Story and photography courtesy of James Beard Foundation
The James Beard Foundation recently announced the six recipients of its 2023 America’s Classics Award. A Restaurant and Chef Awards category, the America’s Classics Award is given to locally owned restaurants with timeless appeal that are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of their communities.
"The mission of the James Beard Awards is to celebrate excellence, and that means recognizing the incredible work of long-standing restaurants that play such a crucial role in our communities, as our America’s Classics winners do,” says Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation. “We are so excited to announce this year’s winners. Congratulations to all!”
The James Beard Awards, considered among the nation’s most prestigious honors, recognize exceptional talent in the culinary and food media industries. The James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards celebrate excellence among restaurants, from fine dining to casual gems in our communities, while supporting and encouraging the foundation’s commitment to ethnic diversity, local community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive. Six of the twelve Restaurant and Chef regions are included in each awards cycle and rotated the next cycle to represent each region every other year. Established in 1990, with the first ceremony in 1991, the Restaurant and Chef Awards is one of five separate recognition programs for the James Beard Awards.
This year’s honorees join the ranks of more than one hundred restaurants nationwide that have received the award since the category was introduced in 1998. They will be celebrated at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony on Monday, June 5, 2023, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop; Austin, Texas
The Avila family has served Austin’s quickly gentrifying East Austin neighborhood since 1935 when Sophia De La O operated La Oriental Grocery & Bakery from their home on East 9th Street. The business moved to East 7th Street in 1962, and Joe Avila, with the support of his wife, Paula, bought the company and created Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, by bringing his childhood dream to fruition, Joe cemented a legacy through food and hospitality that continues to this day. The colorful pan dulce Mexican pastries and Tex-Mex family recipes draw large crowds hungry for migas, home-style pork carne guisada, and myriad breakfast tacos on homemade flour tortillas. (The infamous “fried bacon”—dredging thick-cut bacon through flour and cooking on the flat top grill—is a masterful touch).
But it’s the service and firm sense of community under the stewardship of three generations of Avila women, led by Joe’s widow Paula, that keeps people coming back. A melting pot of new and old Austin, here it is not unusual to find old-timers reminiscing about the city and sharing their stories and recommendations at the breakfast counter with Joe’s Bakery newcomers. It’s commonplace to encounter voter registration on the front patio. And despite its struggles during the pandemic, the restaurant doubled as a general store during the peak of COVID-19, selling toilet paper, paper towels, and other essentials. The neighborhood surrounding Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop is undergoing rapid development, but the restaurant remains a gathering place and piece of Austin history for regulars and newcomers alike.
La Casita Blanca; Villa Palmeras, San Juan, Puerto Rico
In 1980, Jesús Pérez Ruiz opened the doors to Casita Blanca in the Villa Palmeras section of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The restaurant represents the traditional Puerto Rican fonda, a casual and affordable family-run locale that serves delicious comfort food. For locals, it’s like stepping into your tía’s or abuela’s house with vintage furniture and colorful tablecloths, evoking feelings of nostalgia and fond memories of family gatherings. Patrons come from all walks of life—the obrero who works construction, the adventurous tourist, lawyers on an extended lunch break, students from the nearby university, and anyone looking for excellent comida criolla. Everyone is treated with kindness and respect, and since its inception, diners have been welcomed with a sopita del día and bacalaíto fritters with homemade pique (hot sauce). The menu is written on a chalkboard and always includes favorites like patitas de cerdo (pig’s feet), fricase de pollo, carne guisada, and rice and beans. Each meal ends with a chichaíto, an anise-based digestif. Today, Jesús’s two sons run the restaurant with the same love and dedication as their father.
For locals, it’s like stepping into your tía’s or abuela’s house with vintage furniture and colorful tablecloths, evoking feelings of nostalgia and fond memories of family gatherings.
Pacific and Northwest Region
Manago Hotel; Captain Cook, Hawaii
Manago Hotel is a place that reminds locals of childhood and old Hawaii. It is Hawaii’s oldest continually operating restaurant—it began in 1917 when Kinzo Manago and his “picture bride,” Osame Nagata, immigrants from Fukuoka, Japan, began selling udon, bread, jam, and coffee out of their home and then added cots for those traveling between Hilo and Kona. The hotel and restaurant survived and expanded over the decades, including through World War II, when the Army contracted Manago Hotel to feed soldiers. It’s still a simple place, the rooms have neither AC nor TVs, and the restaurant is largely unchanged since the 1940s—from the hand sink by the entrance that the coffee farmers would use before entering to the pork chops fried in a cast iron pan rumored to be as old as the hotel itself. The udon and bread are gone, but the menu is still spare, with less than a dozen items, including liver and onions and small local fish such as ‘ōpelu. All entrees come with a large bowl heaped with rice and side dishes on little melamine plates, like Hawaii’s banchan, and usually include potato macaroni salad.
The fourth generation—sisters Britney and Taryn Manago—now run the hotel and restaurant. Britney grew up below the kitchen and went to college in California before homesickness drove her back to the family business. “This is the only thing I’ve ever really known that I’ve loved and wanted to always be a part of,” she says.
Nezinscot Farm; Turner, Maine
When Gloria married Gregg Varney, she insisted that they open a café on the farm in Turner, Maine, that has been in the Varney family for more than a hundred years. The first organic dairy farm in Maine, Nezinscot Farm takes its name—shared by a nearby river—from the Abenaki word signifying a place to gather. The Abenaki name is seemingly also a mission for the Varneys. In 1987, Nezinscot opened its café and coffee shop, and Gloria’s original vision has since expanded to include a bakery, fromagerie, and charcuterie. Nezinscot Farm Café has something beautiful and exciting on every shelf—cases of homemade cheeses and meats, bagels, freshly baked pies, and perfect slices of bread rolling out of the kitchen topped with farm eggs and homemade sausage and cheeses. The energy behind it all feels directed at building community, with delicious homemade everything (even the teas and crackers) vital to creating and sustaining that sense of gathering. The Varneys feed the community in many ways, significantly providing a warm space to meet around food on a farm in the middle of Maine.
Pekin Noodle Parlor; Butte, Montana
The Pekin Noodle Parlor, located on the historic main drag in Butte, Montana, is America’s oldest continuously operating Chinese family restaurant. Hum and Bessie Yow, the original owners of the Pekin Café and Lounge, opened the restaurant in 1911 with the help of Tam Kwong Yee. The Yows built the building that still houses the restaurant in 1909 as a legal office and mercantile. Two years later, the Yows began serving noodles and created their version of the Chinese-American dish chop suey, which satisfied the yearnings of Chinese immigrants working in the mines and railroads.
The café has something beautiful and exciting on every shelf—cases of homemade cheeses and meats, bagels, freshly baked pies, and perfect slices of bread rolling out of the kitchen topped with farm eggs and homemade sausage and cheeses.
To access the restaurant, diners climb a flight of long, steep stairs to arrive on the second floor. Seventeen tables, found in booths separated from each other with orange beadboard partitions, occupy the space that once hosted illicit activities. A front room with windows to Big Sky vistas provides space for large groups, while a bar serves up spirited beverages. The menu is a time capsule featuring Chinese-American dishes created when authentic ingredients were unavailable. These dishes were a close approximation of home for the hardworking Chinese immigrants. The lengthy menu of mostly Americanized versions of Chinese food spotlights sixteen chop suey varieties. There’s also barbecue pork, egg rolls, sweet-and-sour pork, pineapple fried rice, chow mein, and noodles in broth and “gravy”—a thickened, soy-based sauce. The meal is finished with fortune cookies brought with the bill.
Great-great-great-grandson Jerry Tam has taken over the restaurant from his parents, Sharon and Ding K. Tam. Ding, who purchased the restaurant in the 1950s from his grandfather, was affectionately known as Mr. Wong by the community. His passing at the end of 2020 brought a hundred well-wishers when the nearby alley was renamed Danny Wong Way.
Great Lakes Region
Wagner’s Village Inn; Oldenburg, Indiana
For generations, Kentucky’s fried chicken tradition has overshadowed neighboring southeastern Indiana’s. Blame Colonel Sanders—who was, in fact, a native Hoosier. Some of the best fried chicken in the Midwest sizzles in cast-iron skillets at Wagner’s Village Inn in Oldenburg, population 674, otherwise known for its German-American history and historic churches. The elements of the fried chicken at Wagner’s are as unpretentious as the wood-paneled dining room: chicken, salt, pepper, flour, and lard. There is no recipe. But, as in other southeastern Indiana kitchens, the cooks are heavy-handed with the coarse-ground pepper, adding so much that the chicken could almost be called au poivre. The gentle heat of the pepper pairs well with the farmhouse fixings that make up a family-style dinner: coleslaw, green beans, and mashed potatoes with gravy. With Midwestern frugality, the kitchen serves each bird in ten pieces, including the back and ribs.
Some of the best fried chicken in the Midwest sizzles in cast-iron skillets at Wagner’s Village Inn in Oldenburg, population 674, otherwise known for its German-American history and historic churches.
Former owner Ginger Saccomando’s parents opened Wagner’s Village Inn in 1968. According to Saccomando, the roots of the signature dish run even deeper. Her parents learned to fry chicken from the owners of the Hearthstone in Metamora, a now-closed restaurant that she says pioneered the regional fried chicken style. The restaurant has since passed into the capable hands of Dan Saccomando, grandson of the original owners.
Congratulations to all!
— V —
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