We're going beyond white tablecloths and Michelin stars, you might not have heard of these picks.

By Katherine Martinelli
October 17, 2019
Courtesy of The Lynhall

There are no shortage of great restaurants in this country; in every corner, from big cities to back roads, chefs are doing creative, inventive, and amazing things with food. While it's easy to find lists of the best new, fancy restaurants in every area, we didn't want just another list of the same spots everyone is scrambling to get into. That's why we asked some of our favorite chefs and food authorities where they like to eat in their respective regions. These places may not have Michelin stars or white tablecloths, but what they lack in formality and media buzz they make up for with fine food that keeps these folks coming back.

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Courtesy of Arepa Mia

Atlanta, Georgia

As an award-winning chef, cookbook author, and authority on Southern food, it's safe to say that Virginia Willis knows a thing or two about where to eat in her home state of Georgia. That's why we asked her to share her favorite spots in the Atlanta area. Any list of Southern food needs to include a great BBQ spot, and B's Cracklin' BBQ is Willis' pick. "Bryan [Thurman] serves heirloom whole hog BBQ and excellent side dishes. The collard greens are some of the best in town. He also hosts Erika Council for biscuit pop-ups on weekend mornings," says Willis. There is also a location in Savannah. Mathews Cafeteria is the place to go for down-home comfort food, Willis says—and it's well worth any line you may encounter. "You'll find fried chicken, pork chops, meatloaf, baked chicken, and stewed beef tips alongside creamed corn, green beans, and broccoli casserole," says Willis of this "old-school fave."

When she's craving something other than Southern classics, Willis often orders the Arepas at Arepa Mia in Sweet Auburn Curb Market. Run by a first generation Venezuelan-American, the restaurant relies on local producers like 150-year-old White Oak Pastures and River View Farms, the oldest organic farm in Georgia. "Love the food and love their story," she says. Another favorite? Korean cuisine. Though there's are no shortage of great Korean options in Atlanta, Willis says she's partial to Cho Dang Tofu. "Sizzling, spitting pots of flavorful spicy broth with creamy chunks of tofu and a choice of protein are brought to the table with rice and banchan, a series of small side dishes," she says. "Stir in a freshly cracked egg into the spicy liquid at the table and enjoy."

Courtesy of Woon

Los Angeles, California

A former chef de cuisine at Wolfgang Puck's Beverly Hills restaurant Cut, Ken Concepcion left the restaurant world to open LA's only cookbook store, Now Serving, with his wife Michelle Mungcal. Not surprisingly, they have some great recommendations for places to eat. What do they look for in a restaurant? "As small business owners and parents of a toddler, we do tend to seek out value along with flavor, quality of ingredients, and a unique POV," says Concepcion. One spot that checks those boxes is the Chinese noodle restaurant, Woon. It was a pop-up for years before settling into its brick and mortar location in the HiFi (Historic Fillipinotown) neighborhood. Concepcion loves that it's "all based on the food the owners grew up eating—and the best part is that Mama Fong is back there in the kitchen or checking in on tables."

Though the original location of Baroo Canteen—a Korean-inspired grain bowl restaurant with a devoted following of fermented food obsessives—closed, Concepcion likes the reborn space just as much. "Happily Kwang Uh and Mina Park have popped up at the Union Swap Meet as a something sort of a quick service take on those indelible Baroo flourishes which reflect Los Angeles as much as they do their Korean heritage," he says. Another favorite? Holbox, which he says is "the place for sparkling, fresh Yucatan-style seafood," such as ceviches, tostadas, and wood-grilled fish. "Don't forget to order the blood clams. Chef Gilberto Cetina uses the same purveyors as all the Michelin-starred places do but serves them in a food court just outside USC," he adds.

And if you like humble porridge, which has achieved trend status as of late, Concepcion says that you have to try Porridge + Puffs, an establishment that's taking it to a whole other level. As he says, "Chef Minh Pham is pushing the boundaries not only of what we think of what porridge can be—jook, congee, arroz caldo, lugaw—but doing it with the soul of a poet and her heart set on being not only a neighborhood restaurant, but the restaurant LA cannot live without."

Courtesy of Moonbat City Baking Co.

Maine

Diners come from all over the world to eat at The Lost Kitchen, an intimate farm-to table restaurant that Erin French opened in her hometown of Freedom, Maine. It's located in an old gristmill and has an all-women staff. The restaurant is open from May through New Year's Eve and the only way to snag a seat is to send a request by via snail mail during the first two weeks of April—then cross your fingers you're one of the lucky few that gets selected at random. As for other delicious spots to dine in the area, the Maine native loves Youngs Lobster Pound in Belfast "for their super casual dock and dine shore dinners." It's a quintessential Maine experience: pick your own lobster from the tank and eat it right at a picnic table on the dock. "I'm there almost every sunny Sunday in the summer," she says.

Tinder Hearth in Brooksville is French's favorite "for bread and wood-fired pizza." Everything at is this off-the-beaten-path spot is naturally leavened and baked in ovens the owners built by hand. Call ahead to reserve a pizza—the options change daily—Tuesday through Saturday, from 5 to 8 p.m. in the summer (winter hours vary). She also likes Bresca and the Honey Bee, situated at Outlet Beach on the shores of Sabbathday Lake. It may look like an archetypal snack shack but it's run by James Beard-nominated chef Krista Kerns Desjarlais, who sources all the ingredients locally. French praises "their gourmet hot dogs and homemade ice creams and sorbets."

If breakfast is more your thing, you'll like French's next pick. It's high praise when someone like French says a bakery has the "best croissants around. Period," and Moonbat City Baking Co. gets her stamp of approval. This community baking company in Belfast, where everything is baked from scratch daily, is only open Thursday through Monday until 1 p.m., so get there early before things run out.

Courtesy of Café Racer Kitchen

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Sean Sherman is a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe and uses food to raise awareness of indigenous food systems. His catering business, The Sioux Chef, cooks up modern indigenous foods and his cookbook, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, won the 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook. One of his favorite restaurants in the Minneapolis area is The Lynhall, a collective of culinary professionals that serves as an event space, incubator kitchen, classroom, and more. Sherman says "this organization is doing great work highlighting mental health awareness in the restaurant industry" and recommends ordering "their award-winning hamburger."

Prefer more humble cuisine? Then you'll like his next pick. At the grilled cheese restaurant, All Square, Sherman likes to order the "Did My Thyme" sandwich (with feta, asiago, Parmesan, mozzarella, provolone, cucumber, hummus, and Greek sauce). But he also notes that "this is a civil rights social enterprise that does so much it's hard to distill it." The Latin American cuisine at Café Racer Kitchen also gets praise from Sherman. He calls out the Arepa Benedict as a favorite dish but from hot dogs to jambalaya, there's something for everyone, whether you hit up the food truck or brick and mortar restaurant.

Last but not least, he calls out a roving pop-up from Hmong refugee Yia Vang, Union Kitchen, that can be found "in residency" at various locations around Minneapolis and St. Paul (which has the largest Hmong community in the U.S). Sherman appreciates the way Union Kitchen works "to raise awareness about the richness of this culture" and recommends the smoked chicken larb.

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