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1999 Restaurant Poll

What hundreds of food-world insiders told us about the restaurant scene in 15 major North American cities

When you arrive in a strange city, do you wish you could grab somebody who goes out for dinner every night and demand, "Where's the best place to eat in this town?" For our annual restaurant poll, we did just that. This in-depth survey, conducted by the ace pollsters at Yankelovich Partners, asks chefs, journalists, restaurateurs and other pros what they think about the dining scene in 15 North American cities. We found out about the restaurants with the best food, the best wine lists and the best people watching--and also about the places with the most inflated prices and the longest waits to be seated. It took us almost as much time to sift through the results as it took Yankelovich to compile them. (Each respondent was asked more than three-dozen questions.) But taken together, the poll provides a snapshot of the state of our restaurants, circa 1999. It also makes a handy tip sheet. Now when you land in some new city, you won't have to harass the locals.

New York City's Daniel edged out Charlie Trotter's in Chicago as favorite U.S. restaurant by just two votes.

ATLANTA

Best New Restaurant
Floataway Cafe 1123 Zonolite Rd.; 404-892-1414
In this airy, modern spot at the end of a gritty industrial street, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison make country French and Italian food that's as fresh as possible. Every day one sous-chef does nothing but produce perfect pommes frites.

Most Overpriced
Seeger's 111 W. Paces Ferry Rd.; 404-846-9779
Guenter Seeger's elegant menus start at a not-unreasonable $62 for five courses--but splurging on beluga ("specially selected by G. Seeger") adds $90 to the tab. Also named: Best Buzz.

Most Timeless
Pano's & Paul's 1232 W. Paces Ferry Rd.; 404-261-3662
Pano's & Paul's looks like it's been around since the Victorian era, but it's only celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The menu also suggests the timeless: lobster with Chinese honey-mustard sauce has been featured since opening day.

Best People Watching
Fusebox 3085 Piedmont Rd.; 404-233-3383
The high-wattage decor--onyx, stainless steel, mother-of-pearl--inspires Atlantans to dress in their most electric outfits. The prime see-and-be-seen spot is the communal table.

Best Sommelier
The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead 3434 Peachtree Rd.; 404-237-2700
Sommelier Robert Jones is a cheerleader for artisanal winemakers and off-the-beaten-path regions. Biggest pairing challenge: snails, vermicelli, chives and tomato in a soy broth. Jones suggests a cru Beaujolais. Also named: Best Place to Welcome in the Millennium.

DALLAS

Best New Restaurant
The Mercury 11909 Preston Rd.; 972-960-7774
In a town not known for understatement, The Mercury's coolly minimalist interior has won more than a few fans. Chris Ward's food, though, is anything but minimalist: it covers the globe, with dishes from sushi to couscous carbonara.

Most Overpriced
The Mansion on Turtle Creek 2921 Turtle Creek Blvd.; 214-559-2100
A $22 taco? To be fair, it's not exactly the one Taco Bell feeds the Chihuahua-- this appetizer is filled with lobster. The main courses are also steep: the barbecued rib eye is $45. Also named: Best Service, Best Wine List.

Best Reflects Dallas
Star Canyon 3102 Oak Lawn Ave.; 214-520-7827
From the top-40 country sound track to the yellow rose on each table, Star Canyon is Texan through and through. Chef-owner Stephan Pyles is a fifth-generation native who delights in reinventing Lone Star classics. A long-running example: corn pudding and foie gras tamale with pineapple mole.

Best Chefs' Hangout
Primo's Bar & Grille 3309 McKinney Ave.; 214-220-0510
Peripatetic chef Wolfgang Puck once told restaurateur Eddie Cervantes that when he's traveling around the country, one thing's for sure: he'll make a stop at Primo's. Others who've made detours for a Tex-Mex fix include Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse and Dean Fearing (who met his wife there).

Best Place for Wine Novices
The Grape 2808 Greenville Ave.; 214-828-1981
The Grape tries to make oenophobes comfortable by stocking up on familiar brand names and wines whose flavors are easy to identify. One reliable bottle for beginners: the 1997 Mark West Chardonnay ($24).

Who is TV's best chef?
37% Emeril Lagasse
17% Julia Child
13% The Two Fat Ladies
10% Jacques Pépin
6% David Rosengarten

NEW ORLEANS

Best New Restaurant
Delmonico 1300 Saint Charles Ave.; 504-525-4937
Actually, Delmonico has been around for a century. But new owner Emeril Lagasse has rejuvenated this Garden District institution, bringing such classic Creole dishes as chicken Clemen-ceau back from oblivion.

Most Beautiful
The Grill Room Windsor Court Hotel, 300 Gravier St.; 504-522-1992
The Grill Room makes an unforgettable first impression with its foyer, known as the jewel box; a one-of-a-kind Lalique crystal table sits front and center. The dining room waits on the other side of a marquetry screen of Windsor Castle executed by Queen Elizabeth's nephew.

Best Bartender
Commander's Palace 1403 Washington Ave.; 504-899-8221
No doubt head bartender Linda Smith has many fine qualities, but one stands out above all others: her proficiency with so-called eye-openers, cocktails like the Ramos Gin Fizz that in New Orleans go hand in hand with morning coffee.

Best Sommelier
Emeril's 800 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504-528-9393
Julio Hernandez is as extroverted as you'd expect an employee of Emeril Lagasse to be. He's also skilled at tough pairings. For the tamarind-glazed pork chops with green-chile mole, he's chosen the 1995 F. X. Pichler Riesling ($75).

MONTREAL

Best New Restaurant
La Queue de Cheval 1221 Réné Levesque W.; 514-390-0090
Montreal hasn't had a traditional North American­style steak house for 40 years; no wonder people are lining up at La Queue de Cheval for USDA prime beef that's dry aged on the premises and broiled over charcoal. A massive grill, with a 25-foot copper chimney, is the restaurant's stunning centerpiece.

Favorite Restaurant
Toqué 3842 Rue Saint-Denis; 514-499-2084
Chef-owner Normand Laprise is fanatical about freshness. He uses vegetables at the height of their season--and then only if they're in pristine condition. But his establishment is a success that knows no season: it has been one of Montreal's most acclaimed restaurants since it opened five years ago.

Best Quick Bite
L'Express 3927 Rue Saint-Denis; 514-845-5333
Every North American city has a bistro that's said to make you feel as if you're in France. But few match L'Express, where everyone is actually speaking French. It's always packed but hustles customers through four seatings a night.

Best Service
Le Latini 1130 Gemane Mance; 514-861-3166
At Le Latini, the customer is always right--even the man who wanted to sit alone with his wife at opposite ends of a 20-seat table. Co-owner Moreno DeMarchi says, "If it gives you pleasure to please people, you can be a waiter." It gives us pleasure just to think that someone, somewhere, truly believes that.

Best Wine List
Les Chenets 2075 Rue Bishop; 514-844-1842
The 90-page list is filled with hard-to-find French wines. How hard to find? There's the 1976 Moët & Chandon; only three bottles were produced. Les Chenets has the last one and will probably keep it for a while--it costs $72,000.

Thirty-eight percent of the experts said they were tired of Chardonnay.

PHILADELPHIA

Best New Restaurant
Buddakan 325 Chestnut St.; 215-574-9440
"Buddakan has no set rules," the menu intones. "Be creative, have fun and follow your own path." Thus liberated, Philadelphians have shown an un-Buddhalike enthusiasm for chef Scott Swiderski's fusion food, crowding the communal table to share such things as wasabi-crusted filet mignon.

Most Overpriced
Le Bec-Fin 1523 Walnut St.; 215-567-1000
At Georges Perrier's palace of haute cuisine, $118 gets you an exquisite seven-course dinner. It's possibly the most expensive prix fixe in the country--and hardly anyone complains. Also named: Best Service, Most Timeless.

Best Value
Dmitri's 795 S. Third St.; 215-625-0556
Dmitri's hasn't caught on to the trickier tricks of the trade, like gouging for mineral water and dessert. Dinner for two--large helpings of Greek seafood--typically comes to $40. And forget about liquor markups; it's BYOB.

Most Beautiful
Striped Bass 1500 Walnut St.; 215-732-4444
This restaurant looks as fresh as it did when it opened five years ago. Designer Marguerite Rodgers kept the wood ceilings and marble columns of this 1927 bank but added a Moorish feel along with a colossal metal fish.

Best Wines by the Glass
Ristorante Panorama Penn's View Hotel, 14 N. Front St.; 215-922-7800
A custom-built dispensing system uses pressurized nitrogen to preserve up to 120 open bottles at a time. The selection changes weekly, so over the course of a year the total number of wines in rotation is nearly 800.

MIAMI

Best People Watching
News Café 800 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 305-538-6397
Patrons may pretend to study their newspapers, but they're really studying the crowd: Dennis Rodman, Claudia Schiffer and Al Pacino have all eaten here. Recently, though, the celebrities were upstaged when three Cuban refugees landed their raft on the beach and walked in for breakfast.

Longest Wait
Joe's Stone Crab 11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-0365
It's been around since 1913, and word about the stone crabs is definitely out. The average wait is 60 minutes, but on Super Bowl Sunday, plan on cooling your heels for three hours.

Best Service
Norman's 21 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables; 305-446-6767
In laid-back Miami, the attentive staff at Norman's stands out. Waiters even have an expense account so they can send flowers or wine in response to complaints--or compliments.

Best Wines Under $25
Captain's Tavern 9621 S. Dixie Hwy.; 305-666-5979
One day a customer told owner Bill Bowers that his markup on wine was obscene. Bowers promptly made him a consultant. Today the Captain's Tavern sells many popular bottles for just a few dollars above what wine shops charge.

Best Wine List
The Forge 432 41st St., Miami Beach; 305-538-8533
Customers can walk into the cellar and see some of the 225,000 bottles, including almost every vintage of Château Lafite going back to 1822.

WASHINGTON D.C.

Best New Restaurant
DC Coast 1401 K St. NW; 202-216-5988
The nearest coast may be the sunny shores of the Reflecting Pool, but who cares? Obviously not the diners who pack this striking space in Washington's first Art Deco building for Jeff Tunks's tricoastal (East, West and Gulf) cuisine.

Most Beautiful
Lespinasse The St. Regis Hotel, 923 16th St. NW; 202-879-6900
The 20th century is still a distant rumor at Lespinasse--at least in terms of the decor, which features gold and royal-blue upholstery, a hand-stenciled trefoil ceiling, Limoges china, Riedel crystal, Reed & Barton silver and flower arrangements grander than Marie Antoinette's wigs. Also named: Best Sommelier.

Best Chefs' Hangout
Bistro Français 3124 M St. NW; 202-338-3830
If you're hungry after hours in D.C., you can have your intern bring you a pizza, or you can head to Bistro Français for steak frites. In this early-to-bed town, Bistro Français's 4 A.M. weekend closing time has made it the cafeteria for local chefs as well as for visiting dignitaries, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Best Bartender
Prime Rib 2020 K St. NW; 202-466-8811
A bar stool at Prime Rib affords a coveted front-row seat to the nightly performances of Jim Ross, who's been mixing and holding forth since 1976. The secret of his popularity: "I can talk to anybody," Ross says, "because I know something about everything and a lot about nothing."

Best Place to Take a Wine Snob
Michel Richard's Citronelle Latham Hotel, 3000 M St. NW; 202-625-2150
Sommelier Mark Slater updates the 6,000-bottle list daily, but his proudest offering is no new find: a 1961 Latour that Robert Parker gives a 100-point rating.

SAN FRANCISCO

Best New Restaurant
Delfina 3621 18th St.; 415-552-4055
This tiny 35-seat restaurant on the outskirts of the Mission District serves California-style Tuscan food prepared by chef Craig Stoll. His girlfriend, Anne Spencer, tends to the patrons. "It's a classic mom-and-pop operation," Stoll says, "but younger and hipper."

Best Buzz
Black Cat 501 Broadway; 415-981-2233
It used to be a strip joint; today the gyrations in restaurateur-of-the-moment Reed Hearon's North Beach hangout are performed by customers trying to make their way through all the commotion. An open kitchen and a jazz sound track maintain the nonstop party atmosphere.

Best Service
Masa's 648 Bush St.; 415-989-7154
Masa's service is of the old school; the restaurant only began hiring women last year. Even now, it looks for career waiters willing to work up the ladder, starting as lowly bread-and-water tenders.

Best Bartenders
Bix 56 Gold St.; 415-433-6300
The bar men at this retro North Beach supper club are classicists. Under their watch, no churning blenders disturb the peace. The only sound is the clatter of ice in the silver shakers they use to chill Bix's famous Floridita Daiquiris.

Best Wine List
Rubicon 558 Sacramento St.; 415-434-4100
Rubicon is loaded with food-friendly selections from around the globe, but the emphasis is on California wines, like its namesake, Rubicon. The vertical listings, with wines of one vineyard represented over several different years, are especially impressive.

which cuisine is most
trendy?

18% Indian
15% Simple food
12% French
12% Fusion

tired?
27% Italian
15% Fusion
10% French
9% Chinese

SEATTLE

Best New Restaurant
Stars Bar & Dining 600 Pine St.; 206-264-1112
There's nothing wrong with Seattle's indigenous restaurants, so why is this year's hottest newcomer a transplant from San Francisco? One answer: the dramatic interior makes everyone look like a star. Another: the California cuisine Stars is known for has been recast with Puget Sound ingredients.

Favorite Restaurant
Wild Ginger 1400 Western Ave.; 206-623-4450
One of the area's first restaurants with a pan-Asian menu (fragrant duck, seven-flavor beef), Wild Ginger is so popular that it will be moving soon to a vast 1,000-seat complex across from the symphony's Benaroya Hall.

Best Reflects Seattle
Ray's Boathouse 6409 Seaview Ave.; 206-789-3770
This sunburn-and-shorts kind of place on Shilshole Bay even has its own dock for when the boating crowd comes ashore to dine on Pacific Northwest specialties like the best-selling sake-marinated black cod.

Best Bartender
Il Bistro 93-A Pike St.; 206-682-3049
"Murr the Blur" they call him: Murray Stenson, the fastest shaker in the West. In addition to speed, he has a phenomenal memory. If he sees you walk in the door, he'll make sure your favorite cocktail arrives at the bar before you do.

Best Wine List
Canlis 2576 Aurora Ave. N.; 206-283-3313
Sommelier Rob Bigelow has amassed a list of 940 different wines. He's particularly pleased with his white Burgundies and his cache of such sold-out vintages as the 1996 Matthews Cellars Red Table Wine from Washington State ($55).

NEW YORK CITY

Best New Restaurant
Babbo 110 Waverly Pl.; 212-777-0303
Chef Mario Batali hardly qualifies as a discovery, but his regional Italian cuisine at Babbo does. Who knew that for the pleasures of beef-cheek ravioli, lamb's tongue and head cheese, New Yorkers would book tables a month in advance?

Best Buzz
Daniel 60 E. 65th St.; 212-288-0033
Last August, Daniel shut down for a four-month hiatus before moving to another address. Calls for reservations at the new Daniel began before the original closed and kept up at the rate of 10 requests a day until the reopening.

Most Overpriced
Le Cirque 2000 455 Madison Ave.; 212-303-7788
Chicken lasagna for $26, foie gras terrine for $34--and those are the appetizers. But on-the-house bonuses like the trees of petits fours definitely help. Also named: Best People Watching.

Best Value
Union Square Cafe 21 E. 16th St.; 212-243-4020
The average per-person tab may be $75, but for the deft touch of chef Michael Romano, owner Danny Meyer and managing partner Paul Bolles-Beaven, New Yorkers would gladly pay twice that.

Best Wine List
Sparks Steakhouse 210 E. 46th St.; 212-687-4855
Sparks doesn't have the longest list in town, but it sure has the market cornered on powerhouse reds. The Bordeaux are overwhelmingly from the famous years of 1978, 1985, 1988, 1989 and 1990, and nearly half of the California Cabernets date from the acclaimed 1994 vintage.

Where would you have your last meal on earth? The experts we polled answered: Paris's Alain Ducasse.

CHICAGO

Favorite Restaurant (tie)
Blackbird 619 W. Randolph St.; 312-715-0708
Le Bouchon 1958 N. Damen Ave.; 773-862-6600
Blackbird is a little more than a year old but Paul Kahan's crisp, clean food (which earned him a spot as an F&W Best New Chef this year) is already setting new standards of sophistication. Le Bouchon, which is now six years old, is the first choice for Chicagoans who want to spend an evening in a French bistro without traveling east of Lake Michigan.

Most Overpriced
Charlie Trotter's 816 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-248-6228
The cuisine is famously complicated, but the price tag isn't: a six-course meal costs a nice round $100--even the acclaimed tasting menu made up entirely of vegetables. Also named: Best Chefs' Hangout, Best Wine List.

Best Reflects Chicago
Gibsons Steakhouse 1028 N. Rush St.; 312-266-8999
Chicago has a dining scene as cosmopolitan as any city's, but at heart it's still a meat-and-potatoes town. Gibsons knows it and brings out platter-size steaks that a lesser restaurant might cut into two or three portions.

Most Beautiful
Everest 440 S. LaSalle St.; 312-663-8920
Is it the leopard-print carpet and jungle-cat murals? Or the 40th-floor view of the city? We're not sure, but we know that the sunsets are sublime.

Best Wines by the Glass
Hudson Club 504 N. Wells St.; 312-467-1947
With more than 100 bottles in play, Hudson Club offers an unusually deep range, including a few rarities: Kistler's cultish Chardonnays are almost never poured by the glass, but they are here (Kistler Sonoma Coast, $15 a glass).

what are the most annoying things customers do?
45% Being too noisy
37% Using cell phones
37% Smoking
34% Sending back food
14% Sending back wine

HOUSTON

Best New Restaurant
Mark's 1658 Westheimer Rd.; 713-523-3800
Houston is in the Bible Belt, so why not a restaurant in a church? Chef-owner Mark Cox took over a red-brick former church two years ago and his freewheeling cuisine may be the most fun anyone's ever had in a house of worship.

Longest Wait
Ruggles Grill 903 Westheimer Rd.; 713-524-3839
Walk-ins have been known to spend 2 1/2 hours in the bar before being seated. Even with reservations, there is usually a wait for the stupefyingly huge platters of grilled meats and pastas. Best time to show up unannounced: Sunday night.

Best Chefs' Hangout
Tony's 1801 Post Oak Blvd.; 713-622-6778
Undoubtedly cooks appreciate the late hours and the acclaimed Northern Italian cuisine. But many of them are also in on a secret: around midnight, Tony's will make breakfast to order.

Best Sommelier
Rotisserie for Beef & Bird 2200 Wilcrest Dr.; 713-977-9524
Vincent Baker, in charge of the cellar since 1983, keeps tabs on repeat customers and remembers their likes and dislikes, refining his recommendations accordingly. Toughest pairing challenge: stand-offish asparagus. Baker suggests a dry and fruity Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc.

Best Wine List
Cafe Annie 1728 Post Oak Blvd.; 713-840-1111
The cellar is impressive enough, but what's really fascinating is the list itself in which chef-owner Robert Del Grande muses about wines in an airy blank verse: "The night slopes of the Côte d'Or rise / As ribs of Jurassic Earth...."

LAS VEGAS

Best New Restaurant
Le Cirque Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-693-8100
Some of Las Vegas's culinary imports may seem out of place, but not Le Cirque. Sure, the ladies who lunch at the Manhattan original are missing, but everything else is here: the Maccioni family charm, the Felliniesque decor, the refined cuisine and the desserts so playful they make you feel 10 years old again.

Favorite Restaurant
Spago Caesars Palace, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-369-6300
Spago was the beachhead for the fine-dining invasion that captured the Strip. As long as it keeps serving smoked-salmon pizza, the troops will be grateful.

Most Timeless
Andre's Monte Carlo Resort, 3770 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-730-7955
In this city, a restaurant has passed the test of time if it's been open since April. Andre's has done a lot better than that: it's going on 20 years. Timeless entrées like Dover sole Véronique, set on Rosenthal china, carry the day.

Best Bartenders
VooDoo Lounge Rio Suite Hotel, 3700 W. Flamingo Rd.; 702-247-7923
Every city gets the bartenders it deserves, and Las Vegas now has the showmen who perform at VooDoo Lounge. They juggle bottles back and forth along the length of the bar and will even arc a cherry behind their backs and through the air so it lands, with a splash, in your drink.

Best Wine List
Napa Rio Suite Hotel, 3700 W. Flamingo Rd.; 702-247-7923
In a town so big on superlatives, why shouldn't the Rio have the world's most valuable wine cellar? (All of the many restaurants in the casino, including Jean-Louis Palladin's Napa, draw from it.) The Rio spent $6 million--$1 million on Sauternes alone--on this over-the-top stockpile of 120,000 bottles. Most expensive wine: a $200,000 1924 Mouton Rothschild.

LOS ANGELES

Favorite Restaurant
Patina 5955 Melrose Ave.; 323-467-1108
Chef Joachim Splichal's dominion now extends to 11 restaurants, but Patina, the original, is still the best loved. Angelenos appreciate its civilized atmosphere and adventurous menu, which features game, offal and a crustacean-tasting dinner.

Most Overpriced
The Ivy 113 N. Robertson Blvd.; 310-274-8303
Behind an incongruous picket fence, power brokers gladly shell out--or should we say write off--$29.75 for grilled vegetable salad with shrimp or $28.75 for crab cakes.

Best People Watching
Spago Beverly Hills 176 N. Cañon Dr., Beverly Hills; 310-385-0880
We're not talking about seeing a movie star or two. At Spago, celebrity-spotting qualifies as an extreme sport. One recent neck-twister: Jim Carrey and Henry Kissinger. Yes, together.

Best Local Chain
Claim Jumper 24301 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance; 310-517-1874
"Everybody leaves Claim Jumper with a doggie bag," they boast. The tab for two may run around $60, but you can have your country fried steak, ribs or meat loaf the next day for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner...

Best Wine List
Valentino 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-829-4313
How many bottles does Valentino stock? We lost count at 3,000. If you, too, get lost, try one of owner Piero Selvaggio's favorites: the 1997 Regaleali Bianco from Sicily ($23) or the 1995 Montruc Barbera from Piedmont ($75).

BOSTON

Best New Restaurant
No. 9 Park 9 Park St.; 617-742-9991
Chef Barbara Lynch's No. 9 Park, with its 1940s-inspired decor, found its footing right away. In fact, customers have been known to say they've "been meaning to come here for years" even though it only opened last summer.

Best People Watching
Sonsie 327 Newbury St.; 617-351-2500
A wide-screen view of the parade of beautiful people on Back Bay's main drag is one attraction here, but the best sightings are often indoors: Jerry Stiller and Renee Zellweger have both dropped by.

Longest Wait
Olives 10 City Square, Charlestown; 617-242-1999
Boston loves Todd English's long-running homage to the Mediterranean, but the restaurant doesn't accept reservations for parties of less than six. Best bet: be there when the doors open, tell them when you'd like to eat, come back then--and hope for the best. Also named: Noisiest, Best Value.

Best Chefs' Hangout
Biba 272 Boylston St.; 617-426-7878
Boston's chefs are famously collegial; at Biba's lively bar, open until 1:30 A.M., they gather to check out Lydia Shire's latest experiments, such as sautéed maple-smoked foie gras with bacon. "Only chefs put fat with fat," Shire says.

Best Sommelier
Les Zygomates 129 South St.; 617-542-5108
Owner Lorenzo Savona says he spends 30 hours a week tending his list and teaching his staff to talk about the wines. He makes a habit of telling a story about each bottle--who the winemaker is, what conditions made the vintage unusually successful--to help customers "take it off the pedestal and drink it."

The next hot cocktail? Martinis, the experts said. The most passé? Martinis again.

Published July 1999
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