Today, we unveiled our 2016 Restaurants of the Year. Here are the top eleven trends we discovered in our research.—with Ryan Harrington

By Kate Krader
Updated May 24, 2017
© Neal Santos

1. Next-Level Bread

At High Street on Hudson in Manhattan, crusty, hearty loaves, like Anadama, dominate the breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. Meanwhile, at Shaya in New Orleans, the pita breads that are constantly coming out of the oven make this perhaps the best-smelling restaurant in America. And then there’s burger buns. Super-baker Chad Robertson created the tender griddled ones for the $4 cheeseburgers at Locol in Los Angeles, while at Launderette in Austin, baker Laura Sawicki makes buns that are impossibly squishy and delicious.

2. Pig Skin

It’s not new for chefs to make good use of all parts of the pig. But our ROTY are especially innovative with pig skin. Monteverde in Chicago makes pig-skin tortellini, while The Dabney in Washington, DC, offers BBQ pork rinds as a snack. Townsman in Boston puts cracklins on its ham-and-porchetta sandwich (and, in related news, a pig-fat crouton on its Brussels sprouts).

3. Local Cider

The beverage of the moment is cider, especially the locally made kind. Look for it at The Dabney, Monteverde, Townsman and Launderette. Launderette and Townsman even work these ciders into house cocktails.

4. Liquor Lipids

On the subject of cool cocktails at bars: At Monteverde you can order a martini made with olive-oil-washed gin; Townsman has a drink called Tippet, a mix of amber rum and brown butter.

5. Inspired Staffing

In LA's underserved Watts neighborhood, Locol is staffed exclusively with people from the community who are trained by F&W Best New Chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson. At Cala in San Francisco, chef Gabriel Camara employs nonviolent felons. “They get out of jail and they can’t find jobs,” she says. “And there’s a serious staffing issue in the Bay Area.” Big round of applause for these inspired chefs and their staff.

6. Fast Fast-Casual

Now that the traditional model of restaurants has become increasingly expensive to run (rising rents; mandatory health insurance; minimum wage increases), some places are exploring new paradigms. Cala has a take-out window in the back alley, from which it sells superb (and cheap) tacos. Next to Launderette, Mr. Mc’s is an inspired take on the grab-'n-go convenience store with muffulettas by Launderette chef Rene Ortiz. And Locol is re-envisioning fast food with stellar ingredients, offering veggie nuggets (and good-quality chicken ones, too) and a crushed tofu and veggie bowl that’s only $6.

7. Fun New Swag

It’s easy to find awful restaurant-logo-ed tee shirts; it’s harder to find places with merchandise you actually want. So check out Locol’s beanies, hoodies and comics, as well as the soap and fishing lures from Surly Brewery in Minneapolis (home to Brewer’s Table). Launderette will give you a custom koozie when you order a beer.

8. Waste Not

We love anyone who is part of the zero-waste revolution. Brewer’s Table uses the spent grains from the downstairs brewery to make incredibly moist and flavorful bread. At High Street on Hudson, stale bread is ground into flour to add texture to their sensational stroopwafel cookies. And Monteverde saves baked potato skins to make a cicchetti (snack) with cheese fonduta.

9. Affordable Eating

Our ROTY are reimaging what a not-too-pricey family meal can be. At Monteverde, the ragu alla Napoletana—a Fred Flintstone sized mix of fusilli, sausage, soppressata meatballs and tomato braised Berkshire pork shank—costs $41 and three people would be hard-pressed to finish it. Cala makes fish a la talla (grilled local rockfish with black beans) for two; it’s sensational and $42. The Dabney’s family-style pork loin, with smoked potatoes and green garlic, also clocks in at $42. High Street on Hudson’s honey-glazed chicken for two is $52 (hey, it’s New York City!) and has an array of sides including chicken-skin Caesar salad, sprouted bean salad and phenomenal, freshly baked malted-potato rolls.

10. Fire Worship

Do not underestimate the importance of a wood fire these days. Death & Taxes in Raleigh is completely dedicated to the technique of cooking with wood fire (in fact, chef Ashley Christensen somehow got a 1,900 pound custom-made grill to North Carolina from Texas). At The Dabney, the 10-foot wood-fired hearth is the centerpiece of the restaurant and key to most of the dishes.

11. Honoring the Past

Ashley Christensen named her handsome, high-ceilinged restaurant Death & Taxes because it was both a former mortuary and a bank. As its name suggests, Austin’s pretty pastel-colored Launderette was in fact, an old neighborhood laundromat (all laundry spots should be so big windowed and lovely). And the adjacent Mr Mc’s convenience store still has the same name, although it now is stocked with products like Pol Roger Champagne.