Best New Restaurants 2019
From a neighborhood charmer in Philly to a hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-don’t-care NOLA butcher shop to some of the best restaurants in NYC, here are the 10 best new places to eat in America right now.
Why it won: Everything Leighann Smith and Daniel Jackson touch has a serotonin T-shirt cannon je ne sais quoi.
Crunchy, salty, pepper Jack–oozing boudin egg rolls are the kind of thing you order because they’re there and because why not. The kind of thing you tell yourself you’ll just taste but won’t finish because you are an adult and not an undergrad testing the limits of a gravity bong and a microwave. The kind of thing you wait until your guest is in the bathroom to polish off with the last of the sriracha mayo, then lean back in a delirious haze of bliss and shame. Boudin egg rolls are also, it bears mentioning, the kind of thing you find in every gas station in Cajun country. But you’ll be perfectly happy eating them here, at Piece of Meat in New Orleans.
Leighann Smith and Daniel Jackson are the architects of this hybrid butcher shop and restaurant, and just about everything they touch has that same serotonin T-shirt cannon je ne sais quoi. Smith is responsible for the cultish bologna that put NOLA sandwich sensation Turkey and the Wolf on the map, and she does another version of the stuff here, cut into thick slabs and piled on an onion roll with provolone, fried onions, and the works. There are fat sausages and southern-inflected charcuterie, which you can buy from the retail case or devour while watching Smith and Jackson butcher primals just beyond the lunch counter. One evening a month they fire up a charcoal grill and cook steaks on the sidewalk, sending the scent of sizzling beef fat drifting down Bienville Street.
The whole place is a thing of unsubtle beauty. A hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-don’t-care mosh pit of flavor and fun. Exactly the thing we were missing.
Why it won: Chef Mei Lin pulls every trigger, twirls every dial to a defiant volume.
Right about the time the shrimp toast hits the table you realize you’d better pay attention. Up to this point it’s been all cheeky canned wine and pink plates and sexy California people telling big, loud stories from the comfort of emerald green banquettes. But then this thing shows up—a bowl of Cantonese curry, all ginger and lemongrass and coconut milk, and in the middle that oil-kissed wedge of pain de mie, fat with minced prawn and a fistful of fried curry leaves. And for one blessed second, it’s the only thing.
Born in China, raised around Detroit, shaped by her early experiences in her parents’ Chinese restaurant in Dearborn, Michigan, chef Mei Lin cuts a fierce figure in her open kitchen at Nightshade. This is her passion project, the landing pad for years of R&D pop-ups where she took the time to polish away any rough edges. It’s the reason why her beef tartare is so sublime, dotted with egg yolk jam and Korean gochugaru beneath a dreamy veil of radish flowers. Why the Szechuan burn in her Nashville-style hot quail can confidently dance the jitterbug up and down that high-heat balance beam.
With chiles and coconut, peppercorns and passion fruit, playfulness and intensity, references high and low, Nightshade pulls every trigger, twirls every dial to a defiant volume. OK Mei Lin—we’re paying attention.
Why it won: Chef Jonny Rhodes offers neo-soul flavors and an unflinching exploration of African American history.
It’s hard to know exactly how to talk about Indigo, but the truth is it’s better to listen. To 13 seats, two times a night, chef Jonny Rhodes delivers a thesis in five courses—the historic oppression and creativity of African, African American, and black people, told through the lens of what he has named neo-soul food.
Several courses are presented with context from Rhodes, derived from years of research into the African underpinnings of American vernacular cuisine. A theme of preservation ripples through the menu—techniques like curing and pickling were vital to the survival of agricultural oppression experienced by African Americans. So you might encounter sweet and sticky preserved figs, smoked fowl, or vegetables submerged in spice-spiked vinegars years before the restaurant ever opened its doors.
Some dishes skewer the language of racism, like the funky venison sausage and beets stewed in sorghum in a dish Rhodes calls “Homogenization of Mandingos.” Another, called “Turtlenecks & Durags,” arrives with a parable. You’ll eat sweet crab meat warmed in butter; you’ll hear the chef dismantle a myth about black communities—that its members thwart the progress of those attempting to leave, like crabs escaping a barrel. Other dishes are less interpretive but offer an opportunity to engage with the foods of survival—an earthy “coffee” made with toasted okra seeds, or aged potato ashcakes, which reference the rationing of meat for enslaved children.
Rhodes, who put in time at Gramercy Tavern in New York and Oxheart in Houston, is a gifted cook. And so while all of this may be delicious, none of it is comfortable—it isn’t intended to be. Sometimes the things we need the most are the hardest to swallow.
Why it won: Karen Akunowicz’s love letter to Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region is an instant classic.
The tigelle iron is a tricky thing to maneuver in a busy restaurant in a tight, open kitchen—it’s heavy and awkward, a long-handled clover with seven little depressions filled with dough, held over the stove until you get something that resembles a Bolognese English muffin. But it happens every night at Fox & the Knife in Boston, once just before dinner and then again right in the middle of service. The iron is a memento from the year chef Karen Akunowicz spent mending a broken heart and folding tortellini as a young cook in Modena, Italy. For a decade she hung onto the relic, sure she’d build a restaurant around it one day. And by January of this year, she had.
Akunowicz was already a star—a Top Chef contestant and a 2018 James Beard Award winner for her work at Myers + Chang—when she opened Fox & the Knife, but the South Boston spot is her first solo effort. That those tigelle are a specialty from Emilia-Romagna should tell you the mood she’s after here, but Akunowicz mostly has a light touch around regionality. Her wild-boar Bolognese is sticky perfection with its rumble of herbs and Parmesan, and her mafaldini are heavy with salty guanciale. But then there’s that panzanella salad packed with sumac and pomegranate, and that Caesar with spears of grilled broccoli subbed in for romaine, and that round of hot focaccia split at its equator and packed with oozing Taleggio.
None of this is the kind of thing you’d stumble across around Piazza della Pomposa. But here in Boston, in the care of Akunowicz with her shock of pink hair, and in the light of a neon “stay foxy” sign, and with the din of Bostonians turning up with spritzes and Americanos, it all feels exactly right.
Why it won: Chintan Pandya gifts NYC the kind of quality, everyday Indian fare he grew up with.
It all arrives fast and fragrant, chaat jockeying for space next to butter chicken, piles of naan brushed with butter, cans of Indian Thums Up soda, and beers sourced from breweries in Queens and Brooklyn. This is the work of Chintan Pandya, who arrived in America six years ago and found it lacking in the sort of food he’d want to eat—the kind of market-driven, high-quality, everyday dishes he’d grown up with. From there, Adda took root.
Pandya was born in Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, India, and grew up in Mumbai, but his cooking at Adda defies regions. A dum biryani arrives under a cap of bubbled naan, sealing braised goat and moist grains of saffron-dyed rice inside. Paneer, a commercial product in many Indian-American restaurants, is made in-house here—from high-fat milk that’s been curdled and pressed until it is firm enough to hold its shape, stewed with local greens in a seasonal saag, or dusted with chili powder and grilled. Pandya updates the fritters known as pakora with ripply kale, stews goat brains with ginger and onions, and captains a tandoor with grace, kissing lamb chops with garam masala, splashing poussin with vinegar and black salt, and sparking prawns with cranks of black pepper.
Pandya is also executive chef at the high-end Indian restaurant Rahi in Manhattan, but it’s Adda I keep coming back to. On any night of the week, its narrow space is packed with guests tearing through naan and sipping mango lassis—it’s clear I’m not the only one.
Why it won: A cocktail omakase or a tear in the space-time continuum? We may never know.
Excepting those Midwesterners who have evolved into higher, weather-resistant beings, the Chicago elements do tend to leave a mark. The owners of Kumiko seem to know this, so during those months when you could freeze an arc of boiling water in midair, there will always be a hot cup of tea waiting for you just inside the door. When the season turns and you could wring the sky of its oppressive humidity, that tea will of course be cool. Sip it while patting your brow and marveling at the host who, like the rest of the staff at Kumiko, is so interminably charming she doesn’t even mind that you’re the 50th person today to offer wan commentary on the weather.
Linger a moment. This is the last time you’ll think of the outside world for a few hours.
Kumiko is the sophomore project from 2017 Best New Chef Noah Sandoval (Oriole), who takes a half-step back here so that his collaborators—Cara Sandoval, Julia Momose, and Mariya Russell—can shine. Kumiko is more high-concept bar than fully fledged restaurant. Beverage director Momose has created a cocktail omakase as precise as any tasting menu, rooted in the brewing and distilling traditions of Japan but stretching from Okinawan awamori to sotol from Chihuahua, Mexico, in a few graceful leaps. You forget yourself quickly—the sound of a mixing spoon clinking against Yarai crystal, the lamplight glow, the strange thrill of bierschnaps, shochu, and kola nut–infused cream conspiring in a hot cocoa trompe l’oeil.
Then comes chef de cuisine Russell to put you back on terra firma. A pork bun in a party dress, with a corsage of fresh herbs. Prawns in lacy tempura batter with a caramel that’s been enriched by juices from the crustacean’s head. A platter of short ribs with DIY garnishes—puffed tendons and beef fat hollandaise and a grilled lime.
Too soon it’s time to leave. Out onto the sidewalk you go. Time picks up just where you left it.
Why it won: At a cult Japanese sandwich shop, the B sides can’t be missed.
Consider Konbi the food-world equivalent of a Kacey Musgraves tune—catchy like a song of summer, but also deeply resonating in the culture. In other words, love is indeed a wild thing, and Japanese sandos are here to stay.
If you know only one thing about Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery’s tiny, 10-seat cafe in Echo Park, it’s probably that the two make a genre-defining, Instagram-darling egg salad sandwich. It’s a tri-cut paean to obsessive engineering, a nod to Tokyo convenience store culture but—true to the spirit of L.A. optimism—more, more, more. A yolk that glows like a traffic light on the Sunset Strip, milk bread that shares a genome with cotton candy, Kewpie mayo, yes, but also crème fraîche. This is last meal kind of stuff.
Truly though, it’s the B sides at Konbi you’re going to come back for. Akuto and Montgomery crack about 1,000 eggs a week, but more of them ought to go into the layered omelet sandwich, a fat mille-feuille of tamagoyaki perfection suffused with dashi. There are fried katsus, too, plus vegetable sides strong as worker ants, carrying 50 times their weight on this tidy little menu—Meyer lemon–doused turnips and the platonic ideal of a Japanese pickle. Come early (like 9 a.m. early) and you’ll stand a chance of tasting the other feather in the Konbi cap: French pastries. They sell at most 42 chocolate croissants a day, a psychotic after-hours labor of love that involves a manual sheeter and the kind of fanatic sensibility that ensures there’s cocoa in every single bite. Oh, and there’s a canelé. Not just any canelé, but the best canelé. The kind of golden-armored, custardy feat of rum and egg and butter that makes you realize you’ve never actually had a proper canelé.
Point is, it’s all well and good if you buy the album for the single, so long as, at some point, you listen all the way through.
Why it won: Over duck frites and natural wine, a view of the great Gotham that was.
In a moment when New York City counterculture feels like it’s on life support, it’s easy to forget the great Gotham that was. The one in the opening credits of Saturday Night Live, the one on the cover of Bright Lights, Big City, the one where it could be possible, in the space of a single late night at The Odeon, to catch Keith Haring getting his feet back under him and John Belushi raiding the walk-in. That’s not the NYC of 2019, this city of Google HQs, and the Waiting for Godot–like drudgery of a broken transit system, and developments that ought to stir the vengeful spirit of Jane Jacobs.
Still, praise be to Frenchette—someone’s got to keep the lights on.
Here is pewter and leather and one drink too many. Here is foggy milk glass and looping Erika Langstroth murals, like a Bemelmans Bar with 21st century restraint. The food, from co-chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson—veterans of Balthazar and Minetta Tavern—is French of course, but not too. Escargot served not in the shell but over a brouillade of eggs so softly scrambled you could sip them from an aperitif glass. Gnocchi Parisienne glossy with Comté, a big-night-out duck frites, a few over-the top flights of fancy (who invited you to the party, calf’s-liver stroganoff?). And at every table, in every corner, a deal, a date, a plan hatched, a great hat, a spectacular cat-eye, a how-do-they-even-know-each-other group.
Frenchette is, in many ways, the perfect New York restaurant—a clarion call for an imperfect city to remember itself. A dinner here, a return to form.
Why it won: Masa made with local corn and “black magic oil” cast an irresistible spell.
Before you taste it, you smell it. A block away as your taxi rumbles up East 6th Street, hanging thick and sweet in the air as you approach the entrance, then inside the dining room: an invisible, ambrosial swirl. You’re smelling masa, a fundamental building block of Mexican cuisine and the pride of Suerte in Austin.
The dough at the heart of so many iconic Mexican foods has been an American obsession in recent years, with importers of landrace corn like Masienda becoming superstar suppliers. But this is Texas, a place where the borders between Mexican and American cultures can be as fluid as they are fraught. And so chef Fermín Núñez, who grew up traveling between the Mexican city of Torreón and various cities in Texas, found that he didn’t have to look too far to source the corn for his masa—he gets it from growers right here in the Lone Star State.
His resulting masa is the earthy bedrock that supports everything at Suerte. Núñez pounds it into supple tortillas that hold what may be the world’s most extravagant suadero—confit brisket soaked in a sesame-and-smoked-chile riff on salsa macha that Núñez calls “black magic oil.” He shapes the dough into soft dumplings that float in a dense mole negro, he fries it into salt-kissed tostadas, and he bakes it into blondies that loll about in sticky cajeta.
In a city with generations of Tex-Mex bona fides, Núñez has flipped the ratio on its head. 2019: the year of Mex-Tex.
Why it won: Simple pleasures and serious food—for once, you don’t have to choose between them.
Where did the feel-good restaurants go? The ones that restore the spirit, the ones that make us feel fed in ways that transcend the obvious, the ones where the hospitality isn’t an algorithmic triple axel but human, heartfelt—“How’s the family?”. You know the type: Hearth in New York City; Rustic Canyon in Los Angeles. To that list, add Cadence in Philadelphia.
Before chefs Jon Nodler, Samantha Kincaid, and Michael Fry opened their South Kensington charmer, they all worked in various kitchens of beloved Philadelphia restaurant group High Street Hospitality for about six years—a lifetime as far as kitchen tenures go. It speaks to a sense of loyalty and basic goodness that carries through in every exchange at Cadence. You might get a call the morning of your reservation to remind you that the restaurant is BYOB—they’ll direct you to a bottle shop down the street where they’ve curated a small list of retail wines that pair especially well with their live-fire cooking. You might inquire about an especially vivid Concord grape soda you see on its way to a table and moments later be handed a tiny glass of the tangy, perfect flotsam on the house.
Lest you think all of this sweetness and light also means a no-brainer menu, consider the herb dumplings, like the creamiest gnocchi, with mustard butter, and a lamb ragù in a tractor-pull contest of brightness and funk. Both savory and sweet are handled with a masterful command of acid here—charred tomatillo with rings of grilled squid one night, huckleberries with bison tartare, buttermilk with pink slices of bavette, or a sundae of cider shaved ice, with sesame seeds where sprinkles might have been.
Simple pleasures and serious food are the point here at Cadence. And for once, you don’t have to choose between them.