The Phoenician's star restaurant upholds its ace-chef track record with Bradford Thompson. This isn't Thompson's first stint at Mary Elaine's; he worked at this formal dining room six years ago, under Alessandro Stratta (now at Las Vegas's Renoir). After a few years with chef Daniel Boulud at New York City's Daniel and Café Boulud, Thompson is back, cooking bold, contemporary French cuisine: John Dory with sherry-chicken jus and salsify; garlic-and-herb-crusted rack of lamb with Swiss chard tart. Both his mentors would approve (The Phoenician, 6000 E. Camelback Rd.; 480-423-2530).
Manka's Inverness Lodge
Chef-owners Daniel DeLong and Margaret Gradé couldn't have asked for a more idyllic spot. At this former hunting lodge overlooking Tomales Bay on the spectacular Point Reyes National Seashore, they never have to travel longer than 15 minutes to find enviable ingredients: Pacific fish, locally raised rabbit and perfect produce. The only quibble? A verbose menu (30 Callendar Wy.; 415-669-1034).
Auberge du Soleil
The quintessential Napa inn continues the restaurant revamp that began in 2000 with the hire of chef Richard Reddington, whose star continues to rise. The latest development is a two-million-dollar modern makeover, complete with a superkitchen. Reddington responds with more of his supremely confident, creative constructions: halibut saltimbocca with prosciutto emulsion and sage; foie gras—stuffed squab with chocolate sauce (180 Rutherford Hill Rd.; 707-963-1211).
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
Dine like a monarch at this ultraplush, dress-up salon. Sylvain Portay's cuisine—classical French with offbeat touches—is more than a match for the fanfare. Watch out for the signature serving carts for eaux-de-vie, Champagne and, most successfully, for the outstanding cheeses (600 Stockton St.; 415-773-6168).
Laurent Gras (an F&W Best New Chef 2002) wows that toughest of crowds, San Franciscans, at his zebra-carpeted restaurant in Union Square's trendy Hotel Palomar. After training with French stars Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse, Gras is now inspiring the next generation with his witty, flawless inventions: geoduck clams with lime and fresh wasabi; sea bass and shellfish with tapioca and a sauce made with saffron and bonito flakes (Hotel Palomar, 12 Fourth St.; 415-348-1555).
Masa's is home to one of America's great kitchen purists, Ron Siegel (an F&W Best New Chef 1999). Cooking French with discrete Japanese moments, he prefers to intensify flavors rather than multiply ingredients—a trait he shares with mentors Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller (Hotel Vintage Court, 648 Bush St.; 415-989-7154).
At one of Tinseltown's principal power-dining spots, chef Bill Bracken goes antiformal. This guy from small-town Kansas likes to play with your food, riffing on the all-American classics he loves—a chicken and foie gras hot dog on a brioche bun, or, more sensibly, crisp peekytoe crab cakes with chilled heirloom-tomato soup. Bracken indulges all the Hollywood food fads (small plates, steak) but gives them his own inimitable spin (The Peninsula Beverly Hills, 9882 S. Santa Monica Blvd.; 310-788-2306).
The dining room gets its wicked style from decor queen Kelly Wearstler, who has done the interior in a vibrant emerald-and-charcoal palette. But it's the market-led, clean-cut American cuisine from Tim Goodell (an F&W Best New Chef 2000) that keeps the place full (Viceroy, 1819 Ocean Ave.; 310-260-7500).
It's easy to see how Studio's owners tempted chef James Boyce away from Mary Elaine's in Scottsdale. The restaurant at this luxe new resort perched on the Pacific has a view to die for and an elegant interior that screams relax. Boyce uses as may artisanal products as he can find: Jamison Farm lamb, Four Story Hill Farm milk-fed capon...half the meats on the menu have names. Boyce seems inspired by it all (Montage Resort & Spa, 30801 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-715-6030).
Half Moon Bay
This two-year-old golf and spa resort, dramatically poised on an ocean bluff, found the perfect chef last year in local boy Peter Rudolph. With its curved wooden ceiling, Navio looks something like an upturned galleon, and Rudolph's menu picks up the nautical theme (diver scallops with Thai red lentils, black bass with maitake mushrooms) without skimping on earthly ingredients (The Ritz-Carlton, 1 Miramontes Point Rd.; 650-712-7000).
At a scenic resort in this most spectacular of ski towns, chef Paul Wade serves what he calls "alpine" cuisine. But his menu has a worldly flair: Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish-Mediterranean influences merge in dishes like the steamed turbot with mizuna-shiitake wontons in orange-soy-mirin broth, and Caesar salad with polenta croutons and white anchovies. And sommelier Richard Betts's wine list is justifiably famous (The Little Nell, 675 E. Durant St.; 970-920-6313).
Restaurant Kevin Taylor
Kevin Taylor's eponymous restaurant, a major player in Denver's downtown revival since it opened four and a half years ago, gets better every year. The yellow and green upholstery makes a bright backdrop for his eclectic American food: clam and potato soup with chorizo; veal tenderloin and braised cheeks with truffled risotto and tomato-eggplant tart (Hotel Teatro, 1100 14th St.; 303-820-2600).
Trained in the classical French tradition and hailing from Germany's Black Forest, Henkelmann offers a deluxe European menu at his namesake restaurant. But his job doesn't end there. The restaurant boasts an accomplished pastry chef: Henkelmann again. He also owns the inn with his wife, who designed the colorful, rooms (Homestead Inn, 420 Field Point Rd.; 203-869-7500).
Michelle Bernstein, a former ballerina who performed with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, might just be Miami's most beloved chef. Her fanciful Asian-Caribbean-French cooking suits the energetic, multicultural city—and fits right in with the buzzing bar scene at this glamorous high-rise hotel (Mandarin Oriental, 500 Brickell Key Dr.; 305-913-8254).
Mark's South Beach
In an open-kitchen dining venue overlooking the pool at this Deco palace, Mark Militello (an F&W Best New Chef 1990) cooks food from sunny climates: the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Latin America. He tweaks ordinary dishes with an olive-caper jus here, a mustard sabayon there, with the help of executive chef Larry LaValley. Pastry chef Juan Villaparedes does amazing things with El Rey chocolate. (Hotel Nash, 1120 Collins Ave.; 305-604-9050).
The Ritz's old-fashioned grand-resort ambience is a change of pace from the flashy SoBe scene nearby, but Hawaiian-born chef Jeff Vigillia's menu is anything but dull. He gives a spirited, modern spin to comfort food standards: The rack of lamb comes with feta-dill cake and vegetable fricassee; the rare ahi with cassoulet beans and preserved lemons. He designed most of the tableware, too (The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, 455 Grand Bay Dr.; 305-365-4286).
Often considered Oahu's best restaurant, bar none, chef Yves Garnier's domain at this most elegant of hotels has a wall of windows facing the waves. Garnier's style runs the French gamut—from elaborate, as in his beef fillet three ways, to simple but luxurious, as in his island fish in a rosemary-salt crust (Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Rd.; 808-923-2311).
Whether the backdrop is the floodlit surf lapping near a terrace table or the giant dining room aquarium, dinner here is a romantic proposition. Chef James Cassidy's flavor-burst Pacific food surely enhances the occasion, even if some dishes need an interpreter: furikake- and-shichimi-crusted ahi with wasabi-ogo sauce, for instance (Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, 100 Ka'upulehu Dr.; 808-325-8000).
Less than two years old, Wolfgang Puck's millionth restaurant is a stunner, both for its audacious room—decorated with huge backlit photos of sea anemones—and for chef Adam Condon's Pacific Rim menu. He uses the best from the new wave of island farmers (Molokai yams, micro-shiso, palm hearts, Maui onions) and shows off fabulous local fish like opakapaka and moi (Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, 3900 Wailea Alanui; 808-879-2999).
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
After 18 years at this lavish, sunny restaurant, which belongs to the Four Seasons (yes, it's confusing), chef Sarah Stegner shows no signs of ennui. Every day she changes her contemporary French menu, working in new creations: duck liver with homemade quince jam, Mission fig compote and Medjool date puree. There's also a nightly five-course vegetarian tasting menu (160 E. Pearson St.; 312-266-1000).
This hopping theater-district joint sits on the main floor of a hotel, but it feels like home—especially if you're Italian American. Chef Dean Zanella started making pizza and pasta in his Boston neighborhood; he's still calling on Nonna Zanella's recipes, but he's adapting them to his contemporary style. The results—handmade maccheroni with Bolognese sauce, shellfish stew in saffron broth—are sublime and unpretentious (Hotel Allegro, 136 N. LaSalle St.; 312-696-2420).
In-your-face skyline views make a feisty background for the gutsy French-Italian-Asian menus of French chef Sandro Gamba (an F&W Best New Chef 2001). Lobster risotto with pepper-crusted pineapple, lemongrass, lotus chips and curry oil is one of his outré inventions. Or he might make his grandma's gnocchi gratin (Park Hyatt Chicago, 800 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-239-4030).
Spectacularly restored, Louisville's pride is as essential a stop as it was the day it opened in 1907. Chef Jim Gerhardt and chef de cuisine Michael Cunha, who are passionate about Kentucky products—from Gethsemani Farms Trappist cheese to bourbon—deserve the credit; they conjure down-home-upscale dishes like Southern-fried hominy-crusted spoonfish. Don't miss the sour-mash bourbon bread made with spent distillery grains (The Seelbach Hilton Louisville, 500 Fourth Ave.; 502-807-3463).
After working for five years at the swank Grill Room, Frenchman René Bajeux wanted a relaxed, affordable place to call his own. This is a bistro by name and nature—Bajeux is a master of onion soup, mussels, bouillabaisse and steak frites. He's also an inventor, roasting ducks with vinegar and honey, or riffing on an old-fashioned dish like tournedos rossini with his Thon Rossini—tuna grilled with foie gras, truffle sauce and spinach (Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel, 817 Common St.; 504-412-2580).
The White Barn Inn
A 140-year-old barn makes an ingenious foil for chef Jonathan Cartwright's modern, sophisticated American cooking. Maine lobster is all over the menu. Selections change weekly, but the most popular lobster appetizer—an anomalous Asian spring roll—always appears, alongside newer offerings like the halibut fillet in potato batter with peekytoe crab polenta (37 Beach Ave.; 207-967-2321).
The Inn at Easton
An inn in a 1790 Federal mansion that looks like a boutique hotel—saturated colors, antiques, Italian linens—houses a restaurant that acts like a big-city favorite. Chef (and inn co-owner) Andrew Evans's bold sensibility leads him to serve excitingly incongruous dishes, like pan-seared veal tenderloin with sea scallops and sea-urchin-roe butter (28 S. Harrison St.; 410-822-4910).
Chef Ken Oringer puts together strange-sounding combinations (like black radish, kumquat and chestnut) in ways that seem obvious after you've tried them. The dining room at Back Bay's sweet suite hotel is on the louche side of formal, with a leopard-print carpet and velvet banquettes (The Eliot Hotel, 370 Commonwealth Ave.; 617-536-7200).
Jeffrey Everts' innovative cooking—and a pretty room with bamboo flooring and gigantic windows—separates this (nearly) year-old Boston Common restaurant from the rest of the pack. Everts' menu is easy to like: Try the seared snapper with tangerines and wilted mustard greens or the bison with sweet potato jam and sour cherry—chocolate sauce (Nine Zero, 90 Tremont St.; 617-772-5800).
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
When this grande dame, which first opened in 1927, returned late in 2002, it also marked the East Coast debut of young French chef Tony Esnault. Well-versed in Mediterranean food (from two years with Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo) as well as Alsatian cuisine, he veers toward old-fashioned formal food. Dishes like Dover sole à la bordelaise with Manila clams are assisted by lavish dome-flourishing service (15 Arlington St.; 617-912-3355).
The drop-dead-gorgeous Italianate villa gained a new star late last year in chef Bryce Whittlesey. Tutored in rigorous French technique by, among others, Paris's Michel Rostang, Whittlesey continues the Wheatleigh's outstanding legacy with dishes like a cumin-roasted lobster served with crisped pig's trotter and mustard carrot jus (Hawthorne Rd.; 413-637-0610).
The Old Inn on the Green
Great changes occurred in the candlelit restaurant of this 240-year-old former stagecoach stop last year: Peter Platt, the chef from the Wheatleigh in nearby Lenox, took over the kitchens. Platt sticks to his straightforward season-led Euro-American cooking: Osso buco with gremolata might be on the menu (which changes nightly) or pan-roasted brook trout with warm potato salad and brown-butter vinaigrette (Rte. 57; 800-286-3139).
At the Bellagio's grand restaurant, Julian Serrano is forced to compete with valuable artwork: not only Picasso's oils, but also his ceramics. Serrano, who hails from Madrid and made his name in San Francisco during his 14 years at Masa's, complements the visuals with pristine, sturdy dishes in a loosely French style: sautéed swordfish with fresh herbs in a court-bouillon sauce, roasted veal chop au jus with rosemary potatoes (Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-693-7223).
Like Julian Serrano at Picasso, Alessandro Stratta (an F&W Best New Chef 1994) is up against a creative giant. The decor is heavy—dark wood and tapestries surround the collection of original Renoir oils—but Stratta's cooking is light and direct. His contemporary French food has a distinct Italian edge (he is half French-Canadian, half Italian), with many sauces based on pureed, concentrated vegetables. "Making simple things better" is how Stratta defines his style. It's working (The Mirage, 3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd.; 702-791-7223).
DB Bistro Moderne
New York City
Daniel Boulud's urbane bar-restaurant is the most relaxed of his three New York places. The room is always full, thanks not only to the now-famous short rib, truffle and foie gras—stuffed sirloin burger, but also because of chef de cuisine Jean François Bruel's boosted bistro dishes: tomato tarte Tatin, glazed monkfish with saffron risotto, chicken grand-mère (City Club Hotel, 55 W. 44th St.; 212-391-2400).
New York City
You may have lost track of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's global expansion (13 restaurants and counting), but you can catch up with the genius from Alsace at his home base. Go elsewhere for JGV's steakhouse, bistro, Thai and modern Chinese places; this is where to luxuriate in his continuously evolving Asian-French food, exquisitely presented on geometric white porcelain (Trump International Hotel, 1 Central Park W.; 212-299-3900).
New York City
So what if the celebrity Michelin-star-generator doesn't actually cook here most of the time? The state-of-the-art kitchen sends out precise facsimiles of his elite French cuisine; the opulent crimson salon envelops diners in ultimate luxe. Service starts with Champagne and ends with the signature candy cart and a brioche to take home (Essex House, 155 W. 58th St.; 212-265-7300).
New York City
Diners can't help but feel a frisson of anticipation when they descend the jazzy David Rockwell—designed staircase to this mod below-ground boîte. It's not just the dramatic setting. Credit goes to Geoffrey Zakarian's rebellious, whimsical food: duck steak with soba pilaf and almond essence; Basque-style braised veal tongue (Chambers Hotel, 15 W. 56th St.; 212-582-4445).
New York City
Chef Christian Delouvrier may be the city's chief proponent of unabashedly classical French cuisine, for which these palatial, Belle Epoque quarters are the perfect home. But Delouvrier's recipes are neither staid nor pretentious. Accompaniments for the roasts, braises and grills are as likely to be mango-coconut basmati rice as pommes dauphine (The St. Regis, 2 E. 55th St.; 212-753-4500).
New York City
Ilo feels oddly intimate—odd, considering that the lobby, bar and restaurant are one great big soaring space. Wood paneling, knockout design and friendly service help warm things up, as does chef Rick Laakkonen's lusty food, which has grown even more crowd-pleasing since he made his name at Brooklyn's River Café (The Bryant Park Hotel, 40 W. 40th St.; 212-642-2255).
New York City
It's hard to overstate the impact young French-German chef Gabriel Kreuther has had in his debut year. His style is French, but quite singular: He adds frog's legs and garlic sprouts to a "peasant toasted flour soup," and serves slices of moist savory vegetable pound cake with his foie gras terrine (The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park, 50 Central Park S.; 212-521-6125).
Philadelphia's Ritz is in a gargantuan landmark building, and the restaurant is fittingly aristocratic-looking. But chef Philippe Reininger's cooking is more cozy and approachable. The Simply Grilled section of the menu offers cowboy rib, Niman Ranch strip and double-cut pork chops; the rest is creative but fuss-free modern American (The Ritz-Carlton, 10 Ave. of the Arts; 215-523-8000).
Restrained is not the word for chef Robert Carter's Southern cooking. At this warm, velvet-walled restaurant in a historic mansion, quail is stuffed with pecan cornbread and served with black-eyed-pea fritters, grits cake and oyster-leek ragout; blue crab—manchego soufflé and lemon-caper butter adorn a mountain trout. Call it exuberant instead (Planters Inn, 112 N. Market St.; 843-723-0700).
The Dining Room at Woodlands
Chef Ken Vedrinski's years in Thailand give his modern low-country cuisine an Asian edge. He ingeniously combines Carolina shrimp, sourwood honey and stone-ground grits from local purveyors with maitake, edamame and Eastern spices (Woodlands Resort & Inn, 125 Parsons Rd.; 843-875-2600).
Chef José Gutierrez has a distinctive style that might be dubbed double-Southern—as in France and the U.S. In an antebellum-style fantasy hall of pillars and green and gold carpets, he serves croquettes à la farine de maïs (a.k.a. hush puppies) stuffed with shrimp Provençal, and couscous de maïs cassé (i.e. grits) with sage-rubbed smoked pork tenderloin (The Peabody, 149 Union Ave.; 901-529-4000).
The Mansion on Turtle Creek
A Texan-medieval salon of carved mahogany and coffered ceilings is a grandiose stage set for Dean Fearing's beloved haute-cowboy dishes. Texas crab cakes on watercress-artichoke salad with lobster sauce, toasted orange and smoked peppers is an example of his oeuvre—and that's just a starter. This remains one of the most wanted reservations in the West (2821 Turtle Creek Blvd.; 214-559-2100).
In this cattle baron's dream palace, young chef David J. Bull is clearly having a ball. Though he's a Yankee from upstate New York—from an Italian restaurant family yet—he cooks Southwestern. His menus veer from barbecued duck burrito to lobster crêpe with chanterelles, but Bull never stumbles (The Driskill, 604 Brazos St.; 512-391-7162).
"Maestro" is no misnomer for chef Fabio Trabocchi (an F&W Best New Chef 2002), now entering his third year at this open-kitchen dining room in suburban D.C. He is an inveterate, passionate innovator. Even the menu labeled La Tradizione yields surprises like pork belly with dill, black peppercorn and grapes. The La Evoluzione part is downright shocking, but in his hands, hay-baked, lightly smoked turbot with olive oil mash, pearl onions and smoked hay sauce is a success (The Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, 1700 Tysons Blvd.; 703-821-1515).
Downtown's grandest hotel boasts the requisite posh dining salon, with mile-high molded ceilings, forests of flora and major chandeliers. But this is Seattle, so you'll also find cheery butter-yellow walls and minimal sticker shock (relatively speaking). Chef Gavin Stephenson plays to the gallery with likable Northwest-ish dishes like a "big bowl of shellfish" in wine, butter and garlic (Four Seasons, 411 University St.; 206-621-1700).
Right next to what foodies call the real heart of the city, Pike Place Market, sits this hip, relaxed restaurant. It's part courtyard, part room with a view of Elliott Bay. Chef Daisley Gordon bases everything on the peerless produce, whether it's his magnificent king salmon with potato-chard gnocchi, pancetta and oyster mushrooms, or the "vegetables of the moment" with couscous and Provençal spices (Inn at the Market, 86 Pine St.; 206-728-2800).
Chef Michel Richard's genius and a sublime dining room with its own light show makes Citronelle one of Washington, D.C.'s perennial favorites. The jackets-for-gents policy may be a throwback, but Richard forges ahead with his own playful style. His modern French presentations verge on art. Frog's legs come with enoki flan and garlic-chervil sauce, and the "black feather" chicken is coated with truffles and shiitake and (fittingly enough) hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (The Latham Hotel, 3000 M St. NW; 202-625-2150).