The cultural identity of a place is found in its food. It's the beignets and jambalaya of New Orleans and the wiener schnitzel in Austria. It's eating freshly caught salmon in Alaska or brisket in Texas. Open the door to a restaurant, take a seat and you've stepped into another world. But when you're on the road, how do you tell the difference between the rave restaurant and the also-played? Some restaurants will shape your world view and tastes, and some will just fill your belly. To cut through the myriad stacks of tableware and porceclain, we asked our Where editors across the U.S. to bring you a list of some of the best restaurants across the nation (all of which happen to earn the distinction of being finalists for 2013 James Beard Foundation awards). Make sure to include these culinary sensations on your itinerary—you might find yourself planning whole itineraries around your dinners.
Why it’s worth the trip: This 2010 addition to the Vetri Family certainly lives up to its family reputation. Inspired by Roman recipes, Amis—meaning "friends"—puts a fresh spin on the Italian tradition by offering shareable small-plates of signature dishes. While everything on the menu is worth tasting, if you only get to visit once, Philly food critic Craig LaBan has the perfect meal lined up: Start with mortadella mousse, followed by salami del giorno, Sal's old school meatballs (a Vetri family recipe), tripe alla romana, tonnarelli "cacio e pepe" or paccheri with swordfish and chicken leg saltimbocca, then finish with Belgian waffles topped with Nutella and hazelnuts. LaBan says the charcuterie is among the best you'll find, and everything on the menu is seasonal, local and housemade. As if its menu and pedigree didn't make it enough of a standout, Amis hosts monthly industry nights where local chefs are invited to an after-hours party and dinner by a guest chef.
Lead chef: Brad Spence
Details: 412 S. 13th St., Philadelphia, 215.732.2647. www.amisphilly.com
Binkley's Restaurant (Cave Creek, Metro Phoenix)
Why it’s worth the trip: In dusty, cowboyish Cave Creek, along the northern edge of the Phoenix metropolis, Binkley’s Restaurant sticks out like a manicured thumb. Lowercase menus and judicious chefs beget oversized white plates set with dainty compositions of tentacles, claws, stems and segments. Palates are teased with tiny tastes of veal cheek and pork belly—along with hints of hollandaise, horseradish, saffron or soy—and inquisitive conversations are inspired.
Lead chef: Kevin Binkley
Details: 6920 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, Ariz., 480.437.1072. www.binkleysrestaurant.com
Borgne (New Orleans)
Why it’s worth the trip: John Besh, the JBF’s 2006 “Best Chef: Southeast,” adds another jewel to his culinary crown with this upscale take on the down-home fish-camp eatery. With its oyster-shell columns and artfully etched chalkboards, Borgne (named for a nearby lake) has netted wide praise since opening in early 2012, thanks to its fresh-caught fare and the deft hand of executive chef Brian Landry. Alligator soup, shrimp-and-butter-bean salad, oyster-and-pork-belly sandwiches, seafood-stuffed flounder—dive in … the dining is fine.
Lead chef: John Besh
Details: Inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel, 601 Loyola Ave., New Orleans, 504.613.3860. www.borgnerestaurant.com
Why it’s worth the trip: Since it was established in 1950, Canlis has defined contemporary Northwest cuisine with a menu that is both inspiring and cutting edge. Canlis is one of the most decadent dining experiences you can have in Seattle. Just ask Anthony Bourdain—he recently dined at Canlis for his television show, "The Layover." The service here is exemplary, and the view from the dining room can’t be beat. There are more than 22,000 bottles of wine in the cellar, and the food is refined and creative. Opt for Muscovy duck, a 14-day dry-aged duck breast, steak tartare made with wagyu tenderloin or the Peter Canlis prawns sautéed in dry vermouth.
Lead chef: Jason Franey
Details: 2576 Aurora Ave N., Seattle, 206.283.3313. www.canlis.com
Why it’s worth the trip: It’s hard to imagine that partners and co-chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer would bother with the tiny, out-of-the-way corner spot that is their beloved COPPA. But with nearby sister restaurant Toro jammed nightly, perhaps it was their intention to try and squelch a crowd. Foodies, however, persist, lining up for tasty Italian small plates and Bissonnette’s amazing and fearless house-cured salumi (beef heart pastrami, anyone?). Unpretentious in both atmosphere and food, ingredients are sourced locally and fresh flavors shine in antipasti like insalate di Romano with wispy carrots, radish and caper vinaigrette, and house-made pasta like whole wheat cavatelli with chicken sausage and slow-cooked broccoli. Not to miss is the chewy, wood-fired pizza—a recent special was topped with mozzarella, crumbly pork sausage, artichoke, fava bean pesto and hazelnut.
Lead chefs: Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer
Details: 253 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617.391.0902. www.coppaboston.com
Girl & The Goat (Chicago)
Why it’s worth the trip: Said Girl—Chef Stephanie Izard—is foodie royalty in the Windy City. You might recognize her as the winner of “Top Chef” season 4, but Chicagoans knew her long before reality TV. When Scylla, her Mediterranean seafood boite closed in 2008, locals wondered if they would ever taste her food again. Turns out it was serendipity; her warehouse-like Girl & The Goat on Chicago’s lofty Restaurant Row is still one of the hottest tables in town, working wonders with humble ingredients (cauliflower and chickpeas, for example) and the downright exotic (beef tongue).
Lead chef: Stephanie Izard
Details: 809 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312.492.6262, www.girlandthegoat.com
Jaleo (Las Vegas)
Why it’s worth the trip: As vibrant and creative as its cuisine, this restaurant's artist vision was realized by powerhouse designer David Rockwell, who, among numerous other projects, designed the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, as well as many Oscar telecasts in that building, the now defunct "Phantom—The Las Vegas Spectacular," and Vegas' newest tower, the Nobu Hotel. Art installations are juxtaposed against images of the Spanish countryside, and with one taste of José Andrés' cuisine, you're there. In addition to the hearty paellas and tapas offered, the highlight of the menu is the Secreto Ibérico, grilled skirt steak from the famous black-footed Ibérico pigs of Spain.
Lead chef: José Andrés
Details: Cosmopolitan, 3708 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas, 702.698.7950. www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com
Why it’s worth the trip: Located along bustling Lincoln Road, Juvia provides a breather from busy city life. The rooftop restaurant offers breathtaking views of Miami Beach, a top-notch Sunday brunch and fresh cuisine. Juvia’s menu—a blend of the regional cuisines of Asia prepared with classic French techniques and the vibrant flavors and ingredients of South America and Florida—offers diners a selection of ceviches, tiraditos, fresh seafood and prime meats.
Lead chef: Laurent Cantineaux
Details: 1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Fla., 305.763.8272. www.juviamiami.com
Le Bernardin (New York)
Why it’s worth the trip: If you are a foodie and a fish lover, you can’t create a bucket list and not include Le Bernardin. Besides the fact that the restaurant is one of the most beautiful and serene gastronomic respites in town, replete with white flowers, soothing ocean scenes and thick carpeting, the menu sets the gold standard for prix-fixe and tasting menus in Manhattan; the Antibes-born chef and co-owner Eric Ripert innovatively divides his prix-fixe menu into cooking methods: almost raw, barely touched and lightly cooked. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s roster of accolades, which include the honor of having received more James Beard awards than any other restaurant in New York City, forces you to ask yourself the question: how could you not hop a plane, train, car or bus to experience this taste of gastronomic heaven?
Lead chef: Eric Ripert
Details: 155 W. 51st St., btw Sixth and Seventh aves., New York City, 212.554.1515. www.le-bernardin.com
The Ordinary (Charleston)
Why it’s worth a trip to this city: The Ordinary was long-awaited by locals who already knew of Chef Lata’s skills through his farm-to-table restaurant, FIG. In the few months since its early 2013 opening, The Ordinary has been the hottest dinner in town for the cool crowd. Platters of shellfish (or double and triple towers), oyster sliders, lobster cocktail and plenty of fish, as well as locally sourced greens, pay homage to the “merroir” of the Southeast.
Lead chef: Mike Lata
Details: 544 King St., Charleston, S.C., 843.414.7060. www.eattheordinary.com
Rasika West End (Washington, D.C.)
Why it’s worth the trip: Rasika West End opened to rave reviews in 2012. Here Vikram Sunderam, nominated for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, envisions “modern” Indian cuisine like lamb sausage with touches of mint, cilantro and rose petal. Guests choose a patio, a lounge with glass and tile bar, the “library,” the chef’s table or the airy main room with anigre wood ceiling that evokes India’s national tree, the banyan considered Krishna’s resting place. Romantics choose the royal blue cushion seats, their design inspired by wedding carriages of India.
Lead chef: Vikram Sunderam
Details: 1177 22nd St. NW, Washington, D.C., 202.466.2500. www.rasikarestaurant.com
Rich Table (San Francisco)
Why it’s worth the trip: Rich Table took San Francisco by storm when it opened in the Hayes Valley neighborhood last year. Husband-and-wife team Evan and Sarah Rich serve unfussy, market-driven food in a casual and lively dining atmosphere. The menu changes daily, as chef excursions to farmers markets drive the offerings. Innovative and exciting dishes are prepared using Japanese, Italian and French techniques, with rustic as well as refined approaches. Signature offerings include the sardine chips, Dungeness crab cioppino, chicken lasagna and rainbow trout. Don't ignore the impressive wine and cocktail menu.
Lead chefs: Evan and Sarah Rich, husband-and-wife team
Details: 199 Gough St., Hayes Valley, San Francisco, 415.355.9085. www.richtablesf.com
State Bird Provisions (San Francisco)
Why it’s worth the trip: This creative and innovative restaurant does dim sum—American-style. Small plates are wheeled around on carts, and diners just have to point to choose what they’d like. The menu changes frequently based on seasonal availability, but favorites can include raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut and sesame, Dungeness crab and mandarin gelatina with avocado, mendocino sea urchin, ginger/scallion pancake, sweetbread meatball with fig jam—and, of course, the house specialty, the eponymous “state bird,” a crispy half quail, served with seasonal “provisions.” State Bird was recently named Bon Appetit magazine’s “2012 Restaurant of the Year.”
Lead chefs: Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, owner/chef husband and wife team
Details: 1529 Fillmore St., San Francisco, 415.795.1272. www.statebirdsf.com
Why it’s worth the trip: It seems executive chef Chris Shepherd (nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest), is obsessed with two things: the city in which he lives, and food. He marries them mightily at Underbelly, where locally and lovingly sourced produce come expertly prepared with in-house butchered meats and seafood from Houston fishermen, farmers and ranchers. Dinner is served via family-style (think leg of goat with sides of seasonal veggies or pot roast with sweet potato and kale) or shared plates of interesting fusions like Korean “Buffalo” Fried Oysters with kim che butter and Wagyu satay with red curry tapioca.
Lead chef: Chris Shepherd
Details: 1100 Westheimer Rd., Houston, 713.528.9800, www.underbellyhouston.com
Woodberry Kitchen (Baltimore)
Why it’s worth the trip: Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood, northwest of downtown, laid in decay until about five years ago when Woodberry Kitchen, an everything-in-house (from pickling to bread-making) restaurant opened its doors. Today, with Woodberry as the anchor of the ’hood’s cultural renaissance, new must-try foodie spots continue to crop up like Union Craft Brewing started one year ago by three Baltimore locals, Birroteca pizza and craft beer stop, and Woodberry’s new offshoot, Artifact Coffee.
Lead chef: Spike Gjerde
Details: 2010 Clipper Park Rd., No. 126, Baltimore, 410.464.8000. www.woodberrykitchen.com