Eater Interviews: Is Fine Dining Dead? Andrew Knowlton Reveals How He Selected America's Best New Restaurants

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Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appétit Magazine [Photo: Bon Appétit]

With the announcement of the 50 nominees for America's best new restaurants by Bon Appétit, came the question: What is the current state of dining? Andrew Knowlton, the magazine's restaurant editor, is the sole master of that list. Opinionated food writer John Mariani took issue with the message Knowlton's lineup sends, arguing that it "glorifies novelty, youth, eccentricity and hipsterism for their own sake." Too casual, Mariani complains — some aren't even restaurants, some have exposed duct work, backless stools, drinks served in mason jars, and no reservation policies.

Acorn was the only Colorado restaurant among the 50, but a look at 5280 Magazine's Best New Restaurants for 2014 — which includes Cafe Max, Olive & Finch, the Curtis Club — paints a local picture that mirrors Knowlton's national choices.

On the eve of the release of Bon Appétit's Best New Restaurants list — a top-ten that includes Grand Central Market in LA and Thai-Kun, an Austin food truck— Eater asked Knowlton how he selected the restaurants, what matters most to him, and whether fine dining is dead.

Walk us through the process of putting the best 50 list together. Well, it's a year long process. It's me traveling around the country, and I would say the bulk of my travel is probably January, February, March, April. I would say that those three months are like the heavy-lifting where I'm pretty much on the road all the time — just ask my wife and family. Throughout the year, I make running lists of restaurants that I know are opening, chefs I am familiar with, really anything that piques my interest. I kind of start from there and then kind of devise the schedule to somehow try and hit all the cities in the United States, which you know, is impossible. I try to come up with a schedule that allows me to visit all these restaurants and return to the ones that I feel I had good experiences at.

What's the opening timeline considered each year? Because of the magazine's timeline, the fact that I have to turn things in and we have to test recipes and whatnot, it's May to May by and large. So May 2013 to May 2014.

Outside of opening date, what qualifies a restaurant for your short list? I've been doing this for awhile, so I read everything that I can, whether it's online or city magazines, and I just try to take an overall temperature. If 900 people say this restaurant is not good, then I don't have time to go to that restaurant to agree with those 900 people. Mainly, I'll just look at menus and search for places that are being buzzed about. In most cities, I have people there that I know personally and I trust their opinions, and I will talk with them and discuss the places that are worth visits. And then I kind of go back and look at everything to strategically determine how I'm going to go to all of those places. That doesn't mean I'm just sticking to those ten places when I am in a town. If I hear about something, or I read something, or I'm walking down the street and something catches my eye, then I'll do that. It's not like I'm picking five places before I hit the ground, and there is no wavering from that list. There is a certain spontaneity to it, but I have to choose wisely how and when I cover all those places so I can get the most in. As far as I'm concerned, there's not anybody lucky like me to be able to do this and travel the country — one person — and kind of take the pulse of the United States, if I can be as bold to say that.

So you actually visit all the restaurants you consider? Absolutely.

Give me an idea of your schedule when you visit a city. Let's say I go to Atlanta. I go for three days. Let's say I get there at 11 a.m., and I eat two to three lunches and probably hit... I used to kill myself and try to go to four or five places for dinner, but now I probably only hit three places a night. The ones I think are at the top of the list, I go and kind of scout them out. You can tell a lot from a first impression when you just walk in: whether it's good service, or it's the menu that your jazzed about, or just the overall temperament of the space. Then I'll go back again during that trip and have a full meal so I'm not just getting an appetizer at one place and then going to another. There's no science to it, but that's what's worked for me over the years. A. How do I not die? And B. How do I give the restaurant the opportunity to put their best foot forward? If we're getting really detailed about my schedule, I usually group trips to the south, midwest, west, or east and try to spend about two or three weeks at a time right down there. I like that heavy travel of three to four months because then I have a good basis of comparison when I'm coming up with the top 10 list. It stays fresh in your mind when you've just hit all of them one after another.

What do you look for in new restaurants for this list year after year? I'm not that much different than your average person going out to dinner except its my job. Like I said, I feel that I have a good taste memory. When Adam Rapoport [the magazine's editor in chief ] and I started dedicating the entire magazine to the top 10, he was always like, "This is not by committee. This is your list, and you have a voice, and we value that."

The September issue has always been about restaurants for as long as I've been here, which is since 1999. 1994 was the first restaurant issue. We started choosing the top 10 restaurants in 2009, I want to say. Before, we were just doing restaurant stories, but we weren't coming out and saying these were our top 10 favorite new restaurants of the year. Since Adam started, for the past three years, we've basically been turning the magazine into a celebration of the top 10 restaurants.

And that's what we wanted to do. It's great what we were doing before, but we were like: "If we're gonna do this, let's do it all out and really celebrate it." And we put a lot of money, and time, and effort into it, so why not try and make it something that we're proud of and that the restaurants feel proud of too.

When you boil it down to 50, what matters? Design? White table cloths? Fine linens and silverware? It all matters to me. I think what I wanted to focus on this year, more than any year before, was actually the experience of going out. I think we kind of fell in love with chefs and what they do, and I really want to celebrate that thing where you go out and it's not just one thing — maybe its the Riedel glassware, or the amazing host, or amazing bartender, or amazing seared frog leg you had, or the dessert — but it is the total experience that you walk away with. I don't think they're ever like, "Aw man, that food was awesome, but the service sucked." No, they say the experience was bad even if something was great. I was just looking at the complete package and certain unique places that I thought really represented where dining is in America in 2014.

So, going back to Mariani's comments, is fine dining dead? Or does your list say it is dead? Everybody has their opinion about a list. I'm sure if John Mariani came up with a list of his top 50 new restaurants, I would agree with some and disagree with others. And obviously, he disagrees with some of mine and agrees with others. There was no mission statement with this list; it was just the list at the end of the year that I came up with. Last year, number two was Saison, which I think qualifies as fine dining. It's a rather expensive restaurant. I'm turning 40 next week, and I'm going to Le Bernardin in New York. That's my favorite restaurant in New York, so I value those experiences that represent fine dining as much as the next person, but I didn't think my list commented on whether fine dining was dead or not. I mean, I like putting on a suit and doing that. I think there are many, many ways to dine, and that's really what makes 2014 special: whether it's a food truck, or a market, or a place that "really isn't a restaurant." You can get treated just as well at a place where there are backless chairs as a place where there are huge ones with big cushions. I don't really look at it that microscopically and make lines in the sand determining what's a dining establishment, and what's not, and what represents that.

Speaking of Saison, and it being more expensive, does value matter: getting more for your money, more decor, more fancy silverware? My only response to that is that good food is good food no matter where you eat it. A backless chair, to me, doesn't represent whether a restaurant is good or bad or whether they're trying to stick it to me in a certain way. It's just like that chair with the back could be even more uncomfortable than a backless chair. I don't understand the comparison between a fancy restaurant with a $23 dish, and one that is "not fancy" and costs a $1 less. I just don't understand that.

Are there fine dining restaurants on your list this year? Well we're talking about an antiquated notion of what fine dining means. There are less and less fine dining restaurants in America for whatever reason that is. It's expensive, it's hard to run a restaurant, some people don't want to eat that way anymore, it represents something else. If you look at New York, there have been a few "fine dining" restaurants, but I don't try to include or not include fine dining. It's just a list of places that I go to and get the right vibe. I wasn't trying to exclude anything that was fine dining...

My list has a certain point of view in that it is the things that I am attracted to. I don't think there's that many super swanky fine dining restaurants that opened that really grabbed my attention. I don't think that fine dining is dead, but I don't think it is alive as it used to be several years ago. I just think that most of the new restaurants opening these days do follow the casual model. That's what 2014 was about and that is not just my opinion. That doesn't mean that there's not great fine dining restaurants that opened.

So, the Hot Ten list, what do those restaurants have in common? I dug 'em. That's what it comes down to. There's no secret formula or crazy mathematical equation that I plug them into and get this list. It's my list of places that I dug and places that I think represent the kind of places that people will want to go to and give their money to, and they're driven by passionate people.

What did you like on your visit to Denver outside of Acorn? It's always interesting to see what is going on there. I always have a good time there although I am sick from the altitude in about six hours. What else I liked? Well, Crooked Stave. I think that guy is doing pretty good beers. When I start traveling again in the fall, I will be back to see what else is new.

Have other opinions about what should have made the list from Denver? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

· Acorn Is Among Bon Appetit's 50 Best New Restaurants [EDen]
· What Is Bon Appétit Trying To Sell Us? [John Mariani]
· The 50 Nominees for America's Best New Restaurants [Bon Appétit]
· The Best New Restaurants in America 2014 [Bon Appétit]
· Denver's 10 Best New Restaurants 2014 [5280]
· Amanda Faison of 5280 Talks Best New Restaurants [EDen]

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