Emma Cosgrove: Level, Annapolis, MD
I’m cheating a bit because Annapolis is my hometown, but Level is a small plates place that I hit every time I’m home. They have a killer cocktail list and painstakingly follow local, seasonal and sustainable standards. I’m always shocked at how close to Maryland they find gorgeous cheese and heritage pork. Farms and producers are right on the menu. Plus, Annapolis has the loveliest historic downtown.
Talia Ralph: Sumac, Montreal
Every time I go home to Montreal, I appreciate its food scene more and more (I know, I know, I’m late to the party — keep in mind, I was a moody teenager for a lot of the time I lived and ate there). The latest gem in the crown of Mile End’s deliciousness is Sumac, a Middle Eastern restaurant that does the classics perfectly and still throws a few surprises in. Their namesake fries, dusted with sumac, are a must, as is their spicy s’rug. Their falafel strike the perfect crunchy/soft balance. And their cocktail game is on point. And the space is both beautiful and casual, perfect for popping in before watching a Habs game or grabbing a drink elsewhere.
Gabrielle Langholtz: Prairie Whale, Great Barrington, MA
As I said to Andrew Tarlow over oysters last week, Diner and Marlow & Sons gave me everything I wanted before I even knew I wanted it. But while Tarlow went on to open Roman’s, Reynard, Achilles Heel and She Wolf Bakery, his partner in those early trailblazers, Mark Firth, instead went north, bringing their sensibility from Brooklyn to the Berkshires. Now that the sun’s back, I urge you to hit the trails up there and work up an appetite to sate at Firth’s Prairie Whale. Like Diner and Marlow, you can go for breakfast, lunch or dinner — or better yet, all three.
Caroline Lange: Lenoir, Austin, TX
I flew to Austin to visit my aunt and uncle a few weeks back, and they treated me to a really incredible meal at Lenoir, a restaurant in the city’s South 1st neighborhood. It’s a tiny spot with a very funky $40 tasting menu, a choose-your-own-adventure meal: Diners pick three courses total from a list of 12, divided into “Field,” “Sea,” “Land” and “Dream.” (My picks included two from Field — sunchoke flan, a soft egg tamale — and one Dream — a toasted fennel cake.) The restaurateurs are involved in a number of cool related ventures, too: Lenoir is a CSR (community-supported restaurant, functioning the same way a CSA does: The restaurant gets a lump sum of capital and its investors get dining credit), and curates a downright dreamy cooking supply store, Métier, next door.
Carrington Morris: Damon Baehrel, Earlton, NY
File this under fantasy food travel, and take a field trip in your mind to this gem of a restaurant nestled up in the Hudson Valley. A recent James Beard Award nominee that’s been called the “most exclusive restaurant in the U.S.” by Bloomberg News, the eponymous Damon Baehrel sources about 99 percent from the confines of its 12-acre Earlton property, cooking up a daily tasting menu of 16 to 19 “surprise courses.” Provocative ingredients like cattail shoots, homemade acorn flour, pine needles and hardwood cherry sap — along with hundreds of homemade powders from wild fiddlehead ostrich fern and wild pink currant to ground moss, hickory bark and wild sorrel — all contribute to equally alluring dishes. Pine-needle-cured lamb bacon anyone? The self-taught chef’s inventive process goes something like this: Musings on deer nibbling on tree bark leads to a saline taste discovery that manifests as pine salt. Aversion to the richness and obviousness of butter leads to an inspired use for that CSA question generator, the rutabaga. Charcuterie and cheese? He makes them himself. Only the meat and fish are procured off-site through a local Mennonite community and “a trusted fisherman in Massachusetts.” Taking humility to its farthest reaches, our hero works as his own sous-chef, busboy and dishwasher. After all this, sorry to say you’ll just have to dream about eating here: The 20-seater at last count received 10,000 inquiries a week for reservations and finally stopped taking them last April to avoid the absurdity of booking a table years and years in advance. But just wow.
Ariel Lauren Wilson: Kipos Greek Taverna, Chapel Hill, NC
When I visit my former college town, I’m more likely to notice what I feel it’s lost than what it has actually gained. Likely for selfish reasons, I lament the replacement of the worn and obsolete ’70s-style library furniture with ergonomically appropriate Aeron knockoffs; I ask a too-young-to-know-undergrad-barista why the “burrito incubator” at my preferred on-campus café has been replaced with an oversized picnic basket of Stacy’s Pita Chips (I’ll be the first to admit that the burritos were usually a day old); I curse the mega pharmacy chain that now occupies a once-favorite breakfast spot. If change is inevitable though, I want to acknowledge a recent upgrade to the Chapel Hill dining experience: Kipos Greek Taverna. Owned and operated by Greeks, the restaurant’s dinner menu boasts traditional rotisserie meats and handmade phyllo pies served alongside an entirely Greek wine list. From their seafood to their salads, it’s clear that they seek out top-quality ingredients, which means procuring most of their menu from nearby sources. I strongly recommend the loukaniko (grilled pork sausage) and herb-roasted rotisserie chicken.