Wherever you are, whatever you've got a yen for—blue crab fritters in Atlanta, tapas in Houston, people-watching in L.A.—there's a place for you. This cross-country dining guide takes in 10 cities and chooses "the cool place" in each. The rules of the game: The prices listed cover a meal for two. Tax, tips, and drinks aren't included.
For great restaurants in four other categories (foodie's choice, local flavor, best bargain and most creative chefs) check out the November 2006 issue!
Atlanta: Two Urban Licks 820 Ralph McGill Blvd.; 404-522-4622
Ambitious building projects are reconfiguring Atlanta, while an infusion of flash and cash has created a dynamic restaurant scene. Great barbecue and fried chicken are never far away, but the city shows off its cosmopolitan palate at Two Urban Licks. Brash, loud, and fun, this converted warehouse exemplifies the city's new breed of modern, outsize canteens. Expect a 14-foot open-fire rotisserie tower where Scott Serpas cooks his spicy New American riffs, including a smoky, tender brisket. Dinner for two, $70.
Boston: Dante 40 Edwin H. Land Blvd., Cambridge; 617-497-4200
In recent years, Boston has done much to shake off its tweedy patrician image, thanks to a slew of ambitious new restaurants and relaxed grazing spots.
An airy, minimalist room with views of the Boston skyline, Dante is the latest arrival among the city's stylish new Mediterranean restaurants. The alta cucina (haute cuisine, Italian-style) offerings—porcini-basted scallops with truffled tapioca, handmade spaghetti with Maine crab—reflect chef Dante de Magistris's training at three-star Don Alfonso in Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, Italy. Dinner for two, $100.
Chicago: Butter 130 S. Green St.; 312-666-9813
Chicago is still the capital of red meat, deep-dish pizza, and Italian beef sandwiches. But the city has also become the new hub of experimental cooking.
With its airy bi-level space, sexy vibe and good-looking chef, Butter could get by on style alone. Ryan Poli, however, is a chef of great substance—dreaming up such irresistible modern notions as beet salad with blue cheese and beet syrup, and cod poached in olive oil accompanied by fennel puree and a saffron emulsion. Dinner for two, $140; closed Sunday.
Houston: Bistro Moderne 2525 West Loop S.; 713-297-4383
What's cooking here beyond Tex-Mex, barbecue and all those expense account lunches at fancy hotels? Lately, Houston has begun serving up urbane modern cuisine that highlights homegrown produce.
Philippe Schmit's superb modern French food at Bistro Moderne is available for lunch and dinner in the sleek and comfortable dining room and adjoining café. Try the crab bomb with avocado and cilantro vinaigrette, or the most classic bouillabaisse in Texas. Dinner for two, $90.
Los Angeles: Social Hollywood 6525 Sunset Blvd.; 323-462-5222
A one-industry town? Not exactly. One day you might be dining among celebrities partying at a dramatic new spot, the next you're surrounded by families as you encounter the most authentic moles this side of the border.
The Hollywood Athletic Club, a former playground for the stars, was reborn this May as Social Hollywood, a dining and drinking complex opened by restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow. Inside the Moroccan Room, frescoed vaulted ceilings and latticework screens set the stage for fragrant evocations of the western Mediterranean: pomegranate-glazed rack of lamb, chicken bastilla (in phyllo pastry, with almonds and Moroccan spices). Celebrity spotting is virtually guaranteed. Dinner for two, $120.
Miami: Restaurant at the Setai 2001 Collins Ave.; 305-520-6400
With its hot Latin vibe and design-conscious South Beach hotel restaurants, Miami's dining scene has long been considered the sexiest in the country. The city keeps on sizzling, and these days there's some serious cooking going on beneath all the glitz.
A pan-Asian fantasy designed by Jean-Michel Gathy of the fabulous international Aman resorts, the Setai overshadows even South Beach's splashiest restaurants. Watch as wok and tandoor masters in the exhibition kitchen prepare delicacies like Burmese lobster bisque and red-curry duck with lychees. Save room for the Franco-Asian sweets. Dinner for two, $140.
New York City: Morimoto 88 Tenth Ave.; 212-989-8883
Bursting with culinary and design talent, New York puts on the greatest food show on earth. A new restaurant seems to open every second, so deciding where to eat can be traumatic.
Opened last winter in Chelsea, the theatrical Eurasian restaurant Morimoto is a collaboration of Philadelphia's celebrity restaurateur Stephen Starr, chef Masaharu Morimoto (known as one of the Japanese Iron Chefs) and Pritzker-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The space is elegant, with white tented canvas and a shimmering wall of water bottles. As for the food, expect exquisitely balanced inventive fusion: a gorgeous tuna tartare and lamb carpaccio accented with Asian seasoning, plenty of sushi, and Kobe beef. Dinner for two, $195.
Portland, Oregon: Roux 1700 N. Killingsworth St.; 503-285-1200
Suddenly, Portland's restaurant scene is challenging its neighbor Seattle—and even giving San Francisco a run for its organic tomatoes. Inspired by the incredible regional seafood and vegetables and prime Willamette Valley wines, chefs are dishing up sophisticated-rustic cuisine in stylishly quirky surroundings. Even better, the meal prices would seem like pocket change in New York.
Set in a former curtain factory, Roux has a big-city feel and a menu full of Creole dishes that avoid the gloppy gumbo clichés. The grilled oysters are flavored with Herbsaint-infused butter; pan-roasted rabbit roulade is stuffed with cornbread and andouille sausage; the Sazeracs are guaranteed to brighten the mood. Dinner for two, $75.
San Francisco: Nopa 560 Divisadero St.; 415-864-8643
Twenty-five years ago, chef Alice Waters turned the Bay Area on with her style of sophisticated simplicity on the plate at Chez Panisse. San Francisco remains as food-crazy as ever, with its heirloom tomatoes and heavenly loaves from Acme Bread. The restaurants are warm and inviting, the service is casual yet informed, and ingredient worship reaches its highest expression.
Just seven months old, Nopa, a soaring industrial-chic room in the North-of-Panhandle district, excels in what San Francisco loves most: urban-rustic Mediterranean dishes created from organic seasonal produce. Only same-day reservations are accepted, but you might luck into a seat at the communal table, where you can dig into a sublime fritto misto and fabulous lamb riblets spiked with harissa. Dinner for two, $75.
Washington, D.C.: Tabaq Bistro 1336 U St., N.W.; 202-265-0965
Conservative isn't a word that applies to our capital's vigorous restaurant scene. Chefs here began turning out eclectic, ingredient-centered cuisine in the Clinton days, and the evolution of D.C. dining continues full blast. While restaurant interiors take their cue from Manhattan, the food brings to the city flavors from around the world.
Few D.C. restaurants have such stunning views as Tabaq Bistro's glassed-in rooftop terrace. Reserve well ahead or settle for the lower-floor dining room; either way, you'll find a selection of more than 40 tapas plates, incorporating Mediterranean flavors from Morocco to Turkey. Be warned: The dress code forbids sneakers. Dinner for two, $80.