Saison was one of the best restaurants of 2013.

4 tasty lessons you can learn from America’s best restaurants

If you want to dine at one of the tastiest restaurants in America, you can consult one of the Best of 2013 lists that were recently released by magazines like Bon Appetit,Esquire, and GQ. But don’t read them all.

If you do, you’ll probably get confused – because no restaurant in the country appears on all three lists. But found four that appear twice. Along they way, we learned a few things about what makes a restaurant famous…

Hog and Hominy was one of the best restaurants of 2013.

1. The best restaurants aren’t pricey or pretentious

At Hog & Hominy in Memphis, a $20 bill covers the most expensive entrée. “The Brassica” ($18) is smoked pork jowl with fire-roasted broccoli, garlic, tomato sauce, and mozzarella. Only have a $10 bill? Try the beef and cheddar hotdog on a pretzel bun for $8.

What propelled Hog & Hominy to both the GQ and Bon Appetit lists: The weird meal mash-ups that chefs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman concocted inside this pale one-story brick building. Basically, Ticer and Hudman have combined Italian cuisine with Deep South comfort food.  Their signature dish is corn tortellini with duck confit and chanterelle mushrooms.

GQ calls it an “all-new, totally delightful fusion cuisine. Restaurants  are rarely this original or this much fun.”

Rolf and Daughters was one of the best restaurants of 2013.

2. The South is rising again

Southern hospitality and an Italian appetite go together like Hog & Hominy, but that isn’t the only Tennessee establishment to impress Bon Appetit. Nashville’s Rolf and Daughters also made its list – and Esquire’s – for the same reason. The restaurant fuses northern Italian and Mediterranean cuisine with Southern ingredients to form what owner and chef Philip Krajeck calls “modern peasant food.”

What do peasants eat? Esquire says the best feast on “tender heritage chicken with lemon and soft, sweet garlic,” “fabulously rustic pastas, like gemelli with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, black kale, and Parmesan,” and “generous meatballs with a pungent gremolata (crushed garlic, lemon peel, and parsley).”

While the prices aren’t peasantly, they aren’t royalty, either. Everything above costs $15 to $20.

The Ordinary was one of the best restaurants of 2013.

3. The best restaurants aren’t always in the biggest towns, and they’re often in weird places

If Rolf & Daughters repurposed Mediterranean food for modern American palates, it did the same thing with its space. The restaurant took over the boiler room of a factory building that dates back to the late 1800s, when it was used to make sacks to hold flour. (Flour still keeps the occupant in business today. Most reviewers agree: The pasta is the reason why this restaurant exists and succeeds.)

Worn brick and thick, black metal beams help maintain the industrial look, even while the wood floor and ceiling make it a more inviting place to chow down on a $16 plate of spaghetti carbonara with guanciale, black pepper, and pecorin.

But if you’re looking for something really out of The Ordinary, you’ll see $65 towers of raw oysters and cooked shrimp being carried out of an old bank vault to diners in a converted lobby.

The heavy steel door in this Charleston, S.C. restaurant – which was named The Daily Meal‘s Restaurant of the Year – is swung wide open behind the marble bar, exposing the old lock mechanism and the efforts of the cooks in the kitchen beyond as they serve up locally sourced shrimp, clam, mussel, and lobster. It’s $10 to $30 for most options at the bar, and $95 for a double shellfish tower if you’re curious and mighty hungry.

Hinoki and the Bird was one of the best restaurants of 2013.

4. Some of the best restaurants are just what you think: Expensive and in big cities

Hinoki & The Bird is the latest eatery of celebrity chef David Myers – known for a string of other successful restaurants, including Sona, Pizzeria Ortica, SOLA, and Comme Ca – and made both Bon Appetit and Esquire’s 2013 lists. It might not be downtown, but it’s still in Los Angeles. And it’s expensive.

Part of it might be that the chefs serve you a burning piece of hinoki wood over their $26 black cod. Hinoki is a rare cypress tree grown in Japan, and has historically been used in the construction of some famous Japanese castles and temples.

Or maybe it’s the gigantic, 4-inch ice cubes that a Yelp reviewer likened to diamonds plunked into $14 Negroni cocktails. Regardless, it’s a classy joint with “a ceiling of twisted cedar planes, a walnut stairwell, a copper-covered communal table, denim-covered seats, and a huge open kitchen,” Esquire says. “It’s like a tree house for gourmands.”

About 380 miles away is another pricey place that made Bon Appetit’s list. Saison in San Francisco starts at $248 before drinks. Include the wine pairing, and a dinner for two can top $1,000, Bon Appetit says. For that, you’ll get an 18-course, hours-long meal. The menu changes daily and isn’t posted in advance, but one glance at the website promises seafood of some sort.

There aren’t any walls between the kitchen and the customers so you’ll also be able to peek,  but Bon Appetit says to  “imagine Parmesan custard topped with gold leaf; blue wing sea robin crudo with foraged yuzu; abalone liver and rice stew; and duck dry-aged for 30 days.”

Saison was one of the best restaurants of 2013.

The best? Up to you

Of course, everyone’s taste buds are different, so it’s really impossible to know if you’d savor the abalone liver the same way the folks at Bon Appetit do.

But Esquire started off its list with these words, which we think is just as suitable for an ending…

The food doesn’t have to be American, the setting doesn’t have to be stylish,  and the waiters can put on whatever they want, even the T-shirt they wore the  night before. All we ask is that the chef exhibit a little inspiration and the  owner understand that customers can’t have a good time without great service.

Touche and chow down.

Photos by: T. Tseng, ilovememphis, Rolf and Daughters, The Ordinary, Hinoki & The Bird

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