim and their partner Sabine Hrechdakian, who helps stage Cider Week NY. Sanders and Lim are the duo behind five-year-old Queens Kickshaw, a sunny spot in Astoria with delectable grilled cheese sandwiches, an extensive craft beer list and a small but impressive cider program (the seed for Wassail’s fully realized one). Here, cider is both a cornerstone and a reverie, with more than 100 bottles and 12 drafts of thoughtfully curated, real stuff. And on that point, Sanders is specific: nothing from concentrated juice, nothing made in an industrial fashion. Cider with integrity, he insists. The list showcases an ever-rotating swirl of New England cider makers, like Eve’s Cidery and Orchard Hill, alongside the rare and wonderful versions from Europe; funky ciders from Spain, tannic ones from France.
Like Queens Kickshaw, Wassail serves only vegetarian fare, and like its sister restaurant, that doesn’t mean you’ll get a lightweight plate. White lasagna or scarlet runner bean cassoulet—with hunks of market vegetables strewn throughout—emblemize the menu’s hearty, homey sensibility. And the menu itself mirrors the wassail tradition’s cognizance of time; all of the dishes, even the cheese plate, turn over with the passing of the seasons. -E.R.
Lessons learned after a six-month, 45,000-mile odyssey through hundreds of restaurants in 20 cities: eat more bread, do more day drinking and don't pass up the bologna.
It’s officially party season. Time to invite friends over, fire up the grill, and chill the rosé. We tapped the coolest.
With a chocolaty shell and amazing, grown-up sweet-and-savory flavor combos, a better question would be: Who doesn't?