Toques, Trends & Top
André, Sophie and Alain Gayot
Welcome to the 2007 edition of our Annual Restaurant Issue. While many readers can’t wait to get to the meat of the issue—our selections for the "Top 40 Restaurants in the U.S."—we would like to start you off with an appetizer so you can better appreciate the entrée to come.
Through the decades that the Gayot family has been reviewing restaurants, our rating system has often confused people. But since we’ve used it for over 40 years, we’re keeping the tradition alive. The rating on a twenty point scale is used to grade the food only. Ambience, service, décor and other parts of the dining experience are addressed in the review. So for the most part, our restaurants are at the top of our toque tallies because of what you will find on your plate.
Since we are now publishing our work online, we actually update these ratings year-round, unlike printed guides. That is of primary importance in these times, as eateries seem to come and go at Internet speed. Everything from star chef showcases to chains to mom-and-pop establishments open and close before one can jump on OpenTable.com to secure a reservation.
It’s important for our readers to understand that beyond the food rating, an establishment appears on our "Top 40 Restaurants in the U.S." list because it offers everything that a successful dining room must provide: top ingredients, pronounced creativity in the execution of the food, solid service and a look that you’ll want to emulate for your next dining room remodel. A small, independent restaurant that has remarkable food but a perfunctory wine list would not make the grade, nor would a top dining room with all the trimmings where the chef has fallen asleep at the wheel. There might not be anything completely wrong with a place, except that nothing has changed in ten years.
Speaking of change, you may notice that we have updated the style of our restaurant and hotel reviews. Please let us know what you think of our new look. If we can make our site easier and more informative for you, we will do our best to please you.
We want to congratulate all the hardworking men and women whose restaurants are heralded herein, including our Rising Chefs and Top Pastry Chefs. We welcome those who made our Top 10 New Restaurants list as well as the six restaurants that have never earned a spot in our Top 40 before. We also celebrate the return of Bouley and Chef Mavro to our Top 40 after brief absences, and Le Cirque, which graced our 1990 Top 40 list. We also want to thank our growing staff of trusted and dedicated professional food writers around the world who have helped make this issue, and our website, a success.
wishes of health and prosperity to all of you.
Our 2005 Restaurant Issue noted Las Vegas' rise in the restaurant world, and that trend continues unabated with the opening of David Burke Modern American Cuisine, StripSteak and Rao’s. The developments we pointed out last year, such as how more top chefs are American-trained, and the prominence of small plates and small places have led to this year’s trends:
Alice Waters began a culinary revolution in the 1970s when she started sourcing her produce locally and developing relationships with farmers who would grow fruits and vegetables specifically for Chez Panisse, her legendary Berkeley, California restaurant. Now, chefs all over the country are subscribing to a philosophy that employs the use of organic or locally grown, farm-fresh ingredients in seasonally inspired dishes. However, using ingredients from sustainable or more natural sources has also become big marketing. There are restaurants that simply pay lip service and exploit the concept by charging top dollar for grass-fed beef that’s corn-finished, or citing “farms” as producers for foodstuffs that in reality are grown in circumstances that are anything but small-scale. The good news is that there are plenty of dedicated culinary artisans who are passionate about going that important step beyond, preserving both quality and freshness. The chef-owners of restaurants like Atlanta’s Bacchanalia, Ogunquit, Maine's Arrows, and Salts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, run their own organic farms so they know exactly the pedigree of their raw ingredients. At eateries like Crust in Chicago, and Flying Fish and Tilth in Seattle, menus are 100-percent organic. Some restaurateurs are taking the philosophy even further and educating their guests about the farm-to-fork process, hosting events, and giving farm and garden tours. Seattle chef Tamara Murphy even published a blog with photos detailing the lives of four pigs from birth to slaughter that she served in her restaurant, Brasa.
In the restaurant biz, when it comes to main courses, $40 is the new $30. With prix fixe meals for two easily running into the four-figure range at top-tier spots like Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas and Masa ($400 per person, plus wine, tax, & tip) in New York, the price hikes are trickling downward. These days, in cities across the U.S., $40 entrées can be found on menus at restaurants that are casually upscale, including chains. Steakhouses, not surprisingly, are leading the way. Restaurateurs give many reasons for this ugly trend: rising rents, interior design, the price of gas, a weak dollar, the cost of ingredients like line-caught fish, organic produce and American Wagyu or imported Kobe beef, as well as rising labor costs all come into play when deciding what to charge for a plate. And, like every business, the prices reflect what the market will bear. But critics of the creeping menu inflation contend that consultants and chefs are cleverly crafting menus in order to drive profits by making that $38 rack of lamb seem a little more reasonable, along with the $20 appetizers and $15 desserts that go with it. Those prices don’t seem that out of line on a menu next to a $50 entrée, or a Kobe beef dish priced by the ounce. (If you frequent places on our Value lists, you might not be dining inexpensively, but you’ll definitely get more bang for your hard-earned buck.)
The same chefs offering $40 entrees at their signature restaurants have found a way to expand their business empires and their appeal to the middle classes. More and more top chefs are rolling out casual, speedier versions of their elegant, expensive culinary showcases from coast to coast. In Philadelphia, top toque Marc Vetri launched Osteria, where diners can experience his sublime cooking outside his eponymous eatery in a simpler setting without the hefty price tag. In Washington, D.C., Citronelle has spawned the lively and more casual Central Michel Richard to great acclaim. In Southern California, Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali launched the dressed down Pizzeria Mozza almost a year before debuting the fancier Osteria Mozza next door, and both are raging successes. In wine country, Thomas Keller’s ad hoc was supposed to be a temporary affair, but now it’s his rustic, family-style staple where diners can enjoy Keller's cooking without making a reservation two months in advance. Look forward to the opening of Bar Daniel Boulud in New York and Eric Ripert’s French bistro Westend in The Ritz-Carlton, Washington D.C. by the end of the year.
It used to be bars and lounges in upscale restaurants were little more than glorified waiting rooms where people could be overcharged for a glass of wine or a screwdriver. These days we’re seeing the bar/lounge areas of upscale eateries take on their own identities, and sometimes even their own names. They have come into their own, offering signature cocktails with seasonal ingredients made by talented mixologists who act more like sommeliers than your typical barkeeps. At some places, they even pair drinks with meals served right at the bar or in a living room-style atmosphere. From smaller eateries like Abode in Santa Monica to larger dining rooms like The Modern in New York, the “loungification” of upscale restaurants is on the rise. At Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood in Chicago, RT Sushi Bar & Lounge serves specialty cocktails and small plates adjacent to the dining room. Wolfgang Puck’s CUT in Beverly Hills sports Sidebar, a sleek bar with a menu of appetizers, wines and classic cocktails that often becomes the main event. What’s next? More venues like Degustation in New York where the chair-and-table dining experience has been ditched altogether in favor of 16 seats clustered around a wooden bar where diners watch the chefs at work, then enjoy the fruits of their labors.