Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton offered this peek into how he starts the process for picking the magazine’s Best Restaurants of the Year: “I have friends and professionals around the country who will email me when they have a positive experience at a place and encourage me to check it out.” We take a similar approach for our annual Clean Plates Awards, now in its eighth year. Our “friends and professionals” represent a cross section of our audience—foodies of the highest level who deliver and indulge in great-tasting meals both in their restaurants and in their busy work, traveling around the country scouting and opening restaurants and networking with employees, business partners and consumers. And they pick the winners.
So, what does it take for a dish to impress such a demanding panel? To answer that question, I used an online word-cloud tool to see what terms were used most often by our judges to describe this year’s winning dishes. For the nearly four dozen dishes submitted, their words revealed the following insights about what makes a winner—in addition to the No. 1 factor: it’s just plain “delicious”:
It’s innovative. The Clean Plate Awards showcase plenty of ingenuity, with accolades going to chefs doing something no one else is doing, executing a classic dish better than anyone else or putting clever twists on dishes that even our skilled panel hadn’t experienced before.
It’s consistent. You might expect professional foodies to credit only the fanciest, most unique meals, but a number of our judges picked items from stops they visited again and again, where the food is executed perfectly every time.
It doesn’t try too hard. While all the winning dishes wowed, it often was their simplicity that stood out, judges said, because it let the true flavors shine.
Its presentation is creative. Several judges noted how a dish was served, not only how it tasted. No detail went unnoticed; Cinnabon President Kat Cole even praised one spot’s bread service.
To see how a crack panel of average, everyday paletes varied from our esteemed panel’s, the Restaurant Business staff offers our own picks for the best dishes of the year, here. In addition to anything drenched in butter, we were drawn to plates with similar criteria to the judges’. Nick Hayman, RB’s publisher, praised the Pave de Saumon Grille, a grilled salmon dish with lentils and Dijon-mustard sauce at Et Voila in Washington, D.C., as a “simple dish with great flavors.” The voice of RB’s Reality Check column, Peter Romeo, singled out Gene & Jude’s Chicago-style dog for being so good, he could weep. His second pick, the pulled chicken at Piggyback Tavern in Forest Park, Ill., won for being “juicy, flavorful and plentiful enough to make me consider rolling around in it for awhile before finishing the meal.” Read more picks from the Restaurant Business staff, and tweet me your own to @RB_Magazine on Twitter.