Feature

Are These America's Next Restaurant Moguls?

By Zagat Staff  |  December 10, 2014

Whether you're a fan of Mario Batali's brawny Italian food or Bobby Flay's spicy New American cuisine, there's plenty of hype surrounding the expansion plans of America's big-time restaurant moguls. But what about the next generation of ambitious, empire-building chefs and restaurateurs? Who will be the next Danny Meyer or Roy Choi?
To find out, we tapped into our local Zagat experts around the country and found 11 compelling chefs and restaurateurs with all kinds of exciting expansion plans. There's the Chicago restaurant group with a massive steakhouse in the works and a Nashville one that is bringing the coolest Japanese food trends to the Southern city. Read on for our picks of American's next big restaurant moguls.

 

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  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Philadelphia: COOKNSOLO 

    It hasn’t even been 10 years since Michael Solomonov was first hired as chef at Marigold Kitchen, letting owner Steven Cook step out from behind the line and take on a more operations-focused role. Over the past decade, the pair of restaurateurs has come a long, long way. As CookNSolo, their contrasting personalities — playfully gregarious on one hand and slyly charming on the other — and their shared smarts have paved the way for a series of innovative ventures, and the future looks to hold much more.

    Known For: Trying to describe the CookNSolo family as an overall entity is nearly impossible, since the cuisines and decor at their restaurants range from exotic to comfortable, but the disparate venues all share an atmosphere infused with humility and respect — for co-workers, employees, ingredients and customers.

    Signature Dishes: Hummus (get the ethereal whipped chickpeas at either Zahav or Dizengoff); donuts and fried chicken (both at Federal Donuts); smoked brisket (at Percy Street Barbecue, which they own with chef-partner Erin O’Shea).

    The Portfolio: Cook and Solomonov’s first official project together was Xochitl, a Mexican spot they sold soon after. Next came Zahav, the modern Israeli that has become one of Philadelphia’s flagship jewels since its 2008 launch. Two years later, they brought Texas BBQ to the city with Percy Street Barbecue. In 2012, they partnered with Tom Henneman, Bobby Logue (both of Bodhi Coffee) and Felicia D’Ambrosio to open the first Federal Donuts, a fun, counter-service juggernaut that has since grown to four stand-alone locations plus a sports stadium concession stand. This year brought the launch of side-by-side venues Dizengoff (a casual hummusiya) and Abe Fisher, an elegant homage to Jewish foods from all over the world.

    What’s Next: Additional outposts of Federal Donuts have long been rumored (though they’re likely to pop up in Washington, DC, or other cities outside of Philly), but the next official project from the CookNSolo team is a philanthropic one. Funded partly by a successful Kickstarter campaign, Rooster Soup Co. will make use of previously discarded Federal Donuts chicken parts as the basis for a menu of unique soups. Once up and running, the cafe will donate net profits to  the Broad Street Hospitality Collaborative, who provide meals, essential services and community to the most vulnerable Philadelphians. --Danya Henninger

  • Credit: Vanessa Escobedo Barba

    Austin: ELM Restaurant Group

    Headed up by chef and Texas native Andrew Curren (above), the ELM Restaurant Group has made a career of elevating comfort food with local ingredients, garnering national attention (Food & Wine, Top Chef) for his pleasant attitude and business acumen.

    Known For: Curren not only enhanced locally focused comfort food in Austin but also introduced Central Texas to high-quality bread through his restaurant and bakery, Easy Tiger. His casual restaurants embody the design-focused aesthetic of a town as hip as Austin.

    Signature Dishes: Impeccable baguettes from Easy Tiger, chicken and waffles with brown-sugar butter at 24 Diner and cassoulet with duck confit and foie sausage at Arro.

    The Portfolio: Curren started off with the always-open 24 Diner before branching out to Easy Tiger, where you’ll find craft beer and sausage sandwiches as well as the best bread in town (many restaurants carry the bread, as does Whole Foods). He then launched modern French restaurant and neighborhood spot Arro on West Sixth Street.

    What’s Next: Curren is hard at work on Italic, a modern Italian restaurant that will open in the historic Starr building in Downtown Austin in early 2015. Meanwhile, Easy Tiger will expand to a second location with a full bakery in late 2015 and will open a casual American bar and restaurant, Irene's, in central Austin next spring. --Megan Giller

  • Credit: Gabi Porter

    NYC: Major Food Group

    Mario Carbone (above right) and Rich Torrisi (above left) are two fine-dining graduates who started with a tiny, affordable Little Italy spot that upgraded the red-sauce Italian fare of their childhood with primo technique and ingredients, and, together with their business partner, Jeff Zalaznick (center), now they have an empire that includes a spot in Hong Kong and a Yankee Stadium stall hawking meatball subs.

    Known For: Bringing wit, theatricality and high-roller prices to Italian-American food.

    Signature Dishes: Any of the parm sandwiches at Parm; the housemade mozzarella at the Torrisi Italian Specialties; the spicy rigatonivodka at Carbone.

    The Portfolio: The original Torrisi Italian Specialities, which will close at the end of 2014; next door to Parm, which turns out idealized versions of quick-serve meatball/chicken/eggplant parm sandwiches, also has an outpost at Yankee Stadium and on the Upper West Side; the duo’s Carbone in the Village takes their romantic version of midcentury red-sauce dining to near-ridiculous heights; they recently opened a branch in Hong Kong; ZZ’s Clam Bar is a tiny den for precious raw seafood constructions and over-the-top cocktails; the latest member of the Major Food Group is Dirty French, a clubby, North African-tinged French restaurant.

    What's Next: More Parms: A branch opens on the Upper West Side sometime this month, and branches are expected at Brookfield Place in the FiDi and on Flatbush Avenue near the Barclays Center next year. The original Torrisi Italian Specialties space will become a new high-end restaurant next year and the trio is also opening a new seafood-centric Italian spot under the High Line, sometime in 2015. There are also rumors that Major Food will be teaming up with baker Melissa Weller on a project soon --Michael Endelman

  • NYC: Noah and Rae Bernamoff

    Inspired by the Jewish food he grew up eating in Montreal, Noah (above) hit pause on law school to give cooking a go. He smoked meats out of his apartment at first, then turned his hobby into a full-fledged Brooklyn restaurant, which he opened with wife Rae and partner Max Levine in 2010.

    Known For: The Boerum Hill eatery quickly became a hit for its modern take on Jewish deli classics and creative dinners, like a recent Middle Eastern tasting menu at the Bond St. location and annual Chinese Christmas feast.

    Signature Dishes: Though diners flock to Mile End for its smoked meat on rye and to Black Seed (a collaboration with the Smile's Matt Kliegman) for chewy, wood-fired bagels and creative schmears (tobiko caviar, horseradish cream cheese), the non-sandwich dishes are just as good, like the soul-soothing matzo ball soup or brisket-topped poutine.

    The Portfolio: After rolling out the first Mile End Deli in a converted garage in Boerum Hill, the Bernamoffs set up a Manhattan offshoot in NoHo. They then teamed up with Matt Kliegman (The Smile) to launch outposts of Black Seed Bagels in Nolita and at the fancy Battery Park City food court, Hudson Eats.

    What’s Next: The team recently started selling bagels to wholesale accounts, including the Whole Foods in Brooklyn; while the team has been tight-lipped about expansion plans, there are whispers that they may take Black Seed to Philly — Bernamoff hosted a pop-up brunch at American Sardine Bar earlier this year.
    --Patty Lee

  • Credit: Kristin Teig

    Boston Area: Alpine Restaurant Group

    With his Alpine Restaurant Group, Joe Cassinelli has helped establish Somerville’s Davis Square as a dining destination. A longtime resident of the area, he’s invested in his neighborhood by luring food lovers from around the city to a growing fleet of eateries.

    Known For: Each of Cassinelli’s restaurants offers a totally different cuisine and ambiance — which also happens to be a smart way to avoid competing with yourself. He finds other ways to add distinction. When Cassinelli’s Italian restaurant, Posto, opened in 2010, it served New England’s first certified (by VPN Americas, which governs such things) Neapolitan pizza. His latest opening, Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar (above), is inside a renovated and reimagined 73-year-old Davis Square diner car that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Signature Dishes: The wood-fired pizzas and whole roasted pig dinners at Posto; tortas, tacos and the Street Cart Chicken at The Painted Burro, Cassinelli’s playful Mexican street-food concept.

    The Portfolio: Cassinelli’s Alpine Restaurant Group Davis Square takeover kicked off with the Italian cuisine of Posto in 2010. The Painted Burro, a funky Mexican restaurant, opened in 2012. In September, Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar joined the mix, serving barbecue and whimsical, globally inspired takes on Southern comfort food. In October, Posto Mobile hit the road, bringing some of the restaurant favorites to a food-truck format.

    What’s Next: The restaurateur is ready to reach beyond Somerville. In 2015 Cassinelli will open a second Posto location in the suburb of Waltham. Hopefully we’ll also see an update on long-held buzz that The Painted Burro will be spinning off a second location too. --Scott Kearnan

  • Nashville: Seed Hospitality

    CEO Patrick Burke and culinary director Jason McConnell (above) are the joint force behind Seed Hospitality, a group with three successful concept launches in Nashville in the past six years. 

    Known For:  From sushi to ramen to their latest project — a celebration of the urban youth culture of Tokyo, featuring burgers and sushi (but no sushi-burgers!) — Seed Hospitality shares a love for contemporary Japanese culture and cuisine with a growing Southern metropolis.

    Signature Dishes: Traditional, casual Japanese fare like tonkotsu ramen, yakitori and karaage (Japanese fried chicken) are center stage at Two Ten Jack. Lucky Belly features eight sushi rolls, including a few Zumi best-sellers, and eight gourmet hamburgers (the house special, the “LB,” features house-cured pork belly, Tennessee white cheddar, tomato jam and grainy mustard-mayo).

    The Portfolio: Burke and McConnell emerged on Nashville’s dining scene in 2009 with Zumi, a casual sushi spot in Hillsboro Village. In January 2014, they made waves by introducing the izakaya to Nashville with Two Ten Jack (above), where painstakingly prepared ramen and traditional izakaya snacks are featured alongside Nashville’s largest selection of Japanese whiskeys, sochu and sake. Before year’s end they unveiled a third Asian-inspired concept — and bid farewell to their first. Lucky Belly, a casual burgers-meet-sushi spot, has taken over Zumi’s old digs. In both menu and decor it nods playfully to the Japanese youth zeal for all things Americana.

    What’s Next: With Two Ten Jack firmly established as a Nashville hot spot, Seed is taking the concept to Chattanooga, with a second location slated to open in early 2015.
    --Susannah Felts

  • Credit: Richie Arpino

    Atlanta: Ford Fry

    If you spot a cheery guy wearing a chef's coat, ball cap, shorts and sandals tuck into or out of a kitchen at one of Atlanta's hottest spots, chances are you just glimpsed Ford Fry. The chef-owner of six restaurants and (quickly!) counting, Fry's Rocket Farm Restaurants is the city's most prominent post-recession empire builder by far.

    Known For:  Welcoming hospitality, slick but not overly ostentatious spaces, and creative, compelling and uncomplicated food with a local focus characterize Fry's restaurants.

    Signature Dishes: Look to his first spot, JCT. Kitchen & Bar, and its terrific fried chicken or iconic "angry mussels" for an idea of the type of thoughtful yet approachable dishes Fry's places turn out, or to the Tex-Mex comfort foods at the newly opened The El Felix that evoke Fry's childhood in Texas. And the man does seem to love a good deviled egg . . .

    The Portfolio: The aforementioned JCT. Kitchen & Bar is Fry's original Atlanta spot, which he opened in early 2007 after years as a corporate chef. JCT's on the Westside, and was one of the now-hot neighborhood's pioneering spots. Fry's second restaurant was Decatur's No. 246, an Italian-inspired eatery that served as a springboard for many of his group's staff. Back on the Westside, the seafood-centric The Optimist came next in 2012. The past two years have seen Fry's Rocket Farm group branch further northward, with the woodfire-grill-focused King + Duke and the glamorous coastal Mediterannean spot St. Cecilia both open in Buckhead. The El Felix, Fry's most recent spot, is his first outside the Perimeter — it opened this past fall in Alpharetta's open-air mall Avalon.

    What’s Next: 2015 should see Superica, a Tex-Mex spot similar to The El Felix, open as a stand-alone restaurant connected to the Krog Street Market food hall. Also in the cards is what's been described as a sister restaurant to The Optimist to open in Inman Park's Inman Quarter development. Fry also plans to extend out of Georgia for the first time with a restaurant in Houston, Texas, where he's originally from. --Christopher Hassiotis

  • Credit: Emily Hart Roth

    Los Angeles: Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb

    Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb were introduced by their moms, when Loeb needed a pastry chef at Rustic Canyon, and the couple have since built one of the tastiest empires on the Westside of LA.

    Known For: Natives to Santa Monica, every one of their spots has that classic laid-back feel with a chic edge.  Whether it’s the refined cuisine, great cocktails and robust wine list at Rustic Canyon, the pastries and breads at Huckleberry, the wood-fired pizzas at Milo + Olive, or the handmade ice creams at Sweet Rose, their focus is always on locally sourced ingredients and hyper-seasonality.

    Signature Dishes: Jeremy Fox’s menu changes frequently at Rustic Canyon, but his fabulous rendition of pozole, made with clams, fat Rancho Gordo hominy and a bright green chile broth, remains. At Huckleberry, the ultra-tempting donuts, salted caramel bars and fruit pies are always great; the ice cream sandwiches at Sweet Rose are a must; at Milo + Olive, it’s impossible to choose between classic dishes like spaghetti and meatballs or the creative pizzas topped with potatoes and rosemary cream or butternut squash and roasted cippolini onions.

    The Portfolio: The vegetable-leaning Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen, helmed by star chef Jeremy Fox; the three-meals-a-day Huckleberry Bakery; the Italian-leaning Milo + Olive; and three branches of their ice cream parlor, Sweet Rose Creamery

    What's Next: Adding to their budding empire, Nathan and Loeb will open two new projects in a restored Santa Monica art deco building with fellow culinary power couples. The first, Cassia, a Southeast Asian brasserie, will debut in spring 2015 with chef Bryant Ng and his wife Kim overseeing culinary operations. For the menu, Bryant will focus on housemade charcuterie, chilled seafood, wood-grilled meats and vegetables, noodles and rice with Cal-Asian flair. Adjacent to Cassia will be Esters, a wine bar and retail shop, debuting in mid-2015. Helmed by Rustic Canyon’s current manager and former wine director Kathryn Coker and her husband Tug, there will be a small snackable menu from chef Jeremy Fox for dining in or taking out, with an extensive wine list by the glass and bottle. Additionally, Nathan and Loeb are eyeing more LA neighborhoods for Sweet Rose Creameries. --Lesley Balla

  • Chicago: B. Hospitality Co.

    Founders John Ross, Phillip Walters (the pair above), David Johnston and Chris Pandel maintain the difficult balance of trendy and timeless with a growing collection of restaurants under B. Hospitality Co.

    Known For: It all stared with The Bristol in 2008, which was named a Best New Restaurant by GQ and Esquire. This restaurant captured the neighborhood’s attention while also earning national acclaim for its comfortable atmosphere, approachable menu of American classics and superior wine list. Four years later, the team joined forces with Boka Restaurant Group to open Balena, a rustic Italian restaurant that was named one of Bon Appetit’s Top 50 New Restaurants in 2012.

    Signature Dishes: Keeping with the theme of timeless classics, one of The Bristol’s most famous dishes is its Miller's Farm roasted half chicken with dill spaetzle and crunchy salad. Balena gained early praise for its tagliolini nero with crab sea urchin and chile flakes, which has remained on the menu.

    The Portfolio: For now, there's Bristol in Bucktown and Balena in Lincoln Park.

    What’s Next: One of 2015’s earliest and most anticipated openings is Formento’s, an old-school Italian restaurant on Chicago’s premier restaurant strip, Randolph Street. It will have an adjoining sandwich shop called Nonna’s that will also sell Formento's branded wines, dressings, red sauce and pastas. Next summer, the group will open another West Loop restaurant, Armour & Swift, an 8,000-sq.ft. steakhouse they are also opening with Boka. --Sarah Freeman

  • Denver: Troy Guard

    Born in Hawaii, and a kitchen disciple of Roy Yamaguchi, Troy Guard's culinary career has taken him all over the world, including San Diego, Hong Kong, New York and, eventually, Denver, where he now presides over seven restaurants (an eighth is on the horizon). The trailblazing chef and restaurateur shows no signs of slowing down, having opened two back-to-back restaurants in 2014 alone.

    Known For: Guard isn’t tied to any one cuisine: from the playful Asian-inspired dishes at TAG, his flagship restaurant in Larimer Square, to the wildly innovative tacos he turns out at Los Chingones, a highly festive Mexican joint in RiNo, his food zigzags across the globe.

    Signature Dishes: At TAG, diners go grabby for Guard’s charred ahi tacos with guacamole and mango salsa, as well as his unassailable miso black cod.  The fried pickles at TAG Burger Bar have legions of followers, and at Guard and Grace, his steakhouse and seafood shrine, the oak-grilled prime rib and bone-in strip and rib-eye are highlights.

    The Portfolio: Guard branched out on his own in 2009, when he opened TAG on Larimer Square. He has since added TAG Burger Bar, Sunnyside Burger Bar, Bubu, Los Chingones, Sugarmill and Guard and Grace to his repertoire.

    What’s Next: Early next year, Guard will unleash a second outpost of Bubu in Lowry's Hangar 2 "dining district.” Significantly larger in size than its Larimer Square counterpart, the 1,800-sq.-ft., 50-seat restaurant, will offer an expanded menu that includes hot noodle bowls, dumplings, steamed buns, sushi and family-style teriyaki-roasted chicken with rice, salad, sauces and side dishes. --Lori Midson

  • New Orleans: Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal 

    New Orleans natives Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal (above) have quietly refined the city's eating and drinking habits with daring expertise, unassuming stealth and flawless taste.

    Known For: The pair's M.O. entails a relentless devotion to quality ingredients, employing a fanatical, highly experienced staff to create their cocktail and food programs and taking risks with location choice that have so far paid off very handsomely.

    Signature Dishes: Even when compared to the definitive list of classic and inventive craft cocktails being served across the three establishments, the Cure (above) family's food menus more than stand up. The tapas-style plates at Cure itself come out with assured simplicity, from the puffed pork skins to the artisanal cheese plates and cured meats. Cane and Table is justly praised for some outstanding "rustic-colonial" dishes, from goat curry to cauliflower paella. The Ropa Vieja and Crispy Rum Ribs are firm favorites.

    The Portfolio: Cure — now a nationally renowned cocktail bar — opened in 2009 under Bodenheimer (Estopinal later joined as a partner), kick-starting the revival of an entire neighborhood on Freret Street. In 2012, they opened the critically lauded bar Bellocq on Lee Circle in the environs of the Hotel Modern. 2013 saw "proto-tiki" bar Cane and Table emerge on Decatur Street under the assured stewardship of Nick Dietrich.

    What's Next: Bodenheimer and Estopinal seem to be hitting their stride, and the culinary success of Cane and Table has edged them toward a more restaurant-oriented expansion. They have stated they want to leave a legacy in New Orleans, so the city can expect a food-focussed expansion with innovative cocktail bar/restaurant hybrids coming soon. --Paul Oswell