1. St. John (London)
If I had to die with half a bite of anything hanging out of my mouth, it would probably be the roast bone marrow in Fergus Henderson’s plain-white dining room at St. John. Scooped out and slathered onto a crust of toasted bread and sprinkled with sea salt, it’s simple yet luxurious.
The menu is proudly English, a rebuke to anyone still laboring under the impression that English food sucks. Famously pork-centric and focused on traditional offal and game dishes, St. John is as wonderful for what it does as for what it doesn’t do: compromise. It specializes in good ingredients from ‘happy’ animals that are treated with love and respect.
Henderson has become a reluctant spiritual leader to a whole generation of chefs — and even the old-guard guys love to stop by for crispy pig tails, ham in hay or a properly roasted bird. This is one of the truly bullsh—free zones on the culinary landscape.
2. elBulli (Girona, Spain)
It’s the hardest reservation in the world. And everything they say is true: It’s an adventure, a challenge, a delicious and always fun acid trip to the farthest reaches of creativity.
Brothers Ferran and Albert Adrià and their team are the most influential and creative people working in food — and this surprisingly casual restaurant on a sleepy cove on Spain’s Costa Brava is probably the most important restaurant of our time.
Love it or hate it, if you have the opportunity to wangle a reservation, do it. It’s like seeing Jimi Hendrix’s first show. Forget any preconceptions you might have. Is it good? Yes. More important — is it fun? Yes. Yes. Yes.
3. The French Laundry (Napa Valley, California) & 4. Per Se (New York)
The best sit-down, multicourse, white-tablecloth meal of my life was at the French Laundry. And subsequent meals at Per Se, also run by chef Thomas Keller, were no less wonderful.
There’s no better way to go than the full-on tasting menu, a once-in-a-lifetime marriage of the best ingredients, creative thinking and high standards, along with the personal imprint of the most respected chef in the world.
How can Keller be at both restaurants at once? It doesn’t matter. Pick one. Fast for 2 days, stretch your stomach with water the day of, and then see how they do it at the very top. It’s a level of perfection in food and service that few even try to approach.
5. Sin Huat Eating House (Singapore)
It’s grimy looking, the service can be less than warm, the beer is served in a bottle (often with ice) and the tables sit halfway into the streets of Geylang, Singapore’s red-light district.
But the crab bee hoon — giant Sri Lankan beasts cooked with a spicy mystery sauce and noodles — is pure messy indulgence. The whelks, steamed spotted cod, prawns, scallops (in fact, any seafood available that day) are all worth having. Warning: It looks cheap, but it’s not.
6. Le Bernardin (New York)
This is the best fish joint … anywhere. And it’s relevant and fun, despite its formal service and fine-dining ambience.
The grand tasting menu is a stripped-down thing of relatively austere beauty. And whatever they’re doing this year or this month is always, always interesting.
7. Salumi (Seattle)
It’s a sandwich shop with a couple of tables and a true mom-and-pop — even if they’re the mom and pop of famous chef Mario Batali.
Anything cured, anything braised, any of the limited hot specials … in fact, anything the Batalis make is worth grabbing with both hands.
8. Russ & Daughters (New York)
Russ & Daughters started as a pushcart nearly a century ago, and it now serves some of the last traditional Eastern European Jewish-style herring and smoked belly lox, sable and sturgeon.
9. Katz’s Delicatessen (New York)
And since you’re close, walk down a few doors to Katz’s to remind yourself how pastrami is done right. This is what New Yorkers do better than anybody else. And here’s where they do it.
10. Etxebarri (Axpe, Spain)
Victor Arguinzoniz grills unlikely ingredients over homemade charcoal: baby eels, imperial beluga caviar, oysters. (The fresh chorizo and prawns work, too.)
Theoretically you can’t grill a lot of this stuff, but a handcrafted series of pulleys that raise and lower each item makes it possible. Eat here, and no one is eating better.
11. Sukiyabashi Jiro (Tokyo)
The best sushi on earth? Maybe. Jiro Ono is more than 80 years old, and he’s been doing old-school Edo-style sushi his whole life.
Every piece of fish is served at precisely the right temperature and the rice and seaweed alone are blackout good. Ono will ruin sushi for you from anywhere else.
12. Hot Doug’s (Chicago)
This place convinced me the Chicago red hot is, in fact, superior to the New York hot dog.
And it’s home to two great innovations in American gastronomy: the ‘foie gras dog’ and the weekends-only practice of cooking French fries in duck fat. It’s proof that food doesn’t have to be expensive to be great.
13. Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue (Kansas City)
People may disagree on who has the best BBQ. Here, the brisket (particularly the burnt ends), pulled pork and ribs are all of a quality that meet the high standards even of Kansas City natives.