If you're on the hunt for the latest and greatest restaurant to hit today's dining scene, you can stop reading now. But if you do, you'll miss out on these nine eateries that have outlasted the test of time because they serve the finest food there is - and offer the truest sense of place you'll ever find.
Trendy, new, hip, hot, chic, nouveau, fusion, pan-anything - these are all terms regularly used to describe the latest restaurants of the moment, the ones with interiors by famous designers, the ones where it is often impossible to get a reservation unless you are an actor, an athlete, or a supermodel. Yet all too often, when the buzz dies and seats become available, these restaurants disappear - discovering that the fickle flash and pizzazz of the passing spotlight is not enough for them to stay in business. Giving Champagne away to celebrities is easy; turning out the highest-quality cuisine and service available in order to keep loyal customers coming back day after day, year after year, and in rare cases, century after century - that's the hard part.
So, a word of advice: It'd be a mistake for a traveler craving a memorable meal to overlook the tried and true, especially when the tried and true is so enduring that it has earned classic status, proving that it can do something right for a very long time. The next time you have the opportunity to dine out, consider a meal that mixes history, tradition, and great food at one of these truly iconic eateries.
Keens Steakhouse (formerly Keens Chophouse)
Long before high-end steak houses proliferated and became the expense-account favorites they are today, there was Keens, in its same Theater District location since 1885. One of the world's best steak houses, Keens dry ages its own prime beef on-site, which is a rarity these days. Even rarer, though, is the signature saddle-of-mutton dish, reintroduced 29 years ago, after the current owners (for just over 30 years!) discovered it on early Keens menus. A classic cut (mutton is from a sheep that's about twice as old as a typical spring lamb; it has a stronger flavor), it's perfect for enjoying while you're surrounded by the restaurant's array of historical artifacts. Ever since Keens hung on its wall an original playbill from Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated, it has become a tradition to add to the collection, which includes old political cartoons and Civil War memorabilia. But to experience a unique Keens tradition, turn your gaze skyward, as the majority of the restaurant's 90,000-piece collection of clay pipes hang from the ceiling. (The balance are in the Pipe Room.) The Pipe Club dates back to the restaurant's early days, when members would enjoy a smoke after dinner. Today the club is ceremonial, but each pipe is still numbered and tracked by the pipe warden, and famed pipes on display include those of Keens customers Babe Ruth, Buffalo Bill Cody, Albert Einstein, General Douglas MacArthur, and Teddy Roosevelt, along with that of former New York governor George Pataki. 72 West 36th Street, (212) 947-3636, www.keens.com
Union Oyster House
America's oldest restaurant and a National Historic Landmark, the Union Oyster House resides in a building so old, no record exists of who built it (or when). Today, it is a stop on the city's Freedom Trail. The dockside restaurant opened in 1826, serving the freshest New England seafood around, and notable residents quickly became fixtures. Daniel Webster regularly sat at the U-shaped bar downstairs - it's still used today - and enjoyed a tumbler of brandy and three dozen or more raw oysters. Later, John F. Kennedy routinely came in on the weekends to read his newspaper over a plate of lobster stew. One of the most ubiquitous restaurant accessories, the humble toothpick, was first introduced here. And while the original menu, which hangs on the wall, offered little more than oysters, clams, and scallops, today the choices range from stuffed lobster and traditional Boston scrod to pork chops and pasta. Shellfish and regional seafood are still the house specialty, though, and the namesake oysters are offered in every way imaginable. 41 Union Street, (617) 227-2750, www.unionoysterhouse.com
In 1725, a cast-iron, wood-fired oven of the type usually found in Castilian restaurants was installed in a small Madrid inn - and it's been in continual use ever since. The oven eventually earned Restaurante Botin an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest restaurant on earth. Patrons come for the unchanging menu of traditional Spanish fare, and especially for the roast suckling pig and lamb. Goya, one of Spain's most famous painters and whose masterpieces now hang in the nearby Prado Museum, worked here as a dishwasher. And Ernest Hemingway was a regular, paying homage to Botin in the closing pages of The Sun Also Rises. Close to the Plaza Mayor and popular with both tourists and Madrileños - including Madrid's king and other well-known politicians - its four floors are packed with diners every night of the week, making reservations a must. 17 Cuchilleros, 011-34-913-664-327, www.casabotin.com
In 1849, amid the height of the California Gold Rush, a Croatian immigrant opened the New World Coffee Salon on Commercial Street in San Francisco. The eatery changed hands from one Croatian owner to the next until employee John Tadich bought it in 1888. After the restaurant was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906, Tadich rebuilt in a new location and renamed it. Now the oldest restaurant in a city filled with celebrity chefs and high-profile newcomers, Tadich Grill remains an institution, serving about 600 meals per day. The waiters still wear white coats, the rice pudding is made with the same secret recipe that's been used for over a century, the original mahogany bar runs the entire length of the downstairs, and Tadich continues to turn out ultratraditional seafood specialties like crab Louis, shrimp à la Newburg, cioppino, and Dungeness crab with sliced tomato. Complimentary bowls of crusty sourdough bread are a constant reminder of its location, and the restaurant is beloved for its fries, which regulars consider an essential side to almost any dish. Closed Sunday, no reservations, 240 California Street, (415) 391-1849
At Le Procope, the hat displayed in the glass case is a reminder that this is not just any Parisian restaurant. In France, patronage by Napoleon Bonaparte is the equivalent of "George Washington slept here" - a sometimes dubious claim, but in Le Procope's case, a true one. (The hat in question was left as collateral by Bonaparte, then a young officer, when he could not settle his bar tab.) Paris is full of traditional and historic gastronomic venues, but this one is the oldest, off and on since its earliest incarnation in 1686. According to the New York Times, it is one of just two restaurants in the city whose intact decor predates the French Revolution.
Napoleon was not the only famous regular, though; Voltaire's and Rousseau's patronage earned it a reputation as a literary café; and Benjamin Franklin, as ambassador to France, worked on the United States Constitution there. Today it is a cross between a café and a bistro, with a homey atmosphere and a classic seafood-based menu featuring traditional tiered cold-seafood towers of Breton oysters, Spanish mussels, langoustines, and the like. 13 rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, 011-33-1-4046-7900, www.procope.com
Osteria la Carbonara
The Eternal City is full of great restaurants old and new, and La Carbonara, on the historic piazza Campo de' Fiori, is neither the fanciest nor the most famous - in fact, it appears in few guidebooks. Nonetheless, it claims to hold an important place in food history as the birthplace of spaghetti and penne carbonara, the most popular of Roman pasta dishes, in which raw egg is cooked while it's tossed with hot pasta, coating the penne to a sticky, rich consistency. The pasta is then enhanced with a healthy dose of cured pork, ground black pepper, and freshly grated cheese. As with all such stories, though, there are myriad interpretations: Some claim the owners of Il Carbonaro, the previous restaurant on the site, brought the recipe to the city from the nearby Apennine mountains and that it was derived from a peasant dish enjoyed by carbonai, or coal miners. The Oxford Companion to Food backs the more romantic version: Carbonara sauce was invented here in 1944, when food was scarce and American GIs brought rations of eggs and bacon, which cried out for a more creative use. Either way, you can't go wrong with a casual meal of the namesake dish here, a glass of the house wine, and a seat at an outside table on one of the city's most pleasant squares. (Note: There is a different Roman restaurant named simply La Carbonara.) 23 Campo de' Fiori, 011-39-0-6686-4783
Often misunderstood to be a private club (it's not), 21 Club was perhaps the nation's most renowned speakeasy during Prohibition, defying repeated raids by the ingenious means of a disappearing mechanical bar and a secret wine cellar that was located next door at number 19, which serves as a private dining room today. Celebrities have been fixtures at 21 ever since Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall became engaged here, and the famous collection of "toys" hanging from the ceiling and adorning the walls were all gifts from loyal patrons. Among this playful atmosphere, though, there is still old-world dignity; diners are required to wear a jacket at lunch and that plus a tie at dinner. The enormous main menu reflects traditional continental gourmet fare, while the "21 Classics" menu includes formerly popular dishes such as Steak Diane flambé, Senegalese soup, and steak tartare. There is a huge wine list, with 21 selections available by the glass (including a rare first-growth Bordeaux), and the seven-course set chef's dinners with wine pairings are culinary events. But despite the huge range of gourmet offerings, the most popular dish remains the legendary 21 burger, which started at $2.75 in 1950, gained fame at an onerous $21 in 1987, and now weighs in at $30. 21 West 52nd Street, (212) 582-7200, www.21club.com
Simpson's exudes enough Britannia atmosphere to be fit for a king, a queen, or a duke. It had history even before it opened as the Grand Cigar Divan in 1828, as its building was the home of the famous literary society the Kit-Kat Club. The restaurant quickly became the home of chess in England, and original boards and pieces are still displayed at the entrance. Howard Staunton, Britain's first world chess champion (and inventor of the Staunton pattern pieces common today), was a regular there, and he organized the world's first international chess tournament at what had become Simpson's in 1851. The literary tradition endured, with Charles Dickens as a frequent guest; several other writers, including E.M. Forster, P.G. Wodehouse, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle immortalized the restaurant in their fiction. The "new" Simpson's that you will find today came into existence in 1898, when it was purchased by the world-famous Savoy hotel, which sits next door and still claims ownership. The Savoy introduced classic British fare as well as roasts served tableside from rolling silver trolleys. Not everything here is staid, though; 10 years ago, the venerable carvery opened for breakfast for the first time and served a very full and traditional English-style banquet called the Ten Deadly Sins. 100 Strand, 011-44-20-7836-9112, www.fairmont.com/savoy
Lowell Inn, Stillwater
Generations of Midwesterners have celebrated birthdays and anniversaries at this classic, located in a Minneapolis suburb that began as a sawmill town. The Lowell Inn opened as an upscale, small hotel in 1927 and remains one today. Dining was introduced in 1930 with the George Washington Room, and since then, it has expanded with eclectic additions such as the Garden Room, which has a natural, spring-fed fountain in the center; and the Matterhorn Room, a study in Alpine architecture and wood carving. There, a set menu includes traditional Swiss cheese fondue, escargot, and chocolate fondue, a meal that has come and gone and come again as a fad nationwide but that has been standard at the Lowell Inn for more than 40 years. The menu in the other rooms is large and varied, running the gamut from duck to burgers, but there are numerous nods to traditional Minnesota fare, such as walleye, the state's favorite fish, which is available broiled, nut crusted, and even served on a BLT sandwich. A visit to the Lowell Inn will transport you back to a time when fancy dinners started with shrimp cocktails and chicken à la king was always on the menu. 102 North Second Street, (651) 439-1100, www.lowellinn.com