What is the quintessential restaurant in San Francisco? How about Los Angeles? Sacramento? San Diego? New York? Chicago? Boston?
We put those questions to the co-hosts of our sister web site – www.atLarrys.com, where we do restaurant recommendations – and quickly learned the answers get more complicated the more you think about them.
In every case the co-host, including me, offered up a name of a restaurant and quickly followed with “but what about …” Then there came several more names.
Take Los Angeles as an example. My first thought was Musso and Frank Grill. It’s the third oldest restaurant in the city and the oldest in Hollywood. But when you think about quintessential Los Angeles, how can you leave out the beach? And if you think about the beach, which restaurant do you choose? But wait a minute. It’s Los Angeles. How about a Mexican restaurant?
See the problem? A couple of co-hosts asked for a definition of quintessential before they would answer the question. I had two standards: 1) which one restaurant would you say a visitor from out of town had to visit above all others to know the essence of the city; 2) which restaurant would a visitor from out of town mention first as representing the city they just visited, when they go back home. The dictionary says it’s “representing the most perfect embodiment of something”. Good enough.
What we wound up with in most cities is a selection of restaurants that are quintessential for different reasons. Here are some of them. You can assume they wouldn’t be on the list if the food wasn’t worth the stop.
Durgin Park – In the historic Quincy Market that was built in the 1820s. Bring some friends and order the 32-ounce roast beef platter. Finish it off with strawberry shortcake in season.
Legal Seafood – An institution that showcases the best of east coast seafood, fish you may not be able to find anywhere else in the country. There are 32 locations through Massachusetts and the across the east coast.
Al’s – Shaved beef sandwiches are a Chicago icon. Al’s is a chain of restaurants that offers some of the best. Order yours with the hots. Eat ‘em standing up with your elbows on the counter, like a local.
Bergoff – Old-school Chicago re-invented in the home of a former men-only German beer hall in the Loop. Now, it’s a café and a great place for a beer and sandwich.
Chicago Dogs – There are scores of places to get great, unique Chicago dogs with the famous neon green relish. Just make sure it’s 100% Vienna beef dogs. If you get the chance have one, or more while taking in a game a Wrigley.
The Drake Hotel – Seven restaurants in this legendary hotel that overlooks Lake Michigan. Mobster Frank Nitti maintained his office at The Drake for a time. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe carved their initials into the wood bar at the Cape Cod Room. Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales all stayed here.
LOS ANGELES, Calif
The Ivy on Robertson – You’re almost guaranteed to see celebrities and at lunch time on week days the paparazzi are all over the place. The food has to be good to attract and hold this kind of crowd.
The Lobster – Can’t do L.A. without a beach place. There are several good beach restaurants to choose from – Catch, Ocean Avenue Seafood, One Pico. But the Lobster is right at the foot of Santa Monica Pier and has an authentic L.A. feel.
Manuel’s El Tepeyac – Always a line to get into the eastside gem. Best, biggest and most unique burritos around. There’s also the original El Cholo on Western Avenue, where Governor Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt hung out and she roller skated outside back in the 1970s.
Musso and Frank Grill – It’s the oldest in Hollywood and right on Hollywood Boulevard. You can sit at the tables where Chaplin or Bogart dined. The flame grill has turned out hundreds of thousands of steaks and chops.
KANSAS CITY, Mo
Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque – The original has been around since the 1920s. Get a slab of ribs and be sure to ask for some burnt ends.
Loveless Café – A southern landmark for 50 years. It maintains its quality, down-home atmosphere and local style despite worldwide publicity. Award winning country ham and red-eye gravy, and real southern fried chicken.
NEW ORLEANS, La
Acme Seafood – Sit at a table if you must, but the counter is where the action is. It’s right off Bourbon Street, a short walk to Preservation Hall for Dixieland jazz after you’ve downed anything and everything Cajun or Creole you might want.
Antoine’s – Established in 1840, it’s the oldest family run restaurant in the U.S. This is where such dishes as oysters Rockefeller, pompano en papillote, eggs Sardou and pigeonneaux paradis were invented.
Dooky Chase – It was one of the original civil rights gathering places before racial integration was legal. It’s world class fried chicken, southern and Creole cooking.
Galatoire’s – Founded in 1897 and run today by the fourth generation descendants of founder Jean Galatoire. It’s been in the same location since 1905.
NEW YORK, NY
Delmonico’s – The place where the Delmonico steak and eggs Benedict were born. This was a part of the swank New York scene for nearly 200 years. The original was opened in 1827. It relocated several times before fading during prohibition. It’s been at its current location at 2 S. William St. for 80 years.
The Four Seasons – Rooms designed by van Der Rohe and Philip Johnson are the apotheosis of post-WWII New York and the Grill Room is a power center for lunch.
Nathan’s Coney Island – Forget about the annual hot dog eating contest. This is the original, where they turn out hot dogs that snap. It’s just off the famous Boardwalk and close by the iconic Coney Island amusement park rides and games.
The Oyster Bar – At Grand Central Station. Nothing is more New York than the Oyster Bar on a cold winter day. The hustle and bustle. Overcoats piled on coat racks. Chowders – Manhattan or New England – being dished up by the gallon.
River Café – For a view without rival and great food. It’s at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Off to the left is the Statue of Liberty and across the East River is the Manhattan skyline. It’s upscale and pricy, but unrivaled.
2nd Avenue Deli – It’s not on Second Avenue anymore and it isn’t what it might have been once upon a time. But neither are any of the other famous old New York delis. On the other hand, a New York visit would not be complete without authentic Jewish deli.
Dante and Luigi’s – A converted townhouse in the heart of Philly’s Italian Market District, serving food since 1899. Feel the history of the Italian immigration and enjoy the food they brought with them.
Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches – The city and the sandwich are linked in culinary lore. You can get good cheese steak sandwiches at many Philly restaurants. Some use cheezwhiz, others use cheddar.
Biba – Before the recent boom of upscale restaurants in Sacramento, Biba and The Firehouse were the places to go. Biba still is if you want great Italian food. Biba, a world renowned chef and cookbook author, is on site most nights.
The Firehouse – It’s in Old Town, where Sacramento was born and where the Pony Express route ended. No visit to Sacramento is complete without some time in Old Town.
Frank Fats – Given the history of California – political, gold rush, pony express and the railroad – Frank Fats certainly makes the list. It’s a longtime political hangout, founded by Chinese immigrants whose families helped build the transcontinental railroad.
SAN DIEGO, Calif
Sheerwater – It’s across the bay at the Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado. But it’s Greater San Diego and the Hotel Del is an iconic image of San Diego.
Grant Grill – Located in the elegantly restored U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego, it’s been a power spot in San Diego for decades.
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif
Gold Mountain Dim Sum – Couldn’t do San Francisco without China Town. There are a lot of excellent choices, many with fairly authentic Chinese menus. But Dim Sum is distinctly Chinese and this is a wonderful spot to select from the passing food carts.
North Beach Restaurant – A venerable place with a rich history. Wonderful Italian food, a list that features their own wines and still a hot spot for local politicians.
Scoma – A frenetic Fisherman’s Warf spot with a great bar and a huge seafood menu. The “no reservations” policy adds to the atmosphere as crowds gather and make new friends either at the bar or outside.
Tadich Grill – The oldest restaurant in town and still a standby for locals. It started as a coffee stand in 1849. Now, it’s a no-frills seafood dining hall.
Elizabeth on 37th – Elegant Southern coastal dining in a beautiful 1900s mansion. All the iconic local cuisines – biscuits, red rice and shrimp, coastal grouper, local blue crab.
Yavapai – It’s at the Enchantment Resort in the land of harmonic convergences. From the open dining room you look through picture windows at gorgeous red rock canyons.
The Columbia Restaurant – This Spanish/Cuban palace has been around since 1905. It’s Florida’s oldest restaurant. A testament to an elemental part of Florida’s Latin culture.
Louie Mueller Barbecue – The walls are browned by 50 years of smoke. Orders are served on butcher paper. It’s the definition of Texas BBQ and beef ribs.
There you have it. 37 quintessential restaurants representing the collective thinking of some of the co-hosts at atLarrys.com, the restaurant recommendation wevb site. Is it a complete list? Of course not. But it’s a good place to start if you’re looking to get the feel of a town. Want to add some of your own nominees. Just go on down to the comments area below and let us hear from you.
(NOTE: atLarrys.com co-hosts to contributed to this piece include Tab Berg, Larry Dietz, Lenn Grabiner, Jim Lacy, Lloyd Levine, Larry Levine and Larry Sheingold.)