Weekend In Austin Texas – What To Eat

Weekend in Austin - Classic Austin Food Truck Park

I recently spent a weekend in Austin, Texas for a bachelor party and last fall the Fresh Hospitality squad did an epic food trip to Austin where we hit 17 restaurants in just over 24 hours (believe me I was stuffed after that one).

Being in the food business, I often get people asking me where to eat when they spend a weekend in Austin – so I thought it would be a great idea to create a quick blog post that lists some of my absolute favorite spots in Austin.

I don’t want to bombard with you with a ton of places so I’ve created a very selective list of only the best spots and ones that I most enjoyed while in Austin. Don’t miss the BBQ spots at the end! 

Epic Food Trucks

Gourdoughs – Big. Fat. Donuts.

http://gourdoughs.com/ 

Mandatory breakfast/brunch stop in Austin. You’ll get to experience the classic Austin style food truck park and chow down on some epically large and delicious donuts. My recommendation is to get the Mother Clucker for yoru savory fix (donut topped with fried chicken and a honey butter glaze) and polish off your sweet tooth with a delicious Heavenly Hash (brownie bites and marshmallow topped donuts). No weekend in Austin is complete without a stop at Gourdoughs. 

East Side King

http://www.eskaustin.com/

A delectable Thai and Asian food truck in Austin’s “dirty sixth” neighborhood. Warning – this food can be super spicy. It’s a mouth-burning can’t-stop-eating must-take-another-bite kind of heat that lingers for 20 minutes after you’re done eating – but its so damn good. You have to get the grilled bread as well – one of my all time favorite treats. Go here for dinner and enjoy the killer scene at this Austin food truck park.

Beer Gardens & Bars

Weekend in Austin - Bangers on Rainey Street

Bangers

http://bangersaustin.com/

Two of the three bars I recommend checking out are in Austin’s “Rainey Street” neighborhood. These are my personal favorite two, but the entire area has such a cool vibe that you will fall in love as soon as you set foot on the sidewalk. Bangers is a classic beer garden – with over 100 beers on tap and incredible – I mean incredible – sausages and brats. Sit down, enjoy a few beers – and don’t forget to try one of their ridiculous sausages.

Container Bar

http://austincontainerbar.com/

Another Rainey street bar – built almost entirely from shipping containers. This is a great spot to chill during the day. They have 2 sets of cornhole and possibly the most killer Fugees-inspired playlist I’ve ever heard. Between Container Bar and Bangers you will get a great feel for the scene in Austin and no weekend in Austin is complete without hitting up Rainey street.

Easy Tiger

http://easytigeraustin.com/

A uniquely Austin “Bakery and Beer Garden” – Easy Tiger’s baked goods are delicious – but the place really opens up at night when the beer garden comes to life. Sitting outside by the river you can enjoy a huge selection of beers on tap and play ping pong on one of their nearby ping pong tables. Plus, from Easy Tiger you can walk to Austin’s famous 6th street.

Tacos & Burgers

Torchys Tacos

http://torchystacos.com/

What would a trip to Austin be without Tacos? Torchy’s is a classic Austin taco spot with a great variety of delectable tacos. Check out the location on 1st street for another authentic Austin food truck park.

Tacodeli

http://www.tacodeli.com/

Another Austin taco joint that locals rave about – Tacodeli is the favorite of online marketing genius Noah Kagan (who happens to be an Austin native) – he recommends the Cowboy taco.

Hopdoddy Burger Bar

http://www.hopdoddy.com/

I had to throw in a few delicious burger joints as well. These are two local burger chains that are both great. Hopdoddy is a very upscale farm-to-table burger type of place with craft beers on tap and a killer atmosphere. If you’re in the mood for a good burger, you can’t go wrong here.

P. Terry’s

http://www.pterrys.com/

P. Terry’s is a much more old school double drive thru type burger joint – but if you want a delicious shake and a classic burger experience P. Terry’s is the place to go.

Barbecue Joints

Franklin Barbecue

https://franklinbarbecue.com/

Considered the premier barbecue spot in Austin. You’ll need fortitude to even attempt this one. The line stretches for blocks and blocks and people bring lawn chairs just to wait. That’s what it takes to eat at what’s widely considered one of the greatest BBQ restaurants in America.

La Barbecue

http://www.labarbecue.com/

Franklin BBQ’s feisty young competitor. La barbecue is considered among many in the BBQ world to be the new up-and-comer challenging Franklin for the best BBQ in Austin (and some of the seriously most insanely delicious beef brisket in the world). The wait is a bit more manageable here, and if you get there early enough you might be able to sneak in without too much of a wait. I still dream of the brisket here.

Salt Lick BBQ

https://www.saltlickbbq.com/

A world famous BBQ destination about 45 mins outside of Austin. The kind of place you go all afternoon for the live music, the killer gardens, and to soak in the scenery – but don’t miss the incredible BBQ as well.

Louis Mueller Barbecue

http://www.louiemuellerbarbecue.com/

An absolutely classic barbecue spot in Taylor, Texas (about a 45 min drive out of Austin) – Louis Mueller has been open since 1949. The beef brisket and the burnt ends are insane! Absolutely worth the drive for some truly authentic old-school Texas BBQ.

Matt Bodnar - Weekend in Austin

I hope you enjoyed this list – please let me know in the comments some of your favorite food spots and where you would eat for a weekend in Austin!

My Favorite Places To Eat In New York City (And The 101 Best Restaurants In America)

I lived in NYC for a couple years out of school while I was working on Wall Street. Needless to say, I took full advantage of the amazing restaurant scene the city has to offer.

This list is by no means even close to comprehensive or complete – but I wanted to share some of my favorite spots – broken out more or less into a few different categories depending on what you are looking for.

This is an intentionally limited list of places to visit – the NYC restaurant scene can be so overwhelming sometimes its better to have fewer choices than too many.

Exceedingly Pricey Or Impossible To Get In Or Both

  • Per Se (very hard to get in)
  • Momofuku Ko (very hard to get in, but not as expensive)
  • Masa (this is one of the top 10 most expensive Sushi restaurants in the world)
  • Le Bernadin

Expensive But Not Crazy Expensive

  • Jean Georges
  • Daniel
  • Del Posto
  • Gramercy Tavern
  • Gotham Bar & Grill
  • Gordon Ramsay at the London
  • Adour Alain Ducasse

Midrange… A Bit More Casual But Still Great

  • Marc Forgione (I love this spot, most recent inductee into Iron Chefdom)
  • Bobo in the West Village (not to be confused with Babbo.. order the duck breast!)
  • Babbo
  • Momofuku Ssam Bar (Pork Buns… Mandatory. But the real deal is Bo Ssam, an entire pork butt. Need a minimum of 6 people and reserve 1 day in advance)
  • Hearth (Marco Canora)
  • WD~50 (crazy weird / molecular gastronomy)
  • The Breslan @ Ace Hotel
  • Minetta Tavern
  • Graffiti
  • Eataly
  • Shake Shack
  • Crif Dog
  • Momofuku Noodle
  • Momofuku Milk Bar (can you tell I’m a huge fan of David Chang? Check out this awesome profile of him)
  • Korilla BBQ (bonus addition… this is technically a Food Truck)

Coffee & Breakfast Spots

  • Stumptown @ the Ace Hotel (Stumptown… my favorite coffee of all time, check out my NYC Coffee Adventures for a few more spots)
  • Café Condesa in West Village (must order – Chorizo Croissant Sandwich)

Unique Bar Scenes

  • Wilfie & Nell
  • PDT aka Please Don’t Tell (need to call at 3pm same day to get reservations – extremely exclusive mixology bar with a secret entrance inside a phone booth)

The 101 Best Restaurants In America

And, as promised, the Daily Mail’s recent list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America. Read the full thing here.

They put together a tremendous resource  for finding the absolute best dining experiences across the United States. Congrats to Nashville locals Catbird Seat for making the list!

  1. The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.
  2. Gramercy Tavern, New York, N.Y.
  3. Le Bernardin, New York, N.Y.
  4. Momofuku Ssäm Bar, New York, N.Y.
  5. Eleven Madison Park, New York, N.Y.
  6. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, N.Y.
  7. ABC Kitchen, New York, N.Y.
  8. Babbo, New York, N.Y.
  9. Girl & the Goat, Chicago, Ill.
  10. Cochon, New Orleans, La.
  11. Shake Shack, New York, N.Y.
  12. Jean Georges, New York, N.Y.
  13. Daniel, New York, N.Y.
  14. Alinea, Chicago, Ill.
  15. Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif.
  16. Del Posto, New York, N.Y.
  17. Per Se, New York, N.Y.
  18. Commander’s Palace, New Orleans, La.
  19. Zuni Cafe, San Francisco, Calif.
  20. Animal, Los Angeles, Calif.
  21. Gotham Bar & Grill, New York, N.Y.
  22. Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles, Calif.
  23. Bouchon Bistro, Yountville, Calif.
  24. Husk, Charleston, S.C.
  25. Joël Robuchon, Las Vegas, Nev.
  26. Franklin BBQ, Austin, Texas
  27. Mission Chinese, San Francisco, Calif.
  28. August, New Orleans, La.
  29. Masa, New York, N.Y.
  30. Bar Tartine, San Francisco, Calif.
  31. Marea, New York, N.Y.
  32. WD-50, New York, N.Y.
  33. Vetri, Philadelphia, Pa.
  34. Beast, Portland, Ore.
  35. The Publican, Chicago, Ill.
  36. Ippudo, New York, N.Y.
  37. Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Va.
  38. Blackbird, Chicago, Ill.
  39. Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven, Conn.
  40. Galatoire’s, New Orleans, La.
  41. Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, New York, N.Y.
  42. La Taqueria, San Francisco, Calif.
  43. Bazaar, Los Angeles, Calif.
  44. Torrisi Italian Specialties, New York, N.Y.
  45. Guy Savoy, Las Vegas, Nev.
  46. Spiaggia, Chicago, Ill.
  47. Xi’An Famous Foods, Queens, N.Y.
  48. Di Fara, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  49. Spago, Los Angeles, Calif.
  50. Next, Chicago, Ill.
  51. Cut, Los Angeles, Calif.
  52. Coi, San Francisco, Calif
  53. Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  54. Quince, San Francisco, Calif.
  55. FIG, Charleston, S.C.
  56. Michael Mina, San Francisco, Calif.
  57. é by José Andrés, Las Vegas, Nev.
  58. Frasca Food & Wine, Boulder, Colo.
  59. NoMad, New York, N.Y.
  60. Bern’s Steak House, Tampa, Fla.
  61. Alan Wong’s, Honolulu, Hawaii
  62. O-Ya, Boston, Mass.
  63. Clio, Boston, Mass.
  64. State Bird Provisions, San Francisco, Calif.
  65. Komi, Washington, D.C.
  66. Craigie on Main, Cambridge, Mass.
  67. TRU, Chicago, Ill.
  68. Yardbird Southern Table and Bar, Miami, Fla.
  69. McCrady’s, Charleston, S.C.
  70. Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami, Fla.
  71. Kreuz Market, Lockhart, Texas
  72. Lucques, Los Angeles, Calif.
  73. Le Pigeon, Portland, Ore.
  74. SriPraPhai, Queens, N.Y.
  75. Hominy Grill, Charleston, S.C.
  76. Zahav, Philadelphia, Pa.
  77. Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix, Ariz.
  78. Al Di La, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  79. City Grocery, Oxford, Miss.
  80. The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, Calif.
  81. Fore Street, Portland, Maine
  82. Michael’s Genuine, Miami, Fla.
  83. Jaleo, Las Vegas, Nev.
  84. Al Forno, Providence, R.I.
  85. Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, Las Vegas, Nev.
  86. Dahlia Lounge, Seattle, Wash.
  87. The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tenn.
  88. Canlis, Seattle, Wash.
  89. Congress, Austin, Texas
  90. Underbelly, Houston, Texas
  91. Catbird Seat, Nashville, Tenn.
  92. Woodshed Smokehouse, Fort Worth, Texas
  93. Sushi Yasuda, New York, N.Y.
  94. Fearing’s, Dallas, Texas
  95. Minibar, Washington, D.C.
  96. The Four Seasons, New York, N.Y.
  97. Benu, San Francisco, Calif.
  98. Stella!, New Orleans, La.
  99. Providence, Los Angeles, Calif.
  100. Rasika, Washington, D.C.
  101. Lola, Cleveland, Ohio

Lastly, a friend of mine recently started a blog all about New York City – really great read and has a bunch of stuff worth checking out if you are visiting or live in NYC.

Hope you enjoy and as always – stay tuned on Twitter.

Image Credit KayOne73 on Flickr.

 

Nashville Bucket List – Top Local Restaurants, Speakeasies & Coffee Shops

Mixologist?

I am a huge fun of supporting local establishments in Nashville – and luckily for me there are a ton of delicious spots in town – no matter what you are looking for. Given that we have been named “Nowville” by GQ and one of the “hottest cities in America” by the New York Times – I wanted to celebrate a few local spots and share them with everyone.

I keep this list for myself (hmm where should I go to dinner tonight?) and to be honest I haven’t even eaten at every restaurant on here, but I thought it would be great to share with everyone anyway.

Leave me comments and get your favorite spots added as well!

SOUTHERN FOOD & LUNCH

  • Arnolds
  • Prince’s Hot Chicken
  • Monell’s
  • Loveless Cafe
  • Martin’s BBQ Joint
  • Burger Up
  • Mas Taco
  • Sloco Sandwich Shop
  • Local Taco
  • Pharmacy Burger

DINNER SPOTS & NICER PLACES

  • Silly Goose
  • Margo
  • Marchete
  • The Southern
  • Silo
  • Tavern
  • City House
  • Catbird Seat
  • Etch
  • Rumor’s East
  • Lockeland Table
  • Smiling Elephant
  • Watermark
  • The Bound’ry
  • Flyte
  • Capitol Grill at the Hermitage
  • Manja
  • Rolf & Daughters
  • PM Nashville

 SPEAKEASY

  • Patterson House
  • Holland House
  • Corsair’s Tasting Room

COFFEE HOUSES

  • The Well
  • Barista Parlor
  • Crema Coffee
  • Fido
  • Frothy Monkey
  • The Jam Coffee House

Updated as of 2/14/13 – Thanks everyone for the suggestions!

Check out this post on the top restaurants in America.

Follow me on Twitter to keep up with my latest adventures.

How Taziki’s Leapt From Three to Twenty Stores in Under Five Years

How did Fresh Hospitality take Taziki’s from a local favorite with three locations to #32 on the Fast Casual Top 100 Movers & Shakers with more than 20 locations now open?

I recently shared this entire story (and much more) on a panel at the Fast Casual Executive Summit.

Our panel told the story of Taziki’s fast paced growth by looking at how Fresh Hospitality used systems and technology to create a rapidly scalable brand.  The full panel is embedded below (40 minutes) as well as my particular portion (~10 minutes) focusing specifically on how critical systems and technology are to scalability and growth.  I’ve also embedded the slide deck that we used for the presentation as well.

(Forgive the video & sound quality – this was recorded on an iPhone!)

Systems Are Essential to Scalability & Growth (me)

Restaurant Management Systems (full panel)

The Taziki’s Story (slide deck)

 

Hope you enjoy and as always – would love to follow up and chat more on Twitter!

Aspen Food & Wine Classic – Day Two

This is the second part of my recap of Aspen Food & Wine – read part one here.

 

After a fantastic day one, the second day (and a half) of the “Classic” were packed with interesting insights, delicious wines, and lots of fun.

Wisdom

The Fresh crew got up bright and early to hit the continental breakfast at the Jerome Hotel (delicious granola by the way) and see the day’s first Trade Talk – “Homegrown: Sowing the Seeds for the Future” – a candid look at the local food movement featuring John Besh, Michel Nischan, Niki Leondakis, and southern favorite Sean Brock. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the session. See the full video here.

“Let’s start thinking about dirt – let dirt be the center of the conversation.” – Sean Brock

“Local food creates a sense of place, where you are, where you’re from, and where you’re going.” – Michel

“People are hungry for stories, people are hungry for connections… stories taste good, and connections taste good.” – Sean Brock

“We are sowing the seeds of responsibility for the future.” – John Besh

“Local food helps chefs connect with the seasons.” – Niki

“Respect of the land is the trust form of inspiration.” – Sean Brock

“Local food inspires everyone at the restaurant.” -Niki

“Before World War 2 people in Chicago and New York met their own needs twelve months a year, combined with modern technology there is even more potential to do the same” – Rick Bayless (hiding in the audience)

“Start small with local production, and then learn to scale it” – Sean Brock

“Everyone is always really excited about growing their own food… then the weeds come.” – Sean Brock

“You can taste the intentions….” – Michel

“… and intentions taste good.” – Sean Brock

“Support people making the right decisions no matter where you are, we have to respect the dirt.” – Sean Brock

“Community canaries can help solve many local sustainability issues.” – Sean Brock

“Freezing local food picked when ripe and in season is better than shipping unripe blueberries sprayed with chemicals from 3000 miles away.” Michel

The second Trade Talk on day two was “Restaurant Reset: Small Changes, Big Payoff” – an examination of what it takes to be a successful restaurant operator featuring Tom Colicchio, Anita Lo, John T. Bettin, and Grant Achatz. Catch the full video here, below are some of the highlights.

“Focus first on every touchpoint that comes into contact with the guest.” – John T. Bettin

“Don’t come to the table with a problem, come with a solution” – Tom C.

“Check your ego at the door” – Tom C.

“The key to staying relevant is having a real connection with your guest.” John Bettin

“Every so often, do something outrageous to keep yourself in the conversation.” John Bettin

“Training and technology are the two most important things to invest in.” Tom C.

“Opening a new restaurant is like a drug.” Tom C.

“The kiss of death is when a customer says ‘the food was fine.’” – John Bettin

“Get information from your customers and your wait staff – they are on the front lines” – Tom C.

“Regulars are your life blood.” – Tom C.

Wine

When we weren’t busy with industry Trade Talks, we also hit two awesome wine tastings. Saturday afternoon we attended a tasting lead by Danny Meyer titled “Swill for the Grill” – a tasting focused on what wines to pair with grilled meats (in the spirit of summer). The tasting started by giving everyone a 6×6 grid with six different wines and six different proteins, the proteins provided by legendary NYC meat purveyor “The Magician of Meat” Pat LaFrieda and grilled by Maialino executive chef Nick Anderer.

The great part about this tasting was that they encouraged everyone to try unique pairings and let your own palate decide what was best (of course – everyone in our group had wildly different preferences). Also, the “scoring system” included smiley faces.

A few fun quotes from the tasting.

“There are no rules, wine tasting is about your taste.” – Danny Meyer

“Salt, pepper, and smoke – that’s it.” Nick Anderer

“Don’t be afraid of a little char” – Nick Anderer

Sunday morning we also attended a wonderful tasting titled “Taste Like a Star Sommelier: an Intro to Blind Tasting.” The panel was led by Richard Betts, master sommelier and wine director at the Little Nell in Aspen and legendary sommelier Rajat Parr along with two other sommeliers. The tasting featured seven unlabeled wines and invited everyone to taste them in order and determine what type of wine it was.

While watching the panel of sommeliers absolutely crush every guess (literally within a mile or two of the actual vineyard almost every time) was astounding, the great part was learning a little more about how to taste wine and taking a few guesses myself at what I was drinking. The real gem of the tasting, however, was the amazing “map to your desires” as Betts called it – a guide for how to think about any wine that you taste.

A few great quotes from the tasting.

“Wine is about fun, pleasure, and intellectual value” – Richard Betts

“There is no such thing as wine speak.” – Richard Betts

“Your own pallet is like your own thumb print – you’re always right” – Richard Betts

Odds & Ends

Last but not least, a few more delicious wines I had over the weekend (remember I was focused primarily on Pinot Noir).

Monterey Pinot Noir – Carmel Road

Maggy Hawk “Alfred”

Founders Reserve – ZD Wine 

And, I feel like Merlot really gets a lot of flack (thanks Sideways…) but seriously… we sampled some Shafer Merlot at “Swill for the Grill” and it was delicious.

Also, wanted to share this pic of my swag bag – especially excited about the Vinturi aerator.

Stay tuned on Twitter to follow my adventures.

Aspen Food & Wine Classic – Day One

After the Big Apple BBQ last weekend (Great recap here) – the Fresh Hospitality team didn’t skip a beat. We flew out of Nashville Thursday AM bound for the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. This was my very first “Classic” as they call it – and I wanted to share a few thoughts, tips, insights and pics from day one.

Wisdom

Being fortune enough to have a “Trade” badge (here on business people!) that granted me access to the Amex Trade Talks – I was able to learn some fascinating stuff in the two talks I attended day one.

The first talk was a panel titled “Marketing To Today’s Diner” featuring big names Rick Bayless, Danny Meyer, Jose Andres, and Google’s head of Product Development Bernardo Hernandez. The panel moderator began with a discussion of traditional media, PR etc and how restaurant’s build a reputation – but within 10 minutes the entire panel had shifted to a conversation about how important Twitter is to restaurant marketing (by the way all 3 chefs do ALL their tweeting themselves). See the full video here. A couple awesome quotes from the panel.

“Twitter is an extension of the dining room, giving guests opportunity to be engaged and involved in a conversation” – Danny Meyer

“Technology only amplifies human needs, High Tech will never trump High Touch.” – Danny Meyer

“I always tweet pictures, a picture is worth 1000 words, and on Twitter you only get 140 characters.” – Rick Bayless

“It’s not about databases its about communities” – Bernardo Hernandez

“Everyone is media now.” – Jose Andres

“I use Twitter to show people an insider view – to get people to know me as a person.” – Rick Bayless

“It’s a mistake to write off Foursquare as an operator.” – Danny Meyer

“We don’t spend a dime on advertising.” – Jose Andres

The second Trade Talk – “Fame Game: The Realty of TV” was a candid insider discussion on the realities of the rise of celebrity chefs, what TV means today, and how to be successful. The panel featured Jacques Pepin, Tim Love, Spike Mendelsohn, and MingTsai. One of the most interesting messages from this panel was that TV in itself isn’t a way for chef’s to make money – it simply creates outside opportunities (restaurants, books etc) for creating wealth.  See the full video of the panel here.

“You cannot escape yourself, you are who you are.” Jacques Pepin

“Embracing your community is the key to success.” – Spike Mendelsohn

“The reality is with TV, you create opportunities.” –Tim Love

“Everyone’s a food critic now, that’s a pain in the ass.” – Ming Tsai

“The best thing Food TV has done for me…Now I can get a reservation at any restaurant in America.” – Ming Tsai

“Get a PR person, you can’t VIP yourself” – Ming Tsai

Wine

Wow! Wine – I mean I know it’s the Food and Wine Classic but the sheer amount of wine they have available is mind blowing. The Grand Tasting was a sight to see – three massive tents spanning a gorgeous park in downtown Aspen (the view is incredible) all jam packed with every kind of wine you could ever desire.

I’m not wine expert (I am currently plodding through Wine Bible and I really do want to learn more) but I wanted to share some of the best wine’s that I had. I tried to focus in and stick to one or two main grapes to have something to compare to and not get totally overwhelmed. My choice was to focus on Pinot Noir and branch into other reds as I saw fit.

The three best Pinot’s that I had were (in no particular order)

Goldeneye by Duckhorn

Grand Detour Pinot Noir by Landmark

Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir by Mac Murray Ranch

Well, this post is a lot longer than I intended. Anyway – off to experience Day 2 of “The Classic.” Hit me up on Twitter and follow for updates all day!

 

Four Things You Must Do in Chicago During The NRA Show

So you’re in Chicago for the NRA Show and you want to know all the cool spots to check out in your free time? I’m not a local but I visit Chicago quite a bit on business and the below destinations come highly recommended. (click the restaurant names for a link to their site)

Xoco

Rick Bayless’s Xoco is shaping the future of the fast casual industry – and the food is just plain awesome. This is a mandatory stop every time I am in Chicago and I *highly* recommend checking it out.  What should you order?

Ahogada – this torta – served sitting in a bowl of tomato broth, is one of the signature items on the menu.

Caldos – the “soups” here – any of them are awesome but in particular I would get the Pork Belly (coming from a full blown pork addict).

Churros w/ Chocolate dipping sauce…. Heavenly.

Also – check out the acqua frescas – I recommend the one with Hibiscus

Sunda

Billy Dec and the Rockit Ranch crew (one of Chicago’s biggest restaurant players) really outdid themselves when they created Sunda (great video about Sunda’s creation here). This beautifully designed Asian fusion restaurant sports a massive menu, including a full sushi bar, of delicious food.

Must order…

the Peared Sake – literally tastes like you are drinking a chilled pear – I get this every time.

The menu is so huge picking favorites is like picking children – but I would say the Cripsy Rice with Tuna is one of my favs, along with the Rock Shrimp Tempura.

The Doughnut Vault

A well hidden food craze in Chicago. This entire restaurant is jam packed into literally a hallway in the back of a building. You won’t even see the building walking by, but you can’t miss the line of people pouring out the door. They tweet how long the line is and what doughnuts they are running out of so make sure to keep an eye on them @doughnutvault so they don’t run out!

If you want to hit these guys up, they are CLOSED on Sunday/Monday so keep that in mind. Well worth making the journey for their delicious and oversized doughnuts.

Big Star

An awesome bar and tex mex joint in Chicago’s Wicker Park. The food is great (you won’t believe how tiny their kitchen is) but you really go for the atmosphere. Great place to sit and have a drink and a few tacos for happy hour.

The thing to order here is a glass of Templeton Rye. A small batch rye native to Iowa and tough to find anywhere but the Midwest – one of the smoothest and most delicious rye whiskies you will ever drink. Templeton Rye was the choice drink for none other than Al Capone who actually bootlegged it for a number of years during prohibition.

Their food menu is short and sweet but their whiskey menu is deep.

Hope you enjoyed my suggestions! Let me know what you think in the comments and on Twitter and enjoy NRA 2012!

Why Fast Casual Is Not The Future Of The Restaurant Business

A new breed of restaurant is fast approaching on the horizon and starting to catch people’s attention. These concepts buck the traditional fast casual model in so many ways that it’s time to create a name for this new segment.

Who are the market leaders in Fast Casual? Despite all the up and comers, three stand apart as the dominant players in the space. Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Five Guys. These three goliaths dominate the market and the consumer’s mindshare when it comes to fast casual, the same way McDonald’s does for QSR.

I’ve heard people at restaurant industry conferences occasionally say things like “fast casual plus” or “premium fast casual” to try and describe this emerging market – but that doesn’t go far enough to capture it’s essence.

I’m officially drawing a line in the sand and calling this new segment FRESH CASUAL. Like Fast Casual before it, which sits definitively closer to the QSR side on the spectrum between QSR and Casual Dining, Fresh Casual sits on the same spectrum – but definitively closer to the casual or in some cases even fine dining side.

In essence, Fast Casual is casual dining quality food served in a QSR environment. Fresh Casual is a full casual dining experience with a limited (usually QSR) service model.

This may seem trivial at first, but the gulf between “Fast Casual” concepts and “Fresh Casual” competitors in the same exact space is so wide that it can no longer be ignored.

Here is how Fast Casual and Fresh Casual stack up on the MAJOR differences in market point (these are general categorizations and I realize that not every restaurant fits each definition perfectly).

Menu

Fast Casual – Customer driven menu. Most commonly featuring a “build your own” style menu where customers choose their protein, starch and flavor.

Fresh Casual – Chef driven menu. The menu is designed by a chef or culinary team to have specific dishes and flavor profiles. Often the menu is designed by a corporate chef and then executed by a kitchen staff in store.

Service Model

Fast Casual – Fast Casual differs little from the QSR service model – having customers order at a counter  and pick their food up there.

Fresh Casual – Fresh Casual retains counter ordering but then adds an additional layer of service –  running food to customers, refilling drinks, and bussing tables.  Once a customer orders at the counter, the rest of their service experience takes place at the table.

Décor & Design

Fast Casual – differs little from a traditional QSR design & décor, very sparse clean interiors, often with promotional materials and posters on the walls.

Fresh Casual – mimics a casual dining interior. Focus on higher quality furniture and fixtures as well as art and artifacts in store to create a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere.

Food Quality

Fast Casual – delivers higher quality than QSR, but still sometimes reheating and using frozen product. Prep and cooking is usually as simplified as possible

Fresh Casual – delivers food consistent with top quality casual or fine dining, often fresh and locally sourced and rarely frozen. More complex prep and cooking is required to deliver a higher quality of food

Platewear

Fast Casual – served with traditional QSR paper and disposable service ware

Fresh Casual – served on plateware and with glass (excluding to-go orders) similar to casual dining

Price Point

The price point is the same for both market segments – $8-12 dollars per meal.

Buildout

The square footage, which obviously varies between concepts, is similar in both Fast and Fresh Casual. Between 1500 and 4000 sq ft in a shopping center.

Now that you’ve got a better sense of this distinction, I want to point out 6 specific examples of the restaurants with the same type of food – currently both considered “fast casual” that are a world apart.

Mexican: Xoco vs. Chipotle

 

If you want to see what the future of restaurants looks like – visit Rick Bayless’s Xoco in Chicago. This beast of a Mexican concept is the most stark example distinguishing Fresh Casual from Fast Casual. As soon as you walk in the door you will realize exactly what I’m talking about (read here my site report on Xoco). Xoco is just on another level compared to Chipotle, Moe’s, or the other fast casual Mexican and burrito players.  The ambiance, the food quality, the service all fit perfectly into the fresh casual mold. The open kitchen showcases the handmade breads as well as the freshly prepared torta and soup. The ambiance is warm and cozy like a sit down restaurant – and after you order from the counter the service model is indistinguishable from top level casual dining.

Asian: Pei Wei vs. Panda Express

Pei Wei, one of the older players in the space, fits the Fresh Casual mold to a tee. It is a full blown casual dining restaurant that simply begins your order at a counter. The look, the feel, the service, the food quality etc all stand apart from a Panda Express (or even Chipotle’s new entry into the market Shop House) to such a degree that you can’t help but put Pei Wei in another category all to itself.

Italian: Vapiano vs. Nooi Pasta

 

Vapiano is a fresh casual Italian concept that hails from Europe. Despite their counter based service model, their food quality is astounding and the ambiance is very much that of casual dining. The cooks hand make pasta daily and boil it to order, pizzas are made from scratch before your eyes. The flavors are bold and delicious and so fresh.  While Fast Casual Italian is still a very young and under-served market, the fledging competitors in the space can’t hold a candle to Vapiano in terms of food quality or ambiance. (Learn more about fast casual Italian.)

Burgers: Shake Shack vs. Five Guys

 

I personal think the burger space is a huge bubble right now and there are too many concepts for all of them to survive. That said, one of the survivors will almost certainly be Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack. Meyer of Setting The Table fame is one of New York’s premier restaurateurs and arguably one of the guys who kicked off the entire “better burger” craze. After building a near empire in NYC’s restaurant scene Meyer finally decide to scale one of his concepts – and he chose Shake Shack. The chef driven deliciousness of Shake Shack is a fresh casual triumph over the build-your-own burgers of Five Guys. The freshness, quality , and flavor of Shake Shack’s food creates an unquestionable gulf between the plethora of fast casual burger joints and the big boys like Shake Shack.

Bakery Cafe: Wildflower vs. Panera Bread

 

Wildflower is a 10,000 ton missile aiming straight for Panera. I first ate here out in Phoenix for the RLC 2012. I had heard several people hyping Wildflower up and I was convinced that there was no way it could live up to the hype. Wrong. Wildflower is a Panera with great food, a full kitchen, a much sexier ambiance, and tremendous customer service. One spicy chipotle egg sandwich or order of pancakes (oh those fluffy, fluffy pancakes) at Wildflower and you will know the difference between Fresh Casual and Fast Casual.

Mediterranean: Taziki’s vs. Garbanzo

 

Ok ok I know,  I put Taziki’s on the list. But at Taziki’s we set out every day to define ourselves as Fresh Casual – to bring a new and better experience to our customers. Taziki’s food is all made completely fresh every day, no freezers and no fryers in the entire store. Our entire menu is designed by our team of chefs to craft delightful, different, and delicious flavor combinations. The décor is soft and inviting like a casual dining restaurant. The service model delivers much more to the customer than a traditional counter model, food is delivered to the customer’s table, drinks are refilled, and the table is bussed for the customer. Similar players in the Mediterranean space like Garbanzo and Roti are both focused on assembly line style build your own menus, with sparse metallic interior and counter only service (essentially replicating Chipotle’s model but replacing the proteins and starches with Mediterranean ones).

See For Yourself

Words can only do this distinction so much justice. Get out in the world and see these concepts for yourself. Eat at one and then the other and you will know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that Fresh Casual is here to stay. After travelling across the country week after week and personally visiting all of these concepts, I can say hands down that Fresh Casual is real and it’s a serious force to be reckoned with.