Each week, our “10 Dishes That Made My Career” series serves as a sort informal look at the most influential chefs in the culinary world. As our subjects reflect on the dishes that shaped their understanding of technique and flavor, certain names tend to come up time and again—Joël Robuchon, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, and Ferran Adrià, to name a few.
But while these individual chefs have certainly impacted the food coming out of professional kitchen, the question of which restaurants wield the most influence brings up a whole slew of other factors. Does influence come from having the widest reach and the ability to reshape American eating habits on a vast scale? Or is influence in restaurants something more philosophical—an approach to food, hospitality, and pleasure that inspires others to be better on a daily basis?
On September 7 and 8, Stephen Torres will gather together some of the country’s finest chefs, bartenders, and restauranteurs for the second annual “Roots of American Food” conference. In addition to participating in lectures and panels, they’ll team up for two nights of collaborative dinners, creating dishes that reflect their approach to American cooking.
We figured there would be no better group to tackle the question: What is the most influential restaurant in the U.S. right now?
Here’s what they had to say.
Townsman (Boston, MA)
“Currently, I’d have to go with Eleven Madison Park. From fine cuisine, to excellence in service and approach, the house that Danny built is forever ingrained in my mind as one that other restaurants aspire to be—[it’s influential for its] depth of employee knowledge, use of premier quality ingredients, and a style of service that is professional and attentive, but familiar. These are the attributes of a great restaurant. These are characteristics that sustain longevity and inspire others.”
Del Posto (New York, NY)
“The two most important restaurants in the U.S. are just around the corner from each other in NYC, the greatest restaurant city in the world: Prune and wd~50. Both are, at the core, mom-and-pop restaurants. Both are run by very, very smart chefs—way smarter than me, way smarter than you. Duh, they are very different places, but I love the food and aesthetics of both deeply. And Gabrielle and Wylie’s fingerprints are all over restaurants across the country, even the world.”
Canlis (Seattle, WA)
“To be honest, it’s probably McDonald’s. I know that’s not the cool thing to say, or what you’re looking for, but if it’s influence you want, it’s hard to deny fast food’s impact on obesity (and its posse, diabetes and heart disease), as well as a whole host of sourcing, environmental, agricultural, and economic factors that are driven by the quick-service industry. The world’s best restaurant is a little fish in this ocean of influence.”
- The Restaurant at Meadowood, particularly the 12 Days of Christmas Chef collaborative dinners as they’ve spawned a number of dinners around the country, and the team has made great efforts to document the dinners for a wider audience online.
- Manresa, for their uncompromised, Arpege-like relationship with their farm, Love Apple.
- Next, for the complete themed menu [concept], the media that surrounds it, and the brilliant ticketing system (never actually ate here).
- Momofuku, still relevant and making impressive strides in the ramen world and with the new hozon [products].
- State Bird Provisions, bringing together service, food, and hospitality to everyone’s level (kind of biased here, but still…).
- Zuni Cafe—culturally speaking for SF, this is IT!”
Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, CA)
“The most influential restaurant is Alinea. Why? It is an iconic restaurant—discipline, brilliant fundamentals, thoughtfulness, and creation of exquisite taste. It’s a restaurant that has inspired many cooks and will continue to inspire for years to come. A place that makes you think, it’s not just food, but art.”
“So many restaurants have influenced the emergence of American cuisine as a cuisine all its own. From humble family-run restaurants throughout the country, to those creating America’s BBQ culture, to the grand dining rooms in the cities and countryside. But for me, no restaurant has influenced chefs and inspired the American dining public more than The French Laundry.“
For fine dining, it’s pretty obvious: French Laundry, which ultimately led to Alinea. It is difficult to talk about progressive American dining without bringing either of those into the fold. Elaborate tasting menus, over-the-top elegance, and service with French Laundry; a completely personal experience with Alinea. Thomas [Keller] was one of the first American chefs to really bring the whimsy and personality to food; [Grant] Achatz followed with his ability to tell a story and touch on a nostalgic moment with a guest. Both restaurants have the ability to transport the diner, providing an experience unlike any other.
For a more casual approach, I feel Sean Brock is doing amazing things at Husk. From a more broad and approachable standpoint, he is on the forefront of the movement to really understand where his food comes from. This is not in reference to knowing the farm, or knowing the field something was foraged from, but rather why we eat the way we do—what is Southern food and where does it come from? Though his focus is on the South, the philosophy seems to resonate with chefs of all parts of the country, and it is inspiring the rebirth—or at least recognition—of regional cuisine throughout America. This philosophy is not just helping to define what American cuisine is, but what New England, Midwestern, Southern, etc. cuisines are and how they are all great subsets of a larger whole.”
L20 (Chicago, IL)
“To me, the most influential restaurant in America is The French Laundry. The French Laundry Cookbook, which I first read when I was 16, was eye-opening not only for its culinary value, but also for its clear expression that the work of a chef can be noble and meaningful. It was what moved me to pursue fine dining as my chosen career. Thomas Keller’s mark on the industry can be felt through the many chefs that have come through his kitchen, such as Eric Ziebold, Jonathan Benno, Corey Lee, and Grant Achatz, to name but a few. It was also through his efforts that our country’s kitchens became more visible to an international audience, gaining the admiration of more established culinary capitals like Paris. The French Laundry is an extremely influential restaurant that, after 20 years, continues to evolve and remain relevant today.”
“That’s an impossible question to answer, as restaurant culture isn’t a pyramid with one restaurant on top shaping every restaurant below it. Rather, it’s a river with influences ebbing and flowing through restaurants as years pass. Every restaurant that influences was influenced. I don’t believe you can isolate one restaurant as the ‘most influential.'”
From the time they opened, they’ve kept the mantra of continuing to push the boundaries whilst continuing to educate themselves. That doctrine has always been ingrained from the front to the back, as well—they’ve shifted paradigm [in terms of] thinking about the entire experience. How many restaurants now do beverage pairings, instead of just wine? The creativity of the cocktail program and bringing the culinary arsenal into the inception of drinks [is impressive].
There was also the understanding that you had to have a mastery of fundamentals, so there’s a base level of education for the whole group to be able to progress forward, as well as an openness and sharing of ideas that was not the norm for many of us coming up in ‘classic’ kitchens.”
The Cultured Pickle Shop (Berkeley, CA)
“I am not a chef and have never worked in a restaurant. I rarely get out of the shop, either to dine or to travel. I am probably least qualified amongst this group to identify the restaurant with the most influence. I do, however, have a lot of cooks and chefs come through and spend time with us, and even I know that if I need something prepped with the greatest of care, with an eye for exactitude and consistency, all I need say is, ‘I want these done like you’re at The French Laundry.‘ If a restaurant’s name, 20 years into its run, has become synonymous in the common lexicon with the pursuit of perfection, then it’s tremendous and lasting influence in undeniable.”
Brut (Minneapolis, MN)
“Does influence begin with the chef, or the restaurant? A few years ago I was lucky enough to watch David Kinch do a demo on cooking meat. The simple process he used changed the way I thought about cooking proteins and, if you know me, that means it changed the way I thought about cooking as a whole. It was such a delicate approach to cooking such a ‘rough’ beast. Sear, cook it slow, rest it, cook it slow, rest it, cook it slow—gentle, gentle, gentle. I finally spent some time with him—a few drinks and a few laughs. Even before tasting his food, I could almost get a sense of what it was like by just his personality. Finally, [I ate at] Manresa—delicate, soft, thunderous, innovative…influence.”
Brut (Minneapolis, MN)
“Eleven Madison Park! They have a thoughtful, elegant, and playful approach to everything they do. Dinner at EMP was the most fun, engaging, and inspiring meal I have ever had.”
Bonus Answer: Stephen Torres
Founder of Imbibe and Inspire
“I believe the two most influential casual restaurants in the United States are State Bird Provisions in SF and Estela in NYC. I think the introduction of the dim-sum cart at State Bird was absolutely brilliant and you now see other restaurants copying the same type of service. I felt that Estela was the best new restaurant of last year and you will see that style of restaurant pop up more. I would love to eat at both those restaurants every day. Simple and honest cooking is the way people want to eat now.
The most influential fine-dining restaurant in America is far and away Eleven Madison Park. Restaurants at that level have amazing food—that is a given. The thing that sets EMP apart is the culture that Will [Guidara] and Daniel [Humm] have created. The relationship they have is unlike any other partnership in the hospitality industry. Often imitated, never duplicated.” (Photo: Evan Sung)
“Imbibe and Inspire: The Roots of American Food” takes place at the Wyndham Grand Chicago Riverfront on Sunday, September 7 and Monday, September 9 from 10am-5pm, followed by a dinner; the second night’s dinner will be held at L2O. Tickets are $250 for each event and can be purchased here.