Photo courtesy of casa vega
In 1998, the James Beard Awards introduced a new category that would turn away from the glitz and glam of haute cuisine and towards more humble establishments. While the America’s Classics award was initially designed to exclude the high-end, it has now expanded its scope to include “locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” The roster of previous winners includes a wide range of restaurants, from NOLA’s fine dining institution Galatoires to Arizona’s order-at-the-counter Fry Bread House.
The majority of this year’s awardees are owned by people of color, two of which serve food of Mexican and Chinese origin. According to NPR, in the category’s 18-year history, during which 102 restaurants were awarded, only seven have served food that was not European or regional American in origin—and most were added in recent years. This shift, then, is marking a long-awaited appreciation for the country’s diverse culinary landscape.
Sherman Oaks, California
Featured in our list of the most essential Mexican restaurants in LA, Casa Vega stands out as a purveyor of innovative Mexican cuisine, offering up everything from sweet corn tamales to Mexican pizza. The 65-year-old-business—which made an appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—was founded by Rafael “Ray” Vega. He learned everything about the restaurant industry from his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Tijuana, Mexico in the 1930s and opened up Cafe Caliente on historic Olvera Street. Rafael sadly passed away in 2021 from complications due to COVID-19, but his legacy lives on through his daughter, Christina “Christy” Vega, who worked side by side with her father for 15 years before taking up the business in 2012.
Camden, New Jersey
Advertised as “soul food with a touch of class,” Corinne Bradley-Powers’ namesake restaurant has been a touchstone of the Camden community since 1989. Diners have enjoyed her Cajun turkey wings, pigs feet, and famous fried chicken, all in the comfort of a cozy, pink dining room. Last year, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy commended the restaurant owner for her community-based efforts during the pandemic. She turned a vacant lot beside her storefront into tented outdoor space for outdoor dining, calling it “the oasis.”
While many restaurants in Wisconsin claim to have invented the butter burger, the butter-fried hamburger that pays tribute to Wisconsin’s dairy heritage, it’s Solly’s Grille that put it on the map. Created in 1936 by Kenneth “Solly” Salmon, this sandwich features ground sirloin, stewed onions, and farm-fresh Wisconsin butter—an iconic dish that even non-Wisconsinites have made a pilgrimage for.
Chinatown, New York
Including this late-night mainstay in our list of the best restaurants in Chinatown was a no-brainer. The second-oldest restaurant in NYC’s Chinatown, which is located in an unassuming basement off Mott Street, has been serving a distinct brand of Chinese-American food since 1938. It’s the place to go for any seafood delicacy, like salt and pepper squid with egg gravy, or pan-fried flounder over choy sum. Ming Huang took over the restaurant from his uncle and describes the menu at Wo Hop as “old-fashioned, chop suey-style food,” a cuisine that Huang says is disappearing from many American Chinatowns.
The Busy Bee Café, which holds a spot on our list of essential Black-owned restaurants in America, contains a very storied history. When Lucy Jackson opened the Southern landmark on what was then called Hunter Street in 1947, it was one of only two streets in the city open to Black entrepreneurs after the race riots pushed the community from downtown Atlanta. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights icons frequented Busy Bee to enjoy the fried chicken, ham hocks, catfish, and collard greens. Today, the restaurant is run by Tracy Gates and visited by a number of notable people, like Oprah, Samuel L. Jackson, and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Florence Jones Kemp learned all there is to know about farm-fresh food from her mother, who taught her how to harvest okra, milk a cow, and churn butter. When she opened her restaurant in 1952, she said all she had was “two chickens and a prayer.” Today, Kemp works alongside her daughter Victoria, continuing to serve her mother’s recipes, which include braised oxtails, candied yams, and pear pie. The restaurant has a lot to be proud of, as the America’s Classic designation marks Oklahoma’s first James Beard Award.