I have been extremely fortunate to dine and drink very, very well for most of my life, and never better than in recent years. Between my own personal expeditions, and Rascal + Thorn, the travel business that I operate with my business partner, Charles Grabitzky, I have had the privilege to dine at many of the finest restaurants in the world. 2018 proved to be another extraordinary year, including, perhaps the greatest breadth of dining experience of my life. I traveled more than I ever had and covered a lot of ground, actually circumnavigating the globe in November. I spent a lot of time in my native New York City and again visited my soul city – Barcelona, but I also had my very long-awaited entry into Japan, which proved to exceed my already high expectations. That was the only significant new location for me, as most of my travels were return visits to much-loved destinations such as Copenhagen, London, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Montreal and elsewhere. I returned to a few old favorites in these visits, but also included many a restaurant new to me. In short, I fed on a lot of fabulous food and downed dozens of delectable drinks. The number of great meals greatly exceeded the 25 that I have limited myself to in this post. These were my favorite meals of the year, the ones that for a myriad of reasons, most resonated with me. In some cases, I had company, such as family, friends, or clients. In other cases, I dined alone. The ranking here stems from a lot of subjectivity on my part. I don’t believe there is any way around that for a list like this. To try to approach a meal in an entirely objective way is to deny so many of the factors that make a meal great, or conversely can ruin a meal. A restaurant, of course, must do its share to create a great meal, but so must a diner. In the best of circumstances, the restaurant and the diners feed off of each other. In the worst of circumstances, they fight each other, and then, no matter how good the food may be, the experience doesn’t work as well as it might. Here then, are the restaurant meals of 2018 that occupy the fondest recesses of my recent memory.
Once again, as with previous years, I enjoyed many a special guest chef dinner (including a number that Rascal + Thorn produced), but I did not include those “one-off” experiences in my deliberations for this list, as fabulous as they were.
I have taken the liberty of combining certain restaurants within a family when one is more casual than the other, and I have visited them within a close period of time. Clearly, all of the restaurants mentioned impressed me, though the ranking belongs to the most impressive meal within that family.
In Reverse Order
No. 25 – Contra/Wildair/Una Pizza Napolitana
NYC – October 20
Contra has been a perennial favorite of mine, mixing great food, nice wines and a superbly comfortable atmosphere at a price that makes it one of the best values anywhere. With Clare Welle in the kitchen at Contra, the dynamic duo of Jeremiah Stone and Fabian van Hauske Valtierra are able to cover all of the bases of their growing empire including Wildair and the new Una Pizza Napolitana (with Anthony Mangieri slinging the pies) without missing a beat. Their proximity to each other allows one to hit all three in the same night.
No. 24 – Zuberoa
Oiartzun, Spain – June 19
Zuberoa is old school elegance and refinement with new school Spanish gastronomic sensibilities. The food, by Chef Hilario Arbelaitz, is delicious, beautiful and elegant, while the wine list, maintained by Dining Room Director Eusebio Arbelaitz, is superbly Spanish with plenty more for those who feel a need to venture beyond Iberian vineyards. It was more than worth a special trip from Bilbao for lunch on the same day as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.
No. 23 – Yoriniku Ebisu
Tokyo, Japan – November 15
Beef is big in Japan, and it’s extremely well marbled Wagyu breed is the reason why. I tried high grade Wagyu at a number of places on my trip to Japan, including in the center of the industry in Kobe, but by far, the best I had was at Yoriniku Ebisu, where we received a variety of cuts, each grilled directly in front of us by an expert. Here, the texture was preserved while the maximum flavor was extracted.
No. 22 – Galatoire’s
New Orleans, LA – September 28
In my experience, no restaurant has defined the city of New Orleans quite like Galatoire’s does for a Friday lunch. It is a place to see and be seen, and yes, a place to eat as well. The food was actually surprisingly good, in fact some of the best New Orleans style Creole Cuisine that I’ve ever had. That, however, while a major factor, was not THE reason Galatoire’s made it on my list. No, that is because, it just happened to be one of the coolest and most fun group dining experiences that I’ve ever had. Where else can you find a talented Second Line jazz ensemble spontaneously marching through the jam-packed dining room with everyone, and I mean everyone, dancing along with them, and really good food too, my oh my?!
No. 21 – Joe Beef/ Le Vin Papillon/ Vin Mon Lapin
Montreal Canada – March 6
Few places mix a respect for culinary tradition and genuine creativity better than the restaurants run by Chef David MacMillan. Over a span of a couple of days inMarch, we got to visit three (Joe Beef, Le Vin Papillon and the brand new Vin Mon Lapin) of his four (only missed Liverpool House) fabulous restaurants. They all shared a strong family resemblance of quality product, skillful preparation, creative minds and natural wines, but were also unique in decor, style and vibe. The food, drink & service was superb throughout with some truly outstanding dishes that provided a number of Wow! moments, like the rutabaga schnitzel with sea urchin in the photo posted above.
No. 20 – Racine’s
NYC – May 4
It was great to see Paul Liebrandt back in a restaurant again. His food was as stellar as ever, and a great match for the superb wine list put together at Racine’s by the wonderful Pascaline Lepeltier, making this a superb birthday celebration for myself with my family.
No. 19 – Casa Lever
NYC – December 7
Somehow Casa Lever had not been on my radar. Once I discovered that the uber-talented Iacopo Falai is the Executive Chef of the group that runs it, my interest piqued. The exquisite food is classic Italian, with sophisticated and wonderful modern flourishes, all impeccably prepared. In addition, the setting is one of the coolest in NYC and perhaps anywhere, with a stunning entrance and an array of original portraits by the legendary Andy Warhol.
No. 18 – Hemlock
NYC – May 1
Hemlock closed in August. I managed to visit on its final night, but that was too bittersweet a visit to be the one to make this list. Instead, I chose a visit in May that was entirely upbeat and incredibly delicious. Chef Diego Moya’s food is entirely original, adding ingenious, delicious twists to ingredients that I previously thought I knew, all at unbelievably reasonable prices. The skate dish in the photo above, is one that I’ll never forget, and his sweet potato bread may have been the best in the City. The restaurant is now gone, but I look forward to including Chef Moya’s future endeavors on this list in the years ahead.
No. 17 – Cosme/Atla
NYC – September 15
Cosme is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. Somehow it keeps getting even better, matching beautiful presentations with fabulous flavors in a comfortable, modern setting that has reined in the decibel level. Chefs Enrique Olvera, Daniela Soto-Innes and the amazing team at Cosme have me hooked, as they also do at their more casual sister restaurant, Atla, where the food and drink also rock with creativity built around Mexican traditions. I visited both over the course of two days in September with some visiting chef friends from Spain.
No. 16 – L’Effervescence
Tokyo, Japan – November 16
L’Effervescence from Chef Shinobu Namae fuses French technique and style with Japanese ingredients and sensibility to create a cuisine that is elegant, beautiful and consummately, delicious. Add warm, expert service and a superb beverage program along with a beautiful room to make this a truly extraordinary experience. I dined alone here. While it was a pity not to share the experience with family or friends, it was the kind of luxury for which it was I was happy to be able to focus on, while enjoying the pampering.
No. 15 – Inua
Tokyo, Japan – November 14
German born, Noma-trained, Inua Chef Thomas Frebel has done a masterful job of inflecting marvelous Japanese ingredients with a noma perspective, resulting in a brilliant, beautiful, delicious and interesting meal that successfully bridged both worlds. Inua is still a new restaurant, but destined for long-term greatness.
No. 14 – Eleven Madison Park
NYC – September 6
Somehow I did not have a full menu meal at Eleven Madison Park in 2018. I did, however, enjoy a great, though abbreviated meal at the bar. The entire experience from cocktails to food to wine to service to ambiance was once again outstanding. This likely would have landed back in my Top 5 had I had a full menu meal.
No. 13 – Pakta
Barcelona, Spain – June 14
Our meal at Pakta started with these gorgeous percebes (goose barnacles) with white soy sauce. A Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) restaurant in Barcelona shouldn’t be so good, but it is part of the elBarri Group of restaurants run by the incomparable Albert Adria, who I believe is the single best quality restaurateur in the world, in addition to being one of my absolute Chef heroes. One of the secrets of Albert’s (or any successful restaurateur) is having great people to work with. Peruvian-born Jorge Muñoz is the chef at Pakta and this menu, served to our Rascal + Thorn Legacy of elBulli Tour in June was the best that I’d ever had there, which is saying a lot, as I’ve always had great meals at Pakta.
No. 12 – Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Tarrytown, NY – October 7
Our Rascal + Thorn visit to Blue Hill at Stone Barns was much more than a meal. We started with a private tour of the Blue Hill Farm that was followed by a spectacular Champagne Tutorial in their wine cellar, before engaging in a fabulous Sunday afternoon meal. We had a great group that made the day just that much more special.
No. 11 – Atelier
Ottawa, Canada – July 26
I had been wanting to go to Atelier for some time, but never really had the right opportunity. Finally, this past summer the timing worked for me and I went. Wow! I was blown away by the sheer artistry of the food, both to the eye and to the palate.Modernist food is very difficult to do well, but Chef Marc Lepine does it brilliantly, not sacrificing anything in terms of flavor in making his sensationally creative and astoundingly gorgeous food. Atelier is a revelation. It just celebrated its 10th anniversary for a very good reason – it’s an extraordinarily wonderful restaurant, even if it is still a well-kept secret outside of Canada. That this didn’t land high in my Top 10 is a testament to the stupendous meals that did.
No. 10 – Marea Alta
Barcelona – June 10
Great product, great service, great technique, superb beverages, a fabulous indoor setting, beautiful presentations and, by far, the most incredible 360º view of Barcelona, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, all go a long way to making Marea Alta with the supremely talented Chef Enrique Valenti, one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. Somehow, this is still somewhat under the radar in such a great food city as Barcelona, but it should not be missed. Like all of the Barcelona restaurants on this year’s list, it was part of our Rascal + Thorn tour.
No. 9 – Atomix/Atoboy
NYC – May 25
I so need to return to Atomix, the phenomenal, new creative Korean fine dining restaurant in NYC run by the dynamite duo of Chef Junghyun Park and FOH whiz Ellia Park, to see just how amazing it must be now. This meal took place around its very opening, and blew me away then. One notable small detail that they do is serving every course with a beautiful, descriptive photocard. It’s the little things that count. In addition, their other restaurant, the much more casual Atoboy continues to deliver one of the best values in the country, let alone NYC. The cooking at both is magnificent, with Atomix having the setting to put rocket it into the stratosphere.
No. 8 – Noma
Copenhagen, Denmark – November 22
I missed the first two menus at the new Noma 2.0, but I made sure not to miss the Game Menu, as I made my way to Copenhagen with my family to celebrate Thanksgiving as well as my brother’s major milestone birthday. The new setting is mind-bogglingly wonderful, while the vaunted Noma creativity and derring-do remain as wonderful as ever. The menu is challenging in parts, but pulled off as only Rene Redzepi, head chef Benjamin Ing, and their astounding crew could. Most of it was delicious, some of, like the Pinecone Salad above, rivetingly so, while all of it was beautiful and stimulating. Long live Noma 2.0!
No. 7 – Tickets
Barcelona – June 9
Tickets, the elBarri Group flagship, continues to embody everything that I love in a restaurant – fabulous food, wonderful wine, stellar service and a sensational setting. A serious restaurant simply cannot be more fun than Tickets. Chefs Albert Adria, Fran Aguda and their team never fail to astound me. Opening up our “Legacy of elBulli ” Rascal + Thorn Tour, this was the perfect introduction to the style and philosophy of elBulli and the perfect antidote to jetlag.
No. 6 – Hoja Santa/Niño Viejo
Barcelona – June 12
There is some seriously wonderful Mexican cooking happening around the world nowadays, but, in my opinion, no place doing it better than Chefs Albert Adria with Head Chef Paco Mendez and the staffs at Hoja Santa and Niño Viejo do it. Combining a respect for Mexican traditions and flavors with elBulli-style creativity, and top Mexican and Spanish product, puts it in a class of its own. Paco Mendez may be the best Chef that few have heard of (that is finally changing). I usually don’t do non-native ethnic style restaurants when traveling, but Hoja Santa, and the more casual, but still astounding Niño Viejo are two that I just don’t miss when I go to Barcelona.
No. 5 – Disfrutar/Compartir
Barcelona – June 13
Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas are the 3 chefs behind Disfrutar in Barcelona and Compartir in Cadaques. Before they were the chefs at these restaurants, they were three of the major forces behind the creativity and running of elBulli.We visited the elBulli1846 site at Cala Montjoi with our Rascal + Thorn “Legacy of elBulli Tour” then went on to have lunch at Compartir and dinner at Disfrutar (after a discussion of the elBulli/Disfrutar creative process by Xatruch and Castro) that same day. It was a fabulous day in so many respects and may have been my single best day of dining of the year. with great product, heady thoughts, and magnificently creative cooking.
No. 4 – Single Thread Farm
Healdsburg, CA – April 17
A parade of beautiful and delicious dishes found its way to our central table at the dazzling Single Thread Farm back in April. My wife and I did the right thing and made the most of our visit, spending the night in the luxurious, techno-loaded guest rooms, thereby ensuring a continuation of the fabulous meal of the night before with equally stupendous breakfasts served in our room. Chef Kyle Connaughton and his super-talented wife, Katina, who runs the farm, have created a masterpiece that fully takes advantage of its spectacular location, integrating the finest local produce with a refined Japanese sensibility and artistry.
No. 3 – Mina
Bilbao, Spain – June 17
Spectacular food, wonderful wines, huge hospitality, a stellar day and a dream cast of dining partners created an amazing synergy and a perfect evening at Restaurante Mina in Bilbao, one that I will never forget. Chef Alvaro Garrido is world-class and he creates a true world-class dining experience. Mina is not a large restaurant, but it is a great one.
No. 2 – Den
Tokyo, Japan – November 14
The entire team at Den from Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa on down redefine what “hospitality” means. It is attention to detail, such as finding a photo of me and replacing the usual one of Chef Zaiyu on their trademark “Dentucky Fried Chicken” Box with it, and just making sure that everyone in the restaurant is having a fabulous time. It is as unstuffy as a fine dining restaurant can be, yet still creating absolutely incredible food. Somehow, nothing gets lost in translation. Den is a restaurant that is delicious, fun and unforgettable. I have never felt more comfortable in a restaurant.
No. 1 – Somni
Los Angeles, CA – November 1
From the very first moment that we stepped into the gorgeous space, Somni, the newest exclusive fine dining restaurant from Jose Andres, everything was a Wow! The space, the service, the wines, the show, and, of course, the food were all absolutely superlative. Jose Andres may be most well known right now for his incredible humanitarian agenda, but with the likes of the incredible, head chef, elBulli trained, Aitor Zabala, he is still creating unbelievably good, one of a kind, fine dining restaurants around the United States.It took an absolutely extraordinary meal to make it to the top of my list this year, and that’s what this was, in every respect. The artistry, team work, hospitality and opulence all worked together seamlessly despite the fact that the restaurant isn’t even a year old.