LaLa Peng

A Dozen Restaurants Done Right

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Hot restaurant concepts take advantage of opening in the right place at the right time.
By Barney Wolf January 2014 Expansion

Restaurant expansion “is well correlated with the growth in real disposable income,” says B. Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association’s Research and Knowledge Group.

Increases in population and employment “also translate into more new restaurants opening,” he adds.

After defining 12 markets with enviable economics, FSR identified the best new eateries in each city—a list that includes top-notch chefs and a wide range of cooking styles, ingredients, and flavors, ranging from Sapporo-influenced ramen to laidback Southern sophistication. A few of the best new restaurants also feature shared services or multiple culinary operations under one roof.

Editor’s Note: Great restaurant concepts are continuously coming to market, and FSR has chosen to highlight the best new restaurants in markets that are thriving—theoretically, the best concepts that might set a standard for other markets as the economic recovery continues.
Hot markets are defined by positive economics: Primarily population growth, lower unemployment as compared to the national average of 7.7 percent in July 2013, and strong GDP performance in 2012 as witnessed by year-over-year GDP growth and a viable position in the ranking of GDP performance across all 381 of the metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) measured by the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The 12 markets selected represent large MSAs (populations greater than 2 million), medium MSAs (populations greater than 1 million), and small MSAs (populations greater than 300,000).

Washington

Population:
4,616,051
Growth in Population:
4.2%
Unemployment:
5.7%
2012 GDP:
$448,741,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
2.27%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 5

Daikaya
A two-story, two-concept restaurant celebrates Japanese culture.
Opened: February 2013
Location: Washington

Several waves of Japanese gastronomy have made their way to America in the past 65 years, from the loudness of tempura to the art of sushi.

But Daisuke Utagawa and his partners wanted to present the taste and culture of everyday Japan, so they created Daikaya, with a traditional ramen shop on the first floor and an izakaya upstairs.

“Ramen is like Japanese soul food and is ubiquitous in Japan, with many regional styles,” Utagawa says. The sparse, 40-seat shop at Daikaya (“big cooking pot house”) is from one region: Sapporo, home of miso ramen. A bowl ($13) features curly, aged noodles.

Izakayas are casual Japanese taverns that serve comfort food and are a popular destination after work. “It is not unusual to see a banker next to a construction worker, next to an artist,” he says. “It’s a very democratic place.”

Daikaya’s bar-centric izakaya features small and adventuresome dishes, such as ankimo (monkfish liver) with miso escalivada ($8.50).

The ramen shop opened on February 14, 2013, and the second-floor izakaya opened shortly after on March 28.

 

Houston

Population:
6,177,035
Growth in Population:
4.3%
Unemployment:
6.5%
2012 GDP:
$449,439,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
5.68%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 4

The Pass and Provisions
A shared kitchen serves two concepts, one formal and one casual.
Opened: Fall 2012
Location: Houston

There’s one kitchen, two chefs, and two separate dining rooms offering different culinary styles. And it works.

The Pass and Provisions were created in fall 2012 by chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener and Terrence Gallivan, who met in New York while working at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze. They combined forces a few years later to create a successful pop-up restaurant in Siegel-Gardener’s hometown, Houston, followed by several playful experiments.

At the new place, a foyer divides the dining rooms, and an open kitchen serves both.

The Pass—with white walls and linens—opened November 27, 2012, and features five- or eight-course dinner tasting menus ($120 to $160 with pairings). The experience begins with snacks—like a jellied tube flavored like an Old Fashioned cocktail with foie gras inside—before moving to the other courses and their creative, often fun and even surprising flavor unions.

Provisions, which opened in September 2012, is informal, “with dishes designed to share,” says events manager Angela Moore. Offerings include roasted Brussels sprouts with a duck egg and kimchi ($15), and spicy lamb ribs with melon and sesame seeds ($21).

Denver

Population:
2,645,209
Growth in Population:
4.%
Unemployment:
6.8%
2012 GDP:
$167,886,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
3.75%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 18

The Squeaky Bean
A dedicated farm supports seasonal menus.
Opened: July 2012
Location: Denver

Known in culinary circles as ground zero for the fast-casual restaurant movement, the Mile High City is also no slouch when it comes to setting the stage for new full-service restaurants.

Take The Squeaky Bean, which first opened in 2009 in a small space, serving exceptional cocktails and creative food cooked with little more than butane burners. It reopened in July 2012, in a renovated former warehouse that has more space and a modern kitchen.

“The menu now is what we want to do, rather than what we were limited to,” says co-owner Johnny Ballen.

Featuring fresh, progressive, and seasonal food is paramount. The restaurant employs a dedicated farm, Bean Acre, to grow its produce—from heirloom tomatoes to edible flowers—and has six raised herb beds, dubbed Squeaky Beds, located behind the original restaurant.

Diners can choose between a four-course prix fixe menu ($60), with multiple choices for each course, or select the items à la carte. The most popular entrées ($28 each) are the short ribs and roasted half-chicken.

 

Seattle

Population:
2,740,476
Growth in Population:
3.6%
Unemployment:
5.8%
2012 GDP:
$258,819,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
6.17%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 12

The Whale Wins
Signature dishes feature preparation in a wood-fired oven.
Opened: Summer 2012
Location: Seattle

With a focus on fresh local and seasonal produce, and a menu that revolves around a wood-fired oven, The Whale Wins is the follow-up effort for chef Renee Erickson and partners Jeremy Price and Chad Dale—a trio who also created Seattle’s popular oyster bar, The Walrus and the Carpenter.

“We do a lot of work with local farms,” says Tina Curl, general manager. “That’s very important for us.” Sources of menu items are mentioned in each dish’s description.

Located in a converted warehouse called the Fremont Collective, the restaurant shares a first-floor entry with another popular eatery, Joule. The Whale Wins seats 40 in the dining room, 15 at the full-service bar, and 20 in the garden patio.

Erickson’s cooking style is French in spirit, but with influences ranging from England to Morocco. The overall atmosphere is homey with a menu that changes regularly.

One favorite has emerged: The roasted half-chicken ($20) features preparations and vegetables that change all the time. Cooked at 600 degrees in the wood-fired oven, the birds are crisp outside but juicy within, and come from a farm in Ephrata, Washington.

Austin, TX

Population:
1,834,303
Growth in Population:
4.9%
Unemployment:
5.6%
2012 GDP:
$98,677,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
7.86%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 32

Jeffrey's & Josephine House
Fine dining and low-key upscale dining share historic setting.
Opened: January 2013
Location: Austin, Texas

When McGuire Moorman Hospitality bought Austin’s fading fine-dining landmark, Jeffrey’s, the deal included the land next door, which had a small building once used for private events and catering.

“We needed another source of revenue for the deal,” recalls Larry McGuire, managing partner of the six-restaurant company. So, Josephine House and its lawn were turned into a quaint, quiet spot for lunch, snacks, evening drinks, and special events.

It shares a breezeway, kitchen, and wine cellar with the completely remodeled Jeffrey’s, which was restored to its previous status and spirit.

Jeffrey’s is open for dinner only, and the extensive menu revolves around steaks ($50 to $120) sourced from small Texas producers and aged on site. There are also dishes like Wood-Fired Lobster Thermidor ($48) with spinach, Mornay sauce, and breadcrumbs.

The ambience at Josephine House is lighter, echoing the building with its whitewashed walls and marble counters. The ever-changing, seasonal menu relies on local ingredients, with dishes like smoked Gulf snapper on a mint watermelon and cucumber salad ($18).

 

Nashville, TN

Population:
1,726,693
Growth in Population:
3.4%
Unemployment:
6.8%
2012 GDP:
$94,789,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
7.2%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 35

Lockeland Table Community Kitchen & Bar
A neighborhood vibe and communal tables invite conversations over great meals.
Opened: August 2012
Location: Nashville, Tennessee

The name of the place describes it. Located in the Lockeland Springs neighborhood, the restaurant is a neighborly spot where friends and family share food around a table.

It’s been a family affair for chef/owner Hal Holden-Bache. The name came from Holden’s mother, while the communal table that welcomes walk-ins is from the 130-year-old property owned by the family of general manager Cara Graham.

“It was definitely something we all did together,” the chef says.

The food is a reflection of both his heritage, such as his Puerto Rican mom’s empanadas, and the work he’s done in different top kitchens around America. Add in wood-fired pizzas, lots of local ingredients, and a dab of Southern flair.

His signature dish—New York strip steak with chimichurri ($24)—was first envisioned during his college days and is now served with pan-sautéed green beans glazed with a house-smoked vinegar and oven-blistered grape tomatoes. The most-popular item is the crab and corn fritters ($9.50) with a carrot and cabbage vinegar slaw served with remoulade.

Oklahoma City

Population:
1,296,565
Growth in Population:
3.5%
Unemployment:
4.8%
2012 GDP:
$63,338,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
3.05%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 46

The Mule
If wagon trains had gourmet chefs, this would be how cowboys ate.
Opened: Summer 2012
Location: Oklahoma City

To say that The Mule just serves grilled cheese sandwiches and beer doesn’t begin to do the gourmet comfort food justice. The Mule was created by four friends from college, who spent two years developing the menu, cooking, and refining the concept.

“It’s comfort food, but with our own take,” says co-owner Cody Rowan, who has watched the restaurant blossom from a staff of eight to 46.

Although the restaurant’s name comes from the gung-ho saying, “Don’t worry about the mule, just load the wagon,” it also focuses on various “mule” cocktails: Moscow (vodka), Kentucky (bourbon), Gin, and Burro (tequila)—all with ginger beer and lime.

The kitchen turns out an array of items, led by top-seller Macaroni Pony, which melds three-cheese mac and cheese, pickled onions, and chipotle barbecue pulled pork on jalapeño cornbread ($10). There’s even some fun creativity with starters, like the Okie Poutine, with beer-battered fries, white gravy, and locally made cheese curds.

 

Salt Lake City

Population:
1,123,712
Growth in Population:
3.3%
Unemployment:
4.3%
2012 GDP:
$72,072,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
5.58%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 42

The Rest
Secrecy adds to the allure of a modern-day speakeasy.
Opened: June 2013
Location: Salt Lake City

Although Utah’s liquor laws have been relaxed in recent years, they still can be onerous. So it’s not surprising that the concept of a speakeasy—even a legal one—can garner interest.

A small, Main Street convenience store, The Bodega, does double duty as a tavern, which specializes in homemade empanadas. But the best part is a secret. There’s a locked door under a neon sign denoting The Restroom, with the final four letters unlighted. If you’re in the know, however, the counter manager may hand you a key to open the door, leading down a staircase to The Rest.

“I wanted to bring the big city here,” says Sara Lund, who splits her time between her hometown, Salt Lake City, and New York City.

Liquor laws require spirits to be available with a food purchase, so The Rest has plenty of small plates and comfort foods along with the fresh, creative cocktails ($11).

The most memorable entrée is the Honey-Glazed Beer Can Chicken ($35 for two)—a fryer atop a can of beer—with warm potato salad and asparagus. First presented to diners atop the can, it is returned to the kitchen, carved, and served.

Des Moines, IA

Population:
588,999
Growth in Population:
3.3%
Unemployment:
4.6%
2012 GDP:
$42,129,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
5.4%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 59

HoQ
Promising local foods with global flavors, chef/owner Suman Hoque spices Des Moines' dining.
Opened: November 2012
Location: Des Moines, Iowa

Suman Hoque may have been born in Bangladesh, but the Cesar Ritz–trained chef and owner has embraced the farmlands of his new state, Iowa.

His restaurant, HoQ (pronounced Hawk), has a small but global menu, although most of its ingredients come from within 200 miles. “If the farmers aren’t growing it, it’s not on the menu,” he says.

Ingredients are typically sourced from organic and sustainable-practice farms and ranches, which are mentioned in the menu’s descriptions for each item. And in a state where corn is king, Hoque has found a grass-fed beef supplier.

Among the favorite items are braised beef, with a cauliflower and potato purée, vegetables, and braising liquid ($22). One of many vegetarian entrées features spaghetti squash, Swiss chard, grilled eggplant, goat cheese, and turmeric tomato sauce.

Even the lunch menu has a nod to vegetarians, with a popular burger made with wild rice from Minnesota and chickpeas, on a bun made by a local baker ($10).

 

Durham, NC

Population:
522,826
Growth in Population:
3.6%
Unemployment:
7.1%
2012 GDP:
$39,731,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
4.6%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 61

Mateo
Spanish small plates with authentic Southern inflection.
Opened: August 2012
Location: Durham, North Carolina

When Matthew Kelly was developing his first solo effort, the noted executive chef of Durham’s French bistro, Vin Rouge, was looking to create a restaurant that could meld the authentic flavors of Spanish tapas with dishes and ingredients native to the South.

The result, Mateo, walks that line as it clings to its motto, “Spanish Heart/Southern Soul.”

Located in downtown Durham—part of the expanding Triangle area that also includes Raleigh and Chapel Hill—Mateo is a true bar de tapas, warm and collegial. “People can come in and spend $10 or $50,” Kelly says. “We give them an option.”

The former bookstore now features wrought iron chandeliers and tarnished mirrors to give it a Spanish accent. The restaurant also features an extensive Spanish wine list and numerous varieties of sherry.

Most of the dinner menu would be right at home in Spain, from Patatas Bravas ($6.50) to the Tortilla Española ($5), but there are also chicken-fried chicken chicharrones ($8) that “fit naturally” with the tapas experience, Kelly says, but still remind you where you are.

Cambridge, MA

Population:
2,292,833
Growth in Population:
1.8%
Unemployment:
3.8%
2012 GDP:
$336,232,000,000*
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
3.98%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 9
*Cambridge is included in Boston's MSA.

Puritan & Company
Contrasting flavor profiles layer across the menu.
Opened: November 2012
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Despite its name, there’s nothing antiquated about Puritan & Company.

Instead, the name is a nod to the heritage of chef/owner Will Gilson, whose lineage dates to the Mayflower, and to the Puritan Cake Company, which was once housed in the building that now hosts his urban farmhouse restaurant.

Puritan & Company offers a modern version of New England cuisine, with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients. “I don’t like throwing the term ‘farm-to-table’ out there,” Gilson says. “We work with local producers” to provide products from seafood to squash.

His interest in contrasting flavors is evident in the Lamb Belly ($14), which has a glaze that includes Moxie, a somewhat bitter local soda dating to 1876. It is served with spiced eggplant purée and orange purée, “layering flavors like a cocktail,” Gilson says.

Another is Swordfish Pastrami ($13) with puréed pumpernickel and mustard gelato. “Some people don’t get it,” he laughs, “and others just love it.”

 

Lincoln, NE

Population:
310,342
Growth in Population:
2.6%
Unemployment:
4.1%
2012 GDP:
$15,904,000,000
GDP growth 2011 to 2012:
4.3%
GDP rank among MSAs:
No. 131

Sebastian's Table
Mediterranean meets Midwest, melding into unique Spanish dishes.
Opened: September 2013
Location: Lincoln, Nebraska

Head chef and co-owner Erik Hustad came up with the idea for Sebastian’s Table as his final project at culinary school. It eventually became his second successful restaurant concept, following Honest Abe’s burger joint.

The tapas restaurant’s kitchen and bar are on the first floor with just a pair of tables, while most of the seating is upstairs.

Mediterranean flavors dominate, but there’s a nod to the Midwest in the Lamb and Smoked Gouda Mac & Cheese ($10), with paprika cream sauce, and the Pork Belly ($8), served with pepper polenta and smoked peppadew gastrique.

“They are kind of a leaping off point to the more Spanish dishes,” says Taylor Kibbie, the restaurant’s general manager and mixologist, who developed the restaurant’s popular red and white sangrias ($5.50). “Some diners need a bit of a comfort zone.”

The most popular dish has been the Hazelnut Brussels Sprouts ($9) with piquillo peppers, hazelnuts, and orange gastrique.

Sources: Population data from U.S. Census as of April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2012. Unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) as of July 2013, except Cambridge unemployment data is from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development as of August 2013. GDP data is from the U.S. DOC Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA.gov).