The end of the calendar year was once the only stretch when “best of” lists would clog our email inboxes. Now these pronouncements seem to come more frequently, with the spring season—and its assorted awards nominations—emerging as a prime time. In the past couple of weeks, the James Beard Foundation, OpenTable, Food & Wine magazine and Elite Traveler magazine all released best-chef or best-restaurant picks—some chosen by the dining public, others by the professional community.
It’s a given that these lists will share some of the same nominees. Restaurants Alinea in Chicago and Per Se in New York, for example, claim top spots as fine-dining meccas. But commonalities were not limited to culinary superstars with high-end tasting menus. There is a noticeable casualization trend, with places known for inventive comfort food or artfully constructed sandwiches also earning kudos. These five trends stand out.
1. Second-tier cities offer first-rate dining experiences
New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco still dominate the best chef/restaurant lists, but cities such as Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Asheville, N.C, Birmingham, Ala., and Portland, Maine now have skin in the game. On OpenTable’s Top 100 Hot Spots, a consumer-generated list, San Diego saw the biggest increase in restaurants mentioned and Richmond, Va. appeared on the list for the first time.
2. Getting hyper about local and seasonal
Farm-to-table cuisine no longer differentiates a restaurant—now it’s more about evoking a sense of a specific place and time. In sourcing ingredients for Heyday in Minneapolis, Food & Wine Best New Chef Jim Christiansen was inspired by stints at Noma in Copenhagen and Faviken in rural Sweden. Pickled elderberry flowers, sweet woodruff and foraged mushrooms accent his menu with hyperseasonal flavor. Chef John Fleer, James Beard nominee at Rhubarb restaurant in Asheville, turns local collard greens into kimchee, and glazes North Carolina sweet potatoes with sorghum, to give hyperlocal ingredients global flair.
3. Breakfast is champion
Brennan’s reopened in New Orleans late in 2014—and a few months later, Chef Slade Rushing was nominated in the category of Best Chef: South by the James Beard Foundation. While Rushing has impacted the menu with his contemporary touches, the famous Breakfast at Brennan’s remains a signature and traffic builder. At Milktooth in Indianapolis, Food & Wine Best New Chef Jonathan Brooks pays more attention to breakfast and brunch than dinner, offering dishes such as porridge prepared with ancient grains and coconut milk; fried bologna with dried plum hoisin and Sriracha aioli; and soft scrambled eggs with osetra caviar and crème fraiche.
4. Competition at the bar
Concepts that focus on handcrafted cocktails and house-brewed beer are winning points as dining destinations. Prominent on OpenTable’s Top 100 List are two Chicago hot spots: speakeasy Untitled and tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash. Also making the cut are Sub Zero Vodka Bar in St. Louis, Prohibition Restaurant & Speakeasy in Miami and Bathtub Gin in New York City. While some customers may prefer to drink their dinner, these places offer culinary excitement with on-trend menus to go with the alcohol.
5. Bakers rise
The relatively new “Outstanding Baker” category in the James Beard Awards recognizes the status baking has achieved. We’re not talking pastry chefs here; this award goes to culinary pros who make the best breads, pizza, breakfast buns and other non-desserts. Candidates include Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City (inventor of no-knead pizza dough) and Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Café in Boston (known for her scones). The handmade biscuits baked by Food & Wine Best New Chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas have created much buzz for their Austin, Texas restaurant, Olamaie—especially since they are available by request only and in limited quantities.