How does one become a power player in the dining and nightlife industry? Making your name as an incredibly popular chef isn’t a terrible start. Flexing your business skills as a chef + owner: even better. And of course there’s plenty of room for people who can’t cook: the visionaries who dream up the concepts nobody else could, the devoted student of cocktail lore, the DJ who can fill any size room you put them in, every night.
To find who holds the true power and influence, we dug beyond just bold-faced names and also profiled gatekeepers, innovators and disruptors who are altering the industry for the better, whether it be through philanthropy, advocacy or inclusion, plus those who are forever evolving the way our restaurants look and sound, and entrepreneurs doing everything they can to shake up the food system as a whole. Our choices weren’t based wholly on pure revenue or number of locations. They also took into deep consideration who has the most sweeping effect on the overall industry—and who everyone else can look to as a model for tomorrow.
Here are the 55 power players (presented alphabetically) most deeply influencing dining and nightlife in 2018 and beyond.
Co-Owner, The Alinea Group
Chef Grant Achatz simply won’t stop innovating. Two and a half years ago, he closed his award-winning flagship Chicago restaurant, the high-concept, tasting menu-only Alinea, for six months to give it a complete remodel and menu revamp. Nearly fourteen years into its tenure (as well as a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant and multiple 3-Michelin-star rankings later), the kitchen still rolls out some of the most creative food in the country: “We try to create the impossible. We can’t do it every time, but if we can do it every third time, that’s great,” Achatz says.
On the heels of opening an outpost of The Aviary in the tony Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City’s Columbus Circle and the release of an Aviary cookbook later this year, Achatz now has his sights set on continued Chicago domination, with two projects in the works: a classic French restaurant, slated to open next year, as well as an ambitious supperclub and music venue, which could take a couple more. As Achatz puts it, “Gastronomy has a very predictable pace. In order to stay relevant, you need to continue to push.”
Founder, The Butter Group
Richie Akiva’s particular brand of New York hustle has gone global. His famed 1 Oak nightclub, which originally opened in New York City in 2008, now has locations in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and in the last year has opened outposts in Dubai, Tokyo and The Maldives. And his West 14th Street nightclub and music incubator Up & Down continues to book emerging artists in NYC, in addition creating pop-up parties at Coachella, Art Basel and more.
Akiva sits comfortably at the intersection of nightlife, music, celebrity and fashion. His Fashion Week after-parties are the stuff of legend. The artists he’s helped to evolve into world-class acts by giving them a stage reads like a who’s who’s of who’s hot right now (Travis Scott, Fetty Wap, Post Malone, Future) as do the pre-established big acts that perform at his spots (Drake, Mark Ronson, The Biebs) and those he’s thrown parties for (Rihanna, J. Lo, Usher). And although he couldn’t share details just yet, he’s working on two new food and beverage concepts for later this year or early next. Akiva says of his eye for spotting new talent, “I think by being hands on and staying present within the industry, you often discover emerging talent without even looking for it.”
Executive Chef and Founder, ThinkFoodGroup
Through his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, José Andrés has become just as synonymous with giving back as he’s been with flashy hotel restaurants: The Washington, D.C.-based chef, who owns more than 20 restaurants nationwide (not counting multiple locations of Pepe Food Truck and his ever-expanding fast-casual, vegetable-forward chain Beefsteak), made TIME’s “100 Most Influential People” list this year for his relief efforts in places like Haiti and Puerto Rico, where he reportedly fed 3.6 million people after Hurricane Maria.
“I’ve spent many years feeding the few at my restaurants, and now I am starting to understand what it means to feed the many. This is only the beginning,” Andres, who at the time was helping out with hurricane relief efforts in the Carolinas, said. This fall has seen the publication of a book recounting his time in Puerto Rico,We Fed an Island, as well as continued work with World Central Kitchen—this time feeding victims of Hurricane Michael in Florida.
PARTNER: Nicholas Stone
Founder & CEO of Bluestone Lane
It takes tons of guts and twice as much luck to successfully launch anything in New York City. Where caffeine wars aren’t dominated by multibillion-dollar chains, they’ve already been disrupted by local, bespoke, hipster beaneries. Enter Nicholas Stone: the former investment banker and professional Australian footballer who in 2013 realized the coffeeshop of yesteryear was all but roasted.
In Stone’s hometown of Melbourne, “The café is still a place where the barista knows your face, your name, your order,” he explains. “It becomes a part of your daily ritual, for an escape and a human connection.” In 2013, with zero experience in hospitality, Stone founded Bluestone Lane, bringing premium coffee back to New York, with “a genuine experience, not just a commoditized product transaction.” In the five years since, Stone has grown Bluestone Lane to 33 locations across six major U.S. cities. And of course, the brand’s signature shade of cheerful blue is undeniably Insta-friendly.
Executive Chef, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Barber’s mastery of vegetable cookery has been documented for nearly two decades through his work at Manhattan’s Blue Hill and its upstate sister property, farm-and-restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In more recent years, though, his name has become synonymous with changing the way we think about food waste, having launched the wastED pop-up at both his restaurant in 2015 and in London last year.
Now Barber is thinking smaller, quite literally: he co-founded and launched Row 7 this year, a seed company focused on developing vegetable breeds for flavor, instead of shelf life, uniformity or yield. “Most chefs celebrate heirloom varietals, but that’s elitist, because the yield is very low,” Barber says. “Our goal is to democratize these great flavors and get into places like Walmart.” Barber is already one step closer: this fall, Row 7 announced a partnership with Sweetgreen, where its Koginut squash is now offered in a bowl in all of the chain’s 99 locations across the country.
Bartender and Advocate
She’s created cocktail programs at some of the country’s coolest watering holes (The Ace Hotel in New Orleans; New York’s chic Tokyo Record Bar), but Ashtin Berry isn’t only on this list for her ability to mix a well-balanced drink. She’s become an outspoken activist for equal opportunities in an industry that hasn’t always been the most welcoming on the basis of gender, race or identity. As she explains, “The same people get all the opportunities and the access to leadership. I also do a lot of work to get people access to preventative care.”
As she readies to open her own project in New Orleans next year, Berry will take her advocacy one step further. The vision for her restaurant Cooks’ Club is to help line cooks develop their talent and vision through mentorship; each week a different line cook will create a different menu for the 25 to 30 people who dine there. It’s an ambitious idea, but Berry’s already shown success with pushing the needle.
Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz
Co-Founders, Boka Restaurant Group
“Hundreds and hundreds.” That’s how many chef tastings Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz estimate they’ve done—and despite that, they’ve partnered with only six chefs for their ever-growing Boka Restaurant Group empire. (You may know one of them, Stephanie Izard, from a little show called Top Chef.) As Chicago continually challenges New York City as potentially the top dining market in the country, their 16 successful restaurants, such as modern steakhouse Swift & Sons, upscale Japanese joint Momotaro and seafood and raw bar Cold Storage, stand as a testament to what they call “emotional hospitality.”
Their first restaurant, Boka, is in its 15th year, and the duo is setting their sights on Los Angeles, bringing Izard’s Girl & the Goat to the growing dining hotbed of the Arts District next summer. “We see a kinship with [Chicago’s] West Loop, which is where we initially planted our flag,” Katz says. “Going to Los Angeles is everything you want it to be—scary and exciting—but we love what’s happening in dining there.”
Writer and Television Personality
You may have read Anthony Bourdain’s no-holds-barred, unabashedly honest writing and thought that the relentless explorer didn’t give a ton of fucks about what other people thought. And that may have been true. But what made him a beloved figure in the food world and beyond was that in countless other ways he actually gave, many, many fucks. About mom-and-pop businesses. About fairness and equality. About opening up new worlds to his readers and viewers. And about his fellow cooks.
When Bourdain took his own life earlier this year, it was a shock not only to those who knew him, but those who admired him on the page and on screen. And one could argue that, like a silver-haired Jedi knight, his reach and influence have been just as, if not more, powerful than when he set out to film his last season of “Parts Unknown.” We don’t just mean for the crass reason that his book sales spiked following his death. His untimely passing reminded many that discussions about and care for mental health must be more open and accessible, in the restaurant world and beyond, so that tragedies like his occur less often.
PARTNER: Sheldon Fireman
Founder and CEO, Fireman Hospitality Group
The indefatigable Sheldon “Shelly” Fireman, one of the original tastemakers who built New York into the culinary epicenter it is today, is the leader of The Fireman Hospitality Group, which owns and operates an impressive (and growing) list of hugely successful restaurants—three of which were ranked Top 100 Highest Grossing Independent Restaurants in the country in 2014 by Restaurant Business Magazine.
In Manhattan alone, Fireman owns six, including Trattoria Dell’Arte and Cafe Fiorello. Fireman strives to create spaces for patrons to feel embraced by the food, the staff and the environment. Fireman’s newly relocated hotspot, Bond 45 is at the intersection of art and food. Filled with artwork of his own creation and co-designed by Fireman himself in collaboration with the Hamilton set designer, David Korins, the Italian eatery is located in the heart of the Theater District and is known for hosting theater elites and the rising stars on Broadway.
Patrick O. Brown
CEO, Impossible Foods
A restaurant menu without a burger is like a bar without booze—and Impossible Foods’ Patrick O. Brown is on a mission to make plant-based burgers just as ubiquitous as their meaty counterparts. The former Stanford University biochemistry professor says, “The goal is to create food that categorically outperforms meat from animals in taste, nutrition and value, eliminating the need for animals in the food system by 2035.”
He’s on his way. After debuting in 40 restaurants last year, around 4,000 restaurants nationwide now sell the company’s Impossible Burger, a blend of wheat and potato proteins, coconut oil and soy (among other things) that, when cooked, has a shockingly similar taste and texture to beef. And after launching in 140 White Castle locations this April, the Impossible Slider will now be available at all 377 joints. “White Castle is one of the most innovative restaurant concepts in the United States. It pioneered the fast-food assembly line nearly a century ago. Its leaders are very open to new ideas and support our mission to make the Impossible Burger more mainstream and mass-market,” Brown explains. With new restaurants regularly adding the Impossible Burger, retail plans for next year, and international expansion into Hong Kong and Macau, “Where’s the beef?” might become less and less relevant.
Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick
Founders, Major Food Group
Major Food Group’s restaurants are the dining equivalent of Big Dick Energy: bold, swagger-filled and peacocking without letting you know they care too much about it. Every opening is a splash, from the unveiling of The Grill in the former power-lunching Four Seasons space in Manhattan, to the adjoining The Pool and The Lobster Club later in 2017. This year, they opened The Polynesian, a breathtaking Midtown ode to all things tiki and expanded their international reach with two restaurant concepts at the upscale Jaffa hotel in Tel Aviv.
Although the group already has a foothold in Las Vegas, with an outpost of its upscale family-style Italian restaurant Carbone, they’ll bring their modern Jewish deli, Sadelle’s, to The Bellagio in December. Of course, it being Vegas, they’ll add one more menu item to give it that extra dose of BDE: caviar service.
Founder, Momofuku and Majordomo Media
David Chang—the man who birthed Momofuku—is used to making news, but with the launch of the multimedia company Majordomo Media this spring along with former Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich, he’ll literally be making the news. Of course, it’s not entirely clear what the company is just yet! But its Twitter feed promises “Travel. Music. Sports. Food. Essays. Podcasts. Videos. Images. New ways to look at culture.” Industry eyes and ears are waiting with baited breath to see how Majordomo Media differs from Chang’s wonderfully unpredictable food-and-culture magazine Lucky Peach, which stopped publishing in 2017. Thus far, the company has launched the weekly podcast “The David Chang Show,” on which the chef interviews other chefs, celebrities and founders about the food world and beyond.
In the meantime, Chang’s also starring in a Netflix series “Ugly Delicious,” and he’s not slacking on the dining front either. His first Los Angeles restaurant, Majordomo, has been red-hot since opening in the Arts District, and on its heels the company opened its flagship sweets shop, Milk Bar, in Hollywood as well. Chang’s fried-chicken concept Fuku just flew the coop to Boston’s Seaport, its tenth location.
Co-Owner, Founder and Chef, Kogi BBQ, Chego, A-Frame, Commissary, POT and LocoL
Roy Choi’s fingerprints on national dining are immense: You probably wouldn’t have food courts filled entirely with makeshift “food trucks” in the ‘burbs without Choi’s Kogi BBQ, and his playful mash-up of stoner food and sheer personality have made him a social media darling, with upwards of 100,000 followers on Instagram. Choi’s gearing up to open a greatest hits restaurant of sorts called Best Friend at the Park MGM in Las Vegas this December, as well as premiere a show on KCET and Tastemade called “Broken Bread” exploring broken food systems (think: issues like food waste and access to water) and the people who are doing something to change it.
And although Choi’s ambitious fast-food concept with a community building purpose, LocoL, closed its two Oakland locations and converted its Watts shop to catering-only this year, it would be too easy to chalk those up as failures. “Lots of folks are writing us off but don't realize we can't stop won't stop,” says Choi, who has publicly stated that LocoL’s future isn’t over, simply refocusing. We’d expect no less from one of the bad boys of food.
Chef and Proprietor, Ashley Christensen Restaurants
Opening new restaurants is one way to guarantee influence. Making sure less shiny restaurants feel fresh year after year isn’t nearly as sexy—but it’s just as vital. And that’s where James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southwest Ashley Christensen shines with her five Raleigh properties: “I love walking into an existing property and seeing what needs to go in a new direction. When you don’t do that, a spot tends to look dated,” she says, explaining how she recently revamped the bar seating at her first property, the decade-old Southern-inflected Poole’s Diner. She turned the tables in the crowded area into high tops, giving them a view and making them effectively the best seats in the house. It’s that type of business savvy that’s not only made her restaurants popular with locals and visitors, it’s why she was named one of the top 25 area CEOs by Triangle Business Journal 2015.
2019 will see the opening of a sixth restaurant, Poolside, a Naples-style pizzeria located next to Poole’s, in a building which Christensen now owns. “We’re very excited to promote some of the leadership from our existing restaurants. We’ve been doing this for 10 years now, so the thought of expansion goes a little more smoothly.”
Founder, DeRossi Global
In 2016, The New York Times called Ravi DeRossi a “stealth bar owner and entrepreneur.” It’s an apt description for DeRossi, seeing as you can’t stumble more than a few blocks in Manhattan’s East Village without bumping into one of hospitality and design veteran’s spots, including the iconic cocktail den Death & Co. and the playful, tiki-inspired Mother of Pearl.
Despite the nightlife industry’s reputation for excess, DeRossi, who’s been at it for 15-plus years, sobered up five years ago and is now a committed vegan. It shows in his work: His next two projects, Water and Fire, are a vegan Japanese and dim sum restaurant, respectively, and he’s working on a fresh mezcal concept in the former Mayahuel space, which will also serve, yes, vegan Mexican food. And lastly, DeRossi is finally expanding well beyond the East Village—a location of Death & Co., which already has a new location in Denver, is on its way to L.A.’s Arts District sometime next year.
Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook
It would’ve been easy for the duo known as Jon & Vinny to lean in to the “dude food” phenomenon that drove their initial success at L.A.’s Animal (think: bold flavors mixed with the chefs’ equally no-holds-barred personalities). Instead, they’ve opened a seafood restaurant that mixes East Coast classics with West Coast cool (Son of a Gun) and an always-packed Cal-Italian pizzeria and pasta spot (Jon & Vinny’s)—and shepherded a new generation of talent by partnering with French chef Ludo Lefebvre on his tasting menu-only French-leaning restaurant Trois Mec and two locations of the more traditional bistro Petit Trois with two more on the way, as well as Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson on Middle Eastern concepts Madcapra, Kismet and the upcoming Kismet Rotisserie. “We felt like their voices were important ones for Los Angeles,” Dotolo explains.
Animal’s celebrating 10 years, and as Dotolo and Shook gear up to open a second Jon & Vinny’s in Brentwood and two more Petit Trois, they’ve got even more on their collective plates: Their catering company Carmelized Productions now puts on a couple hundred events yearly, and a partnership with Delta out of LAX means Delta One business class passengers en route to JFK or Washington’s Reagan might enjoy some of the duo’s meatballs or white bean soup after they’ve settled in. It looks like their food has taken, um, flight in a whole new way.
Chef and Founder, Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen
It’s basically illegal to visit Seattle without eating to a Tom Douglas restaurant: The chef, who first opened his upscale restaurant celebrating Northwest ingredients Dahlia Lounge, has 13 full-service restaurants that range from fine dining to an Italian trattoria to a fast-casual spot serving rice bowls. He and his wife and business partner Jackie also run Prosser Farm, which produces 1,500 pounds of produce a week, much of which is used at his restaurants.
He credits his team for the success over the years: “I hire people who, more than anything, have a get up and show up mentality. You can teach cooking chops. We try to be good corporate citizens and the best employer, so a lot of our chefs have been with us for years.”
Founder, Franklin BBQ
Aaron Franklin certainly didn’t invent barbecue. But he did help bring it back into the food world’s conversation when he opened Franklin BBQ in 2011: Since it opened, it’s been named the best barbecue spot in the country by every publication whose opinion matters and granted just about every possible award in the barbecue stratosphere—and garnered Franklin the first James Beard Award for a BBQ chef. Considering he’d already built a following from the roadside BBQ trailer he and his wife started in 2009, there’s been a line—and the restaurant has sold out—since day one. The wait can reportedly be up to five hours. Even Obama’s been.
In more recent years, Franklin co-founded the Hot Luck Festival, penned an award-winning book about barbecue, brought Franklin BBQ back to life from a 2017 fire, and just this past April, opened an Asian-inspired smokehouse called Loro with fellow James Beard Award-winner Tyson Cole. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s planning to open a taco trailer outside Franklin BBQ before the end of the year, and his next book, which is all about steak, is set to hit shelves (and grills) in 2019.
Founder, Ken Fulk Inc.
A Ken Fulk-designed restaurant is a welcome escape from reality. Fulk, who started in residential interiors more than 20 years ago in San Francisco, has now designed some of the year’s most bold-faced new restaurants: the luxurious Deco masterpiece Legacy Records in New York City, Swan and Bar Bevy in Miami, and the gorgeous Midtown Manhattan coffee lounge Felix Roasting Co. Still up is the highly anticipated second location of Major Food Group’s upscale deli Sadelle’s in Las Vegas, slated to open in December.
“People are craving connectivity and experiences, but they also want to be transported, in ways both big and small,” Fulk says. Perhaps his most transportive project of late? The just-unveiled St. Joseph’s Arts Society in San Francisco, a two and a half-year renovation of a landmark 22,000-square-foot Romanesque revival church into a tony membership club that intersects the worlds of design, fashion, food, tech and more—and whose opening party saw the likes of bold-faced San Francisco names such as Denise Hale and Trevor and Kate Traina.
Benjamin and Max Goldberg
Co-Founders, Strategic Hospitality
Pinewood Social, a bowling alley-meets-hangout. Catbird Seat, one of the city’s most popular chef-driven restaurants. Henrietta Red, a James Beard-nominated contemporary American restaurant and oyster bar. Since they opened their first restaurant together 11 years ago, between Benjamin and Max Goldberg’s 10 high-concept Nashville restaurants, you can find something for everyone. “The restaurants are a snapshot of where we were in our lives at that point, and where we wanted to go,” Max says.
Fresh off the critical success of Henrietta Red, the brothers are slated to open a four-level, 42,000 square foot multi-use space called Downtown Sporting Club next spring (among its spaces will be a hotel, cafe, a bar called the Rec Room with axe throwing and an all-day restaurant with acclaimed chef Levon Wallace). The brothers purchased the space, which used to house their honky-tonk Paradise Park, for $27 million. Benjamin explains that while they’ll be connected,“the goal is about being able to curate these experiences [within Downtown Sporting Club]. Each should be able to stand alone.”
Founder, Groot Hospitality
“In all of our places, you’re either going to see a star or be treated like one,” David Grutman says of his trendsetting Miami hotspots LIV and Story, both on Forbes’ list of top 10 nightclubs in annual revenue. Once known mainly as a nightlife impresario, Grutman has branched out into restaurants as well, having opened the sushi spot Komodo and the plant-based restaurant Planta in the past couple of years.
His latest project is a flashy combo of the two—nightlife and dining—which is set to come to fruition this month with the opening of the glitzy 13,500 square-foot Swan (a 250-seat French restaurant) and Bar Bevy (a lounge and craft cocktail bar) in the Design District. His partner in the project? A musician you may have heard of named Pharrell. And that’s not all Grutman has up his sleeve: He’s working on a retail and shopping concept in an old South Beach Firestone. “We always set the tone and the trend, we never follow them,” Grutman says.
$48 million. That’s what the world’s top-grossing DJ can earn, according to Forbes’ list of the highest-paid DJ’s this year. And that DJ would be Calvin Harris. In fact,The Times London named him #18 on its list of the richest musicians in England, tying with Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones.
Harris makes money from hit singles like “One Kiss,” but also from headlining festivals around the globe and sets in Las Vegas, where he’s the resident DJ at Omnia nightclub at Caesars Palace. Harris also spins at Hakkasan and the Wet Republic pool party. Sounds like he’s making quite the splash at the bank as well.
Founding Partner, The Bon Vivants
Josh Harris has been setting the cocktail standard in San Francisco for nearly a decade, first alongside his former co-founding partner in the Bon Vivants, Scott Baird, then behind the bar at 15 Romolo, and eventually opening his own trend-setting bars. Trick Dog, opened in 2012, has earned nearly every award in the bartending book, including a spot on the World’s 50 Best Bars list and Best Cocktail Menu at The Spirited Awards. A menu that changes every six months, both in the physical menu design and cocktail offerings, “keeps us creatively inspired and engaged with our team and allows us to engage with our guests in a new way,” Harris explains. But he also knows that drinks are only part of the equation, and the food there earned a three-star review from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012.
Harris just opened Bon Voyage!, a midcentury Singapore-meets-Palm Springs-meets disco-themed bar offering tropical drinks and Chinese food, in the ever-evolving Mission last month. It occupies the space that housed the original Slanted Door—and has since seen a few closures. But Harris isn’t worried: “The place had become the victim of urban chit chat, but as soon as we saw the 1,600 square-foot basement, we knew it was right for us.”
Co-Founder and Spokesperson, The Giving Kitchen
It’s one thing to open a critically acclaimed restaurant (Staplehouse). It’s entirely another to turn that restaurant’s initial tragedy—when Jen Hidinger-Kendrick’s first husband and the chef, Ryan, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer—into a charitable organization that’s awarded grants to some 1,200 restaurant workers in five years.
Hidinger-Kendrick now heads up The Giving Kitchen, which offers crisis grants to restaurant workers impacted by illness, death, injury or natural disaster, as well as a SafetyNet program that connects workers in need of emergency assistance with social services that can help them. The organization, which previously just serviced Atlanta, was recently approved to offer its aid to the entire state of Georgia—nearly doubling its reach. “Fifty percent of our grantees have families,” she says. “We’re not just helping the individual.” And as the organization gears up for its largest annual fundraiser next February, that reach may continue to grow.
Founder and CEO, Patachou, Inc.
“Our method of hospitality is simple: We deliver moments of joy to people who come to our restaurants,” says Martha Hoover, whose company Patachou, Inc. operates 14 restaurants in Indianapolis, all spun off from her elegant bistro Cafe Patachou, which she opened in 1989 to serve the type of simple French food she couldn’t find elsewhere. Her empire now includes three locations of the pizzeria Napolese, as well as the Champagne bar Petite Chou.
Despite the fact that she “never set out to open multiple restaurants,” Hoover’s star continues to rise in Indiana and beyond: At the end of 2017, Eater named her the restaurateur of the year. This year has seen the openings of her refined fried chicken restaurant Crispy Bird and a second location of her “cafeteria” Public Greens, which dedicates 100% of its profits to The Patachou Foundation, her organization that feeds at-risk and food insecure children in the Indianapolis community.
Daniel Humm and Will Guidara
Founders, Make It Nice Hospitality
Will Guidara, one-half of the team behind New York City’s tony Eleven Madison Park, the fast-casual restaurant Made Nice and the food and beverage arm of the NoMad hotels, recently wrote in an op-ed in Fast Company that he likes to spend 5% of the group’s budget frivolously to give guests one-of-a-kind experiences. The other 95% is about intention and discipline. In other words, even though they’re known for exceptional fine dining, he and chef Daniel Humm don’t take themselves too seriously—and put the guests first. Hence, the “make it nice” mantra.
It’s a philosophy that’s paid off to the tune of a World’s 50 Best number one ranking for EMP in 2017, as well as continued expansion of The Nomad, which opened in Los Angeles earlier this year and in October debuted in Las Vegas. “One of the things that we’ve always been into is bringing a bit of theatricality to the dining experience,” Guidara told WWD. “At the end of the day the only thing we really really care about is the food is delicious and the service is gracious, but it’s fun for us that we can add really unique elements to the meal.”
CEO, Co-founder and Executive Chef, Chai Pani Restaurant Group
The fact that Meherwan Irani, an India-born former marketing guy, opened an Indian street-food restaurant in a Southern town at the height of the recession in 2009–and saw lines around the block—is achievement enough. He’s now built an empire of restaurants in Asheville and Atlanta, including the kebab spot Botiwalla, which has three more Atlanta locations planned in the next year, and as many as eight to ten more locations over the next five years throughout the southeast.
But Irani’s also making an impact on Southern food through his collaborative dinner series Brown in the South, in which he cooks with fellow Indian chefs Vishwesh Bhatt, Maneet Chauhan, Asha Gomez, and Cheetie Kumar. “We thought that we can add to what people think of the story of the South—not rejecting where it came from, warts and all, but we can be an inclusive community that is respectful of tradition but embraces change,” Irani explains. Two dinners have been held, with more in the works. “We all want to make a difference in our hearts,” he says, “to change the way Americans look at Indian food.”
Investor, Blaze Pizza
Long before he donned a Los Angeles Lakers jersey for the first time this fall, NBA superstar LeBron James was already on the roster with one L.A. company: the explosive fast-casual Blaze Pizza. James, who initially invested in 2012, helped the company grow from three stores in the U.S. and Canada to 300 (with that 300th set to open in Vancouver in November) over the past six years,according to a recent Fast Company article.
Blaze has been named the fastest-growing pizza chain ever by Forbes. Their sales were up 49% in 2017, LeBron’s investment has reportedly made him $35 million, and he secured the rights to the markets of Chicago and Miami with restaurateur Larry Levy, where they now have 21 locations. Despite a fan-disappointing flub earlier this year when he didn’t show at a Culver City pizza party honoring his signing with the Lakers, with his role as a low-key brand ambassador (no cheesy LeBron tees here, although he’s done some online stunts, like posing as an employee, to help promote the brand) and the chain’s continued growth, the James partnership is already far more successful than a Cleveland Cavaliers team without LeBron.
Founder, Thomas Keller Restaurants
The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller is managing... a food court? Well, not exactly. But the multiple Michelin-starred chef helped to approve the restaurants and food vendors going into the massive Hudson Yards real estate development on the west side of Manhattan, one of the largest in U.S. history. Keller will open a new restaurant called TAK Room, which will reportedly focus on “continental cuisine.” Other big names attached to the seven-story development, slated to open next March, are Jose Andres, David Chang, Michael Lomonaco and more. Keller will also open a Bouchon Bakery in the development.
It’s not a completely surprising move for the chef, whose outpost of Bouchon Bakery & Café and fine-dining mecca Per Se are some of the biggest draws, financially speaking, of Related Companies’ Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. After a stumble with Per Se a couple of years ago, in which the fine dining institution was panned by critics Pete Wells and Ryan Sutton, the food media world is looking forward to seeing what Keller does next.
Editor in Chief, Eater
As food magazines continue to shrink or close outright, online food publication Eater has thrived, with 51 million monthly page views and a dedication to quality journalism that has earned it four James Beard Journalism Awards. Once a snarkier gossip site that mainly focused on restaurant openings and closures, in recent years Eater has branched out into restaurant reviews, videos and hard-hitting features.
“Our local sites are our blood. We can tell people where to eat in cities around the country,” Kludt says. “But the other part is branching into new storytelling formats and territories.” One such territory Eater has dominated is the spate of #metoo news within the industry, breaking news on such big names as Mario Batali. And while Kludt calls the site “a food authority that doesn’t take itself too seriously,” it’s handled the serious stuff with grace and hard-nosed reporting chutzpah.
“It’s just how chefs want to live,” says Jessica Koslow of the so-called all-day cafe phenomenon, where a more laid-back iteration of restaurant serves avocado toast-y and grain bowl-esque items from breakfast and lunch through the late afternoon or early evening. Aside from the lifestyle pluses, it makes financial sense for restaurants, too: often the menu items are easy to prepare, with fewer ingredients, and staying open for longer hours (versus just dinner) brings in more cash. “Dinner just wasn’t economically viable for us,” Koslow notes.
Sqirl, opened in 2012 as an extension of former fine-dining chef Koslow’s jam business, may be the model upon which all others draw, with its cultish menu items (hello, sorrel rice bowl!), quirky branding and lines snaking around the block whenever the restaurant is open. It’s a testament to how people want to eat—more casually and graze-ably—and how restaurants can survive in a challenging economy.
Co-Founder and CEO, Resy
Calling to make a reservation is a thing of the past, and early-adopter online reservation system OpenTable may be too, if Resy founder Ben Leventhal has his way: his app-based reservation system is now used by 10,000 restaurants in 160 markets around the globe, with more on the way (Barcelona, Madrid, Amsterdam, Toronto and Vancouver). And just last month, the company acquired smaller competitor Reserve, adding another 1,000 restaurants to its domestic base, which now stands at 4,000.
Resy’s grown like massively since its launch four years ago, especially with of-the-moment eateries, because it’s focused on making experiences better on both sides of the reservation. Cases in point: ResyFLY, a new data-driven feature to help restaurants fill tables in slow dining times; ResySelect, which rewards regular users with prime reservations; a partnership with Airbnb; and a refreshed website with more content for diners to find the perfect restaurant. As Leventhal explains it: “There are various touchpoints we’ve created to make sure technology and hospitality come together seamlessly.”
Executive Chef and CEO, Link Restaurant Group
NOLA’s restaurants have taken their share of hard knocks, having had to rise up once after Hurricane Katrina, and again after the headline-making #MeToo scandal that rocked the city last year. Two things that have remained consistent through both: the quality of Donald Link’s six local restaurants, and Link himself. “I’ve always just wanted to run the best restaurants I can,” Link says. “We’re always trying to look at the restaurant culture.”
Link’s ode to contemporary New Orleans cooking, Herbsaint, turned 18 this year, and he’s gearing up to open an Italian restaurant with Herbsaint chef and James Beard Award winner Rebecca Wilcomb. Wilcomb will become a partner in the group, too: “The people make the restaurants. We make sure that everyone from the dishwasher to the executive chef is happy and putting care into the food and service.”
Chef-Owner, The Barbara Lynch Collective
It’s hard to stumble down a block in Boston without running into a Barbara Lynch restaurant, from her tony No. 9 Park to her South End oyster bar B&G to her craft cocktail bar, Drink, in Fort Point. She elevated Boston dining before the city was considered a serious dining destination—more known for its chowdah and Legal Sea Foods outposts—and has built an empire based on the pillars of delicious food, customer service (a real-life human still answers the phone to take reservations!) and employee education.
Lynch now has her sights set on feeding the masses more healthfully with a dehydrated food product called MADE, which she plans to sell at kiosks. “The nutritional value is insane,” she says. “It would be great for third world countries.” Although it’s still in development, MADE could transform Lynch from Boston’s culinary icon into an international food entrepreneur.
Founder and CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group
Danny Meyer is the New Hampshire primary of the restaurant world: Every move of his makes waves, perhaps most notably his news-making decision to adopt a “hospitality included” check system at his restaurants. And with two new openings this year (Manhatta, Tacocina) to join his 19 other New York City restaurants—as well as the $200-plus million national burger empire that is Shake Shack—he’s not slowing down.
Last year, Meyer launched an investing arm of Union Square Hospitality called Enlightened Hospitality. “We don’t have all the best ideas under the sun. We focus on helping scale companies whole philosophies mirror our ‘employee first’ culture,” Meyer says. To date, the company has invested in Portland-based ice cream company Salt & Straw, New York-based Joe Coffee Company, and the online reservation system Resy. Add to all of the above a soon-to-open West Village location of the cafe Daily Provisions and Shake Shack’s continued expansion and Meyer’s reach only continues to grow.
Amy Morris and Anna Polonsky
Co-Founders, The MP Shift
You know the look: light wood, pops of greenery, white accents, a fleck of color here, lots of natural light. Call it the Highly Instagrammable Restaurant—then politely nod to Amy Morris and Anna Polonsky, the design duo responsible for creating the look that’s launched a million copycats.
Morris and Polonsky take a marketing and branding approach to each project, working closely with their clients to build not just a design, but a brand identity. It shows in spaces such as the Seed+Mill kiosk at Chelsea Market and their James Beard Award-winning De Maria in Manhattan, the casual Middle Eastern-flecked cafe Golda in Brooklyn, and others. “We don’t have a signature aesthetic, we have a touch,” Morris says. That touch makes sure that every corner of the restaurant is interesting enough to photograph and every plate of, say, vegetable-forward fare looks great on every surface.
Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi
Co-Founders, Bar Lab
Hotel bars weren’t usually thought of as hipster hangouts—until Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi’s Broken Shaker, which started as a pop-up in 2011 in Miami before opening permanently at the design-forward, slightly irreverent Freehand Hotel in 2012. Now, through the duo’s partnership with Sydell Group, there are Broken Shakers at every Freehand: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where its rooftop bar just opened this year. In Los Angeles, they also opened the hotel’s restaurant, the Middle Eastern-inflected The Exchange.
The things that make Broken Shakers effortlessly cool: cocktails that aren’t too fussy, a focus on design, Caribbean-meets-Middle Eastern bar bites that are playful but don’t feel contrived. Orta and Zvi have successfully made the leap from pop-up to high design—and with a bar-driven product line, cookbook and other bar/restaurant projects in the works, there’s more to come.
Tejal Rao and Pete Wells
The New York Times Restaurant Critics
As alternative weekly publications continue to die, so too does the once-revered job of restaurant criticism. But the Times doesn’t just continue to invest in its sometimes controversial New York City critic, Pete Wells. It’s now doubled down on criticism, appointing writer Tejal Rao to the new position of California critic. It’s a strategic move for the Times that puts a stake in the ground in a state that’s recently lost two of its iconic voices, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer to retirement, and beloved Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold to a shockingly quick, devastating battle with pancreatic cancer.
Wells “is most powerful when he’s spotlighting places off the treadmill of popular restaurant openings. He can fundamentally change a restaurant's business model. He’s also not afraid to stick the knife in places like Per Se,” says Kevin Alexander, whose 2016 Thrillist profile of Wells won him a James Beard Award. While Rao has yet to file her first review as of press time, it will be interesting to see what impact she’ll make on the Golden State—but chefs and media alike are waiting with bated breath to see where her pen will strike first.
CEO, James Beard Foundation
James Beard Award winner: four words every chef would like to have in front of their names. James Beard Foundation CEO: the gatekeeping job of the industry’s most prestigious organization, which former media exec and consultant Clare Reichenbach took over this past February amidst the fallout from the #MeToo movement. But she’s more than handled it it in stride, putting a laser focus on the foundation’s work for betterment.
“We’re known mostly for our awards and events, but I want to renew the purpose side of the equation,” Reichenbach says. Cases in point: food waste education and more diverse representation in this fall’s Taste of America tour, introducing a criteria for character and conduct at the Restaurant and Chef Awards, and the continued expansion of the Women’s Leadership Program. “The culinary community has a uniquely influential voice,” Reichenbach says. “We want to give it a toolkit to help drive positive change.”
Leon’s Oyster Shop, Little Jack’s Tavern and Melfi’s
Despite having a population under 110,000, in the past decade, Charleston has become one of the country’s most influential dining cities. And with the departure of Sean Brock from his Charleston restaurants earlier this summer, the door is further open for a new generation of restaurateurs.
One go-getter who’s already pushing his way through is 33 year-old Brooks Reitz, who already has two successful restaurants—Leon’s Oyster Shop and Little Jack’s Tavern—under his belt. This fall saw the opening of his third, Melfi’s, an Italian joint modeled after Roman trattorias. Reitz’s restaurants combine the type of food people want to eat—fried chicken and oysters at Leon’s, a damn fine burger at Little Jack’s—with clever design details that don’t feel overwrought. “What differentiates us is that we put a lot of attention on the whole package, from the language on the menu to what the servers are wearing,” Reitz says. “It’s a fully formed experience.”
Founder, Audio Culture LLC
The Delicious Hospitality Group’s New York City hotspots Legacy Records, Pasquale Jones and Charlie Bird are just as well-known for the food as they are one other crucial element of the dining experience: the music. And that’s solely the work of Charlie Reyes, who curates playlists based on old-school hip-hop (Charlie Bird), classic soul and funk (Pasquale Jones) and new-school hip-hop (Legacy Records) for each of the spots, carefully building tempo at certain points in the night and winding down when it feels right, too.
Companies that develop soundtracks for restaurants and hotels have been around for ages, but what sets Reyes apart is his ability to play exactly what people want to hear when they want to hear it—down to the staff. “I’ve worked in places where you’d hear the same song five times and change, and as a hospitality professional, I would just never do that,” Reyes says. Considering he’s now working with Quince in San Francisco, New York City’s iconic PDT and the cocktail bar The Black Derby in the West Village, other folks must agree.
Executive Director, Tales of the Cocktail
$18.9 million. That’s how much July’s annual Tales of the Cocktail conference, the premier cocktail conference in the country, brings to the tourism-dependent city of New Orleans, where visitor numbers drop significantly over the summer due to sweltering heat. “I’ve had multiple chefs tell me that they wouldn’t be able to keep their full staffs over the summer if it wasn’t for Tales,” Caroline Rosen says.
Hospitality vet Rosen joined the conference in January of this year, and helped to reformat the programming to include Beyond the Bar, free programming to any attendees as well as local hospitality workers focused on the whole person. It included daily AA meetings, yoga sessions, and health and wellness education. And next spring, she’ll take the annual Tales on Tour to Puerto Rico, in an effort to help revitalize the island—another effort to make bartending’s biggest event give back even more.
Chief Operating Officer, Disruptive Restaurant Group
Sixty new restaurant venues by 2021. That was the announced expansion goal when hospitality giant sbe—the parent company to Morgans, Redbury and SLS hotels, among others—spun off its eateries and created a separate management company, Disruptive Restaurant Group, last year. Sebastien Silvestri, a Vegas vet who joined the team last year, is leading the restaurant charge.
Disruptive’s vast restaurant holdings include Katsuya, Bazaar by Jose Andres, Umami Burger, Cleo, Fi'lia, Leynia, Hyde Lounge, and others—many with multiple locations. And with a recent 50/50 partnership with AccorHotels, sbe’s restaurant reach is set to grow even further, with its portfolio increasing to 25 hotels and more than 170 global culinary, nightlife and entertainment venues by the end of 2018. Much of that growth is planned with Umami Burger: It currently boasts 24 U.S. restaurants, plus two recently opened locations in Mexico and a second Japanese outpost, with more international expansion on the way. Along the way, Silvestri, who came from The Venetian and The Palazzo Casino and Resort, will also put his high-end chops to good use in projects such as a major $40 million renovation of the Delano complete with a new restaurant, as well as an expanded footprint in Los Angeles as well.
Cook ‘N Solo Restaurant Partners
That bowl of hummus you see on every menu? Thank Michael Solomonov’s Zahav restaurant in Philly, where he’s been serving Israeli cuisine for a decade and where reservations are as hard as ever to come by. As for the cuisine’s proliferation, he says, “It’’s vegetable forward, it doesn’t require technology, it’s supreme in flavor. Ground meat cooked on a stick over charcoal: You can’t beat it.”
And you know how every chef wants to open a fast-casual spot? Attribute some of that to Solomonov, too. Along with his partner Steve Cook, Solomonov has six locations of fried chicken and doughnut chain Federal Donuts, casual Middle Eastern spots Goldie and Dizengoff, and philanthropically focused deli The Rooster. Add to all of this a James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Zahav, and you have a culinary triple threat.
Founder and CEO, Starr Restaurants
Buddakan. Morimoto. Le Coucou. Among Stephen Starr’s portfolio of 26 restaurants are some of the most recognizable names in the game, and although his stronghold is the City of Brotherly Love, Starr continues to expand and dominate in markets like New York City, Miami and Washington D.C.
This year saw the opening of St. Anselm in D.C.. The outpost of Joe Carroll’s beloved New York City steakhouse recently received a glowing review from The Washington Post’s restaurant critic Tom Sietsema. Despite the fanfare that usually surrounds a Starr opening, he might shine brightest next year, when he partners with Keith McNally to reopen the beloved brasserie Pastis in New York City.
Chef and Co-Owner, Lola Bistro, Angeline, B Spot Burgers, Mabel’s BBQ, Roast, Bar Symon
Those who only know chef Michael Symon from the now-defunct chef-driven TV show “The Chew” may not realize what he’s meant to the Midwest. Way before Cleveland had LeBron (you know, the Blaze Pizza guy), it had Symon—and since it opened in 1998, Lola has been at the forefront of modernizing Midwestern cuisine. Symon then branched out with concepts like Roast (now celebrating its tenth anniversary in Detroit), Mabel’s BBQ in downtown Cleveland, and Angeline at the Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City.
Symon’s gearing up to open a Mabel’s in Las Vegas later this year, and continues to host “Burgers, Brew & ‘Que” on the Cooking Channel, now in its fourth season. And yes, in case you were wondering, yes, there was a reunion episode of “The Chew,” featuring Symon, Carla Hall and Clinton Kelly, that aired on Facebook in late October.
Co-Founder, TAO Group
In 2003, Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss opened the still-buzzy nightclub Marquee a handful of blocks away from Madison Square Garden—and along with their business partners in TAO Group, Rich Wolf and Marc Packer, have built up such an impressive 19-property nightlife and restaurant portfolio (including TAO, LAVO, and more) that last year, the Madison Square Garden Company acquired a majority stake in the TAO Group. Along with that stake comes plans to expand the group’s offerings in Las Angeles, Chicago and Singapore.
As Tepperberg and Strauss continue to oversee daily operations, the TAO Group continues to print money hand over fist: According to Restaurant Business, TAO Las Vegas is once again this year’s highest-grossing restaurant, with sales upwards of $43 million, and TAO Downtown, in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood, ranks at number four, with sales topping $34 million. The group’s New York City location of Lavo comes in at seventh...You get the picture. And with Madison Square Garden behind the company, the ball’s in their court.
Founder, Bolted Services
Food festivals are certainly far from a rarity these days. But with Feast Portland’s 2012 launch, Mike Thelin and his partner Carrie Welch created a world-class food festival that helped to solidify the Northwest city’s place on the culinary map. Perhaps more importantly, unlike its celebrity chef-heavy predecessors, the festival is decidedly local, with more than 70 percent of the chefs coming from the hometown. And a charity component has raised more than $400,000 for hunger relief efforts.
At his consulting firm Bolted Services, Thelin places millions of sponsorship dollars annually. Just last year Thelin linked up with Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ and Guerilla Suit principal and Mohawk owner James Moody to launch Austin’s Hot Luck Festival, a “casserole of the music and food world.” Thelin says, “The celebrity chef is over. People are excited to go to cities like Portland and experience the restaurants that only exist there. The festivals that survive will showcase that.”