Empire Ranking: Weighing 10 Restaurant Power Groups

By Kelly Dobkin  |  February 4, 2014

With the 2014 Winter Olympics kicking off this Friday and award season upon us, we're feeling competitive. And with so many restaurant empires growing by the second (Daniel Boulud going to Boston, Shake Shack hitting Chicago), we thought we should take a minute to break down some of the biggest in the game. Here are the rules:

  1. The chef or company must be U.S.-based
  2. They must have at least 12 restaurants
  3. They must be in at least three cities
  4. Most of their restaurants must be Zagat-rated

We took the total number of restaurants per group and averaged their Zagat food scores to come up with the ranking below. Let the games begin.  

  • Lettuce Entertain You

    Head honcho: Richard Melman

    Main turf: Chicago, IL

    Restaurants: 99 restaurants

    Markets: Illinois/Chicago, Minneapolis, California, DC and Scottsdale, AZ

    Average food score: 21.9

    Profile: Operating close to 100 restaurants all across the country is nothing to sneeze at, and founder and CEO Richard Melman of the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You has over 60 partners helping him out, as well as his three kids. The group owns a wide range of restaurants from fine-dining concepts like L20 and Tru, to fast-casual chains like M Burger, Krispy Kreme and Big Bowl. For Melman, it all started with a single Chicago restaurant, a burger joint called RJ Grunt's, in 1971. Read up on the full family history here

    Upcoming: New French concept coming to Chicago's Paris Club, plus the new RPM Steak. Tucci Pronto will open February 14 in Minnetonka, MN, as well.

  • Union Square Hospitality Group

    Head honcho: Danny Meyer

    Main turf: NYC

    Restaurants: 51 total including all Shake Shacks, museum cafes and airport kiosks

    Average food score: 24.1

    Profile: The NYC-based dining magnate’s Union Square Hospitality Group has 10 restaurants in NYC alone and 51 Shake Shacks total throughout the U.S. and abroad. A St. Louis native, in 1985, the transplanted Meyer opened NYC's Union Square Cafe at the age of 27, which became an instant classic. The hit parade continued with the opening of Gramercy Tavern in '94 and later, Blue Smoke. The once NYC-only restaurant group is poised to give the world of gourmet fast food a run for the money as Meyer’s empire continues to expand by the second.

    Upcoming: Porchlight (NYC) and a new project in the King & Grove Hotel in Murray HillShake Shack will expand to Chicago, Austin and Atlanta this year as well.

  • Jean-Georges Vongerichten

    Primary turf: NYC

    Restaurants: 22

    Markets: NYC, Chicago, Las Vegas, the Bahamas, Paris, Shanghai, St. Barth's

    Average food score: 24.4

    Profile: The Alsace-born chef honed his skills working throughout Europe and Asia (where he developed his love of Asian flavors) and has built a formidable worldwide restaurant empire that spans three continents. Meanwhile, back home in NYC, he continues to heat up the local scene with new restaurants like last year's ABC Cocina and the upcoming vegetarian spot, ABC Home Grown. (His son Cedric also helps out.) He is most well-known for the eponymous Jean-Georges in NYC, ABC Kitchen, as well as Chicago's Pump Room and Prime Steakhouse in Vegas. Fun fact: JGV also claims to be the inventor of the now world-famous molten chocolate cake, which he developed in the mid-'80s.

    Upcoming: A vegetarian spot in NYC called ABC Home Grown.

  • STARR Restaurants

    Head honcho: Stephen Starr

    Primary turf: Philadelphia, PA

    Restaurants: 33

    Markets: Philly, New Jersey, NYC, DC, Florida

    Average food score: 24.6

    Profile: Stephen Starr got his start in the business at the age of 21, when he opened his first restaurant in a Philly diner, which was a comedy club at night. He continued concepts that involved promoting live acts as well as food and drink programs, and by the mid-'90s, STARR restaurants was born. The empire now spans multiple cities and states (most locations are in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas), and Starr has made a splash in NYC as well with outposts of Buddakan, Morimoto and the short-lived Hybird (a collaboration with Questlove).

    Upcoming: An outpost of El Vez will open soon in NYC.

  • Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, NYC

    Head honchos: Mario Batali, Joe & Lidia Bastianich

    Primary turf: NYC

    Restaurants: 26 plus 3 retail markets

    Markets: NYC, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Chicago, Kansas City, upstate NY

    Average food score: 24.8

    Profile: Power duo Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich have a premium Italian restaurant empire that spans multiple U.S. cities as well as Hong Kong, based on restaurant concepts by both Batali and Joe's mother, Lidia Bastianich. Perhaps their hottest property of the moment is the massive Italian-inspired food market Eataly (a partnership with Italian founder Oscar Farinetti), which recently expanded to Chicago (and has plans to open more locations in both North and South America). Batali's empire got its start in the '90s with hits like Lupa and Babbo, while Lidia's began in 1981 with Felidia in NYC.

    Upcoming: More Eatalys - the first in Philly in about a year, then LA, then Sao Paolo, Brazil.

  • Wolfgang Puck

    Primary turf: Los Angeles, CA

    Restaurants: 100+ including 21 fine-dining concepts

    Markets: LA, Las Vegas, Dubai, London, Singapore

    Average food score: 25

    Profile: The original celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck, is one of the most camera-ready chefs in the business, and you'll see him frequently on QVC shilling his extensive product line. After getting his start in the U.S. restaurant scene in LA in the 1980s with Spago, the Austrian-born chef is credited with the proliferation of "California cuisine," having made Chinese chicken salad (at Chinois) and "haute pizza" (Spago) nationwide trends. Currently, the chef's empire is made up of 21 fine-dining concepts including LA's newly-revamped Spago, WP24 and CUT and a slew of his Wolfgang Express outposts located in airports and more worldwide.

    Coming soon: CUT Dubai is slated for spring.

  • Credit: Brustman Carrino Public Relations

    Mina Group

    Head honcho: Michael Mina

    Primary turf: San Francisco

    Restaurants: 20

    Markets: Arizona, California, Nevada, DC, Florida, Maryland, Washington, Wyoming

    Average food score: 25.2

    Profile: SF-based chef Michael Mina began his career at age 22, on the day of the infamous 1989 earthquake that struck the Golden Gate City. Over 20 years later, his empire spans across the country, known mostly for his eponymous fine-dining concept, his popular Bourbon Steak restaurants, which are expanding by the minute, and the recently opened Michael Mina 74 in South Beach, Miami.

    Coming up: Bourbon Steak LA, Pabu and The Ramen Bar in San Francisco; Natsusteak at Miami's Fontainebleau; Bourbon Steak at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

  • ThinkFoodGroup

    Head honcho: Jose Andres

    Primary turf: Washington, DC

    Restaurants: 16 currently open

    Markets: DC, LA, Las Vegas, Miami, Maryland, Virginia

    Average food score: 25.4

    Profile: The innovative Spanish-born chef known for his DC-based Jaleo and eclectic concept The Bazaar (LA, Vegas, Miami) now has 16 restaurants to his credit all over the country. As new SLS Hotels open, The Bazaar concept continues to grow, with rumors that the upcoming SLS Philly may have food offerings from the chef as well.

    Coming soon: A revamp of American Eats Tavern coming to Tyson’s Corner; China Chilcano in DC, and two concepts at the upcoming SLS Las Vegas.

  • Dinex Group

    Head honcho: Daniel Boulud

    Primary turf: NYC

    Restaurants: 12 plus 1 cocktail bar and 1 gourmet take-out/retail market

    Markets: NYC, Beijing, London, Miami, Palm Beach, Singapore

    Average Food score: 25.5

    Profile: The NYC-based Boulud got his start in the '70s and '80s in world-famous kitchens, moving on to helm Le Cirque before departing in 1992. His NYC-based Daniel is consistently one of the top-rated restaurants of the year, and his concepts have tracked well worldwide, with more expansion plans in the works.

    Upcoming: DB Brasserie at The Venetian Las Vegas, Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental Boston, DBGB Kitchen and Bar at the City Center in DC

  • Nobu Restaurants

    Head honcho: Nobu Matsuhisa

    Primary turf: NYC, but now everywhere

    Restaurants: 28, 1 hotel tower

    Markets: 24 markets including Budapest, the Bahamas, NYC, Australia, London and LA

    Average food score: 27

    Profile: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The NYC-based Nobu Matsuhisa has expanded his eponymous concept to 24 markets all over the world and was a pioneering chef in fusing Japanese-Peruvian flavors. Nobu's LA restaurant Matsuhisa is where the chef started his empire in the 1980s before opening Nobu in NYC in 1994, which was virtually an overnight success. This year the chef opened his first hotel concept in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace.

    Upcoming: Word is that Nobu will introduce a new hotel-within-a-hotel concept inside the Eden Roc Resort in Miami's South Beach.