America might be famous for many things, from the classic movies that grace our screens to the sports teams celebrated across the globe. However, there is nothing that instills more pride in the American soul than its iconic food. There isn’t a city in the country that doesn’t boast eateries with everything from juicy burgers to mouthwatering steaks smoked ribs to a five-alarm chili that will leave you mouth smoking instead.
The country’s culinary offerings are too many to mention in one article, so we thought we would list some of the most famous dining experiences you can have when traveling across our great nation. Here are just a few places that the locals swear by and tourists regularly swarm.
Founded by the Canter family and beginning life as a Jewish-style delicatessen in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1924. It soon moved to Boyle Heights in 1931, before ending up in the area it still exists today, the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in 1948. One final relocation would see this iconic deli move into an old theater where it has remained unchanged to this day.
It soon became a favorite destination for the great and the good of Tinseltown due to it being near the border of West Hollywood and has featured in many movies and television shows over the years. Although it serves deli staples like pastrami, corned beef, matzah ball soup, challah, lox and bagels, and brisket, its Monte Cristo sandwich was named as one of the best sandwiches in America by Esquire magazine.
2. Joe’s Stone Crab
The restaurant founder, Joe Weiss, began his culinary career at Smith’s Casino, a part of the early Miami Beach scene in 1913, before opening his own restaurant across the road on what is now South Pointe Drive. When the restaurant first opened, despite the name it, it would be a few years before he started serving the crabs that bear the restaurant’s name.
Joe’s is now the biggest buyer of Florida stone crabs and has helped the fishing industry in the area maintain itself. The famous crab legs are served chilled with mustard sauce and come in four sizes, from medium to jumbo, and are so popular that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, once wrote that the meal he had at Joe’s was the best meal of his life.
3. St. Elmo Steak House
This Indianapolis landmark has the distinction of being the oldest steakhouse in its original location. Founded by Joe Stahr in 1902, the restaurant started life as a humble tavern with a classic turn-of-the-century Chicago saloon décor. Although the restaurant has expanded over the years, the décor has remained largely the same. It has gained a reputation over the years as a place where the machinations of salesmen, tycoons, celebrities, attorneys, and politicians all occur.
Of course, you can buy a juicy steak here (the clues in the name). However, St. Elmo’s is arguably more famous for its award-winning shrimp cocktail. This large boiled shrimp dish is served with a fiery sauce made of Missouri-grown horseradish and is guaranteed to clear your airwaves. Although no one knows where the tradition comes from, each entrée comes with your choice of Navy Bean soup or a glass of tomato juice.
4. Cherry Cricket
Established in 1945 in the living room of its founder Mary Zimmerman, before being bought by Lloyd Page in 1950, who gave it the name the people of Denver know and love today. No one is actually sure where the name Cherry Cricket originated from, but when Bernard Duffy took over ownership in 1963, he added the now famous rotating Duffy’s sign. Although the ownership details get a little sketchy for a few decades, in 1990, Eli McGuire breathed new life into the place before handing the reigns over to current Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Its specialty might be a bowl of spicy pork stew, known as “a bowl of green,” but it’s the burgers people come for. You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to toppings as they have 21 on offer, from cream cheese and jalapenos to melted peanut butter and fried egg. Food Network star Aarón Sánchez said in 2009, after tasting their half-pound Cricket Burger, that it was the best burger he had ever eaten.
5. Ben’s Chili Bowl
A Trinidadian-born immigrant dentistry student and his fiancée, Virginia-born Virginia Rollins, founded this iconic restaurant on August 22, 1958 (they married seven weeks later), unaware that their place would play an integral part in the neighborhood’s history. They stayed open while the city burned around them after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and had then-President-elect Barack Obama eat there just before his historic inauguration in 2009.
The chili bowl might be in the name, but the restaurant’s claim to fame is its half-smoke, spicy quarter-pound pork and beef sausage on a warm steamed bun, topped with mustard, onions, and a spicy homemade chili sauce. You can, of course, get some fantastic chili, and in January 2009, food magazine Bon Appétit stated that “No reasonable discussion of great chili joints can take place without mention of this U Street institution.”
Founded in 1886 by John W. Faidley, Sr. this award-winning restaurant is not only still located at the “World Famous Lexington Market” but his descendants, Bill and Nancy Devine, still own and operate this iconic family-run business. This restaurant serves not only the Baltimore area but has expanded to shipping their most famous creation across the globe.
And what is this famous creation you ask? The Faidley’s lump crab cakes, they were even commissioned to create a crab cake for the crew of the United States Space Shuttle. The creation of their crab cake sandwich is what keeps people coming back for more. It’s a giant, flaky half-pound lump of crabmeat sitting on top of chewy white bread, served with lettuce and tomato that has been described as one of the best sandwiches in America.
7. Union Oyster House
This restaurant is so old and iconic (it’s the oldest operating restaurant in the country) that it was listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 27, 2003. Originally opening as the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House on August 3, 1826, after the American people were enveloped in an oyster craze, it gained early fame for installing its now-iconic semi-circular Oyster Bar. Since then, it has been a place where the great and the good of Boston can get a refreshing drink to wash down their plate of oysters.
Many famous faces have come to enjoy the restaurant’s famous bivalves, which can be served raw, grilled, fried, stewed or Rockefeller. None more so than the Kennedy family, who patronized the Union Oyster House for years. J.F.K, in particular, used to love to dine and read his newspaper in peace while serving as a Senator. It is also the place where the toothpick was reportedly invented by Charles Forster, an enterprising man from Maine.
8. Superdawg Drive-in
Located in the Norwood Park neighborhood of Chicago, this institution has remained largely the same since it was opened in May 1948 by Maurie and Flaurie Berman. This iconic landmark still has the blinking eyed figures of two12-foot-long anthropomorphic hot dogs “Maurie and Flaurie” on the roof from the day they opened and still retains its 1950s style of ordering food.
If you’re looking for more iconic restaurants, here are 25 of them!
Something else that has remained the same since they first opened their doors and set them apart from the classic Chicago-style hot dog, is the recipe they use for their dogs. Made-to-order, their recipe makes for a smokier and spicier sausage and served in a cardboard box with crinkle-cut fries and topped off with their signature pickled green tomato.
9. Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue
One of the newest eateries on our list, Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue started from very humble beginnings when Jeff and Joy Stehney were invited to a barbecue contest, The Great Lenexa BBQ Battle at the American Royal, for the first time in 1990. Jeff in particular fell head over heels in love with the smoke, smell, and taste of the meat he knew he had to open his own restaurant.
After purchasing his first smoker in April 1991 and naming it Oklahoma Joe’s 24” smoker, he assembled a grilling team, called Slaughterhouse Five, and went on to win numerous awards and tournaments. Located in a functioning gas station, the team smoke their meat by using white oak wood, instead of the more traditional hickory, mesquite, and apple-flavored woods, which gives the meat its distinct flavor.
This list wouldn’t be complete without a restaurant that serves food inspired by our neighbors to the south that ISN’T chili. And if we are talking about the queen of Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine, there can be only one name, Ninfa Laurenzo, more affectionately known as “Mama Ninfa.” Beginning life as a taco stand in 1973, Laurenzo’s primary business was a tortilla factory.
Unfortunately, it was losing money and after being turned down for several loans, a friend in Mexico City loaned her several thousand dollars. Laurenzo then divided the factory facility in half, one side remaining as a tortilla factory while the other became the now-famous restaurant. She would invent something called tacos al carbon, a made-to-order flour tortilla filled with chargrilled sliced meat, you and I now know it as fajitas.
11. Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks
Last but not least, we couldn’t do a list of America’s most iconic food destinations without including the Philly cheesesteak. And what better place to go than where this American classic was birthed. While running a small hot dog stand at the famous Italian Market in South Philadelphia in 1930, brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri wanted to try something a little bit different.
So, instead, they went to the butchers and bought some inexpensive steak, cut it into thin slices, and then grilled it along with some chopped onions. They called it a steak sandwich, but it would eventually evolve into the now-famous Philly cheesesteak. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the brothers as thirty-six years later, Joey Vento, opened a rival restaurant directly across the road selling his own version of the cheesesteak, sparking a rivalry that lasts to this day.
If you’d like to know more about the history of restaurants and how they changed the country, Paul Freedman’s amazing book Ten Restaurants That Changed America is a fascinating read.