24 Restaurant-World Power Players Around the U.S.

By Zagat Staff  |  October 29, 2013

From power restaurateurs to empire-building chefs and bartenders who have a firm grip on the pulse of their city, here are our picks for some of the next generation of restaurant power players around the U.S. These innovators are poised to turn the industry on its head. Tell us your favorites in the comments.

  • Los Angeles: Bricia Lopez, Guelaguetza

    Mole lovers in LA have undoubtedly seen Bricia Lopez at Guelaguetza, where she and her brother oversee operations for the restaurant their father opened in the 1990s, or possibly at the myriad food events where she hands out plates of mole negro tamales and a shot of mescal or two. In fact, mescal has become a passion for the Oaxacan-born Lopez, as the Koreatown restaurant now has one of the country's largest menus featuring the spirit. In addition to her love of all things Oaxacan - she and her brother are also working on a documentary about their city - she’s sort of a cultural ambassador for Mexican tastes, sights and sounds around LA.

  • San Francisco/Bay Area: Matt Cohen

    The founder of the Off The Grid mobile food markets has worked overtime to bring street food to every corner of the Bay Area, most recently adding events in Daly City, Burlingame and Concord, with more expected on the way. He also serves tirelessly to help bring street-food ideas to life, whether helping carts and trucks formalize their concepts or producing unique events like this month's weekly Twilight parties at the Presidio.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Philadelphia: Jeffrey Michaud

    While Marc Vetri is an obvious Philly food star, one of his culinary deputies is starting to shine a broad light of his own. Jeff Michaud just published his first cookbook Eating Italy and oversaw the launch of instant smash hit Pizzeria Vetri. After installing his first-ever chef de cuisine at the original Osteria on North Broad, he’s working on the launch of a suburban Osteria in the Moorestown Mall. All that and easy on the eyes too.

  • Miami: Andreas Schreiner, Jose Mendin and Sergio Navarro of Pubbelly Restaurant Group

    The Pubbelly Restaurant Group’s original gastropub in the Sunset Harbour neighborhood helped redefine the food scene in Miami with their chef-driven menus and relaxed pub-style atmosphere. Since their emergence back in 2010, the three Pubbelly Boys - Andreas Schreiner, Jose Mendin and Sergio Navarro - now have six different restaurant concepts all over Miami Beach ranging from a gastro sushi bar to a casual Italian tavern. Currently, they’re working on their latest eatery, L’echon Brasserie, a French bistro opening inside the new Hilton Cabana Miami Beach this winter.

  • NYC: Nicole Ponseca

    Ponseca was a woman on a mission: after realizing there were no good Filipino options in town, she worked eight years in the restaurant industry as a hostess, waitress and dishwasher (while, let us point out, working full-time as an advertising executive) before opening her own place, Filipino gastropub Maharlika, which started off as a series of pop-up brunches. Next up it was Jeepney, a foodie haven in the East Village serving the country's comfort food (on Thursday nights, you can eat the fare straight off of banana leaves with your hands). Such creativity and vision make her a total firecracker; we’re curious to see what she comes up with next.

  • Credit: Gary Leonard

    Los Angeles: Bill Chait, Restaurateur

    We can’t have a Power Player list without mentioning Bill Chait. Having been involved with the restaurant industry for more than 25 years, from founding Louise’s Trattoria to launching Test Kitchen and partnering with some of LA’s top chefs to open some of the hottest restaurants all over town, he is a man with a magic touch. He's involved with Rivera with John Sedlar; Sotto with Steve Samson and Zach Pollack; Bestia with Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis; Short Order with Nancy Silverton; Petty Cash and Republique with Walter Manzke; and Picca with Ricardo Zarate. And he’s not stopping: there are several more projects in the works, including the forthcoming Redbird at the Vibiana with Neal Fraser.

  • Chicago: Charles Joly

    This cocktail wizard can usually be found at The Office, the subterranean speakeasy under The Aviary. His dealer’s choice cocktails are considered some of the best in not only the city, but also the country, according to the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, which named him Bartender of the Year. Imbibers can get a sip of Joly’s creations at home by purchasing one of his recently released bottles of pre-mixed cocktails, available at Binny’s and specialty grocery stores.

  • Boston: Taniya Nayak

    The HGTV personality and resident designer of Food Network's Restaurant Impossible has been responsible for some of the city's most attractive restaurant interiors in recent years, from Downtown's Petit Robert Central to the Theater District's Abby Lane. This month, doors opened on her latest project, Back Bay Harry's. Results: predictably fab. 

  • Washington, DC/Baltimore: Spike Gjerde

    There’s always been a lot of crossover between Washingtonians and Baltimoreans, but executive chef Spike Gjerde, who opened the nationally acclaimed Woodberry Kitchen with wife Amy in 2007, has gotten Washingtonians to think of Baltimore as a dining destination in a completely new way. Plus, he keeps us coming back with new and ever more interesting projects, like the 2012 opening of Artifact Coffee and the recent Shoo-Fly diner concept, and there are plans for a full-service butcher shop called Parts and Labor expected to open by year’s end. And yet, this James Beard Award nominee will likely have us clamoring for more.

  • Credit: Michael Muller

    Austin: Ben Runkle

    Once upon a time, Ben Runkle was a vegan. Fast-forward a few years, and he’s the co-owner and creative force behind Salt and Time Butcher Shop and Salumeria. What changed? “I didn’t change my mind about my convictions,” he told us, referring to his disgust with factory farming, “but I changed the conclusions I drew from them.” Along with partner Brian Butler, Runkle uses all-natural meats to transform every part of the animal into award-winning charcuterie. And now that Salt and Time has added a lunch and dinner menu to the mix, it’s your one-stop-shop for deliciousness.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Philadelphia: Steven Cook

    Trading in cooking duties for the admin side of things appears to have been a solid move for this onetime Marigold Kitchen chef. Along with business partner Michael Solomonov, he keeps customers and critics happy at top-rated Zahav and Percy Street Barbecue, is opening at least two new outposts of cult-fave Federal Donuts, and is bringing even more excitement to Sansom Street next year with the launch of adjacent restaurants Abe Fisher and Dizengoff.

    Pictured: Cook (far right) with Peter Woolsey (Bistrot La Minette), Michael Solomonov and David Katz (Creekstone Farms)

  • Boston: Tony Maws

    It was a decade ago this year that Maws opened Craigie Street Bistro, whose spirit lives on in a new location with a new name: Craigie on Main. And after 10 years, we're still as excited over one of Boston's top chefs. In September, he opened his Somerville restaurant Kirkland Tap & Trotter after months of feverish anticipation. Clearly we're still sweating him. 

  • Credit: Heimo Schmidt

    San Francisco/Bay Area: Bruce Hill

    The chef and man behind such restaurants as Bix and Zero Zero has been busily reinventing a classic San Francisco restaurant. Formerly known as Fog City Diner, it's now called Fog City under Hill and has been transformed into a sleek new space with sophisticated food. Hill is also something of a food scientist; his patented burger press is the secret weapon of chefs everywhere.

  • Washington, DC/Baltimore: Travis Croxton

    Travis Croxton and his cousin, Ryan Croxton, resurrected their grandfather’s dormant oyster business nearly 10 years ago with an eye toward aquaculture and sustainability, revolutionizing Chesapeake Bay oyster production with their concept of “merroir” (think terroir for the water). They began by knocking on kitchen doors till they got the attention of Equinox’s Todd Gray - Rappahannock River Oysters’ first client - and now their oysters are seemingly everywhere. They smartly opened Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Union Market (and two other non-local spots) to much acclaim, and now Travis is branching out by partnering with cocktail wunderkind Derek Brown on opening oyster bar Eat the Rich and the soon-to-open Southern Efficiency right next door. In his case, the smell of success smells a lot like a freshly shucked oyster.

  • NYC: Ignacio Mattos and Thomas Carter

    It’s a dream duo over at one of the year’s most talked-about openings: Mattos is one of the most fiery, creative chefs to hit the New York food scene, and Carter, who previously ran the beverage program over at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, is one of the country’s most respected sommeliers. Together with partner Mark Connell, who owns Botanica downstairs, they managed to flawlessly pull off an anticipated opening with practically unanimous praise. With a snack-centric menu and 200 wine picks (and that doesn’t even include the cocktails), they’ve made Estela one of the most fun go-to restaurants in the city in a matter of months.

  • Austin: Philip Speer

    Chefs Tyson Cole and Paul Qui might have made Uchi and Uchiko famous, but the unsung hero is Speer, the pastry chef and director of operations. Speer works around the clock with both front of house and back of house, tasting dishes, creating new dishes, chatting with staff, putting on events, checking on Uchi Houston, opening Uchi Houston and more. But you probably know him best by his sweets, like the fried milk dessert at Uchiko or the peanut butter semifreddo at Uchi. Speer leans toward the savory and the experimental, like mixing chocolate and kale or whipping up an all-olive dessert. In Cole’s words, “Philip should win every award. He’s amazing.”

  • Chicago: Jason Vincent

    It has been quite a year for the Nightwood chef. Hot off his Cochon 555 national win in 2012, he was named a Food & Wine’s Best New Chef. Fame aside, in his kitchen, the chef keeps it simple by focusing on local ingredients, simple fare and precise techniques. His ever-changing brunch and dinner menus, written by hand, keep diners flocking to his quintessential Chicago restaurant.

  • Houston: Michael Fulmer & J.C. Reid

    Noticed a growing fervor of barbecue enthusiasts in Houston? A town once thought barren in the ways of low-and-slow-smoked meat has now been elevated thanks to the passionate quest of two men that quite literally put Houston barbecue on the map. Michael Fulme - full-time front of house at Triniti, and J.C. Reid, an independent IT consultant as well as a freelance food and travel writer, have been searching out great Texas barbecue for years and realized that Houston's local scene deserved some love. Thanks to these two brave souls who took a leap of smoky faith, the Houston Barbecue Festival was born and is now entering its second year.

  • Dallas: Chef Matt McCallister

    When you think of all that's now, new and next in Dallas cuisine, Matt McCallister's name no doubt comes to mind. The young chef honed his chops under culinary icon Stephan Pyles and did a stint circling the country and guest-cheffing in some of the top kitchens around, including those of Daniel Boulud and Grant Achatz. The menu at his farm-to-fork mecca, FT33, exhibits his playfulness with über-seasonal ingredients and his flair for the unpredictable. And in addition to the accolades he's garnered for the Design District fine-dining establishment, he and his wife founded the city's premiere foodie-meets-purveyor event, Chefs for Farmers, about to kick off its annual wine-and-eats extravaganza on November 3. Not bad for a chef who opted to forgo formal training.

  • Seattle: Renee Erickson

    Über-busy Renee Erickson launched Boat Street Café more than a dozen years ago and followed up with a steady stream of hits including a pickle company her mother helps run, the red haute Walrus and Carpenter oyster bar, the seafood-centric Whale Wins and a fancy food truck named Narwahl. Erickson is in Paris right now, doing research for her first cookbook. She and her business partners, Chad Dale and Jeremy Price, also recently opened Barnacle Bar in a snug space next to the always-packed Walrus.