The honorees span from Frankenmuth, Michigan, to Little Rock, Arkansas.

By Maria Yagoda
Updated February 20, 2020

Every year since 1998, the James Beard Foundation has awarded a small group of restaurants the designation "American Classic." The category, created to offer smaller, locally owned restaurants an opportunity to shine, has recognized some of the most culturally significant culinary institutions in America, from Los Angeles' Pho 79 to Jim's Steak and Spaghetti House in Huntington, West Virginia.

This year, in a week-long rollout, the foundation has honored six restaurants that have been bedrocks of their communities since as early as 1917—Lassis Inn in Little Rock, AR; Zehnder's in Frankenmuth, MI; Puritan Backroom in Manchester, NH; Oriental Mart in Seattle, WH; El Taco de Mexico in Denver, CO; and Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, TX.

Courtesy of the James Beard Foundation

There are three main criteria to qualify as an American Classic: the restaurant must be locally owned, "have timeless appeal," and be "cherished for quality food reflecting the character of their community."

Here are the restaurants that received the honor for 2020, a year that marks the James Beard Awards' 30th anniversary. (Next up in JBF awards season: the Restaurant and Chef Awards semifinalists will be announced on Wednesday, February 26.)

Lassis Inn

"In Arkansas, ordering buffalo ribs will land you a plate of fried fish—seasoned, battered ribs cut from local big-boned buffalo fish. In Little Rock, the place to eat them is Lassis Inn. Founded by Joe and Molassis Watson in 1905, it started as a sandwich shop out of their home, with Joe later adding catfish and buffalo ribs to the menu. Lassis Inn (the name is a shorthand for Molassis) later became a meeting place for Civil Rights leaders like Daisy Bates during the ’50s and ’60s."

518 E. 27th St., Little Rock, AR

Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth 

"Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, a chicken-dinner behemoth positioned between Detroit and Michigan’s summer lake destination, is decidedly on the beaten path. William Zehnder, Sr. and his wife Emilie bought a former hotel in 1928. Today the restaurant — part of a complex, run by third and fourth generation family members, that includes a hotel, waterpark, and golf course — can accommodate 1,500 guests and brings in close to a million people each year."

730 S. Main St., Frankenmuth, MI

Puritan Backroom

"In 1906, friends Arthur Pappas and Louis Canotas left Greece in search of a sweeter life. They opened the Puritan Confectionary Company in Manchester in 1917, the first in a line of ice cream shops and restaurants throughout the city. Their children followed in their footsteps, opening the Puritan Backroom in 1974. Today this location also includes a bustling takeout business and a conference and event center. Customers still line up for Puritan ice cream, and crowd into booths for American comfort food and Greek classics."

245 Hooksett Rd., Manchester, NH

Oriental Mart

"In 1971, Mila Apostol opened Oriental Mart also known as 'O’Mart' in Pike Place Market to give fellow Filipino immigrants the groceries and culture they missed from back home. Eventually, Mila and her eldest daughter Leila raided their store shelves to make adobo and sinigang for farmers delivering produce to the market. Word spread to Filipino flight crews and cruise ship workers, but also to Seattle at large. Today, Mila’s daughter Joy runs the retail side of their market stall, while Leila oversees a counter in the style of the Philippines’ turo restaurants, filling her glass hot case with the fried noodles known as pancit, juicy longanisa, and long-simmered adobo."

1506 Pike Pl., #509, Seattle, WA

El Taco de Mexico

Among Denver’s thriving Mexican food culture, El Taco de Mexico is a lodestar whose appeal cuts across lines of race, class, and age. Maria Luisa Zanabria, a native of Mexico City, arrived in the city in 1985, first opening a trailer on Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s Art District. Her business grew into a small taqueria with a bright, bumblebee-yellow exterior. The serious, focused cooks (all women) keep pace with the all-day crowds, turning out tacos (carne asada, al pastor, and lengua are among the options), enchilada, gorditas, and weekend menudo. The restaurant’s crowning glory is the pork burrito, smothered in green chile humming with earthy spice."

714 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, CO

Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que

"Armando 'Mando' Vera and his family practice a near-lost art in South Texas: barbacoa de cabeza (barbecued cow’s head) buried underground in a brick-lined pit and smoked for up to 12 hours. The tradition stems from the region’s 19th century vaquero-cowboy culture; Vera’s father opened a restaurant serving the specialty in 1955. Barbacoa is for weekend feasts. Customers request meat by the pound or half-pound (cachete, or cheek meat, is a rich and popular cut) and then build their own tacos with tortillas, homemade garnishes, onion, and cilantro that come with each order."

2404 Southmost Blvd, Brownsville, TX

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