Creating a comprehensive "best of" list is a complicated and Herculean task. Few are better suited to comment (and rank!) the state of American dining than Eater's national critic.
— Kristen Hawley
Eater’s national restaurant critic, Bill Addison, has the enviable job of traveling across the country to cities large and small in search of the essential dining experience.
He spends three weeks per month on the road, visiting places from buzzy upstarts to the ultimate classics. Each year, he compiles a list of the 38 essential American restaurants, a list that’s different from other “best-of” lists in that it’s not made up entirely of fine dining or even brand new places. After sitting down to over 500 on-the-job meals in 2017, he’s in a unique position to comment on the current state of American dining.
Skift Table spoke to Addison about his role, his current favorite spots, and the state of restaurant criticism in today’s unique restaurant climate. He says not much surprises him, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of untold stories and fascinating meals from across the country — beyond the expected food-focused enclaves of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Skift Table: Your Eater Essential restaurants list is different than any out there. How do you approach compiling a list of essential restaurants in America, from fine dining to more casual, local favorites?
Bill Addison: This is the fourth of these lists that I’ve put together, so I’m into my fourth year with Eater as their national critic. Everything I do is sort of in ultimate service to this list. And you’re right, there are a lot of lists out there. But this one tries to define what American dining is in 38 restaurants.
Every year I return to plenty of places and [because of this] I understand the food cultures of so many cities so much better. I’m trying to piece together a complete mosaic of what it means to dine in America right now. That doesn’t just mean the hottest new restaurants either. It certainly means modern influential restaurants, but it also includes places that have a certain timelessness but are still really relevant in their communities, really influencing what other chefs are doing, or just really modeling excellence.
ST: What’s the most exciting or unexpected food city right now?
BA: I would think Portland, Maine right now, is incredible. That’s a tiny town …it’s 66,000 people. But man, what a restaurant scene. Every time I go there I find more and more restaurants that are almost a microcosm of the larger cities in America. You have fantastic places to eat sushi and eat Asian noodle bowls, but you also have chefs at restaurants like Drifters, which is a restaurant I really have my eye on. The chef cooks from very local ingredients, and the owners have a wine shop at back of the restaurant with an incredible selection that leans towards natural wines. It’s an incredibly multicultural dining scene. For a tiny coastal town that sees so much tourist traffic in the summer, year round it also supports a really unusually wonderful dining scene, much more so than even in some bigger cities around America.
Honolulu is really great right now. You have the traditional Hawaiian restaurants, like Helena’s that have always introduced people to the very specific mix of cultures that make the food of Hawaii singular on the planet. It has an incredibly buzzy restaurant that’s given it a lot of attention, called Senia. It’s two chefs who worked at Per Se, one of whom is a native of Hawaii.
They follow a trend that’s happening right now in American restaurants where there’s kind of a double duty aspect in some way to the restaurant. They serve an a la carte menu that’s very modern American, and large format presentations that reflect a lot of what’s going on on modern restaurant menus in mainland America.
I don’t honestly think at this point that there’s a bad “restaurant city” in America. It’s just that in some cities there are one or two restaurants that stand way out from the pack. And in other places, like Portland and Honolulu, you’re getting this crucial number of really interesting restaurants that come from a lot of different perspectives and that kind of give the whole city a creative boost.
ST: Do you think that those cities are leaning on restaurants to fuel their tourism? Have you seen more frequently cities touting their chefs and their restaurants as the main draw?
BA: Yes, definitely. I think those two, obviously, are two destination cities for tourism. But I would say, for example, Houston is a huge city, so I wouldn’t call that a quote “small market” unquote. But it doesn’t get the respect that the other larger cities do. I’ve seen billboards here, sponsored by Houston tourism, that feature a chef, Chris Shepherd, whose restaurant Underbelly really shook things up a few years ago, and drew a spotlight on the city.
He called what he did at the restaurant “The story of Houston dining.” And by that he meant, Houston is the most racially diverse city in America now. His menu reflects many of the dishes beloved in the immigrant populations around Houston. The good thing about Chris’ efforts, and where I like where we’re going in American dining, is that instead of going to Chris Shepherd’s restaurant to – speaking frankly – a white man’s interpretation of these immigrant population’s restaurants, more and more people are going to the restaurants themselves. And in fact, at Underbelly, they’ll give you a guide to the restaurants that inspire the restaurant’s menu, and encourage you to visit them. I love that.
ST: This is a topic we’re exploring at Skift Table, restaurants as experience design.
BA: This has been said before, but I think even in saying this, it’s evolving. Restaurants are popular culture now. Restaurants are a cultural lens now, and you can choose if you are in search of a high-minded experience, there are very intellectual tasting menus in most every city in America. You can go and understand that you’re having something that is hopefully delicious, but also something that is insanely thought through, and worked over, and with layers of, almost reference to technique, and where they learned these things, and who came up with these ideas. And at the same time, if you want blockbuster matinee version of a restaurant experience you go to the most recent hot chicken opening and stand in line, the way people used to stand in line for other experiences.
ST: Which way do you see trends traveling? Big cities to smaller markets, or larger cities taking inspiration from smaller places?
BA: I think the great thing about dining in America now is that almost anything is possible. I feel like for every example I can give you of things moving towards the coast, sometimes there’s an example of something that comes out of an unexpected place in America that’s so thoroughly original.
I guess when you’re talking about what Instagram and social media and how that influences other things, I feel like what it really comes down to, in a lot of ways, is the interest of the local dining population. If somebody does what they do really well, and the local population recognizes it, then it will take off, and the country will take notice.
ST: What has surprised you over the last year?
BA: This is a time of infinite possibility in dining in America, so it won’t shock me when something wholly unexpected emerges from a city that might before have not received such culinary acclaim.
One thing that I have found fascinating that I was not expecting, was a nationwide, almost instant revival of serious French cuisine. I think that started on the coasts with restaurants like Petit Trois in Las Angeles and Le Coucou in New York. But it’s spread everywhere. I can go to almost every city and find a new restaurant that is taking French food very seriously.
There are some expected boomerangs in the restaurant culture. It’s a divisive time in America and so we turn to comfort food. The nation’s comfort food at this point is really Italian, or Italian-American cuisine, so it hasn’t been so surprising to see a whole bunch of Italian restaurants opening up. But I was surprised by the reclamation of French cuisine. French cuisine ruled what Americans thought of as restaurant dining for so long, that suddenly when Americans were like, “No, no. We’re going to be proud, in our own style, in our own regions, in our own ingredients.” And there was this majority rejection of French cuisine.
In a lot of places, of course in New York, which isn’t that far from Europe, you could always find that cute bistro. But when we’re talking about power chefs getting behind a hot concept, or something that feels really modern, but is doing something based in deep tradition, it usually wasn’t French. That just completely changed in the last two years.
ST: We’ve all read the headlines and I’m curious about your take on a critic’s role in the current restaurant climate amid lots allegations of harassment or abuse.
BA: My take on it is when we’re hearing particularly from critics – like Pete Wells at the New York Times, and Craig LaBan at the Philadelphia Inquirer – they’re coming from the perspective of a city-based restaurant critic. Whose job, particularly as Craig LaBan has spelled out, is to relay a restaurant experience as an advocate for the consumer, for the reader. So your primary job is to evaluate the food, the hospitality, the atmosphere, to put it in a context for the cuisine it’s serving, and the city in which it serves this cuisine, and to hopefully write that evaluation in informative and enlightening prose.
As a national critic, I am thinking a little more deeply about this, because I have the privilege of being able to choose what I cover. This doesn’t mean that I am necessarily moralizing which restaurants that I choose. But I am aware, more than ever, that I can choose to cover a more diverse breadth of restaurants. I also feel like, whether they like it or not, critics are public arbiters of taste and trend.
I’m thinking about ways to cover people other than the big players, who get a ton of financial and media backing. I’m looking to see who really most deserves to be covered, who’s not been covered as much in restaurant criticism.