“There is no love sincerer than the love of food,” George Bernard Shaw once said. Well, add on a dash of roadtrippin’ and you’ve got yourself a fantastic duo. There really is no better way to explore American culture than eating voraciously while traveling through these mighty fine United States. From five-star celebrity hotspots worth driving miles and miles out for, to smaller, more casual under-the-radar neighborhood additions where you can savor everything from classic apple pie to way more otherworldly treats from around the globe (i.e. pristine sushi, soulful pastas, exquisite French fare, etc.), the possibilities are utterly endless.
There are a bounty of worthwhile dining destinations dotted all across the U.S., and needless to say, there’s something out there for every kind of taste bud to savor. So gas on up and begin the ultimate gastronomy tour by trekking out to the crème de la crème of America's foodie favorites. Here are twelve extraordinary restaurants worth traveling for in the United States.
Restaurants Worth Traveling For in the US
1. Benu – San Francisco, California
Think traditional xiao long bao dumplings flavored with lobster meat and coral, or lobster consommé and tarragon filled up with foie gras. How about rice cakes meant to evoke the delicate appearance of Italian gnocchi? Those are the one-of-a-kind culinary creations at Chef Corey Lee’s Northern California restaurant, which may call itself "New American," but definitely finds much influence in Eastern flavors as well.
Lee, who had worked for Thomas Keller for many years before striking out on his own, pairs his French Laundry-gleaned skill to a brilliantly Asian-influenced menu. Along with his team of unmatched chefs, pastry chefs, and butchers, they have, since the restaurant’s August 2010 opening, continued to break new ground by whipping up awe-inspiring foods every single day. In Where Chefs Eat, David Chang says “It's the best restaurant in the United States.” Even the The San Francisco Chronicle's food critic Michael Bauer awarded the restaurant a full four stars. And if all that weren’t enough to convince you to check out this culinary powerhouse, here’s one more: In January 2011, The New York Times placed the then-newborn restaurant on a list of ten places worth a full plane ride to. What are you waiting for?
2. Bufalina Pizza – Austin, Texas
It’s hands down the “hippest” of East Austin pizzerias and boasts an open-style kitchen where wood-fired ovens churn out the most outrageously great and “authentic Neapolitan-style” pies in the country. Careful though, it can be super difficult to snag a spot here—even at one of those “shared tables” in the small dining rooms inside, so make sure to arrive super early, or be prepared to be waiting in an overly long line. (This popular dining spot doesn’t take reservations for parties under eight, so get on out there now).
On the brighter side though, you’ll be able to enjoy a nice glass (or two) of wine from their lengthy list of unique drinks while you wait. It’s an uber nice way to prep that tummy for some housemade mozzarella and burrata topped with beets, fennel pollen, and olive oil, or a sausage and broccoli rabe calzone that’s also oozing with ricotta, mozzarella, pork jowl, pecorino, and black pepper. It’s definitely a winner.
3. Nirmal’s - Seattle Washington
Situated in the space that formerly housed Soup Daddy Soups, this modern Indian stunner features diverse cuisine from namesake Mumbai chef Nirmal Monteiro, who’s cooked for over thirty years around the world from Bombay to Japan—he even set up a main kitchen in the U.S. Armed forces during the Iraq War. The polished over 4,000 square foot space (which seats about ninety people) offers Indian sandwiches and five-course thalis from diverse regions in the old country for lunch, as well as seven-course thali and other vibrant, upscale dishes for dinner, with a special focus on seafood.
So grab some spicy crab curry or a veggie tandoori roll at this eclectic Pioneer Square space which successfully incorporates tons of sleek contemporary decor into a centuries-old building made up of gleaming wood floors and exposed-brick walls. What’s more is that the menu at this Seattle fave is always-changing, so don’t get too attached to any one dish for long. Chef Monteiro has more than a couple hundred curries in his repertoire and is more than highly skilled when it comes to seafood, beef, and pork, so the menus change every day. It might be a while before any dish comes back for an encore round.
4. The French Laundry - Yountville, California
Frequently honored by being included on the annual Restaurant Magazine’s list of ‘Top 50 Restaurants Around the World,’ this modern French-American wonder is the place to experience the tried and true decadence of Thomas Keller's infamous cooking. Try out cult dishes such as salmon tartare cornet, or a sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and white sturgeon caviar (a.k.a. oysters and pearls).
There are two daily changing nine-course tasting menus, none of which use the same ingredients twice. Be sure to finish up with coffee and doughnuts after chowing down on all of the delicious “ever-new creations.” Plus, the restaurant building itself dates back to 1900, so you’ll find yourself nonchalantly dining in an antiquated stone farm house that also happens to be on the National Register of Historic Places. Head on over to Napa Valley—oh and jackets are required!
5. The Catbird Seat – Nashville, Tennessee
It’s buzzy, it’s upscale, and totally “New American,” an incredibly fun, elegant restaurant that’s become one of the hottest foodie meccas in this food-obsessed Tennessee town. There’s an ever- changing weekly tasting menu-- and what’s even better is that everything is served up in a U-shaped open kitchen bar.
If you’re looking for a truly interactive “once-in-a-lifetime” dining adventure, as well as tons of unique, small-batch beverages by Jane Lopes, head on over to one of Music City’s best. It’s located in Midtown above the Patterson House and is the best way to chow down “counter-top” style.
6. Seasons – Westerly, Rhode Island
Want to do some farm-to-table fine dining? Well, do it in Rhode Island inside this newly opened Ocean House fave that offers an ever-so-fresh menu that changes daily-- depending on what the restaurant’s food forager and chef brings into the kitchen from local farms and harvests in New England.
It’s a Forbes Five-Star worthy restaurant where every meal is accompanied by elegant décor, exquisite ocean vista views, as well as an open exhibition kitchen where you can watch the chefs prepare the meals—they can even talk you through the preparations and procedures for true farm-to-table concepts! Live, love, laugh, learn, and eat at this one-of-a-kind Atlantic Northeast hotspot. Plus, there are always plenty of treats such as hot chocolate and warm local apple cider (during the cooler months), or refreshing glasses of icy lemonade and iced tea (during the warmer months) and freshly baked goods to snack on in the afternoons.
7. The Crack Shack – San Diego, California
With an all-day menu of chicken-and egg-based dishes, what’s not to love? This super fun SD spot in Little Italy by the team behind Juniper & Ivy offers outdoor-only seating, a full bar, modern furnishings, a giant chicken sculpture, as well as an adjoining bocce ball court where you’ll be able to work off that huge meal of fried chicken, chicken sandwiches, and deviled eggs you just downed. It’s hip, it’s happening, and it’s definitely all it’s cracked up to be!
8. Tiger Mama – Boston, Massachusetts
Inspired by Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese cuisines, "Top Chef" alum Tiffani Faison takes foodies on a wild ride of South-Asian inspired eats at her funky Fenway-area dining den, which happens to be located near her BBQ joint, Sweet Cheeks Q. Dishes like Lettuce Fried Rice, Mala Mushrooms, and Lobster Fresh Rolls are served fresh on colorful, polished plates. And if you're planning to share your food, there are scores of tables offering built-in Lazy Susans, which make passing around those hot plates even more of a breeze. Plus, the space mixes tiki-style cocktails at not one but two full bars, and even features a live green wall of herbs right on site which the kitchen uses to further spice up their culinary creations.
There's certainly an urbane-meets-exotic edge to this Boston fave, which, according to Faison, hopes to “respectfully interpret” traditional Asian recipes. Make sure to try out the chile-spiced short-rib crudo, which is served with an herb salad, black vinaigrette, and charred leeks. Stomachs are already grumbling.
9. Tony’s - St. Louis, Missouri
Wondering where to chow down in St. Louis after a day of exploring the Arch, the Lewis & Clark trail, and Grant’s Farm? Head on over to this landmark restaurant that happens to have been around longer than even some of the city’s best and most favorite tourist attractions!
Generations of families have come together to celebrate big events at this nationally acclaimed restaurant offering fine Italian dining as well as tableside preparations that add to the space’s old world feel. Everything is made from scratch from locally sourced herbs, vegetables, and cheeses, and regionally sourced meat, poultry, and game. Try out the house made fettuccine with sea urchin, crab and tomatoes, or brined pork chops with cheddar cheese and bacon bread pudding served with seasonal vegetables. You can even check out Anthony's Bar next door, which shares both Tony's kitchen and expansive wine cellar—but offers all of its high-quality menu items at a much lower price. Score.
10. Minero – Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta gets a taste of Chef Sean Brock’s Mexican fare at this Ponce City Market kitchen, which just so happens to be a spin-off of his original Charleston, South Carolina space which doles out equally as tasty regional specialties such as tacos and tortas—all prepped fresh with local ingredients.
Try the Chilaquiles (housemade corn chips cooked in salsa and topped with braised pork, cilantro, onions, crema, heirloom beans, and a fried egg) while seated in the buzzy quarters of a spacious patio that’s decked out with moody red and brown décor. It’s simply the most casual—not to mention affordable—spot to spend any Taco Tuesday in Georgia. Plus, there’s a full bar that crafts up some zippy handmade cocktails.
11. Blanca – Brooklyn, New York
Sure, it may be located off the main Big Apple dining grid, all the way in Bushwick, but this high-end counter by the formerly anonymous Carlo Mirarchi has actually become one the city’s toughest reservations. Its fashionably tiny tasting room (which features merely twelve seats) annexes Roberta’s (a mobbed hipster-pizzeria nearby) and serves up some ingeniously simple dishes like creamy sweetbreads with a lightly frizzled crust and sea urchin, or Mirarchi’s personal version of beef carpaccio, which is sweetened with duck yolk and has the soft, melting consistency of a fine French crêpe. What’s more is that diners can control the music by choosing vinyl LPs to complement their meals. Good music and even greater food--- make that reservation today!
12. Naoe – Miami, Florida
If you are ever near Miami's Brickell Key, be sure not to pass up this petite Japanese gem where only eight diners can claim the right to a seat. It may be a tight sit, but owner Kevin Cory and manager Wendy Maharlika treat every diner like a guest in their own home-- with sole Chef Cory single-handily preparing every dish that comes out of the kitchen.
So give up on a raging night at South Beach to head down to this restaurant, which is located behind an alley in Sunny Isles. The slower more relaxed pace of the small five-star beauty makes it all the more fun. Plus, with starters like a chef’s omakase bento box, pristine and tender sushi, housemade egg tofu with uni, miso-butternut squash soup, as well as a sweet and toothy homemade barbecue eel that’s topped with the chef’s own special soy sauce, Cory’s contemporary Japanese bistro is no doubt the closest thing to Japanese food you’ll find outside of Japan. There’s even a signature soy sauce ice cream, which despite the name, makes for a surprisingly delicious end to any meal.
This article was written by Pamela Chan. Image by Jorge Zapata.