When former fast-food execs Ed Rensi and Tom Dentice decided to open their own casual restaurant, they knew they'd have to do some research. In the years since they'd started in the business, the burgeoning foodie culture had transformed this beefy staple into a gourmet food. Honoring the dish's roots in American roadside diners, the duo decided to take a road trip, visiting about 100 restaurants across the country to study what made a gourmet burger.
What they found was a lot of hype and inconsistent execution, starting with inadequate equipment. For instance, the average commercial griddle has hot spots and cold spots that can be 30 degrees different. "You can't get a consistent cook … if you got that much range in temperature on the grill," Ed said. He also saw inconsistencies with ingredient quality: toppings can't save a burger, no matter how good, if a restaurant uses beef from spent dairy cattle. Likewise, good beef loses impact when dressed in drab toppings such as iceberg lettuce.
Once Ed realized what the gourmet burger needed—consistent process and quality across every ingredient—he and Tom went to work. They found an AccuTemp grill that uses steam pressure to uniformly heat the surface. They sourced Midwestern-raised Angus beef ground from chuck with the shoulder clod still intact. And they filled the 20-item condiment station—dubbed the "Tower of Taste"—with all-natural fixings such as three types of organic Heinz ketchup and mustards from Mustard Girl, a company started by a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.
With a surefire process in place, Tom and Ed began extending their menu to other sandwich fillings, such as fresh chicken breasts, sushi-grade ahi tuna, and edamame burger patties. Sides also benefit from the duo's attention to detail. Hand-dipped ice cream and fresh strawberries swirl into strawberry shakes, which are served with extrawide straws that make it easier to sip when the drink is at its coldest. And at the drink station, fountains pour Boylan sodas sweetened with cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup.
Odyssey Greek Taverna has two locations, both of which maintain old-world charm with crisp white linens, dramatic pillars, stone-textured cream walls, and interspersed colorful murals. Dinners begin with bites of moussaka, which layers eggplants, zucchini, and potatoes for a multitoned meal that doubles as a cutaway model of the earth's crust. The gyro plate showcases spreads of beef and lamb with pita, tzatziki sauce, tomato, and onions, and warm, flaky phyllo dough wraps around spanakopita —a savory spinach-cheese pie.
An extensive wine list loosens first dates’ tongues so they can give better PowerPoint presentations detailing their romantic qualifications.
From the beckoning peals of jazz-playing buskers in Jackson Square to the amiable rush of revelers traipsing down Bourbon Street, New Orleans’ French Quarter earns its reputation as one of America’s liveliest locales. The chefs at French Quarter New Orleans Kitchen bring this same bonhomie to the plate, recreating Cajun staples including blackened fish, gumbo, and Cajun-spiced steak. Like holding a jazz funeral for a dead goldfish, the dining room’s bead-strewn chandeliers and gold and crimson walls add a touch of Fat Tuesday flair to everyday life. As guests sup on spicy jambalaya and sip southern cocktails, a lineup of live acts entertains crowds with DJs and blues bands.
Every month, Sweet Tomatoes rolls out a new roster of fresh-made eats—including many vegetarian and gluten-free selections—in its wholesome buffet. Simmering soups bubble with vegetables and savory chicken, alongside tossed salads tumbling with crisp produce, much like an Ent in a washing machine. On Sunday mornings, plates fill with comforting breakfast classics such as belgian waffles and scrambled eggs.
Fonda Isabel's vibrant modern Mexican dishes take mouths on a zesty tour of the of the country's mainstays tinged with contemporary touches. Each item on the extensive menu arrives at tables hot and made from scratch. Commence the culinary carnival by splashing a gullible chip into a dunking booth of the flavorful guacamole poblano ($7.95) and celebrate by licking a steak lollipop ($4.95). A loyal cheese enchilada stands by the side of the carne a la Tampiqueña, or grilled skirt steak ($16.95), and the pork carnitas schmooze with a fawning crowd of guacamole, grilled onions, rice, jalapeños, and beans ($13.95). Nautical noshers can noodle for the savory fish tacos ($13.95) or sail through chef specialties, such as the skewered meats of the brochetas ($19.95).
Service is tops at Ed's—not because of its astute manners and upscale decorum, but because of its attitude. Offbeat servers are sometimes sweet, sometimes saucy, and often abnormally entertaining. They'll be taking your order one second and dispensing a drive-by insult the next, only to randomly drop their guard and bust into a choreographed countertop dance routine. Over the past 25 years, Ed's affectionately abusive dining experience has amassed a loyal army of paper-hat-wearing fanatics.