Inside the New York Times: How We Chose the Most Exciting Restaurants in America

From a Times Insider story by Sarah Bahr headlined “How We Chose the Most Exciting Restaurants in America”:

Priya Krishna, a New York Times Food and Cooking reporter, sat alone at Lom Wong, a Thai restaurant in Phoenix, surrounded by a dozen dishes like green papaya salad with charcoal-grilled chicken, stir-fried noodles with straw mushrooms and head-on langoustine, and pork belly curry over jasmine rice.

She wasn’t munching on mashed beef and steamed squid just for fun: She was one of eight Times reporters, editors and critics who were traveling the United States to compile the second annual list of their 50 favorite restaurants in the country. The guide, which features recommendations in more than 20 states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico, was published online on Monday.

“We tried to think about, What are the places that make us excited to go out to eat in America right now?” Ms. Krishna said.

For months, Ms. Krishna and her colleagues Brett Anderson, Brian Gallagher, Tejal Rao, Nikita Richardson, Tanya Sichynsky, Kim Severson and Pete Wells fanned out to hundreds of barbecue joints and vegan locales and even took a ferry to a restaurant on an island — all in an effort to create an almanac of the places that reflected the state of dining out in America amid the easing of pandemic restrictions. In all, they ate more than 400 meals in dozens of cities before choosing the 50 restaurants they wanted to feature.

Mr. Gallagher, who led the team, said it wasn’t just the food they considered — they also took into account the service, the atmosphere and the ambition of the cuisine.

The list is not meant to be definitive, he said, but rather a collection of the 50 places “that inspire or excite us right now.”

The team began brainstorming an initial list in February, compiling a spreadsheet that included a couple of hundred restaurants. It was linked to a digital map of the country, with pins indicating the locations of restaurants so the team could see how its choices were shaking out geographically.

As Ms. Krishna reports on other food stories throughout the year, she keeps her own spreadsheet of places that are interesting and updates it periodically. She subscribes to dozens of local food publications, and her friends across the country also send her tips. “The research happens all year round,” she said.

When visiting restaurants, the contributors chose not to disclose their Times affiliation to avoid preferential treatment. They booked reservations through the normal channels, sometimes using aliases. (Ms. Krishna said she used different pseudonyms on Resy, the table reservation service.) They made exceptions only when it was difficult to get into the most exclusive places on the list.

Whenever possible, Ms. Krishna said, they each tried to dine with a group. “It’s less conspicuous that way,” she said.

But sometimes, a restaurant’s far-flung location or limited hours made a group meal impossible, Ms. Krishna said. “When you’re eating in the middle of the day, it can be hard to find someone who can sneak out of work and meet you,” she said. (Ms. Krishna said she would take the leftovers home and either eat them or try to find a community fridge to put them in.)

Because the contributors were often traveling alone and their time in each city was limited, their days were often filled with second breakfasts, third dinners and breakfasts for dinner. Mr. Anderson, who wrote 16 of the list’s 50 entries, had a strategy: a light lunch by himself, then one with someone else, followed by a light dinner at a bar and then, two hours later, a full dinner with other people.

But even when they dined with friends, they couldn’t order everything on the menu. So how did they decide? They took chef and server recommendations, Mr. Anderson said, and asked about the most popular dishes.

All of the contributors tracked their visits in a tab in the spreadsheet, and after comparing notes, they narrowed the list to 50.

“The first 25 or 30 for the short list are pretty easy, because people just have restaurants they absolutely loved,” Mr. Gallagher said. “After that, we start to look at all the considerations — geography, type of cuisine, price point — and winnow that way.”

While many diners might choose to order only one dish at a particular place, Ms. Krishna said, one of the team’s goals was to try to point people in some new directions — and they hope they take their recommendations.

“The sleeper hit of our list is the state of Arizona,” she said.

And if The Times missed your favorite spot this year, don’t worry — the team is already thinking about next year.

“I propose we start traveling next week,” Mr. Anderson said.

Sarah Bahr is a senior staff editor at The Times. She has reported on a range of topics, most often theater, film and television, while writing for the Culture, Styles and National desks.

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