Food isn't everything.
(I said it!)
That might sound like heresy, coming from a guy who is paid to eat, and my apologies in advance to the hard-working and thoughtful cooks who make dining out so much fun. But the truth is, people go out to eat looking for more than just a fill-up. Food is part of the draw, but often there's an important subtext to a restaurant meal. It might involve wooing a mate, sealing a deal with a client, partying with a group of friends or bonding with the kids.
Now and then, we find ourselves in a place not so much because we need to refuel, but because we're in the mood for a lively scene, or to get out into the countryside for a few hours. Other times the food is the thing: We're craving carbs or a great steak, and we'd go anywhere to get them.
With those thoughts in mind, I spent the past four months visiting restaurants old and new, near and far, that tap into a number of popular hankerings. Some of the places I've included here, but certainly not all, are the best in their class. Many are my personal favorites.
All hold the power to put you in a better mood.
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Food critic Tom Sietsema is online every Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET to take your dining out questions.