Measure your life in takeoffs and touchdowns and you pick up some funky lessons. You come to memorize which airport terminals have yoga rooms because they’re the best places to nap through a flight delay. You have a favorite seat on a 757, another on a 737, and you even stop panicking in prop planes—those beer cans with wings that wobble with every gust like a fawn taking its first steps. You train yourself to keep pace with your home time zone, even if it means banging out a few hundred words at 3 a.m. on Oahu, before the sun flips the switch over Honolulu Harbor. Instead of counting sheep on a red eye, you teach yourself all the lyrics to Drake’s “Back to Back” and it stays in your head for five months until you exorcise it at a karaoke bar in New York City.
This is life on the road as mkgallery Restaurant Editor, a post that’s taken me, over the past six months, across 37,000 miles and through countless dining rooms, all in the service of finding the year’s most captivating places to eat. These are turbulent times in America, and for the restaurant business itself. Revelations of harassment in high-profile kitchens have forced the industry into a long-overdue reckoning. So it felt exactly right as I hopscotched around the country, that the most resonant places offered more than unforgettable food. Yes, there was smooth chicken liver mellowed with Cognac, and bright green chermoula drenching silvery sardines, and an omelet so simple and fine and thoroughly French it could lead a séance for Paul Bocuse. But what struck me most was how many chefs seem to be reckoning with complicated notions of home and identity, untangling it all in beautiful ways on the dinner plate.
Among the 10 restaurants you’ll discover in the Restaurants of the Year is Junebaby from Edouardo Jordan, a Florida-raised chef with Georgian roots, who was troubled by the lack of Black representation in the Southern food movement. His Seattle hit is as delicious an experience as it is an eye-opening one. Here, versions of poverty foods like chitlins and hog maw live alongside the more ubiquitous biscuits and pimento cheese, honoring the fraught history of Southern cuisine. At Reem’s in Oakland, California, I was moved by Reem Assil, a Syrian and Palestinian chef who uses food to cultivate understanding for the Arab experience in America. In Austin was another interpretation of first-gen life, from Texas-raised Japanese chefs Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto. At their izakaya Kemuri Tatsu-ya, they explore the role of smoke in both of the cultures that shaped them, conjuring an imaginary world where Tokyo cowboys slurp ramen noodles after quick-draw duels.
In the end, the restaurants we fell in love with this year were the ones that delivered a rich portrait of the people who made them—where they’re from, where they’ve been, where they are now. On this journey of our own, they reminded us that we may be shaped by the things we pick up on the road, but there can be just as much power in finding a way to bring it all back home.