“Making it” in the restaurant business has been the main concern of restaurateurs for the past several years, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. It seems as if each new restaurant tries to top the one that came before it in its exploratory flavors, experiences, and ambience. But the James Beard Foundation (JBF) looks past restaurant industry theatrics and awards restaurant owners for what really matters: food and service. The most recent winners of the award were announced on Feb. 22, and their wins are a reminder of the impact of locally-made food on the community that enjoys it.
The James Beard Foundation was created in the spirit of the chef and food-lover James Beard to “celebrate, support, and elevate the people behind America’s food culture,” and each year, the non-profit releases food-related awards in categories for Media, Leadership, and (of course) Restaurant and Chef. The America’s Classics awards are unique in that they highlight locally-owned restaurants from six of the twelve regions of the country annually — rotating the six every other year.
This year’s recipients range from Tex-Mex diners to Nezinscot Farm in the East Coast to Pekin Noodle Parlor, the oldest Chinese restaurant in the country. Each has a distinct history and fulfills the requirement of having been open for at least ten years. These restaurants are not only known for their delicious comfort food, but for their hospitality and significance to the community as well. For example, the Texas Region winner, Joe’s Bakery and Coffee Shop, is a favorite amongst Austinians for its glutinous “fried bacon” as well as its patio where voting registration efforts take place during election season.
What is special about these restaurants is their accessibility to their community members. When described, they are said to draw customers from “all walks of life” to enjoy their food. The James Beard Foundation seeks to reward restaurants that may be overlooked — rather than presenting customers with minuscule portions arranged like origami, these particular restaurants lead with huge portions of classic dishes like fried chicken or chow mein. Their reasonable prices also attract many patrons. For La Casita Blanca in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this means that students come by for a quick snack or professionals talk business over lunch at this homey local favorite.
With the rise of the social media “foodies,” these awards from the JBF help weed out the restaurants that are simply recommended because of their Instagram-worthy dishes and gaudy decor. In fact, many Instagram influencers like @twotastebuddiez or @theviplistnyc who review restaurants in Boston and New York City promote the newest, most-hip spots for cocktails and cult-classic food, but ignore the family-owned businesses that have been serving the community for ages. Not to mention, these new restaurants seem to care more about aesthetics than flavor and affordability.
In contrast to the extravagance of fancier restaurants, Manago Hotel, the winner of the Pacific and Northwest Region, is known for its simplicity. When looking at images of the hotel restaurant, there is not a tablecloth in sight, and the restaurant remains the same way it appeared in the 1940s. However, its food — specifically its pork chop — is what impresses returning customers.
The James Beard Foundation sometimes includes local fine-dining establishments in their winning selection, but this year’s group of winners do not boast particularly “fancy” menus. Other restaurant awards like the Michelin Star are more focused on luxury and do not take into consideration the effect these small restaurants have on their communities. Of course, a Michelin Star restaurant may attract tourists to the area, but the often expensive dinner experience that these places offer excludes locals who may not be able to indulge in this kind of restaurant.
All six restaurants that won the award provide something these other top-ranked restaurants do not: comfort. Their meals are nostalgic and the atmosphere evokes a sense of home for their patrons. They are staples of their community and contribute to it more deeply than simply providing quality food. Thanks to the JBF, these small, independently-owned restaurants can get the recognition they deserve for sustaining their local traditions in their corner of the country. After Covid-19, the act of going out to a restaurant is cherished regardless of whether the meal is a full-on production or a simple slice of pizza. The JBF’s America’s Choice awards shine a spotlight on the places that prioritize the small joys of going out for food.