The Hottest Restaurant Secrets in 15 American Cities

Insider tips on scoring hot tables plus hidden dishes
May 25, 2016
by Emily Siegel

The restaurant world loves its secrets: Whether it's a hidden restaurant (above), an off-menu dish or a trick on scoring an impossible reservation, it helps to know the right people (i.e. us) when navigating any big city restaurant scene. Here are some of the hottest hush-hush tips from 15 major restaurant towns around the country.

Atlanta: Off-Menu Prime Rib Dinner at King + Duke

It's not listed on the menu at this Buckhead eatery, but the prime rib dinner is an off-menu treat that's usually (but not always!) available. Executive chef EJ Hodginkson cures the meat overnight and cold smokes it for six hours before roasting. Coming in at $55 per person, it's best ordered quickly, as portions — generally 12–14-oz. — are limited every night. It comes with a whole Alaskan king crab claw grilled over King + Duke's open wood-burning hearth — plus crispy potatoes, horseradish crema, bordelaise and a Tabasco brown butter.

3060 Peachtree St NW; 404-477-3500

Austin: Franklin Barbecue without having to stand in line

Pass by Franklin Barbecue on any given morning and you're bound to see a sizable line stretching down the block. However, it's possible to get a taste without standing in line. Click the "pre-order" tab on Franklin's website to order whole briskets at any time. Available for easy pick-up from 9 AM–1 PM, they come fully cooked and just need to be reheated. Alternatively, limited slots on a hot meat pick-up calendar become available on the first Monday of the month at 9 AM. Order five pounds (or more) of hot sliced meat (of any kind) plus desserts and sides for pick-up. A non-refundable $50 deposit is required, and your food must be picked up between 10–10:30 AM.

900 E. 11th St.  (no phone)

Boston: Eastern Standard Sells Ice Cream Cups on Game Days

Peanuts and Cracker Jacks have nothing on the game day snack quietly being offered at Eastern Standard. Kenmore Square's stellar American brasserie has a sweet surprise for Red Sox fans: During home games, ask and ye shall receive off-menu ice cream cups inspired by those Hoodsie Cups you lapped up during childhood summers. The flavors rotate, but recent selections have included chocolate-cherry and peaches-and-cream. 

528 Commonwealth Ave.; 617-532-9100

Chicago: How to Get A Table at Duck Duck Goat

Everyone and their grandmother is clamoring for a table at Duck Duck Goat, Stephanie Izard’s new Chinese restaurant in Fulton Market. Despite the massive size of the restaurant, you’d have a better chance of winning the lotto than scoring a four-top here any time soon. They take reservations, but don’t expect a prime time slot for the next few months. Rather, try to sneak in earlier or later. Since Duck Duck Goat opens at 4:30 PM, it provides an extra little window to get in before the after-work hordes. Another alternative is to double up on dinner and make it a late night. After 10 PM, it’s much easier to get a walk-in seat at the restaurant. Some great nearby spots to pre-game include Formento’s, The Betty and Smack Shack. 

857 W. Fulton Market; 312-902-3825

Dallas: 44 Farms beef at CiboDivino

This Italian market and cafe at Sylvan Thirty is the exclusive retailer of 44 Farms beef, which appears on many of the best menus in town. You can take cuts home to cook yourself or even ask chef Ryan Olmos to grill your steak on-site for free.

1868 Sylvan Ave.; 214-653-2426

Denver: There's a Fire-Breathing Bartender at Green Russell

We can't make this stuff up. In the underground cocktail cave that is Frank Bonanno's Larimer Square speakeasy, a mixologist named Merlin Mitchell – Merlin! – breathes fire "both by request and randomly for fun," to quote Jacqueline Bonanno. Granted, he may not be at leisure to oblige to perform his magic trick every time he's asked, so we suggest you don't hound him with demands. After all, you probably wouldn't want to see him when he's angry. 

1422 Larimer St.; 303-893-6505

Houston: The mind-blowing tasting menu at Peska Seafood Culture

It can get confusing choosing from exotic seafood flown in from all over the world at this Uptown seafood emporium, not to mention very expensive. Reserve ahead for the Thursday night “Omarkase” tasting dinners (a play on the Japanese omakase and chef Omar Pereney’s name) and you’ll experience eight eye-popping courses paired with wine ($100 per guest). 

1700 Post Oak Blvd.; 713-961-9229

Los Angeles: Gettin' Puffy With It at Bar Amá

When Josef Centeno first opened his ode to Tex-Mex cuisine Downtown, naturally he had to have the San Antonio–style puffy tacos on the menu. But as he's fiddled with the offerings over the years, they disappeared. All is not lost. The puffed-up treats filled with beef picadillo, chicken, potato, chorizo or shrimp are available; you just have to ask for them. 

118 W. 4th St.; 213-687-7000

Miami: Otoro Tartare at NaiYaRa

You already know that the menu of this Sunset Harbour hot spot offers top-notch Thai and Japanese specialties. What the list doesn't include outright is the lavish otoro tartare, offered only when fresh blue fin tuna belly is available. Finely minced with two Japanese knives and pressed into a wooden box, the delicate fish is topped with caviar, edible gold flakes and shaved black truffles, and paired with rice crackers for some crunch.

1854 Bay Rd.; 786-275-6005

New York: Grilled Cheese and the Garden Dog at Shake Shack

Perhaps the most famous secret menu item in NYC is the grilled cheese at Shake Shack. Instead of bread, the chain uses griddled burger buns to melt slices of American cheese to gooey perfection. It's a classic. But aside from the grilled cheese, Shake Shack can also make a veggie version of its Shack-cago dog that features all the toppings minus the meat. They start with a potato roll and layer a bed of lettuce on top. Then onion, cucumber, pickles, tomatoes and sport peppers are added and garnished with double mustard, Rick's Picks Shack relish and celery salt. 

Multiple locations

Philly: Lunch at Vetri

A dinner res at Marc Vetri’s flagship (pictured at top) is one of the toughest (and priciest) gets in town. Earlier this month, however, the kitchen launched a more affordable, once a month lunch service. That means that on the first Friday of every month, you can get the full Vetri experience complete with two choices of antipasti, pasta, entree and dessert for $85 — a steal when compared to dinner’s $155 price tag.

1312 Spruce St.; 215-732-3478

San Diego: The Madison at The Crack Shack

This Little Italy walkup serves more than a few great chicken dishes, but if you’re looking for something simple in the breakfast realm, order The Madison ($6) — a riff on a familiar fast-food classic. Featuring a fried egg, smoked cheddar cheese and avocado, the ingredients get bookended with an English muffin.

2266 Kettner Blvd.; 619-795-3299

San Francisco: Chocolate/Mint at Rich Table

This bustling, cozy Hayes Valley Californian knows how to balance the best of both worlds: unfamiliar techniques and ingredients with familiar comfort roots. A perfect example is the secret dessert nodding to what seems like everyone's favorite cookie, the Girl Scouts' Thin Mint, boasting a salted chocolate sable cookie, iced milk and mint chocolate cream. Dare we say it's a significant improvement on the original that tastes much more vividly of dark chocolate and mint?

199 Gough St.; 415-355-9085

Seattle: Chicago Deep Dish at Windy City Pie

The biggest secret of Windy City Pie is its location. Owner Dave Lichterman started selling his pizzas to the public in the summer of 2015, though his shop runs out of an unmarked commercial kitchen in SoDo. You must visit the website and make an order (sometimes days in advance due to popularity) and you’ll get an e-mail with directions to the pickup spot, texting Lichterman when you arrive. The relative sketchiness of it all is well worth it, though, as the Chicago native spent 10 years perfecting his deep dish recipes. Repeat customers get first dibs on testing out new pies from the "pizza lab" portion of the menu. 

Washington, DC: Vergara Meatballs at Fiola

These off-menu meatballs migrated from the menu at Fabio Trabocchi’s more casual spot, Casa Luca. A half-dozen meatballs are served over tomato sauce with cacio cheese and a sunny-side egg ($9).

601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-628-2888