Anajak Thai – Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Innovative Restaurants in Places You Might Not Expect

BY Hilary Harty | July 30, 2023

If you’re the type of traveler who’s planned entire trips around food, you’re also the type of eater who needs to be wowed by the places you choose. The restaurants we’ve gathered here take the familiar flavors and foodways of yesteryear and bring them into unusual focus, through expressive dishes in surprising settings. Below, we’ve explored some of our favorite innovative restaurants in places you might not expect, from indigenous chefs in large cities and Nigerian dinner parties in Brooklyn barbershops, to exquisite Thai in the San Fernando Valley and a meal eaten in the middle of an open field, and many more. 

Anajak Thai – Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Anajak Thai is not a new restaurant or one that’s under-the-radar in any way. The Thai spot has operated out of the same Sherman Oaks location, just north of L.A., and run by the same family since the early 80s. But, it has evolved in surprising ways. Now run by Justin Pichetrungsi, son of original owner Roger Pichetrungsi, Anajak has become a Los Angeles hot spot after a reshuffling of their offering. The restaurant serves its normal dinner service, a Taco Tuesday and an outdoor omakase. What keeps people coming back are the expressive Thai, Cantonese and Japanese dishes. As the LA Times noted when it deemed it restaurant of the year in 2022, the omakase meals use of “a Japanese format to reexamine Southeast Asian flavors” and a wine list that “summarizes Angelenos’ disparate tastes.”

Cocina al Fondo – San Juan, PR

You’re here in San Juan for authentic and fresh Puerto Rican cuisine prepared by 2023 James Beard Best Chef South, Natalia Vallejo at her restaurant Cocina al Fondo. Sustainability is at the forefront of what they do, as is highlighting the traditional flavors of Puerto Rico’s colorful cuisine. The restaurant sources from local purveyors and you’ll find an eclectic menu with fresh seafood, vegetarian and meat dishes, like their take on tuna tartare, arepas, pumpkin pastelillos and soup, lobster casserole and more. Make sure to wash it down with one of Karla Z. Torre’s creative cocktails, made with local fruits and edible flowers. 

The Deer and the Dove – Decatur, GA

Aside from Chef Terry Koval’s menu of house made pastas, bone marrow and snails, rotating salad pickings and smoky duck, The Deer and the Dove is worth visiting to see how a kitchen championing the slow-food movement is run. Located in Decatur, Ga. just outside of Atlanta, the eatery has been recognized as a Farmer Champion — a program that supports local and organic producers — and was awarded the 2023 Slow Food Snail of Approval. Oh, Chef Koval also won the 2023 James Beard award for Best Chef Southeast. 

Dept. of Culture – Brooklyn

Dept. of Culture is cool, like actually cool. Not cool like waiting in a two-hour queue in hopes of making a Deux Moi spotting – ahem, Jack’s Wife Freda – but cool like indulging in Nigerian dishes inspired by Chef Ayo Balogun’s home state of Kwara in a former barbershop that looks more like a Brooklyn art gallery. The communal seating makes Dept. of Culture feel more like an intimate dinner party, but, instead of overcooked salmon, you’ll feast on a prix fixe menu of dishes like pepper soup, Nigerian cheese, and Dodo. 

Fairchild – Madison, Wisconsin

Fairchild is run by Wisconsinites Patrick Sierra and chefs Itaru Nagano and Andrew Kroeger. It’s unusual for the pedigree of its crew — Nagano and Kroeger won the 2023 James Beard award for Best Chef(s) Midwest and each worked at acclaimed restaurants like Bouchon Bistro, Craft and Solbar — and the blend of casual and fine dining. The Madison restaurant opened just weeks before the pandemic hit, yet managed to survive with a rotating dinner menu of regional ingredients prepared simply and dishes like Ora King Salmon served with fennel, sungold tomatoes and herb vinaigrette.

Grey Sweater – Oklahoma City, OK

Chef Andrew Black was onto something when he cooked up the idea for his Oklahoma City eatery, Grey Sweater. Walking in, you’ll think you’ve mistakenly opened the door to someone’s house, an outdoor design feature that “drives home” Black’s dream of serving upscale cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere. Whether you opt for the five-, seven- or 10-course prix fixe menu, prepare for avant-garde dining. There’s an international element to the menus; you may find beef from Australia or fish from New Zealand. Chef Black is known as a boundary pusher and his unique approach to fine-dining earned him the 2023 James Beard award for Best Chef Southwest. 

Indigenous Eats – Spokane, WA

Andrew and Jenny Slagle opened Indigenous Eats in 2022. The fast-casual Native American concept took flight thanks to the pair’s family recipes and ingredients sourced exclusively from Native American purveyors. A proper meal here means Grandma Vi’s comforting fry bread topped with beans, ground bison, beef or chicken, and fixings like lettuce, tomato, sour cream and cheese. You can skip the frybread (though why would you?) and opt for wild rice, corn chips or tater tots as your base. Whatever you choose, wash it all down with a Huckleberry Lemonade.

KIN – Boise, ID

Chef Kris Komori won the 2023 James Beard award for Best Chef Mountain, a first for the state of Idaho. At his Boise restaurant KIN, the menu rotates every five weeks, but you can expect elevated takes on dishes like rabbit with apricot, umeboshi, shiso, and gnocchi parisienne on the five course prix fixe menu. If you’re looking for a more casual experience, stop by on a Saturday at 9:00 p.m. for the late night supper club and rub shoulders with industry professionals and eaters looking to taste Komori’s food and at a lower price point. 

Native Root – Winston-Salem, NC

Native Root, in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina, focuses on Native American food traditions and eating with the seasons. As the brainchild of Chef Jordan Rainbolt, Native Root hosts community-driven supper clubs and pop-ups. Rainbolt’s commitment to Indigenous food traditions informs her approach to the monthly five-course dinners inspired by the Native American moon calendar as well as the farm dinners that use ingredients sourced onsite. 

Nonesuch – Oklahoma City, OK

The meteoric rise of Nonesuch’s popularity came after the restaurant nabbed Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit back in 2018. Since then, the high-end eatery has helped put Oklahoma City on the culinary map with its 10-course tasting menu for carnivores and  eight-course dining menu for omnivores. The restaurant works closely with farmers to source the best local ingredients and transform them into dishes like farro risotto with crispy oyster mushrooms and bison tartare. The food here is joyful, complex, and worth a trip to the Sooner State. 

Outstanding in the Field – Santa Cruz, Calif.

This is a restaurant that certainly embraces the idea of travel. Founded by Jim Denvean in 1999, Outstanding in the Field is a wandering restaurant-event that provides rarely duplicated dining experiences. The bespoke service means they set up a long dining table wherever they source that meal, which, in the past, has included fishing docks, orchards, fields, vineyards, beaches and city streets. There are almost 50 more experiences on their schedule in America this year — most on farms — as well as a handful in Canada and Africa. 

Sly Fox Den Too – Charlestown, RI

Sat upon the ancestral land of the Narragansett people, Chef Sherry Pocknett’s Sly Fox Den Too serves an impressive menu of Indigenous comfort food. Hearty breakfast dishes come with corn cakes and Nausamp, a type of yellow corn grits; and sandwiches — like the Indian Sammich, a tender and seasoned venison meat with fried potatoes and onions — are served on the chef’s special Indian fry bread. The restaurant does dinner as well where their Crab Cakes are a must. Unsurprisingly, Pocknett won the 2023 James Beard award for Best Chef Northeast.