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May 19, 2009

James Beard Honors 5 Classic American Restaurants


View James Beard America's Classics 2009 in a larger map

by Julia Bainbridge

A couple weeks ago, on May 4, the 19th annual James Beard Awards turned an otherwise rainy evening at New York City's Avery Fisher Hall into quite the glitzy affair. There was Martha Stewart in sequins, Jacques Pepin all tuxed out, Daniel Boulud looking ever the stylish gent in a crisply knotted silver tie, and Lidia Bastianich. (I didn't notice what she was wearing or on whose arm she entered the building; I was in the presence of Lidia Bastianich for the love.) Sure, there were big names among the best chefs (Dan Barber of Blue Hill for Outstanding Chef; Jose Garces of Amada for Best Chef: Mid Atlantic) and some famous five-star restaurants received top honors (Jean Georges for Outstanding Restaurant; Le Bernardin for Outstanding Wine Service), but what stole the show for me were the five America's Classics honorees.

The signature of these honorees is that "they are all restaurants, diners, shake shacks, clam shacks, that really represent America and the heartland," said James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro. "They're community dining destinations that have become a fabric of their towns." In other words, these are down-home joints where everyone ends up on Sunday afternoon to dish on town gossip and indulge in regional comfort food. Read after the jump to find out a little more about each one of this year's America's Classics honorees, and click on the map above for their signature dishes.

Arnold's Country Kitchen: Owner Jack Arnold, who favors overalls and bow ties, has been in charge with his wife, Rose, since 1983. They say go for the "meat and threes"--where you can pick any side dishes, from corn bread to braised greens. Some patrons forgo the meat altogether and eat a meal of scrumptious sides. (605 8th Ave. S, Nashville, TN)

Breitbach's Country Dining: Owned and operated by the same family for five generations, this spot has become part of daily life in Balltown, Iowa. Breitbach's rebounded from a devastating fire in 2007, in large part due to community support. Six months later to the day, the place burned down a second time. Once again, the townspeople are rallying behind the restaurant. "It was a big decision to make the second time," says owner Mike Breitbach. "It's the community support that did it. We couldn't let them down." The property is now being rebuilt--with the help of volunteer roofers--with plans to open in July. (563 Balltown Rd., Balltown, IA)

Mustache Bill's Diner: This is the classic Jersey diner. It's been around since 1959, when it was now-owner Bill Smith's first job. Fifty years later, he says "it seems kind of fitting that it will probably be my last." Note to families: Bill makes pancake art--princesses, octopuses, and whatever else the little ones might fancy. (8th and Broadway, Barnegat Light, NJ)

Totonno's: Totonno came to New York from Naples in 1888, where he had been a baker. His pizza parlor is still family owned and operated, and they keep everything--recipes, ovens, tablecloths--the way Totonno did. Unfortunately, like Breitbach's, this restaurant was recently subject to a devastating fire, which gutted the place last March. But they're rebuilding. They "have that can-do American spirit that is a testament to not only the people who run the restos but what America's Classics stand for," says James Beard Foundation's Ungaro. (1524 Neptune Ave., Brooklyn, NY)

Yank Sing: The current owner, Henry Chan, migrated from Hong Kong with his family in 1956. While his mother had never worked in her life, she had to find a job once in the States--and since she loved to eat, she decided to become a dim sum chef. In a city where there are plenty of options for dim sum, this is still the place. (101 Spear St., San Francisco, CA)

Further reading:
* The full list of 2009 James Beard Award winners
* Catch of the Day: International noshables

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