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A taste of the nation’s most popular restaurants

A taste of the nation’s most popular restaurants

July 19, 2018 at 12:24 PM

Tao. Old Ebbitt Grill. Carmine’s. They rank as some of the busiest restaurants in the United States. What draws hordes of tourists and locals alike to their dining rooms?

Location, location, location explains part of their success. Consumers are apt to notice you when you’re part of a popular nightclub in Las Vegas, mere blocks from the White House or smack in the heart of Times Square.

But it’s more than that. Over the course of the past few months, I crisscrossed the country to eat in six of its highest-grossing independent restaurants, curious to see what made the diverse collection of subjects special enough to pull in combined sales of about $194 million in 2017. Good cooking helps, although memorable food was missing from the place that pulls in the most money.

The link shared by all: hospitality of the warmest order. I relish the signature dish at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach — but not any more than I treasure the suits that cheerfully gossiped as they led me to my table or the servers who wise-cracked through dinner. Anywhere else, telling a restaurant you’ll be two hours late for your reservation would be grounds for dismissal — but at Gibsons Bar and Steakhouse in Chicago, I was welcomed like a most favored patron when I rolled in from a delayed flight.

Catch my drift? Diners prize passion and sincerity as much as whatever’s on the menu.

Since I have but one stomach, I selected five establishments from Restaurant Business’s current top 10 list of independent restaurants, a category defined a restaurant with no more than five locations. Most are on the East Coast, so for geographical harmony, I threw in the leading representative from California, which ranks No. 18 on the Restaurant Business list. In the interest of fairness, I visited each restaurant twice. In descending order of sales, here’s plenty to chew on:

TAO

Las Vegas | 400 seats | Opened in 2005

The highest-grossing independent restaurant in the country is in a four-level, 60,000-square-foot space — lounge, nightclub and pool included! — inside the Venetian hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. “We’re very good at volume,” says Rich Wolf, co-founder of Tao Group, which includes outposts in New York and other cities. “We love big spaces.”

There’s nothing subtle about the restaurant. We enter through a cavelike entrance lined with concrete water tubs filled with flower petals and lights to reach what feels like a temple crossed with an opium den, all red and dark yet illuminated to flatter. From our second-floor perch, I’m eye-to-eye with the 20-foot Buddha that centers the space. Above my head hang enormous panels on which a Beijing calligraphy artist did his thing with a giant brush. The men’s room is stocked with enough cologne options to open a duty-free shop.

Tao virgins, we seek guidance from a cheerleading server. (The room is so dark, more than a few diners use their phones as flashlights.) Peking duck: “Best duck in town, hands down!” she says. Chilean sea bass: “Our No. 1 bestseller.” Appetizers come out in a flash. In a city beckoning with casinos, concerts and strip clubs, says Wolf, “no one wants to sit three hours” for dinner. But the chicken satay, best for its cucumber garnish, and the dumplings, filled with pork, suffer from sweet sauces. Sadly, the sushi rice is cool to the touch.

I like everything about our attendant but her advice. Gray duck with floury-tasting pancakes is a sorry sight, and the best thing about the sweetly glazed Chilean sea bass is its bed of crunchy vegetables.

Dessert brings a catcher’s mitt of a fortune cookie, brimming with enough fresh fruit (dragon fruit included) to rival a brunch buffet and paper fortunes for everyone at the table. Nice gesture, even if the monster confection, its crevices filled with white and chocolate mousses, is little more than a pure sugar rush.

On a follow-up visit, the strengths of Tao become clear: Fried dishes (garlic green beans, rice studded with Chinese sausage, rock shrimp stuffed in lettuce cups) are your friends, and so are the bartenders. Could we eat dinner at the bar? “Yes, please keep us company!” one replied. While she had a flock of bachelorettes (and their admirers) to refuel, she made some anonymous customers feel like they had bellied up to their neighborhood pub.

Spicy tuna tartare on crispy rice (left) and sea bass at Tao in Las Vegas. (Tao Restaurant)

2016 sales: $42.5 million.

2016 meals: 226,146.

Known for: Pan-Asian fare in an over-the-top setting.

Best dishes: Garlic green beans, fried rice with Chinese sausage, rock shrimp in lettuce cups.

Letdowns: Cloying cocktails — and too-sweet just about everything else.

Pro tip: You can spend the day here, starting at the pool and ending in the nightclub.

Defining moment: Mid-meal, a sound check reads 101 decibels — the noise equivalent of a motorcycle.

JOE’S STONE CRAB

Miami Beach | 450 seats | Opened in 1920

Throngs of diners in and around the airy entry and retro bar at this American classic are waiting for their names to be announced via a microphone. “Mr. and Mrs. Stein!” a manager calls out. “Judge Young! Judge Young!” the same voice beckons in rat-a-tat fashion. Joe’s, named for Joseph Weiss, who with his wife, Jennie, nurtured a cottage into a local treasure, is basically a steakhouse that happens to showcase seafood.

Stone crabs harvested from the southern tip of the Florida peninsula are what everyone knows the restaurant for — the flamingo-pink beauties splay across a bed of ice where you make your entrance in summer — but Joe’s peddles just as much in first-class hospitality. The drinks are big and impressive. The main dining room sports an Old World feel, with chandeliers dropping from sky-high ceilings. The staff, some of whom have been with Joe’s for more than 40 years, immediately makes you part of the family. “Looks like you’re doing better than me,” a wisecracking server says as she doles out menus. “You’re drinking.”

Chopped salad, clams casino, lamb chops, Key lime pie: The menu is mostly a throwback, like the house accounts Joe’s still maintains, but behind the scenes are such of-the-moment fixtures as a beef-aging room and full-time fish and meat cutters, even a pitmaster.

You can rack up a serious bill if you fill up on the signature chilled seafood, its sweetness balanced with mustard sauce, but “We’ve always tried to keep it in the limelight for everybody,” says Jo-Ann Bass, the founder’s 86-year-old granddaughter. “That’s why we have the $6.95 fried chicken, the $6.95 chopped sirloin.” (The golden chicken, you should know, is free-range and finger lickin’ good, better in the company of roasted corn spiked with cilantro and lime, finer still when followed with coconut cream custard.)

Per tradition, the restaurant will close July 28, reopening Oct. 12, several days ahead of the stone crab season (Oct. 15 to May 15). For the first time, however, the adjoining and casual Joe’s Take Away will reopen Aug. 1 to help tide fans over until fall, with frozen stone crab and some of the restaurant’s specialties. Branches in Chicago, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., will remain open.

2017 sales: $36 million.

2017 meals: 360,000.

Known for: Stone crabs and superb service.

Best dishes: Fried chicken, lamb chops, fresh corn, coconut cream custard — and stone crabs, of course.

Letdowns: Bland hash browns.

Pro tip: Although stone crabs come in five sizes, their flavor profile is the same. Choose the size (medium, select, large, jumbo, colossal) you don’t mind peeling.

Defining moment: Hearing a host call out for “D.B. Cooper! D.B. Cooper!”

CARMINE’S

New York | 450 seats | Opened in 1992

A blast of garlic hits me in the face as I step inside the vestibule of Carmine’s, where two minders — one armed with an iPad, another behind a rope — try to control the flow of traffic on a recent Thursday night. When your business is in the heart of Times Square, you try to admit only those with reservations. Inside, squished near the bar as I wait for my companions, the picture resembles a reunion of a hundred Italian families, what with the barges of steaming pasta and fields of salad drifting by.

The walls of the expanse, named for a jockey befriended by founder Artie Cutler, are papered with black-and-white photos of long-ago merrymakers. The menus are posted throughout the restaurant; servers let you know that all the dishes are family-style, and if you want the signature Carmine’s experience, penne alla vodka should be part of any order. Don’t knock the largesse — a raft of tender pasta in a sea of tangy sauce — until you’ve tried it. That goes for a number of dishes here, including deftly fried squid, slices of ivory chicken on a field of buttery spinach, and creamy cheesecake. The sliced porterhouse — framed in potatoes, bell peppers and fennel sausage — is worthy of a steakhouse and so big that we’re compelled to share it with the table of 13 next to us.

“You don’t see this in Italy at all,” says a companion who knows his way around the country. Of course not. The red sauce experience at Carmine’s (which has branches on the Upper West Side, Atlantic City, the Bahamas, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.) is very American. Servers slicing and serving the colossal lasagna look like they are carving a turkey, and “Happy birthday” is sung as often as Trump tweets. Dessert options include a “Titanic” that’s basically a sundae on steroids, built with six scoops of ice cream, caramelized fruit, a chocolate torte and rolled wafers posing as smoke stacks. Even with six of us tackling the vessel with our spoons, we fail to make it vanish. Silly us. We should have asked for the half-size craft, known as the “Tugboat.”

2017 sales: $35 million.

2017 meals: 396,871.

Known for: Olympic portions of Italian comfort food.

Best dishes: Carmine’s (meaty, cheesy) salad, penne alla vodka, porterhouse Contadina, Italian cheesecake.

Letdowns: Gummy focaccia, a hot antipasto platter that tastes like a dozen appetizers welded together with cheese, strawberry shortcake.

Pro tip: The larger the group, the better the value.

Defining moment: “I’ll be honest,” I overhear a server tell a party. “All our dishes are designed for four people.”

OLD EBBITT GRILL

Washington, D.C. | 567 seats | Opened in 1856

The city’s oldest saloon is also its busiest and most beloved. On the Fourth of July, my most recent expedition, would-be customers pushing through the best-known revolving door in Washington were met with a two-hour wait for dinner.

This longtime District resident can think of plenty of reasons for staying put: ace bartenders, storytellers who invariably share their names and ask for yours at the mahogany counter; shucked-to-order oysters, so popular they spawned an oyster “riot,” going on its 24th year, that’s among the hottest tickets in town; a menu that bridges the burger set and the foodie crowd; and a scene that packs in boldfaced names, tourists and Secret Service agents (the Treasury is across the street). In the words of David Moran, area director of operations, Old Ebbitt Grill is “for everyone and every time.” Open three meals a day starting at 7 a.m., the restaurant is closed “just long enough to clean it,” jokes the former general manager.

Years of eating in the clubby, Victorian-inspired attraction — picture gas chandeliers, carved glass and English lace curtains in the central dining room — have taught me that much of the best food originates in the water: oysters, for sure, but also crab cakes, clams, teasingly spiced catfish and trout sheathed in a Parmesan crust. The famous chili, based on a recipe from Clyde’s, the company that bought Old Ebbitt in 1970, is sweeter than I like but leaves a nice trail of pepper in its wake. In general, the simpler the better. Cue the juicy hamburger with the skin-on fries, the chicken crisped with the help of a brick, the kale salad for those who want to feel virtuous and peanut butter pie for those who don’t.

In giving direction, the well-trained servers are honest. “The soup is a little squirrelly today,” I heard a bartender tell a couple of tourists earlier this year. Later, after some lawyers departed his station, he let his remaining audience know they were top guns. While he couldn’t name them, he said, “Those suits aren’t cheap.”

Trout Parmesan and chicken wings at the Old Ebbitt Grill in the District. (Clyde's Restaurant Group)

2017 annual sales: $34.1 million.

2017 meals: 659,650.

Known for: Oysters, steps away from the White House.

Best dishes: Crab cakes, peanut butter pie — and oysters in any form.

Letdowns: Hummus with pita, chili.

Pro tip: Get oysters for half price at the restaurant’s two daily happy hours: 3 to 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. to close.

Defining moment: No need for me to give my cabdriver the restaurant’s address. “I worked there as a busboy in the ’70s.” Everyone knows the place.

GIBSONS BAR & STEAKHOUSE

Chicago | 290 seats | Opened in 1989

True tale, per the owner’s son: Back in the 1990s, a regular who was a top lawyer in town came into Gibsons, where he and his wife were seated next to a bunch of rowdy conventioneers. A confrontation occurred and the VIP stormed out, vowing never to return to the Gold Coast fixture. Owner Steve Lombardo wouldn’t hear of it. He called to make amends, to no avail. He sent over a cherry pie, the lawyer’s favorite. Nada. He dropped by the lawyer’s office so many times, a secretary threatened the restaurateur with a restraining order. Only when Lombardo entreated one of the lawyer’s top clients to intervene did the disgruntled customer return to the steakhouse — and became a regular anew. The moral? “People come for the food, but they return for the service,” says Stephen Lombardo, the founder’s offspring and chairman of the Gibsons Restaurant Group.

The menu is a terrific carrot, pulling in patrons with some expertly made steakhouse classics and prime Black Angus beef from sustainable Midwestern ranches. Prettier than its name suggests, “garbage” salad is a deli lover’s delight built from shredded lettuce, diced salami, olives, smoked cheese, roasted peppers, onions, shrimp — a compelling kitchen sink sharpened with red wine vinegar. The meatier selections are introduced by a server holding a silver tray. The filet, we learn, is so tender “you can cut it with a feather — a serrated feather,” cracks a waiter. The nostalgic choice is W.R’s 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye, named for the late William Rice, the revered food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune (and before that, The Washington Post). Look for the occasional regional tastes, including perch from Lake Superior, and be sure to add to any order a verdant barge of the best creamed spinach in memory. Everything is served as if for a party of diners. Top-shelf gimlets are poured into glasses that could double as bird baths, and house-baked fruit pies are cut in a mere four slices.

Gibsons has two suburban branches, but the downtown original is set in a neighborhood known for seniors chasing their juniors and called “Viagra Triangle.” The place also attracts celebrities, including presidents, although only Muhammad Ali brought the whole house to its feet.

Crabmeat avocado (left) and garbage salad at Gibsons in Chicago. (Kailley Lindman/Gibsons Restaurant Group)

2017 annual sales: $25.4 million.

2017 meals served: 363,301.

Known for: Red meat and big drinks in the city’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

Best dishes: Crabmeat-stuffed avocado, W.R.’s Chicago cut steak, double baked potato, creamed spinach.

Letdowns: Dry spit-roasted chicken (but why are you ordering chicken here?).

Pro tip: Ask for off-the-menu onion rings fried in buttermilk batter.

Defining moment: Despite a flight delay that made me two hours late for my reservation, I was greeted like a regular and led to a table with an electrical outlet so I could recharge my phone.

BOTTEGA LOUIE

Los Angeles | 242 seats | Opened in 2009

Even if you lack a sweet tooth, it’s impossible to ignore the seductions on display as soon as you enter Bottega Louie in downtown Los Angeles. Do the tidy packages of sweets look familiar? Christopher Bollenbach, the venue’s partner and CEO, says that the beloved Laduree in Paris helped inspire the look of the gleaming patisserie he conceived with his brother, founder Keat Bollenbach. All I know as I scan the shelves of macarons, offered in a rainbow of colors, and classic cakes, including the Saint Honoré, is to save space for dessert after a meal.

The high-ceilinged dining room is as noisy as a high school gym but every bit as photogenic as it looks online, the beneficiary of the good bones it inherited from what was once a bank, then a Brooks Brothers. A spray of fresh flowers enlivens the regal host desk; pink Himalayan sea salt graces the table tops. Guests asking for San Pellegrino are informed the restaurant serves its own sparkling water — free — underscoring the establishment’s mantra: “affordable luxury,” says Bollenbach, who points to a check average of $32 per customer as evidence.

Brick chicken (left) and macarons at Bottega Louie in Los Angeles. (Bottega Louie)

You can point practically anywhere on the menu and find something to share on Snapchat. The pizzas, based on dough made fresh every day, and the steak, topped with a knob of herbed butter, are the equal of the linguine with clams, all garlic and brine. A number of dishes bear a decidedly California stamp, including avocado toast scattered with Fresno chiles and coins of racy chorizo, and the most refreshing minestrone in memory, vivid with green beans, asparagus, green tomatoes, basil and celery — verde good, you might say.

As busy as it gets, servers are gracious and vigilant, quick with refills and mindful of time crunches. When a friend headed to a meeting is about to leave with his coffee unfinished, a server comes to his rescue with a to-go cup filled with hot java. The friend, former restaurant critic Patric Kuh, says he recognizes her from an early visit to a younger Bottega Louie. “I enjoyed every meal,” says Kuh. “Me too,” she replies, referencing her tenure. “That’s why I’m still here.”

2017 annual sales: $21.2 million.

2017 meals served: 680,212.

Known for: A patisserie that would look at home in Paris.

Best dishes: Portobello fries, pizza, green minestrone, roast chicken, linguine with clams, budino with brown sugar custard and salted caramel — and macarons, naturally.

Letdowns: A one-note Sacher torte that wouldn’t pass muster in Vienna.

Pro tip: To avoid a wait for the dining room, eat off the full menu in the cafe near the bakery.

Defining moment: When a solo diner hesitates to order dessert, his server suggests he get the two-bite, jewel-like fruit tart. Score!

Sales figures were gathered by The Post from the restaurants, with the exception of Tao’s, which came from Restaurant Business.


Tom Sietsema has been The Washington Post's food critic since 2000. He previously worked for the Microsoft Corp., where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. He has also written for Food & Wine.

Madalyne Bird is a designer working on projects for print, digital and social media.

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