Listen up, serious eaters. The James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony is this Monday night. We'll be right there taking it all in (the food and the glitz), but I'm ready to peer into the crystal ball at SE world headquarters and make some predictions. I'm not willing to wager any money on my picks, but it's still fun to go out on the proverbial locally sourced limb.
Please comment with your own picks or even who you're rooting for. The fun is in the prognosticating and the rooting.
Best New Restaurant
Though the restaurant awards committee strives mightily for geographic diversity in the national awards, five of the six nominees in this category are located in either San Francisco (3) or New York (2). I haven't been to any of the non-New York restaurants nominated, but I do love both New York nominees: Locanda Verde and Marea. Either one of them would be a worthy winner, but Locanda Verde's Andrew Carmellini and Karen DeMasco are both previous Beard Award winners, so when all the votes are counted, I believe Locanda Verde will be the winner.
This category is chock full of really talented chefs: Craft and Top Chef's Tom Colicchio; DC's killer contemporary Spanish chef Jose Andres (he also has a restaurant in Los Angeles); the accomplished and assured Los Angeles' Suzanne Goin (Lucques among others); San Francisco's thoughtful pan-Asian master Charles Phan (Slanted Door among others); and last but not least, Bay Area classicist Gary Danko (of Restaurant Gary Danko). But my prediction is Colicchio. Television is an incredibly powerful medium, and Colicchio is a seriously good cook.
Again, the nominees are all seriously good restaurants: New York City's Babbo and Daniel; San Francisco's Boulevard, Chicago's Spiaggia, and the Highland Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. All worthy nominees. I think Daniel has to be the favorite (Beard judges love him), but don't count out Babbo, which is still the toughest reservation to be had in New York City. It would be really cool if Frank Stitt's Highlands Bar & Grill won, but it's not going to happen.
Five heavyweights are duking it out for this award: Seattle's Tom Douglas, San Francisco's Pat Kuleto, Chicago's Richard Melman, Philly's Stephen Starr, and New York's Keith McNally. All of these guys have made a significant contribution to the restaurant culture in this country, but I think Keith McNally is going to win it. Keith would be most worthy, but the Serious Eaters are going to be rooting for Tom Douglas. Full disclosure: I co-wrote one of Tom's cookbooks, Tom's Big Dinners.
The Wine Awards
I'm going to skip over the awards for Outstanding Wine Service (I don't know enough about wine), Wine & Spirits Professional (I do think Hearth's Paul Greico is smart, funny, and thoughtful), and Outstanding Service (I've only been to one of the five restaurants nominated, Philly's killer Italian restaurant Vetri).
Rising Star Chef Award
I've only eaten the food of one of the chefs nominated: Portland, Oregon's Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon, but the meal I had there was so serious and he is obviously so prodigiously talented I'm going to give the nod to him.
Outstanding Pastry Chef
I've only had desserts prepared by two of the nominees, Nicole Plue (Redd in Yountville, California) and Mindy Segal (Mindy's Hot Chocolate), but I will tell you I was knocked out by Segal's intensely flavored, well-thought-out desserts. Her namesake hot chocolate alone makes her award-worthy.