On day one, there are 200 restaurants. Two months in, the list has been slashed to 100. After four months, only 10 remain—the best new 10 in the nation that is—according to Bon Appétit magazine’s Andrew Knowlton, a guy who approaches transcontinental travel the same way some of us hop on the 4 train.
This year, Knowlton, who is B.A.’s restaurant and drinks editor, logged nearly 30,000 miles, through a total of 22 states, for the magazine’s annual “America’s Best Restaurants” issue, which he’s been writing since 2007. On his annual journey of a thousand meals, Knowlton—who is 38, six-foot-something, lean and would probably be played by Brad Pitt in his biopic—morphs into some sort of a culinary bloodhound, visiting as many restaurants as is humanly possible in a four-month stretch.
It’s his opportunity to walk into a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere and find a reason any food nerd worth his weight in heritage turkeys needs to eat there.
“All food writers want to discover a restaurant or a chef,” he said. “It becomes harder and harder because there are so many people writing about food now. But I am most happy going to smaller towns that can be dismissed by New Yorkers.”
He’s done just that with places like Long Grain, a Thai spot in Camden, Maine, where he had such a life-altering bowl of khao soi that he put it on the magazine’s cover. His world was rocked by the pan-Asian eats at Xiao Bao Biscuit, in Charleston, South Carolina—a town Knowlton calls one of the most exciting food cities in the country. He’ll never forget the pasta at Rolf and Daughters in Nashville, Tennessee, and he can’t wait to get back to the fresh flavors at Israeli chef Ben Poremba’s Olio and Elaia in St. Louis. (You’re taking notes, right?)
“I’ve been able to explore the United States and travel to places I never thought I would even want to go,” he said on a recent afternoon over cold pints at Cobble Hill’s 61 Local. “Places like Nashville and St. Louis—cities that have so much going on now. New York, San Francisco and Chicago used to be head and shoulders above, but now it doesn’t matter where you go, you get great food, design and service. It’s almost like the NCAA basketball tournament: It used to be Duke and North Carolina and now you get all these crazy teams.”
Given that Gourmet is gone (R.I.P.), that The New York Times only reviews New York City restaurants (and really that’s Manhattan, some hip Brooklyn spots and the rare Asian joint in Queens), and that Saveur and Food & Wine don’t do restaurant reviews, Knowlton’s arguably the most important voice in restaurant criticism in the country.
“I think Andrew has a very keen awareness of what makes a chef and a restaurant great,” said Steven Hall, a New York City–based restaurant publicist and consultant. “He can really see the bigger picture instead of just what is happening in the moment. And because his magazine is national, he really gets to see how chefs are influenced by each other, state-by-state and city-to-city. He is out there on the road and he sees firsthand what diners are excited about.”
Out there on the road, your man on the ground tackles an average of four restaurants a night, ordering a dozen dishes at each restaurant. Once he decides that a place deserves a closer look, he’ll return and order a “full” meal.
“I used to kill myself and try to do six places a night but then realized I wasn’t doing restaurants any favors,” he says. “Though there is something to be said if you are still eating at that fourth restaurant.”
Reservations are made under a pseudonym that changes yearly. He has used baseball players from his youth (Bob Horner of the Braves), made-up names—Bo Circle is a mash up of his first pet (Bo) and the name of the street he grew up on (Circle Drive) and borrowed relative’s names—Teddy Skogly is his father-in-law.
He forgoes midday drinks—“When you eat out five days in a row, you can’t drink at lunch or you will fall off the cliff”—and goes for a run every morning. Then, after consuming an average of 200,000 calories a week, he balances each binge with a post-trip weeklong Blueprint Cleanse (no food, no booze, no caffeine, just six organic juices a day), but says it’s not about losing weight.
“I have to recalibrate my palate,” he says. “The cleanse allows you to taste food again. Let me tell you, when you have a cheeseburger after a six-day cleanse, it’s the best cheeseburger you have ever tasted.”
Back in Brooklyn, the reporter who eats out for a living loves to cook in his own kitchen. He hits the Greenmarkets with his daughters, and when they do eat out, it’s at spots like Frankies, the Good Fork, Battersby, Fort Defiance and Roberta’s.
“I love taking my daughters to Roberta’s at, like, 3 in the afternoon,” he said. “We get pizza and hang out with all the crazy tattooed hipster people.”
Weekdays, Knowlton is at his Condé Nast Times Square office around 8 or 8:30 to write. Late morning is dedicated to reading—magazines, newspapers and blogs from around the country. After lunch out, he hits the test kitchen to taste recipes in development, or attends story meetings. By 4:30, Don Draper style, he tests the newest brands of booze to hit the market. “I never want to have a job where somebody is gonna look at me funny if I have a glass of whiskey at 4 in the afternoon.”
Unsurprisingly, he loves his work. “I don’t ever want to get out of this business,” he said. “If I’m not writing about restaurants, I’ll be a farmer, or open a café, or organize a CSA.”
Knowlton’s appetite can be traced back to his upbringing in Atlanta, where his parents took him out for real ethnic food—from Vietnamese to Cuban. But it wasn’t love at first bite. “I remember crying every time they took me to the Indian restaurant. I hated it, but I had no choice.”
He went to Bates College in Maine and traveled extensively—studying in Greece and Florence, where his American eyes were opened not only to classical sculpture and Renaissance painting but also to the seasonal, market-driven approach to eating.
After college he enrolled in a publishing course at NYU and got a job at Lingua Franca as a Guy Friday—he made photocopies, fetched coffee, tried to sign advertisers, unwrapped weird academic books.
In search of cheap rent, Knowlton rented a one-bedroom on Degraw Street—way before Brooklyn was an epicurean destination. “I remember being so scared,” he recalls. “There was a sign that said, ‘Welcome home John!’ which was for John Gotti!” But the neighborhood also charmed him: An old Italian woman in his building, sensing he was on his own, left a plate of homemade baked ziti by his door. “And then,” he smiled, “I just fell in love with Brooklyn.”
Knowlton was fired from LF for photocopying menus on the company’s dime, but their loss set in motion a series of very fortunate events. Walking down Smith Street one afternoon, Knowlton came upon a bald man selling dishes, who explained he was opening a restaurant on that lonely stretch. The chef’s name was Charlie Kiely; his restaurant would be called the Grocery. Not realizing that he had walked into the ground floor of the Brooklyn restaurant revolution, Knowlton, then 25, took a job there, doing everything from waiting tables (he waited on NYT critic Bill Grimes when he reviewed the place), to cleaning the break room, plus learning to dice carrots and sear fish, 14 hours a day for two years.
Knowlton owes Kiely more than industry knowledge. One day a woman named Christina Skogly showed up asking about a job and Kiely hired her. “I tried to teach her how to clean the espresso machine,” Knowlton said. “She thought I was the biggest asshole in the world because I was so serious about it.” Four months later, they were living together. Now married, they have two daughters, Julep and Signe, and still live in Carroll Gardens. (Skogly has worked with Marcus Samuelsson, Tom Colicchio and most recently Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo of Frankies.)
In 2000, still at the Grocery, Knowlton landed a two-day-a-week internship at Bon Appétit. Two years later he scored a full-time job as an editorial assistant. Over the next five years, Knowlton was mentored by editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild, features editor Hugh Garvey and senior editor Tanya Wenman Steel and rose steadily up the ranks.
“Tanya really took me under her wing,” said Knowlton. “She didn’t care that I was some kid with little experience. She took me out to dinner a lot, introduced me to people, edited me and helped me become a better writer.”
Knowlton also valued his relationship with Fairchild. “I looked up to her and felt a closeness to her. She started out as an assistant to the editor, and that’s how I started out, too. She loved restaurants like I did and was a big influence on me.”
When Wenman Steel left Bon Appétit to take over Epicurious in 2005, Knowlton was knighted as the magazine’s official restaurant guru. “I was 31, but I felt like an old newspaper man because food was my beat,” he said. “If someone needed to know about where to go and trends and what was happening, they came to me.”
Over a decade later, they still do. In a world where all that’s needed to be a food critic is an Internet connection and a fairly regular pulse, Knowlton is set apart by his immense culinary knowledge and sharp-witted writing (his Bon Appétit blog earned a 2009 James Beard Journalism nomination), as well as his practical restaurant experience.
“Andrew is something of an enigma in the food writing world because he has actual back-of-the-house restaurant experience,” said Hall. “He brings the perspective of someone who has done it all and knows how hard it is to pull it off.”
While he’s got the chops to sling stories of hay-smoked organic hens with the best of them, Knowlton’s something of a rarity in that he’s just as passionate about a good bag of Lay’s Classic Potato Chips as he is about Aska’s New Nordic combo plate of salsify, lichen and autumn leaves.
“Everyone’s got an opinion—and Andrew’s got more than most,” said Bon Appétit’s editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport. “But he’s always able to express them in a compelling, accessible way. So even if you don’t agree with him—and believe me, if I hear from him again about how great orange wine is, I’m going to smack him—you still want to read what he has to say. He’s just a fun writer, whether he’s telling you what the best new restaurant of 2013 is, or why you should always stock your cooler with seven-ounce pony bottles of Miller High Life for your summer barbecues.”
“He really is not a food snob,” said Garvey. “He is as much pimento cheese as he is sous vide, and he has always been that way.”
Knowlton doesn’t just go effortlessly from lowbrow to high and back again. He’s also transitioned gracefully from short to long—or at least, his hair has. For years, it hung to his shoulders. When he was a regular judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef, that hair garnered about the same amount of attention as Michelle Obama’s. Since shearing it short in November 2010, he still hears from readers and viewers begging him to grow it out again. But Rapoport was quite pleased, saying Knowlton “no longer looks like a country singer or a male stripper.”
Appearances aside, Knowlton has built a reputation as a culinary seer who has predicted everything from the rise of Southern food to homemade bitters and brought early notoriety to now-famous restaurants like Statebird Provisions and Husk. “He was always so ahead of the curve,” said Garvey.
And despite his platform and power, he’s not out to find fault like, say, the bloodthirsty Gawker-style click bait folks over at Eater. Instead he’s about celebrating what’s good, positively earnest in praise of restaurants he loves.
“There is enough negativity in food writing,” said Knowlton. “Not to sound cheesy, but I love celebrating restaurants and their stories. It’s one of the reasons I love Battersby. Here are these two guys slaving away every single night in a kitchen the size of a closet. People say their kitchens are too small to cook in, and I am like, ‘Have you been to Battersby?’”
In August, Bon Appétit released its 13th restaurant issue containing Knowlton’s list of the 10 best new restaurants in the country. It includes LA’s new produce-driven Alma at the number one spot, plus San Francisco’s über-expensive Saison (where dinner for two will run you at least a grand), Chicago’s Portuguese/Macanese/Euro-Asian joint Fat Rice and the New Nordic Aska here in Brooklyn. But he also hailed restaurants in Nashville (Rolf & Daughters), Houston (The Pass & Provisions), Atlanta (The Optimist), and Austin (Jeffrey’s & Josephine House). Not a single Manhattan restaurant made the list.
As the ink dried on that issue, he was packing his bags for the next six months, which includes restaurant reservations in Oslo, Copenhagen, Basque country (he’ll cycle through it for a story), London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, Mexico City and Rio, but he’s already looking forward to getting back on American interstates for the 2014 restaurant issue.
“Hopefully I will get to travel to even smaller towns for next year’s list,” he said. “I love being able to go to places you can’t even fly to, where you have to drive. One day, I’d like to take three months off and drive around the country with my girls and eat around the country, and teach them some cheesy life lessons. Maybe I’ll write a book: Everything I Learned, I Learned at Waffle House.
This year Bon Appétit’s restaurant and drinks editor logged nearly 30,000 miles, through 22 states, researching the magazine’s annual list of “America’s Best New Restaurants.”
Don’t miss Knowlton’s suggestions for where to eat and drink now across the U.S.
Photos courtesy of Andrew Knowlton.