Alex Grossman knows a thing or two about food. As creative director of Bon Appétit, he travels widely to the world’s hottest restaurants. But his eating odyssey didn’t start there. His first job, at age 12, was a dishwasher. Through his twenties he worked nearly every job there is in restaurants, from award-winning establishments like Le Bernardin to greasy spoon joints.
He’s passionate about his work: “I love taking the foods everyone’s seen over and over—roast chicken, sandwiches—and showing it in a way that’s hopefully never been shown before. Then, there’s trashy food—hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream cones—that you can go really weird and more pop-y with.”
Here are Alex’s top five favorite restaurants:
I reeeaaaallly love Copenhagen. It's such a cool city and such a great place to eat. And while Noma, which is there, might be the most impressive restaurant in the world, in many ways Manfreds is my favorite. They just do so many things right and they were so ahead of the curve: super-serious chef but very simple (almost casual) place, cheap DIY build-out but still really good vibes, religiously sourced, high technique food but very low-key plating (I mean the food visually looks quite normal), a real dedication to vegetables and treating meat more as a condiment rather than the main driving ingredient. Oh, and one of the best natural wine lists on the planet. On the latter point it's kind of crazy the wine he gets. The entire list is all naturally fermented which means no preservatives. Wine can really mess you up, all sorts of crazy shit in it—chemicals, pesticides, artificial yeasts, tons of bad shit. It's no wonder many people feel like shit drinking wine. Well, natural wine and especially really good natural wine like they have at Manfreds is of another level. I remember when I was there our waiter (who happened to be the som) said: “You ever try and chug wine? You can’t. You’ll get a gag reflex from the preservatives.” So he taught me that you can actually chug natural wine. Try it. Anyway, he literally gets winemakers driving extremely limited stuff up from France and Italy themselves because they so believe in his restaurants (and Noma). So it's an important place but you would never know based on what it looks like. I could go on and on but soooo many restaurants have copied elements of what they do and almost everyone has been influenced by its ethos. It's just so important for food to see a generation of superstar chefs focused on opening cool, inexpensive places with food and wine that is delicious and healthy that everyday people can go to. It's changing the world.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, Seattle
The highest compliment I could ever give a restaurant is that it is a perfect neighborhood restaurant. So many restaurants put so much emphasis on doing A LOT, to really get your attention—extra flavor, extra fat, weird combinations, tricky dishes—that it often gets to be too much. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love eating at places that challenge me, but neighborhood restaurants understand that to come back several times a week you have to have a menu that people really want to eat over and over again, with good but super-chill service, and in a space with a vibe that you want to hang out in. The Walrus and the Carpenter, an oyster bar at heart, is named after a Lewis Carroll poem and it just does all of these things really well. Don’t get me wrong, it has incredibly good fish and shellfish and happens to have the best oysters I’ve ever eaten in my life, but it also has a little extra magic. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Rene’s husband owns Hama Hama Oysters, one of the world’s great oyster farms. I could go in there and down 4-5 dozen easy. With a good bottle of wine in a cool space that is as good as it gets.
To make truly great food is very hard. It just takes so much time to do just a few things really well, to perfect them. To do it consistently in a restaurant is near impossible. It just takes so much work and attention to detail. It really has to be personal because you truly have to love the process of doing it. This just seems so true about this little Vietnamese noodle and sandwich shop in Portland, Oregon—run by a 65-year-old woman named Ha “Christina” Luu and her 75-year-old partner—that makes the best soup noodles I’ve ever had. She makes two soups a day herself, totally from scratch, with high-quality ingredients, and sells them till they’re gone which is usually sometime midday. There’s some really out-there-sounding ones: Crabflake Noodle Soup, Snail Soup, Shrimpcake Noodles, as well as more normal-sounding Pho, but it depends on the day. I’ve probably had half of what she sells but everything I’ve ever had there is exceptional, an amazing balance of clean simplicity and flavor. It’s perfect.
Estela, New York
I think Estela is the best restaurant of the last decade in New York. Like restaurants like Manfreds, the two owners, Ignacio and Thomas, come from very high-end restaurant backgrounds and have put their efforts into making totally original food that is so simple and beautiful, that doesn’t cost a ton, and in a very unpretentious, even plain, spot. To do that anywhere is very cool but to do it in New York, where so few people are taking any risks at all due to the economics of it, is really special. The wine list is awesome. The owners are friends of mine and I’m just so impressed with their food. I just love it. It's weird to find a place that is doing “new” things with food but where every damn dish is just so delicious and crave-able. I literally love eating there.
Contramar, Mexico City
I think we’ve become so food-focused—and restaurateurs so cost-conscious—that we have forgotten that a great restaurant is about more than just food. Don’t get me wrong, the food at Contramar, which is all seafood, is driven in each morning from the coast and it is truly amazing. That said, it is the meal in its entirety that is so unique and special here. This is a “typical” meal at Contramar: arrive on a Saturday at 3 pm (the host knows you by name of course) and grab a table for six with your friends. A super-stylish, white dinner jacket-clad waiter arrives soon after you sit down and in a few words gets you going on some spicy tuna tostadas (and no, not just any tuna tostada but the best tostada of any kind you have ever put in your mouth), a round of micheladas, and some mezcal on ice. You repeat this drink order countless times for the next two hours, the waiter dropping by at the perfect moment here and there to bring you stunningly good food from the menu and off of it (aquachiles, whole grilled fish, ceviche, etc). Two of your friends leave halfway through only to be replaced by two to four other people you never met before. You get full at some point so you leave for an hour to walk around. You come back and sit back down to a table of now 10 (half of whom you don’t know) and eat “dinner," drinking and hanging out in a room packed with people doing exactly what you’re doing. The atmosphere is infectious. By the time you leave you’ve been there six hours and are in a food/alcohol coma but happy as can be about it.