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6 Pillars of The Restaurant Canon
These are the shared attributes that define the world’s most important restaurants
“What restaurants have you been liking lately?” This is a question I get all the time. The person asking is generally interested in a scoop on a new opening, or otherwise hoping for intel on some under-the-radar spot. “What are your favorite restaurants in LA (or New York)?” is another common query. I’m happy to provide my opinions on these matters—such questions should be expected (welcomed even!) when you primarily write about food and restaurants—but to be honest, I find them to be somewhat boring. They’re also questions that can set the asker up for failure given the mix of (greater) subjectivity and hype surrounding new spots. What’s more interesting to me, and what I think more people should be concerned with when they seek out restaurant recs, are notions of importance, influence, and staying power. Why seek out the cool or the undiscovered when you can go somewhere that’s perennially great?
In other words, the question we should all be asking is: “What restaurants are canon?” Restaurants that are well-oiled, fine-tuned, and rightfully distinguished provide for the most wonderful dining experiences of all. They are the places that are most likely to fire on all cylinders, and to deliver a meal that satisfies every sensory receptor. This is especially true when it comes to travel. Sure, it’s tempting to want to check out a city’s current hot spots — to eat where everyone else is eating (and posting about) right now, and it’s often worthwhile to hit one or two new darlings while you’re in town. But whether it’s your first or tenth time visiting a food capital (be it Paris, New York, Tokyo or elsewhere), you’re better off making reservations at the institutions that have stuck around for good reason — the spots where the chefs and operators behind those brand-new restaurants got their chops. Here are some examples, up front: St. John in London, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Contramar in Mexico City.
Restaurants that are well-oiled, fine-tuned, and rightfully distinguished provide for the most wonderful dining experiences of all. They are the places that are most likely to fire on all cylinders, and to deliver a meal that satisfies every sensory receptor.
And yet the canon, as we've come to know it, needs some updating. The World’s 50 Best, an annually updated leaderboard that props up fanciful, fine dining restaurants from across the globe, is IMO out of touch. The most exciting and pioneering restaurants that push global dining culture forward have skewed more casual (let the tweezers rust, please) for over a decade now. Publications including Food & Wine and Esquire have taken a stab at the canon with lists like “The 40 Most Important Restaurants of the Past 40 Years” and “The 40 Most Important Restaurants of the Decade,” but both are restricted to America. (Also, the former lacks a definitive framework and the latter is limited in its scope of time.)
Prior to pulling together a roster (an undertaking for another time…stay tuned), the canon first needs to be established. In this era of high-low, cultural cross-pollination, farm-to-table, social media-fied everything, what constitutes canon, and how do we adapt the aperture accordingly?
Without further ado, and following much research, spirited debate, and complex mathematical equations, these—I believe—are the shared attributes of truly excellent restaurants with resounding impact.
A canonized restaurant…
1.) Has a POV, and sticks to it
The way to make a mark is by doing something different, and then influencing others to do the same. Chez Panisse kickstarted the American farm-to-table movement by putting local, seasonal ingredients front and center. Now, 50+ years later, farmers market-driven menus are the norm. If you visit Alice Waters’ Berkeley restaurant today, you will still find daily written menus and preparations as simple as fresh fruit on a plate.
2.) Is an academy for chefs (and FOH, too)
“Noma alum” has become a meme on account of how many chefs and hospitality workers have leaned on the phrase as a signal of validation. Where someone has put in time informs their level of experience, and places that are namechecked time and time again are the ones that have earned a reputation as an academy of sorts. Noma is not just a highly acclaimed restaurant that put foraging on the map. It’s also a school for cooks and sommeliers and beyond, where employees rack up knowledge, then go out into the world as graduates, ready to apply what they learned.
3.) Epitomizes where it’s from
Restaurants work best when they feel like they couldn’t exist anywhere else. At Contramar in Mexico City, locals linger over long, leisurely lunches at round tables stacked with plates of tuna tostadas and pescado alla talla, followed by slices of fig tart and goblets of carajillo. Dining here epitomizes a way of life in the bustling metropolis that prioritizes good food and good company, with a shimmery gloss of elegance painted on top.
4.) Harnesses the brand
Iconic iconography and a dialed aesthetic add fuel to the fire that refuses to go out. At Bistrot Paul Bert—the tried-and-true Parisian bistro well-respected for its steak frites au poirvre, on-point natural wine list, and prototypical broken mosaic tile floors—all dishes are served on white plates branded with the restaurant’s name in dark red bubble lettering. Personality matters, too, and St. John knows this very well. Read a few of the captions on the nose-to-tail British restaurant’s Instagram page, and you’ll quickly understand what they’re all about. (i.e., “Not all dishes are made for the glare of the camera, and nor should they be. Dishes whose very presence derides an emphasis on aesthetic over appetite, dishes which resist ‘curation’, dishes which scorn ‘styling'. Devilled Kidneys, defiant in their glossy brownness, exultant in their deliciousness.”)
5.) Stays consistently top-notch
Once canon, always canon is not the way this works — there is no tenure when it comes to taste. In an ever-changing industry, a canonized restaurant has to continue to put out great food, deliver first-rate service, and maintain its distinct (and impeccable) vibe to attract and cultivate a steady pool of front- and back-of-house talent, and keep customers coming back.
6.) Ages gracefully
People will stop caring—and stop visiting—a restaurant that smells stale. That doesn’t mean it’s necessary to renovate every ten years, but older restaurants must still fit in with the present in order to remain in the canon. For example, the fact that you’re not likely to find a single woman working the floor at L.A.’s old Hollywood haunt Musso & Frank, is not great. The canon is timeless, not tone deaf.
There you have it, the six rules that should provide a working framework for updating the restaurant canon for our modern age. I’ll be back in a few weeks with Part II to this piece, in which I’ll make a case for every restaurant worthy of a spot.