James Beard Foundation names America’s six most classic restaurants

James Beard Foundation names America’s six most classic restaurants

Real food for real people

The James Beard Foundation (JBF) announced today the six recipients of its 2020 America’s Classics Award. These are the restaurants across America with heart or as JBF says “timeless appeal.”

They are not the fancy Michelin starred, white tablecloth, multi-course sensory spots where you can spend a whole paycheck.

These are the restaurants that are the heart of America. Many are small, some don’t even have a website. They reflect the regions, the community and the people–the places where people feel at home.

These are not the places where people make reservations weeks or months in advance for foie gras, Dom Perignon, truffles and caviar but they are the places where people are willing to stand in line for tacos, chicken tenders, mudslides and specialities like barbecued cow’s head for however long it takes.

Places that say America. Places that are perfect for a road trip.

Here’s a look at the 2020 James Beard Foundation America’s Classic winners:

Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth (730 S. Main St., Frankenmuth, MI; Owner: Dorothy Zehnder and family)



Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, a chicken-dinner behemoth positioned between Detroit and Michigan’s summer lake destination, is decidedly on the beaten path. William Zehnder, Sr. and his wife Emilie bought a former hotel in 1928. Today the restaurant — part of a complex, run by third and fourth generation family members, that includes a hotel, waterpark, and golf course — can accommodate 1,500 guests and brings in close to a million people each year. Road-trippers come for family-style meals of crisp-skinned fried chicken, dressing, mashed potatoes, liver pâté, cranberry relish, cottage cheese, and more, all replenished until worn-out diners signal they’re ready for a scoop of sherbet with a paper American flag planted alongside the maraschino cherry. Then it’s time to pose for photos with a patient mascot in a rooster suit. 

Puritan Backroom (245 Hooksett Rd., Manchester, NH; Owner: Arthur Pappas, Chris Pappas and Eric Zink)

Puritan Backroom.

Puritan Backroom.

In 1906, friends Arthur Pappas and Louis Canotas left Greece in search of a sweeter life. They opened the Puritan Confectionary Company in Manchester in 1917, the first in a line of ice cream shops and restaurants throughout the city. Their children followed in their footsteps, opening the Puritan Backroom in 1974. Today this location also includes a bustling takeout business and a conference and event center. Customers still line up for Puritan ice cream, and crowd into booths for American comfort food and Greek classics. Above all, they come for chicken tenders (which the Backroom claims to have invented), along with a mudslide or two, another house specialty. This New Hampshire mainstay has become a required stop for candidates passing through on the campaign trail. In an era of division, it is a rare nonpartisan space where everyone feels welcome. Today the restaurant is run by third-generation owner Arthur Pappas, son Chris, and son-in-law Eric. Chris Pappas, who caught the political bug growing up at the restaurant, is currently a New Hampshire congressman.

Oriental Mart (1506 Pike Pl., #509, Seattle, WA; Owner: Mila Apostol and Joy Apostol)

Oriental Mark.

Oriental Mart.

In 1971, Mila Apostol opened Oriental Mart also known as “O’Mart” in Pike Place Market to give fellow Filipino immigrants the groceries and culture they missed from back home. Eventually, Mila and her eldest daughter Leila raided their store shelves to make adobo and sinigang for farmers delivering produce to the market. Word spread to Filipino flight crews and cruise ship workers, but also to Seattle at large. Today, Mila’s daughter Joy runs the retail side of their market stall, while Leila oversees a counter in the style of the Philippines’ turo restaurants, filling her glass hot case with the fried noodles known as pancit, juicy longanisa, and long-simmered adobo. There’s always sinigang; Leila adapts the classic tamarind-sour soup to its Northwest surroundings with salmon collars procured from neighboring fish vendors.

El Taco de Mexico (714 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, CO; Owner: Sasha Zanabria)

El Taco.

El Taco.

Among Denver’s thriving Mexican food culture, El Taco de Mexico is a lodestar whose appeal cuts across lines of race, class, and age. Maria Luisa Zanabria, a native of Mexico City, arrived in the city in 1985, first opening a trailer on Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s Art District. Her business grew into a small taqueria with a bright, bumblebee-yellow exterior. The serious, focused cooks (all women) keep pace with the all-day crowds, turning out tacos (carne asada, al pastor, and lengua are among the options), enchilada, gorditas, and weekend menudo. The restaurant’s crowning glory is the pork burrito, smothered in green chile humming with earthy spice. Made extra-heaping as a breakfast burrito stuffed with egg and chorizo, it brings bleary-eyed devotees back to life.

Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que (2404 Southmost Blvd, Brownsville, TX; Owner: Armando Vera)


Armando “Mando” Vera and his family practice a near-lost art in South Texas: barbacoa de cabeza (barbecued cow’s head) buried underground in a brick-lined pit and smoked for up to 12 hours. The tradition stems from the region’s 19th century vaquero-cowboy culture; Vera’s father opened a restaurant serving the specialty in 1955. Barbacoa is for weekend feasts. Customers request meat by the pound or half-pound (cachete, or cheek meat, is a rich and popular cut) and then build their own tacos with tortillas, homemade garnishes, onion, and cilantro that come with each order. Brownsville is a four-hour drive from San Antonio, the closest major Texas city, but the chance to savor this disappearing border-town delicacy merits a pilgrimage

Lassis Inn (518 E. 27th St., Little Rock, AR; Owners: Elihue Washington Jr. and Maria Washington) Pictured at the top of the post

In Arkansas, ordering buffalo ribs will land you a plate of fried fish—seasoned, battered ribs cut from local big-boned buffalo fish. In Little Rock, the place to eat them is Lassis Inn. Founded by Joe and Molassis Watson in 1905, it started as a sandwich shop out of their home, with Joe later adding catfish and buffalo ribs to the menu. Lassis Inn (the name is a shorthand for Molassis) later became a meeting place for Civil Rights leaders like Daisy Bates during the ’50s and ’60s. Under current owners Elihue Washington Jr. and his wife Maria, it remains a community hub—a gathering spot where people come for buffalo ribs, cold beer, and warm conversation.

Over the course of the last week, the James Beard Foundation has revealed two honorees daily via the Foundation’s Instagram page in partnership with a selection of prominent food industry friends of the Foundation located in each of the honorees’ regions.

The America’s Classics Award is given to locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community. This year’s honorees join the ranks of over 100 restaurants across the country that have received the Award since the category was introduced in 1998. They will be celebrated at the annual James Beard Awards Gala on Monday, May 4, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Taste America’s Pop-Up Dinner coming to semifinalist restaurant Tzuco

Wednesday, April 1, semifinalist for most outstanding new restaurant, Tzuco will be hosting a Taste America Pop-Up dinner. The stand-alone menu will be crafted by Taste America Visiting All-Star Chef Lorena Garcia (Chica; Miami, Las Vegas) and Host Chef Carlos Gaytán. Following a reception featuring cocktails and hors d’oeuvres nodding to Chef Gaytán’s signature Mexican-French cuisine, guests will enjoy a four-course dinner prepared by both chefs celebrating the diverse flavors, cuisines, and backgrounds that contribute to American cooking.

For tickets and information visit jamesbeard.org/tasteamerica.

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