Not every restaurant is crawling over itself to get your business.
In recent years the cutting-edge of dining has moved from dining rooms into the streets, throwing over petty concerns like tablecloths, furniture and plumbing for a food truck scene that's booming pretty much everywhere. It's high time too. Soaring prices and a 60% first-year failure rate have made brick-and-mortar restaurants a very risky business. Ditching that overhead has let a new generation of chefs practice their art, and the results have been exciting.
But the old guard is still there too.
While the upstarts and rock stars have rebuilt the hustle of a Penang rush hour on Fifth Avenue, the elite chefs have kept their knives just as sharp. Working in high end kitchens around the world, these are the guys and girls who'll never hustle for your money or stay open late to squeeze an extra tip. They might stop off for a hot dog at that converted trolley down the street, but they'll eat it while scrolling through a three-month wait list for their Friday night seating.
Say what you will about taking food back to the streets, people are still willing to wait for the high end. With help from Seats and Stools, here are ten restaurants where that's truer than ever…
Editors' pick: Originally published March 29.
Wait time: 90 Minutes
An oddity on this list, Christo's Falafel is a food cart, but as street food goes it's more or less one of a kind.
You see, at CF the chef (Gus) doesn't take orders and he doesn't take requests. You step up, pay some money and get a Styrofoam shell full of whatever he decided to make that day. The only consistent thing is that it will be some of the best food you've ever eaten on a city sidewalk… or anywhere else for that matter.
Parked right in the heart of Philadelphia, this would ordinarily be the perfect spot for a lunchtime getaway except for one problem. The lines at Christo's Falafel can stretch over an hour and a half long. Folks stick it out anyway, because while that would be outrageous on any other street corner… well, at 20th and Market it's worth the wait.
Wait time: Three Weeks
The restaurant with a name that sounds like a Strunk and White reject, Schwa is part of an absolutely booming Chicago culinary scene. An increasing number of high-end joints in this Midwestern town are clawing attention away from the traditional scenes in New York and L.A., and Michael Carlson's flagship restaurant numbers proudly among them.
What a restaurant, too. Schwa does one thing and one thing only: food. Its 26-seat dining area has no waiters, no wine list and if it weren't absolutely necessary to eat with, Carlson probably wouldn't even have any silverware. As it is he sanded down the floors himself, because hiring carpenters doesn't have anything to do with food.
The result has proven justifiably popular, and a killer choice for date night. Just call about a month in advance.
Wait time: Three Months
Hours can tell you a lot about a restaurant: namely the less they need to be open, the better the food. (Either that, or the owner has a knack for marketing. The right branding can go a long way in this industry.)
Take, for example, e. No, that's not a typo, that's the name of Jose Andres's Las Vegas Spanish tasting menu restaurant in the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The entire place seats eight at a single bar, and does so only twice per evening: once at 5:30 and again at 8:30.
That's it, but those lucky few get a 15-course meal that is legendary in a town that knows a few things about telling stories. Of course, just to get on the list you'll need a little more foresight than most folks in Vegas are particularly known for…
Wait time: 11 Months
What's there to say about this place that food critics around the world already haven't?
"What's it like to eat in the world's best restaurant," asked CNN before sending one fabulously lucky correspondent to find out.
Second best, sniffed the World's 50 Best Restaurants (a global poll of chefs and food critics).
Nope, said Trip Advisor, the Roca brothers are number one. Don't believe it? Just ask the three people that El Celler employs just to turn down reservations. Or the 10,000 visitors who, each year, fly to an unassuming Spanish suburb for a single meal.
Perhaps the only way to settle this debate will be to get on the waiting list yourself. You'll have plenty of time to start saving up for the bill…
Wait time: One Year
To answer your first question, Kennet Square is in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania near the Maryland and New Jersey borders. To answer your second, no, it has no relationship to Stars Hollow (the former being a pleasant, if unassuming, suburb of Philadelphia, the latter being, as I understand it, an autocratic dynasty run by the "Gilmore Girls").
To answer your third, no, we don't know why brilliant chefs open so many of the world's best restaurants in out of the way places.
Nevertheless, Talula's Table absolutely dominates the Mushroom Capitol of the World. A restaurant the specializes in gourmet farm-to-table dining, this is both one of the best and one of the smallest restaurants in anywhere. Reservations are taken precisely one year in advance to the day for the one table in the restaurant, so get calling.
Wait time: One Year
Every year Warren Buffett has lunch with one lucky person and up to seven guests at Smith & Wollensky in New York City. It is, by a very wide margin, the most expensive lunch in the world.
You see, when Buffett auctions off this privileged event the high rollers get in line. Past winners have bid more than $3.4 million just to get a seat across the table from America's most famous investor, and they consider it money well spent. After all, it's all for charity.
Oh, and past winners have said that the lunch changed their lives and made their fortunes. (We should take this with a grain of salt, though, coming as it does from a man who already doing well enough to pony up more than $650,000 for his own steak sitdown.)
So start saving and planning ahead. Buffett auctions off his lunch date only once per year.
Wait time: Ten years
Here's the advantage to Damon Baehrel's long wait time: parents of first graders now have an easy Christmas gift on their hands. Place the call today, and your son or daughter can have the ultimate high school graduation party.
Then spend the next ten years hoping they get the grades to justify a $4,000 sendoff.
Damon Baehrel's restaurant has become a legend for all of the ways that he breaks with convention. Most notably, the one: he isn't running an actual restaurant. No, this is just a table in his home at which he serves paying guests. For your patience you get a 15- to 20-course tasting menu built around native plants, organic vegetables and naturally cured meats. It's the dinner party to end all dinner parties, albeit with a 32% chance that you'll have to sit across from an ex.
Wait time: 14 years
The mouse must get his due.
In the slightly less magical Disneyland (a Magic Hamlet to Disneyworld's Magic Kingdom), Walt Disney opened an exclusive dining club. Give that Club 33 was built to cater to VIPs, membership is hyper-exclusive and requires anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 in entry fees, another $12,000 in annual dues and the patience to spend 14 years on a waiting list.
While folks queuing up to ride the Pirates of the Caribbean will scoff at waiting merely a decade, that's still a considerable chunk of time. On the other hand, you get to then exit rooms by announcing, "If anyone needs me, I'll be at my club."
Totally worth it.
Wait time: Futility
Wolvesmouth isn't actually a restaurant. It's a roaming dinner party that's usually held in chef Craig Thornton's loft, but not always, that you sign up for by email, if he decides to let you in, and that keeps no set schedule.
It's been called "the toughest reservation in the city," but even that doesn't capture the exact combination of timing, charm and luck you'll need to get a seat at this table. Not only do you need to move near-instantly when Thornton announces one of his upcoming meals, but you'll need to impress him personally as well. The chef selects his 16 dinner guests to make the best possible party… so no table full of lawyers or doctors here.
If he thinks you'll be fun to have around, you're in. If not, try again next time.
It's an interesting way to run an event, although a guy who declared his loft the Wolvesden and judges whether firstname.lastname@example.org is cool enough to eat at his table should maybe reconsider the label "no pretense."
Wait time: Since Birth
If there's one thing I've mentioned in this space before, aside from not blowing all your travel money on alcohol, it's that celebrity chef and journalist Anthony Bourdain knows his stuff. Bombastic, cynical and a heck of a lot angrier at the world than anyone with his life should be, true, but this guy has the chops for this business.
So when he picks a small sushi shop in Tokyo as his ultimate last meal, you know there's something going on there.
Of course this isn't just a no-name joint. Sukiyabashi Jiro is one of the world's premier restaurants, operated by a chef who can do whatever he pleases and he pleases to make some of the best fish on the planet. Don't believe me or Bourdain? Perhaps the leader of the free world or Japan itself can convince you.
And you might even get in! As long as you got started decades earlier and were born on Hokkaido… the owner only serves locals and their guests, so brush up on your Japanese and start making friends.
Wait time: Never
So here's the good news, Noma is one of the best restaurants in the world. (Exciting, right?) Sometimes heralded as the best restaurant in the world (sorry Roca brothers), and owner/chef Rene Redzepi uses his kitchen there to experiment with some of the most interesting local flavors he can find in and around his local footprint.
Seriously, this is a restaurant that earned its Michelin stars through foraging.
The bad news is that it will be closing in approximately one month's time.
Yes, sadly Redzepi will be shutting down his bold experiment in gourmet moss in favor of new adventures. So, while this shop will live on in infamy, that's the only place it will live on. And if you don't have a reservation by now, it's sadly too late to get one.
But don't despair. There's always Christo's Falafel.