On Monday evening an audience of chefs, restaurateurs, and food media folks gathered at the 2023 James Beard Foundation awards in Chicago. Winning chefs took the stage, one after another, and shared heartfelt stories of the communities that helped bring them to this moment. As the ceremony went on and winners were announced, I noticed that something felt different: While in the past few years major awards like Best New Restaurant and Outstanding Bar Program have gone to chefs in cities like New York and San Francisco, respectively, that was not the case this year. Major food cities like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and New Orleans were mostly (and in some cases completely) shut out.
Instead, award after award went to chefs and restaurants located outside major metropolises. In Charlestown, Rhode Island, Sly Fox Den Too’s Sherry Pocknett won Best Chef: Northeast, becoming the first Indigenous woman to win a James Beard. Andrew Black took home Oklahoma’s second-ever James Beard award for his work at Grey Sweater in Oklahoma City. (Florence’s Restaurant, which opened in 1952, was honored with an America’s Classic award last year.) And Kris Komori of Kin took Best Chef: Mountain, the first time an Idaho restaurant has won. A new Outstanding Bakery category honored Yoli, a tortilleria in Kansas City, MO. In 2019, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago received 10 awards (plus an America’s Classic award for a restaurant in Brooklyn). In 2023 those cities received a total of only three. This year, out of 22 categories, seven awards went to restaurants and chefs in cities with fewer than 350,000 residents.
Watching chefs outside big cities sweep the awards made one thing crystal clear: Restaurants opening in smaller areas are redefining what a destination food city looks like.
Commentators Nilou Motamed and Francis Lam seemed to notice this trend as well. “There are so many parts of the country that have not won Beard awards [before this]—smaller cities and towns where in the past it was hard to get the national attention,” Lam said as Andrew Black took the stage to accept his award. In his speech Black made sure to mention how vital his community in Oklahoma City had been to his restaurant’s success—particularly as it struggled during COVID. “I looked outside and there were envelopes [piling up], and I told myself it was bills so I didn’t pick them up,” he said. “One day I went out and picked them up, and the community—Oklahoma—was dropping off checks to us so we could survive. So this is bigger than I am.”
Big cities will always be destinations for dining, but this year’s James Beard Awards prove that the national dining scene is changing in a major way. As chefs continue to open up new bakeries, bars, and restaurants outside of what are traditionally considered “food cities,” the reality of destination dining is seeing a huge shift. The Beards have begun to recognize what chefs and food lovers outside of major cities have been saying for years: Incredible restaurants exist all across the country.