You've been through the best burgers in America. And the best pizza in America, too. (And, yes, we think you’ve probably downed a few tacos at the best Mexican restaurants in America as well.) Now it’s time to get fancy with French. But French stateside is a little different than it used to be. What’s the difference between your average upscale French restaurant and its New American counterpart today? Judging by their repertoires these days, the answer is not much other than “whatever the chef says it is”—which is fair enough. First, fine dining was and is built on the foundations of haute cuisine, perfected at fine French restaurants. Second, several decades ago, haute cuisine itself underwent a shift, bringing local ingredients and global influences to bear on classical technique. Whether preaching tradition or moving the conversation forward, these 21 restaurants speak with passion and authority to the idea that French cooking is our universal heritage. They are the best French restaurants in America, and you want to be eating in them. Follow Time Out USA on Facebook; sign up for the Time Out USA newsletter
Best French restaurants in America
To watch an omelette being made at Petit Trois is a thing of beauty. First there is the butter, a massive pad that swirls around the pan before being flooded with whipped eggs over low heat. The mixture sits, briefly, then is taken off the stove and gently poked and prodded for minutes until it is finally folded into one uniform, buttercup-hued omelette. Oh, and did we mention that Boursin cheese is piped through the middle? Perceived simplicity is what Chef Lefebvre aims to perfect at Petit Trois, which sits right next to his first brick-and-mortar success, Trois Mec. The menu is a sparse list of classic French dishes—steak frites, mussels marinières, chicken leg—and the playlist is ’90s hip hop and classic rock, an unusual mix but one that furthers Lefebvre’s ethos of this being a casual French spot, a place to indulge in simple, good food without pretense. If the Hollywood strip mall exterior doesn’t sell you on this idea, the fantastic food certainly will.
When you name your flagship after yourself, you’d better be sure your word is bond. Since opening his doors in spring 2014, Townsend Wentz has more than warranted the hype he generated for, yes, Townsend (a tad more patrician than Wentz, after all). The crisp yet cozy townhouse surroundings serve as an unobtrusive backdrop for an engrossing menu that, though à la carte, encourages multicourse marathons—starting, perhaps, with a signature like the exquisite hamachi tartare, followed by escargots and Brussels sprouts in bacon-enriched, sherried crème fraîche; pot au feu-inspired rabbit three ways; and a good old spiced baked apple with amaretto cream and candied walnuts. Sommelier Lauren Harris tightly curates her list to showcase the food-friendly finds of lesser-known terroirs—from the Canary Islands to Long Island—and her dessert-wine offerings are a special treat, as is the staff’s comfort level with regard to pairings. But you’d be wise to kick off the whole adventure with a cocktail at the bar Wentz himself built from reclaimed cherrywood.
In the monument to bygone opulence that is the Biltmore Hotel, this low-lit, country-clubby haven of prestige pampers at every turn. The much-ballyhooed bread service and cheese cart, amuses bouches and gourmandises bookend a feast offered in four, six or eight courses by the highly pedigreed chef, whose menus are a study in extravagance. But to the groundswell of edible objets d’art in which foie gras, truffles, langoustines and Kobe beef luxuriate amid foams and dots and sprigs, there’s a charmingly rustic undercurrent: lobster reimagined as cassoulet with duck-gizzard confit here, suckling pig with mustard greens and black garlic there. Meanwhile, service flows like the trophy wines dominating Palme d’Or’s 370-bottle list all the way to the bar, where a weekend pianist sets the mood for one final indulgence in the form of a nightcap.
French cuisine feels fresh at this elegant-yet-unstuffy Lincoln Park restaurant. Chef Jason Paskewitz’s menu is packed with traditional dishes—and you’ll find staples like escargot, rillettes and a whole section devoted to foie gras—but he makes genius twists, encasing foie gras in a black-truffle crust, for example. Simpler dishes are also well-done, like Dover sole bathed in brown butter and studded with capers and tender blanquette de veau with crispy sweetbread nuggets; pastry chef Marjorie Easley draws the meal to a close with graceful desserts, including a pistachio mousse bombe paired with raspberry accents, and a coconut financier with passionfruit curd and roasted fruit, a tropical riot of flavors. The Blanchard’s sommelier Anthony Mathieu and bartender Arunas Bruzas pour excellent French wines and classic cocktails, and pastry chef Marjorie Easley ends the meal perfectly with a pistachio bombe.
Boston’s dining scene would simply look a whole lot different without L’Espalier. Opening nearly four decades ago, it won instant fame for dislodging the town from the stuffy surf-and-turf rut it was stuck in—paving the way for an embarrassment of contemporary French riches today embodied by Craigie on Main, Deuxave, Lumière and Café ArtScience, to name but a few notables. And now that it’s an icon, this special-occasion bastion of the Back Bay continues to push the envelope it stamps with New England flourishes (a mission not even a move from the townhouse it occupied for years into less historic, if even more posh, digs could derail). While chef-owner Frank McClelland’s prix-fixe menus change near-daily, his audacious yet painterly imprint remains unmistakable: think warm Wellfleet oysters in a seaweed- and hazelnut-oil accented bath of emulsified bone marrow or seared scallops atop parsnip-white chocolate potage scented with lemon pith and mushroom powder. Or don’t think: the butter-poached lobster’s an all-time no-brainer paired with with grower champagne by the glass.
The forthright name says it all: here is a temple to and template of haute cuisine. Its setting in the Adolphus Hotel is every inch worthy of a century-old landmark, from the be-muraled cathedral ceilings hung with imported crystal chandeliers down to the elaborate floral arrangements and candlelit, linen-covered tables seating patrons dressed as smartly as the floor staff. And so, naturellement, is the food, with seasonal dishes such as Dover sole in lemon-verbena beurre blanc supplementing signatures like jumbo lump crab cakes with lemongrass-lobster sauce and Grand Marnier soufflé. As for the French Room’s wine collection—if you’ve got the means, might we suggest a 1983 Château Latour, followed by a 1986 Château d’Yquem Sauternes (and might we join you)?
There’s something timeless about this intimate white-cloth bistro uptown—a certain patina to Patois—that carries over to the menu as it reflects chef-partner Aaron Burgau’s immersion in the French roots of Creole cuisine. True, that reflection somehow flashes forward as often as back. For every dish of gulf fish almondine in citrus meunière, there’s another of Vietnamese caramel frog’s legs; for every sampler of boudin and rillettes, there’s a sweet-tea-brined and smoked pork chop with peach hot sauce and purple hull-pea hoppin’ john. Likewise, the savvy, super-cool wine selection’s bound to jazz the most jaded of grape geeks. Yet in the end, it all comes back to consummate Southern hospitality—say in the form of the wild-game sausages that Burgau, a hunter and fisherman, sometimes makes as a parting gift for special guests.
In 2013, celebrity restaurateur Stephen Starr lived up to his surname once again when he opened this instant Logan Circle magnet for modern-day magnificos, flâneurs and Francophiles. Perhaps the cheeriest facsimile of vintage Paris on this list—in-house boulangerie, check; flowerbox-lined patio, check; fans and ferns and zinc bar, check—Le Diplomate nails every detail of the quintessential sidewalk café. Those details are there in the textbook baguette in the bread basket, the bubbling blanket of fromage atop the soupe à la oignon gratinée, the dollop of maître d’hotel butter on the steak frites or the chocolate sauce pooled around the towering profiteroles. The bar operates with equal panache, pouring beaucoup glasses of café au lait and pastis, cocktails in coupes and carafes of house wine while maintaining a comme-il-faut carte des vins that spans the regions of France at all price points. So you can kick back over an everyday Muscadet with oysters one visit, splurge on the stuff of Bordelais legend the next—and revel in joie de vivre at every turn.
With the breezy, buoyant vibe of a brasserie classique, this downtown staple has charm to spare, all the more when you know its backstory: chef-owner Russell Klein and his wife-partner Desta held their wedding reception in the restaurant that preceded it. And it proves a labor of love in more than one way: “When we opened, French food was on the outs, and many people told us we were crazy to do it. But it was our passion,” says Klein, who upped the ante with the local anomaly of an oyster bar. Fast-forward eight years, and Meritage is such a smash that it can book up for weeks on end during theater season. Its magnetism starts with pitch-perfect renditions of such classics as chicken ballotine and billi bi, but it deepens with au courant whimsies like trotter cromesquis, duck-heart pastrami, escargot popovers and roast duck breast with fruitcake in walnut sauce. And wine director Nicolas Giraud’s lovingly compiled, very fine bottle list seals the deal.
Fifteen years may be a millisecond in the history of some cities’ dining scenes, but in that of one as young as Denver’s, it’s an aeon, which makes Frank Bonanno something of an elder statesman who—after launching, on average, nearly a concept a year since 2001—could be forgiven for coasting a spell. Instead, he just keeps pushing himself and the talents he nurtures further, and his contemporary French flagship on Capitol Hill is the ultimate proof. With low-key decor that belies its high-energy atmosphere, Mizuna presents a monthly changing menu that’s as full of surprises now as it was when it opened. Think ostrich strip with confit chanterelles over Idiazabal fondue; slow-braised octopus with chorizo-poached mussels, green-cabbage marmalade and pine-nut butter. The beverage program, meanwhile, may be the best it’s ever been, thanks to the combined efforts of wine director Kelly Wooldridge and bar manager Austin Carson, both gentlemen and brilliant scholars of their craft.
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