In the universe of eating, 40 years is a long time. The foods we happily ate a few months ago—say, unicorn cake—become dated as swiftly as the next trend arrives. Over the past four decades, the restaurant world has undergone massive transformations—in the realms of service, style, leadership, and design. These 40 restaurants, some newly opened and some long closed, have paved the way for the country's current dining landscape. As you'll notice, some of the restaurants on this list opened more than 40 years ago, but they've continued to impact the past four decades of American dining, while others on the list opened as recently as 2017 and have already become canon.
The fine-dining Garden District restaurant that shepherded the careers of chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse set the standard for upscale New Orleans dining for decades to come, establishing NOLA as an American culinary capital and hotbed of talent. Initially opened in 1893 as "Emile Commander's Palace Saloon," the restaurant took on its modern identity as an "haute Creole" giant (and jazz brunch destination) after being purchased by the Brennan family in 1974.
Joe’s Stone Crab
While Joe’s Stone Crab opened over one hundred years ago (in 1913, to be exact, as a stand by the beach), the classic Miami restaurant's influence on the crab and seafood industries will echo for decades to come. The top buyer of Florida stone crab, the white-tablecloth standby is the textbook definition of “an institution,” hosting such stars as Al Capone, Frank Sinatra, and countless politicians, not to mention its role in granting Key lime pie the celebrity it deserves.
Dooky Chase's Restaurant
The art-filled New Orleans restaurant is as much an institution for its consistently excellent Creole cooking as it is for its active role in the civil rights movement. Chef and icon Leah Chase, known as "the Queen of Creole Cuisine," hosted members of the NAACP, civil rights leaders (including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), black voter registration organizers, and prominent intellectuals at the restaurant throughout the 1950s and onwards. What’s more, 95-year-old Chase still serves some of the best gumbo and fried chicken in the city, having helped raise the national profile of both dishes.
Dooky Chase's Restaurant, 2301 Orleans Ave., New Orleans, (504) 821-0600
Prince's Hot Chicken Shack
We are all indebted to André Prince Jeffries for creating one of the best home-grown American triumphs; fiery, crispy, tangy hot chicken, crowned with a pickle or two. Prince’s, the old-school (and unrivaled) spot for what is now known as Nashville hot chicken, has inspired dozens of imitators around the country, and we’re not even mad—we’re just patiently waiting for hot chicken to achieve burger-levels of ubiquity.
Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, 123 Ewing Dr. #3, Nashville, (615) 226-9442
While Canlis has been an essential Seattle fine-dining stalwart for over six decades, its greatest strength might be its capacity for reinvention while consistently delivering excellence in service, cuisine, and vision. We don’t like to throw around the word “timeless,” but there’s no better word to describe the modernist, Pacific Northwest destination, where Blanca alum Brady Williams has been wowing diners (and us) with his bold sensibility since 2015.
Canlis, 2576 Aurora Ave. N, Seattle, (206) 283-3313
A Harlem landmark since 1962, the soul food restaurant is one of New York’s most historic, bearing witness to some of the country's most dramatic changes. In addition to serving the best fried chicken, ribs, and coconut cake this side of the Mason Dixon line, founder and entrepreneur Sylvia Woods (aka “The Queen of Soul Food”) has hosted such prominent figures as Nelson Mandela, Diana Ross, Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson, Al Sharpton, and tourists from around the world who consider her restaurant to be a non-negotiable city stop—because it absolutely is.
Sylvia's, 328 Malcolm X Blvd., New York, (212) 996-0660
Brennan’s of Houston
Part of what makes this Creole fine-dining landmark so special is the chefs it launched to stardom: Underbelly and UB Preserv’s Chris Shepherd, for example—a visionary who represents the best of Houston’s restaurant boom—got his start in the Brennan’s kitchen. The sister restaurant of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, also included on this list, Brennan’s has endured as one of the best Southern restaurants in the country, even after burning down in 2017 during Hurricane Ike.
Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith St., Houston, (713) 522-9711
Alice Waters’ cozy, two-story Berkeley restaurant has been a pivotal force in American culinary culture since opening its doors in 1971, pioneering a focus on local ingredients that’s now standard among fine-dining restaurants. Waters cultivated close relationships with farmers and producers in the area, ensuring that each product's quality was responsible for making Chez Panisse's foodextraordinary, more than any fancy technique. Many attribute the restaurant, and Waters' advocacy, with the creation of what is now known as "California cuisine."
Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 548-5525