Old and new. Large and small. Big city, wine country, and the deep South. Twelve-course tasting menus and fried dough on a plate.
The most famous restaurants in the country run the gamut of the dining experience. Some are stands where you can get your food in minutes and enjoy it on a nearby picnic table. Others are meticulously designed spaces that host diners sitting at white-clothed tables for hours. Some are steeped in history. Others have amassed a considerable amount of fame in just a few short years.
This is all to say that if there is one thing we can glean from a look at the country’s best-known restaurants, it’s that there is no one right way to enjoy eating. Whether it’s the eponymous pizza joint of a classic movie or an oyster house that predates the Civil War, these restaurants provide a snapshot of American food culture, both past and present.
With so many incredible restaurants from coast to coast, it can be difficult to stand out. It certainly helps if the establishment is where one of the most famous movie scenes of all time was shot. Worldwide, Katz’s Deli is best known as the location where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal filmed the "I’ll have what she’s having" scene in When Harry Met Sally.
But Katz’s shouldn’t only be known as a movie trivia answer. Opened in 1888, the iconic deli has remained as popular as ever due to its delectable food. The most notable items on its menu are the pastrami and corned beef sandwiches. These overstuffed sandwiches are made with meat that is cured up to 30 days, giving it a flavor you simply won’t find at your local corner deli.
If you’re visiting the famous spot, you’ll want to get there early. It’s not uncommon for lines to stretch out the door. Once inside, guests can sit at the same table where Meg and Billy once sat or gaze at the cornucopia of memorabilia and photos around the restaurant. But if you can’t make it to New York, you’re in luck — Katz’s ships nationwide.
The Union Oyster House
Stepping into the Union Oyster House is like stepping back in time. It is, after all, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the country, having opened in 1826. The building itself, however, has been standing in the same spot on Boston’s Union Street since way before that, probably not too long after the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock.
During all this time, the Union Oyster House has seen some famous faces walk through its doors, including two of Massachusetts’ most famous congressmen: Daniel Webster and John F. Kennedy. The latter always enjoyed his privacy in one of the restaurant’s upstairs booths, which has since been dedicated in his memory.
As if the iconic eatery, which has been named a National Historic Landmark, needed to add to its lore, it is reportedly where the first toothpick was used.
If you’re ever in Boston grab a seat at the Oyster House’s famed U-shaped raw bar, throw back some bivalves and breathe in the history.
The French Laundry
The modern fine dining scene in the United States can likely be traced back to the mid-1990s in Napa Valley. That is when and where chef Tom Keller opened The French Laundry. Since then, the iconic location has widely been considered to be not just one of the best restaurants in the country but one of the best in the world. In fact, it has twice been named the best restaurant in the world, both in 2003 and 2004.
The Michelin Guide has awarded the French Laundry three stars, its highest rating, every year since 2007. In its review, the guide states that the California eatery "may be known as the greatest cooking space in America."
So what makes the dining experience so special? Each night, two tasting menus are offered, including a vegetarian option. These menus are based entirely on what fresh ingredients the restaurant has acquired that day. Often, the products come from boutique purveyors. Dinners can last up to three hours and cost more than $300, but customers keep showing up to this rustic restaurant for a once-in-a-lifetime feast.
In a city like New Orleans, one of the culinary capitals of the country, there are a number of iconic restaurants. But one in particular stands out among the rest.
Commander’s Palace is famous for many things. First and foremost is its staying power. The restaurant was founded in the city’s Garden District in 1893. Next is the food, of course. Commander’s Palace has received seven James Beard Foundation Awards, the top recognition in the culinary world. And though you might find some locals who disagree, the New Orleans landmark is the place to go for a bowl of seafood gumbo.
Commander’s Palace is also well-known for the culinary talents that have passed through its doors. Some of the top chefs in the country have worked in the kitchen. The most notable is Emeril Lagasse.
Just in case the restaurant needed any more attention, it got some in 1974. That’s when the owners gave the outside of the building an eye-catching new coat of paint, affectionately known as "Commander’s Blue."
If you’re in New Orleans, you can’t miss Commander’s Palace, literally or figuratively.
St. Elmo Steak House
St. Elmo Steak House has been standing in the same spot in downtown Indianapolis for more than a century, a fact that makes it the city’s oldest steak house in its original location. It’s such an iconic establishment it made national television when it was featured on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation.
While customers certainly come for the steak, the restaurant’s must-have menu item is its shrimp cocktail. St. Elmo refers to it as "world famous" on its menu and reminds patrons that most meals at the establishment begin with an order of the four jumbo shrimp and a spicy signature cocktail sauce.
Every entrée at St. Elmo Steak House comes with either a glass of tomato juice or a bowl of Navy Bean soup, consisting of beans, ham, tomatoes, and parsley. Since the restaurant has been around so long, no one is entirely sure where this peculiar tradition originated. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Mystic Pizza is another restaurant that benefitted from an appearance on the silver screen. But instead of simply serving as a location in a movie, Mystic Pizza got the film named after it. The 1988 romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts follows the lives of three pizza parlor waitresses.
The restaurant can thank screenwriter Amy Jones for the publicity. Jones was summering in the town of Mystic, Connecticut, when the local pizza place caught her eye. She was inspired and chose to use the location as the main setting of her script. The movie was filmed in and around the town of Mystic, but the restaurant scenes were not filmed at the real Mystic Pizza. However, once the movie became such a huge hit, the pizza parlor was redesigned to look precisely the way it did in the film.
After the film was released, people flocked to the quiet town in southern Connecticut. Customers would line up outside the restaurant waiting for a chance to grab some memorabilia (and maybe get a slice of pizza). It got so busy, Mystic Pizza’s owners had to open a second location nearby.
Peter Luger Steak House
Ask any New Yorker the first place they think of when they hear "steak house," and they will invariably answer "Peter Luger."
The iconic Brooklyn steak house’s history dates back to 1887, when it opened as "Carl Luger’s Café, Billiards and Bowling Alley." Peter Luger owned the restaurant, while his nephew Carl managed the kitchen. Following the elder Luger’s death, the establishment fell into disrepair. Fortunately, a patron by the name of Sol Forman entered an auction to purchase Peter Luger’s. He won largely because he was the only one to bid.
The restaurant was quickly back up and running. Three generations later, it’s still owned by the family and reigns as one of the best-known New York steak houses. Zagat Survey has rated it the best such restaurant in the city for three straight decades, and it even earned a Michelin star. It has since opened a second location on Long Island.
Ironically enough, Peter Luger’s most famous dish may not be a steak but instead its offering of thick-cut bacon. "Thick-cut" is an understatement — it’s closer to the size of a pork chop. Fortunately for those outside of New York, the restaurant’s famous bacon is available at grocery stores and shipped nationwide.
The Bluebird Cafe
To be fair, the Bluebird Café is known more as a music venue than a restaurant. But since it serves such delicacies as Nashville Dip and Fried Chicken Mozzarella Sandwiches, it makes the list.
The Bluebird Café, opened in 1982, is an institution not just in its home state of Tennessee but across the whole country music landscape. The unsuspecting, 90-seat venue located in a strip mall just outside downtown Nashville has played host to a who’s-who of stars, from LeAnn Rimes and Taylor Swift to Garth Brooks and Keith Urban.
It’s not just the stage where you’ll see famous faces. Some of the Bluebird’s famous visitors have included Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, Cher, Barbara Walters, and Al Gore. In case it needed more of a spotlight, the café was featured on the hit television show Nashville.
In 2008, the original owner sold the restaurant to the Nashville Songwriters Association International. Selling to a not-for-profit organization as opposed to an individual or corporation allowed the venue to keep its close relationship with the community.
Louis’ Lunch is one of numerous establishments that boast to be the birthplace of the hamburger, but it’s the only one whose claim is supported by the Library of Congress. It’s this fact that has made it one of the most famous restaurants in the country.
The New Haven, Connecticut, outpost is so proud of its creation that it still makes it the same way it did a century ago. At Louis’ Lunch, which opened in 1895, burgers are cooked on cast iron grills that date back to 19th century. They are served on white toast with only cheese, onion, and tomato — no ketchup or mustard allowed!
Whatever it’s doing is working. Louis’ Lunch has been in business more than 100 years while only having hamburgers, potato salad, potato, and pie on its menu.
One thing that has changed about Louis’ Lunch is its address. It was threatened with demolition in the 1970s. The neighborhood came together to devise plans for its preservation. To save the building, it was lifted up, loaded onto a truck, and driven away to its current location.
Voodoo Doughnut is still in its infancy compared to most of the other restaurants on this list. Yet in just a short time, it amassed such a cult following that it’s now one of the most famous foodie destinations in the country.
It all started back in 2003 when two Portlanders discovered that there were precisely zero doughnut shops in downtown Portland. That inspired them to open a tiny storefront where they began turning out delicious but unconventional doughnuts. It didn’t take long for the public to catch on to what Voodoo was up to, and within a month, it was featured in the national press. It now has ten locations across five states. At all of them, you’ll likely find hungry customers lined out the door and around the block.
So what sort of crazy concoctions have people lined up for hours? Some of Voodoo’s most popular doughnuts include the Bacon Maple Bar, topped with maple frosting and bacon, Marshall Mathers, with vanilla frosting and mini M&M’s, and Oh Captain, My Captain, covered in vanilla frosting and Cap’n Crunch cereal.
And let us not forget the shop’s namesake item: a doughnut shaped like a voodoo doll filled with raspberry jelly.
Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks
Alone, these restaurants are the two most well-known cheesesteak outposts in the cheese steak’s capital city. Together, they form one of the most famous culinary destinations in the country. (It helps that they’re located directly across the street from each other.)
Debate has always swirled around where these two sandwich restaurants stand in the evolution of the cheese steak, not to mention which one is better. But here’s what we know is true: Nearly a century ago, Pat Olivieri was operating a small hot dog stand in Philadelphia. One day, he decided to try something new for lunch and cooked some chopped meat on his grill, threw it on an Italian loaf, and topped it with onions. The "cheese steak" was born.
Fast forward 36 years when Philadelphia native Joey Vento opened Geno’s Steaks across the street. According to Vento, it was he, not Pat’s, who first added cheese to the steak sandwich.
Precisely how it came to be is a moot point now, as the cheese steak is synonymous with the City of Brotherly Love. Both shop’s sandwiches are fairly similar: strips of rib-eye steak, melted cheese, and grilled onions on an Italian loaf. The main difference is the type of cut — believe it or not. Pat’s steak is chopped, whereas Geno’s slices their steak.
Joe’s Stone Crab
What is now a Miami institution, Joe’s had the most humble of beginnings. It opened in 1913 as nothing more than a lunch stand on a dirt road by the beach with a few picnic tables out front. It didn’t even serve stone crab. (Most people didn’t know they were edible.) Joe Weiss, the owner, cooked up fish sandwiches while his wife, Jennie, served tables.
About a decade after opening, a Harvard biologist working at a nearby aquarium came in one day with a sack full of stone crabs. Joe threw them in boiling water, and the rest is history.
They’re still served the same way they were back then, chilled and cracked, but the restaurant’s clientele has evolved from locals to an incredibly impressive and wide-reaching list of celebrities. Everyone from Al Capone and J. Edgar Hoover to Amelia Earhart and Jennifer Lopez has stopped by for a stone crab claw.
There are countless fine dining restaurants in the United States, many of which are considered among the best in the world. What separates Alinea and puts it atop any foodie’s bucket list is its whimsical nature. Simply put, dining at the Chicago destination is unlike any other restaurant outing you’ll ever have.
Eating at Alinea is an immersive experience. The three-Michelin-starred outlet describes its meal as a "multi-sensory 16-to-18 course menu [combining] fine dining with experimental moments." If you’re looking for an example of the food you may be getting, know that the restaurant’s most famous dishes include an edible, helium-filled, floating balloon and a dessert that is painted on the table.
All this worked has made Alinea one of the most talked-about and influential restaurants in the country. In turn, it has gotten a lot of press, being named best restaurant in America, North America, and the world by different outlets. Head chef Grant Achatz, meanwhile, has been bestowed the title of Best Chef in the United States by the James Beard Foundation and one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine. If that weren’t enough, Achatz and Alinea were featured on Netflix’s hit series Chef’s Table.
Café Du Monde
Café Du Monde is a restaurant that does two things: coffee and beignets. But it does those two things so well that customers have not stopped showing up since the Civil War. That’s right, the original coffee stand opened in 1862, a year after the war began.
No true New Orleans day is started without a stop at the legendary eatery. (Although, it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so it’s also the perfect place to satiate those late-night hunger craves.)
Café Du Monde’s coffee is unique in that it is blended with chicory, the root of the endive plant. This addition helps to soften the dark roasted coffee’s bitter taste. You can get it black or "au lait," meaning mixed with half and half and hot milk.
The beignets, though, are the stars. These delectable treats are essentially square doughnuts doused in powdered sugar. They come in orders of three, but you’ll have a hard time stopping there.