By Alan Richman, GQ
It took nearly forever for American restaurants to understand what American customers want, but now they have it right. We yearn for restaurants that are like us: casual, kindhearted, original, and a little too loud. The food doesn't have to be American, the setting doesn't have to be stylish, and the waiters can put on whatever they want, even the T-shirt they wore the night before. All we ask is that the chef exhibit a little inspiration and the owner understand that customers can't have a good time without great service. These days, American spirit has triumphed over European tradition. The twelve restaurants redefining fine dining are aware of what we want in a perfect night out.
Fine dining, once the purview of the prosperous, has become a democratic institution. The beneficiaries of this culinary repositioning are customers who don't mind standing in line in the slim hopes of snagging a table at Little Serow in Washington, D.C. (boy, do they wait), and those willing to sit on benches, stools, and the extraordinarily hard chairs at Central Kitchen in San Francisco (cushions are so 2005). Even our culinary combinations have been updated. Deviled eggs with domestic draft beer is the food-and-beverage pairing of 2013. Peculiarities have become part of the fun.
Much that we used to cherish is now superfluous: Waiters are unchained from the shackles of obsequiousness. What's required from them are intelligence, knowledge, and conversational skill, although I never want a waiter who recites a list of the entrées he likes best. Food is plated differently these days. Less often will you come upon meat, potato, and vegetable all together, neatly arranged, occupying the same plate. Menu items are offered as snacks, small plates, large plates, larger plates, and sometimes no plates at all--cutting boards have become chic.
Vegetables are thriving. They're no longer thought of as secondary to the magnificence of meat. They get equal billing, sometimes the entire marquee. Never have they seemed so visionary as at Vedge, a vegan restaurant in Philadelphia.
For me, one element of dining has not changed: Food remains central to an unforgettable evening. The goodness of wonderful cuisine radiates outward, causing ripples, like a stone dropped into a pond. For you, it might start with something else--a particular wine, a collection of old pals, a woman you have been trying hard to impress. Last year meals in tiny, unusual restaurants matched and usually exceeded those in conventional dining venues. Small spots got better, a new breed of restaurant unbound.
The restaurants on GQ's list of places to go for a perfect night out will make you feel coddled, welcome, and well fed. You can't ask for more than that.
See all of Alan Richman's favorite restaurants on GQ's website.