Restaurant innovation is everywhere: from forward-thinking menus in Austin to technological advances in Boston. Here's a look at 25 restaurants and bars who are pushing the envelope with their cuisine, concept, technology or service policies. Keep this list in your back pocket when you're looking for a unique dining experience in 2014.
San Francisco: TBD
Patrons at this two-month-old restaurant, which is sister to AQ, might be a bit confused when first looking at the menu, which bears triangles where the prices should be. In order to simplify the constantly changing menu, items are priced at one triangle ($6), two triangles ($12), three triangles ($18) and four triangles ($24).
Know before you go: It's easy to get carried away here when you're not looking directly at numbers, so to avoid overspending, have an idea of your budget.
NYC: Sushi Yasuda
This high-end Midtown Japanese has been open for years, but they're keeping their business model as fresh as their fish by leading the charge to do away with tipping. Instead, Yasuda pays its employees a living wage that's already included in the price of the food - and won't accept tips from customers. This is the custom in Japan, and if it catches on here, it may just change how we all pay for dinner.
At his North End Peruvian-Italian, chef Jose Duarte is known to garnish many plates with something rather unique: QR codes. You know, those funky images that can be scanned with a smartphone to bring you to a certain website. Duarte's culinary versions are drawn with squid ink, and the accompanying surprise site varies; codes let diners trace the sourcing of the dish's ingredients, try their hand at its recipe, or watch YouTube videos that educate on issues of sustainability or the fascinating background of, say, the tasty fish they just devoured.
What to order: Opt for the tasty white meat of the jungle fish Amazone Paiche. Preparation changes daily for this coveted plate of South America's largest freshwater fish.
It's difficult to execute a seamless multicourse meal; it is even more difficult when you are working with dietary restrictions. Chef Noah Sandoval takes on - and dominates - gluten-free food. Both his five- and 10-course tasting menus showcase precise techniques and local ingredients such as hydroponically grown greens.
Wheat’s end: Craving more gluten-free goodness? The restaurant transforms into a cafe during the day with coffee from Bridgeport Coffee, Co. and small-batch gluten-free breads, cookies and pastries.
Washington, DC: Barmini
Barmini may share an address with its big brother, Minibar, but it has an identity all its own. The "foieffle" - a foie gras waffle - has become legendary, and cocktails run the gamut from a perfectly crafted Negroni to a mad-scientist concoction that smokes as it's poured from a beaker. And while the experience barely satisfies the urge to try Minibar, it’s a heck of a lot easier to land a table while you wait to win the reservation lottery - and perhaps the actual lottery.
There are plenty of vegetarian options in town, but none quite like the ones at Oxheart. This nationally acclaimed seasonal-tasting-menu-only restaurant is elevating humble ingredients like radishes, okra, turnips and bok choy to levels unseen, and Houston is all the better for it.
Other options: There are three tastings to choose from nightly. If you want to experience their unique take on vegetables but also enjoy meat, go all out and try the full tasting menu for $79.
1302 Nance St.; 832-830-8592
Dallas: Kitchen LTO
Presently the home of chef Norman Grimm until February 1, Kitchen LTO is meant to provide an ever-changing slate of dining experiences every four months. And it’s not just the cuisine and chef that swap out in that time, but even an entirely new interior design. We can’t wait to see what’s next!
NYC: City Grit
Sarah Simmons' SoHo culinary salon is an open secret in the food community, but the public at large could still use a little prodding to stop by. John Besh recently did. And so did Ed Lee. Set in what was once the cafeteria of a Catholic school, Grit plays host to several meals each week, as Simmons invites chefs from around the country to set up shop in the kitchen and prepare multicourse dinners. For the price of a ticket (usually in the $50 to $85 range) diners can feast on a one-of-a-kind meal and make new friends at the communal tables while doing so. See the upcoming schedule here.
We’re not referring to the complete change of menu/theme/concept every four months when we call Grant Achatz’s world-renowned restaurant an innovator. We’re talking about the ticketing system that leads wannabe diners to an online waiting room, where a game of luck and good timing must be played to snag a table months in advance. Since launching the system, it has been adopted by Alinea and The Aviary as well as other fine-dining establishments.
Beat the system: If you have the luxury of flexibility, same-night tables are the way to go. These tables are released each day via Facebook and Twitter and are rewarded to the first to respond via e-mail.
In the final few years of his 20-year term, Mayor Menino made much ado about redefining the Seaport as Boston's Innovation District. With its October opening, the city's 12,000-sq.-ft. District Hall indeed made entrepreneurial history; the building bills itself as "the world's first freestanding public innovation center": it's a civic building covered in IdeaPaint writing surfaces that offers flexible work, meeting and hackathon space. The only permanent residents are Brew coffeehouse and Gather, a lunch-through-late-night restaurant from the same team behind spots like City Table and Anthem. Naturally, the sparkling space is already a dining and drink spot from the city's start-up community.
What to order: The menu culls from a variety of cuisines. We recommend the Tom Yam Kung (a Korean seafood stew) and pizzas - particularly the braised oxtail pie topped with truffled mashed potato and smoked Gouda.
Los Angeles: Chocovivo
Patricia Tsai didn’t just open a chocolate shop. Her bean-to-bar philosophy starts with cocoa nibs sourced from a grower in Tabasco, Mexico, where they’re roasted and sent to her directly. In the shop, the staff grinds the nibs into a paste, similar to the way the Mayans and Aztecs did it more than 2,000 years ago. There are no fillers, additives or powders involved; no over-processing or tempering. She adds natural spices, nuts and dried fruits like blood orange and cherries, and there you have it: simple, delicious, pure dark chocolate in flavors like almond and sea salt, black sesame and goji berry, cherry and black peppercorn, coffee and vanilla bean, and blood orange and tonka bean.
Chocoholics unite: The chocolate-tasting bar at the Culver City shop and factory is unique in that you get a little sampler of the different chocolates, like you would wines. You can also go die-hard and try the 100% pure cacao with filtered water. Anyone who finishes it will be called a Mayan Warrior and probably feel like building a few pyramids.
Eating globally, sourcing locally has been chef Maria Hines' mantra since she began cooking. She and her staff at the Sicilian-style Agrodolce take that mission to a new level by milling grains for flour used to make the restaurant's pasta. The latest version features emmer from Bluebird Farms in Eastern Washington. The ancient grain has a slightly nutty flavor that gives the rigatoni as much character as Tony Soprano, especially when it's tossed in the warming sugo made with Skagit River Ranch beef, making it a must-order dish for winter.
Miami: Drogerie Miami
Albert Trummer, creator of New York City's first medicinal cocktail bar, provides unique science-inspired concoctions in South Beach's Rubell Hotel. The menu is categorized into different health-inspired categories like health and beauty, pain killers and aphrodisiacs. For example, the Hemingway Special mixed with Elixir #5 and Santa Teresa Dark Rum apparently works wonders for those looking for a high-powered stimulant jolt.
Houston: Cloud 10 Creamery
Just the ice cream shop itself is innovative, with housemade flavors like almond and pandan, milk chocolate and black sesame, and lime and Ceylon cinnamon. But Cloud 10 takes it a step further (just as the name suggests) by offering full tasting menus of avant-garde dessert dishes.
Call ahead: Tastings can be scheduled for groups of two to eight during regular business hours, but must be reserved at least seven days in advance.
5216 Morningside Dr.; 713-434-6129
San Francisco: Atelier Crenn
Chef Dominique Crenn recognizes that great food is like great poetry and merges the two on her visually stunning plates. Dish names are abstract, like "The half moon, silky and smoky" and "Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories." This leads to an extreme element of surprise, as a diner never knows what will arrive at the table next.
Know before you go: Guests have a choice of two different tasting menus. There is a five-course tasting for $95 ($85 beverage pairings) and a grand tasting for $180 ($150 pairings).
Washington, DC: BlackSalt
In an effort to increase traceability, BlackSalt partnered with Congressional Seafood Co. earlier this year to make it possible for customers to simply scan the QR-code sticker pasted on the glass in front of each fish to find information about the species, harvest location - even fisherman biographies. The restaurant group plans to expand the program to include meat, dairy and produce down the line.
Philadelphia: Tria Taproom
There are no bottles available at this new Rittenhouse sibling to the popular Tria Cafes, but taking inventory of the 40 taps has never been easier. Access the digital beverage menu by scanning a QR code with your phone (or using a provided iPad), and see exactly what beer and wines are on draft. You can also check how much or little of the keg is left, so you’ll know when that rare Geuze you’ve been loving is about to kick.
Outside the booze: A few of the 40 taps don’t pour alcohol at all: they’re stocked with Sprecher gourmet sodas. Enjoy them with a wood-grilled flatbread or after your meal - a fountain root beer or creamsicle float makes a unique and tasty dessert.
Chef Todd Duplechan’s South First Street restaurant is the first place in town to solely offer a fixed-price, three-course menu. It's quite a steal for $38, but the innovation continues with the food itself. The chef takes note of “global connections” to create fusion food from hot-weather climates that spans Southeast Asia, the Southern U.S., France, Italy and more. That means plenty of fish cakes, sour sausage and more, all with a twist. Duplechan told us that the original concept was to offer a set menu every day, with no choices, but that his wife, co-owner and pastry chef Jessica Maher, talked him out of it. For that original experience, try the Sunday four-course set-menu dinner.
How to order: Pick three courses from any of the four different categories: field, sea, land and dream (aka sweets). If it's too hard to narrow down all of those delicious-sounding options, you can order extra courses for $10 each.
Miami: Dinner Lab
The latest to hit the underground dining scene, this members-only supper club hosts hot new chefs inside unique undisclosed dining destinations. While this might seem like an ultra-elite foodie club, you don't have to worry too much about getting accepted. CEO of Dinner Lab Brian Bordainick told us anyone is allowed, they just need to pay the membership fee and be a fearless eater.
Dallas: True Food Kitchen
The new Park Cities healthy-food outpost eschews those menacing square buzzers used by mega-restaurant chains in favor of registering your cell phone number and alerting you to your waiting table with a text or call.
It’s not just the use of nifty tools like the insta-freeze “anti-griddle” that makes the food unique at this new incarnation of 1523 Walnut Street. Chef Justin Bogle’s food philosophy is to stay on the cutting edge - as hinted in the name of the restaurant - while bringing out the natural flavors of his ingredients. The result is dishes that are unique while also being deeply satisfying.
What to drink: While the house wine collection is impressive and growing by the day, give your meal added novelty by asking about a cocktail pairing. Bar manager Bradford Lawrence is channeling the same philosophy into interesting and tasty mixed drinks.
Austin: Restaurant Jezebel
There’s no menu at this West Sixth Street fine-dining establishment. Rather, your waiter will ask you what foods you like and don’t like, what you’re in the mood for, and whether you have any food allergies or sensitivities. After he conveys this information to the kitchen, chef and owner Parind Vora will whip up a unique meal, with each course conceptualized not from a recipe or menu but out of his whimsy, using ingredients like kangaroo, foie gras, yerba mate tea, spirulina and more. It makes for an unforgettable (if pricey) evening.
No jacket, no service: Vora takes pride in the old-world experience, which includes a dress code (jacket required) for the gentlemen.
800 W. Sixth St., 512-436-9643
When the creators of Westward were dreaming up this playful eatery on the shores of Lake Union, they kept a particular type of customer in mind. There's a 60-ft. dock to accommodate boaters, and in this spacious place, a store stocked with carefully curated sundries meant to make a trip on the water a lot more fun. That includes a selection of wine, picnic essentials and refillable growlers. It's also a breeze to pick up a dozen or two oysters to-go from the Little Gull raw bar or from the Mediterranean-inspired Westward menu. Casting off!
Los Angeles: N/Naka
Chef Niki Nakayama is one of the only female sushi chefs in Los Angeles, but her hidden Palms restaurant is so much more than sushi. Celebrating the formal, multicourse style of dining called kaiseki, N/Naka is one of the most unique experiences in town. Nakayama’s presentation of seafood, meats and seasonal ingredients, most plucked from her own organic garden, is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition with enough California flair (she’s a native Angeleno) that makes it truly special and innovative.
Sip tip: While the price tag for the 13-course dinner hovers around $165, it’s worth getting the extra wine pairings for $85 for a taste tour through sake and interesting European and Californian wine pairings.
This Glenwood Park restaurant has been the talk of Atlanta's culinary scene over the past year, and love it, hate it, like it or dislike it, it's certainly an experience to try. The churrascaria/dim-sum-style service by the very people who prepare the food eliminates a level of remove between diner and chef, and executive chef and Top Chef fan-favorite Kevin Gillespie savors his interactions with his guests. The system's not perfect and the communal seating's not for everyone, but diners who toss out expectations and go in with an open mind seem satisfied.
Where to sit: Reservations can be tough at Gunshow. Ask the host if the barlike Kitchen Counter, an area reserved for walk-ins and solo diners, is available.