Everything You Need To Know About The James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Nominees

As a chef, author, and cultural tastemaker, the late James Beard holds a massive amount of respect for his lasting influence over the modern American appetite. By receiving an award printed with Beard's name, modern restauranteurs, media professionals, chefs, and journalists claim their own level of prestige and a place in our national recipe book. The James Beard Foundation Awards, gifted by a foundation of the same name, are valued in the culinary world. Categories like Outstanding Bar Program or Outstanding Restaurant help hospitality lovers and professionals measure the evolving standards of their sphere while keeping relevant with changing palates.

A committee of industry professionals decides on a candidate's eligibility for the Beard Foundation Awards after an open call period that spans several months. Recommendations for inclusion are sent by, or for, restaurants, chefs, and creatives. The group then reviews eligibility, and voting takes place by a body of said professionals and former award recipients. And if your establishment has done quality, consistent, beneficial work, you may find yourself in the category of Outstanding Restaurants.

For many reasons, this year's ceremony — which takes place at an in-person event in Chicago — is turning a new leaf for the organization. Being that an award from the foundation has the potential to make a positive impact on business prospects and push the direction of the culinary world, the awards remain important. In fact, with an increased focus on equity and marginalized or disenfranchised voices, this year's awards can be more impactful than ever.

The Beard Awards Post-Pandemic

For the James Beard Awards, this year's ceremony is a return to form of sorts. With the previous two years of awards having been canceled, this year's proceedings in Chicago offer the chance for America's "Oscars of Foods" to begin again on a fresh footing. This is necessary, considering that the foundation has been far from balancing on stable ground since the termination of accolades in both 2020 and 2021.

Eater reported that the abrupt cancellation of naming winners for the 2020 and 2021 Beard Awards occurred under a chaotic, heavy cloud of controversy. As the restaurant industry faced upheaval from the social movements of the summer of 2020, the Beard foundation's process came into question. A much-needed debate was sparked among foundation members, panelists, and award voters centered on who was being most regularly acknowledged by the establishment — and who was keeping watch at the gates of this upper echelon (via The New York Times).

Now returned in 2022, the awards committee has supposedly expanded its eyes to recognize new aspects of what it takes for an eatery or cook to fit the categories of Outstanding Restaurant and Best Chef, among other titles. The Washington Post reports that the JBF has even instituted a social justice component for their candidates, doubling down on the "positive impact" requirement of the Outstanding Restaurant category.

Brennan's — New Orleans

In summarizing the James Beard Outstanding Restaurant award qualifications, Eater writes that one of the necessary points is that an establishment must have consecutively operated for over five years. Four finalists on this list are comfortably within that mark — 24 is the average number of years open for this group. Brennan's restaurant, however, is safely within that bounds. The New Orleans staple has been open since 1946, and in those 76 years, accolades have multiplied. Still, a James Beard Award has remained elusive.

As Lousiana Travel writes, Creole food has always been a slight contradiction; at once an amalgam of international flavors and high-brow appetites yet intimately related to the hearty, pastoral, regional Cajun cuisine. The dishes and atmosphere at Brennan's display that rich complexity. One of the restaurant's signature events, dubbed Bubbles at Brennan's, is a raucous yet elegant time filled with small bites and champagne. And though "dressy casual" is the official code, the food never loosens its tie and always remains sharp.

Brennan's is a bright pink building found in the New Orlean's French Quarter, as lively in the dining room as it is on the outside. It has been presided over by members of the Brennan family of restauranteurs since the doors first opened. Much of the city's dining history can be traced back to the web of people who revolved around its kitchens and tables, sautéing, serving, or sampling one of the region's incomparable examples of Creole food. It's no surprise that the James Beard Awards committee would consider this establishment a finalist in the Outstanding Restaurant category — only that it took so long to do so.

Butcher & Bee — Charleston

For all the talk of their needing help, bees have another reputation worth discussing. For one, we're told that when the time comes, we can find these buzzing critters getting busy with the birds and that what happens when they're together is natural and edifying. Now, one of America's preeminent food authorities, the James Beard Association, is telling us that the bees' new favorite partner is the butcher — and that the fruits of their communal time are just as pleasing. Food and love are two tenets worthy of building pillars around, and both are present at Charleston's Butcher & Bee.

Open since 2011, Butcher & Bee has had a decade-plus of service towards this moment on the national food stage. It's clear that commitment to an ethos and dedication to the craft has gotten owner Michael Shemtov here. Since the doors opened, community outlets such as Charleston Magazine have praised the restaurant's mission to turn fine dining ingredients into casual fare. Sure enough, regionally sourced ingredients for exquisitely built sandwiches proved the formula to help this eatery grow from a small shop to a fully-fleshed food and beverage concept. Butcher & Bee's current sit-down digs opened in 2016. Four years of relaxed dining and serious flavors followed before the pandemic forced Butcher & Bee's team to return to counter service basics to survive (via ​​The Post and Courrier). Now, the restaurant has returned to thriving and is slinging more than sandwiches.

The menu at Butcher & Bee is constantly shifting and depends on seasonal availability. Thematically, the food takes a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lilt. Past iterations of the menu have included dishes of Parisian Gnocchi painted with a biting and ambrosial combo of giardiniera and sweet potato. The most recent update offers a Mezze section with dishes like Melted Cabbage with miso butter and butter beans brightened by dill. From this view, it looks like the bees are fully engaged in saving themselves.

Chai Pani — Asheville

The word "mindblasting" on the menu at Chai Pani should be warning enough for what you've come to experience. Yet somehow, there is always a sense of surprise at Chai Pani. It's not the shock of a meal being better or different than you expected — no, Chai Pani's level of esteem should've already prepared you for the authentic wonders that steam forth from the kitchen. Instead, the astonishment comes from how simple things are consistently stacked to form a towering experience — boldly muraled walls in a dining room filled with fragrances and the warmth and skill of a harmonized team.

During the restaurant industry's most troubled times, the owners of Chai Pani credited their staff and community with keeping the business rooted. Now that they've seen triumph on the other side, the crew continues to be regarded as the source of success (via Citizen Times). But, the minds behind this delicious sanctuary deserve a share of the distinction, too.

This is not Chef Meherwan Irani's first experience with the James Beard Foundation Awards. Irani has been nominated for the category of Best Chef in the Southeast four times, but this year's finalist placing in the Outstanding Restaurant category is his first in this particular section. This newest recognition goes beyond validating the chef's personal skills. He believes that "if there is ever an award that is for the team, it's for Outstanding Restaurant — not the chef. Absolutely not the chef," per Citizen Times. Irani's wife and business partner, Molly, has well-earned acknowledgment for her essential role in Chai Pani, from the initial push for the idea in 2009 to growing the singular restaurant into a regional web of related dining rooms.

At Chai Pani, the dynamics of this family business foster a jubilant environment. Between elbow bumping dives for the last of the saag paneer and loud laughter over the crunch of pakoras, the joy of eating is apparent.

Parachute — Chicago

2019 was the last year that the food world experienced a full James Beard Awards season, so for all intents and purposes, Beverly Kim and John Clark of Parachute in Chicago are going for back-to-back accolades. The couple received the award for Best Chef: Great Lakes on the basis of having some of the most desirable Korean food in the country. There was little time to enjoy the award. The restaurant closed, as so many would during 2020. For a brief period, Kim and Clark operated Parachute as a miniaturized, takeaway version of itself — a previously unpracticed business operation for a Michelin-starred restaurant. However, when Parachute was closed for a renovation, Michelin removed its star.

In literal terms, the concept of Parachute has been closed since 2020, reopening as of May 2022 into a renovated Avondale location. Yet, the James Beard Foundation has listed the eatery as an Outstanding Restaurant contender since February 2022 (via Chicago Tribune). Wondering how this is possible? Upon revamping certain pieces of this year's awards, the Foundation clarified that it would still be considering restaurants that have operated for five years consecutively, pandemic notwithstanding. Perhaps their new approach also relies heavily on judging the spirit of a restaurant. Parachute's ingenious takeout pivot during the industry-wide upheaval, a Goldbelly-shipped retail strategy, and operating a nonprofit for mothers in hospitality are creative and dynamic and deserving of recognition. 

Regardless of all that's been done outside of normal restaurant parameters, the consistency of food and service at Parachute strongly supports its placement in this category. Beverly Kim recalls a time when she had to preposition her food with the term "French technique." Her dedication to making inspired, approachable food has been a crucial part of educating the collective palate on the intricacies and joys of Korean cuisine.

The Walrus and the Carpenter — Seattle

Named after a Lewis Carroll poem, friends Renne Erickson, Jeremy Price, and Chad Dale founded The Walrus and the Carpenter with a dream of creating a cozy, neighborhood oyster hangout. A James Beard Award winner, Erickson is also generous, having once donated $15,000 worth of ground beef to Food Lifeline, a hunger non-profit. 

In operation since 2010, the restaurant is filled with hand-drawn illustrations hanging over the hand-built cabinetry and furniture (also made by loved ones). The group wants you to know that the patio brick was laid by the hands of family members, and the centerpiece came from an antique yard. These snippets of shared communal history, each with backstories, demonstrate the value at the heart of this establishment: Spending quality time and eating quality food with beloved people — whether they come from across the globe or around the corner.

Still, diners (and the Beard Foundation) can't ignore how Erickson's skill and history shine throughout the seasonal menu, which is driven by local seafood and raw oysters. Besides the abundance of Washington-harvested bivalves, The Walrus and the Carpenter menu highlights cheeses sourced from local creameries. In a recent menu (as of writing), the funky attitude of Oregon blue cheese was paired with a briny bite of pickled currants in revitalizing fashion.

In this tastefully relaxed seafood eatery, the cleanest of salmon crudo to the inspired halibut tartare provides a robust example of all that the Pacific Northwest region offers. The real award is when you reach one of the 40-seats in this establishment.