Ranking a list of the 50 best anything, in order, is an absurd enterprise. There’s no way we can really know that, say, No. 42 is better than No. 43.
But ranking a list of the best is also a statement of values. As I grappled with the challenge of revising Dallas’ 50 Best Restaurants, which we last updated in September 2021, I learned to think less about the absurdity and more about the values our list would reflect. That includes my values as the author, and the goals that Dallas, as a food city, should aspire to meet.
As you browse our new ranking, make notes of which restaurants to try, and wonder what on earth was wrong with the weirdo who put all these places in this order, look to the values. Specifically:
- Originality and courage of vision. Does the restaurant reflect a clear, individual idea of what good food should be? Is it willing to serve something new? Or is it a copycat that jumps on the trends everyone else is doing?
- Integrity. Is the produce local? Are meals cooked without shortcuts? Is the food honest to its creators’ experience or education? Does the hospitality experience build trust with customers?
- Seasonality. Do the menus change with the seasons, reflecting the best produce, meat, and seafood on the market at each moment? Or are summery corn salads mysteriously still available in January?
- Consistency. Will this restaurant be good every day, every season, or does the experience change based on where you sit or which cook held the saltshaker? Was I recognized as a dining critic, and if so, was my experience different from most other customers’?
- Only-in-Dallas-ness. Can you have this experience anywhere else, or is it copying an experience from somewhere else? Would a tourist walk away from this meal thinking, “wow, Dallas is cool”?
- Of course, there are also more obvious values in play: taste, service, value for money, accessibility, memorability, and plain old fun.
Our new list is live now. I hope that our 50 Best Restaurants list encourages those values in the future. I hope that by recognizing restaurants with integrity, consistency, uniqueness, and courage, we can help develop those traits at new establishments across the city.
Certainly, those values helped clarify the path when I was struggling with rankings. My original 50 Best draft had 85 restaurants, which unfortunately is not how math works. I had to make painful cuts. Even now, my private spreadsheet goes up to 56.
When you notice a “snub,” think about it in the context of the list’s values. There’s no way to really compare two businesses as apples-and-oranges different as CBD Provisions and Ayahuasca Cantina. But when you consider ideas like originality, courage, value, and uniqueness, an answer emerges. Of course, half the fun of ranking restaurants in order is to start arguments and comment-section debates. But I do hope that there is a philosophy, an aspiration for Dallas dining, visible in our ranking.
I chose to exclude national chains and groups headquartered outside Dallas. That means no Uchi, Loro, Carbone, Nobu, or Monarch. Obviously, some of these chains are very good restaurants; by merits, Uchi and Loro especially would deserve commendation. (On our previous list, Uchi was No. 8.) But everyone knows about Uchi. I recently traveled to New York City, told a restaurant worker I was from Dallas, and got the reply, “Ooh, they have an Uchi there!”
Meanwhile, a French bistro in Lake Highlands, RM 12:20, closed last month because they can’t compete with big corporate chains, owner Erin Willis told the Dallas Morning News. If I can use the 50 Best spotlight to bring some love to a small local place instead of a corporate spot, to make more of a difference, I would like to do that.
Another new addition to this version of the list is a “trendline” tag, telling you whether a restaurant is improving, sliding, or keeping its quality steady. Some local spots have really stepped up their game this year, while others are struggling with challenges that affect the quality of their product. I didn’t think it was fair to pin a number on all of them without giving you context on what that number represents.
How the 50 Best list is chosen
The rankings on the 50 Best list are based on my own experiences at the restaurants, as a paying customer on either D’s dime or my own. They are not based on favors, advertising, or schmoozing. If a restaurant sends me a freebie, I add the cost to the tip and only write about it if it was bad.
I also keep in touch with friends, industry insiders, and readers to make sure that other customers’ experiences are like my own. Had a different experience? Shoot me an email, please! I am also grateful to D colleagues who know their food and advised on their restaurant experiences, including (but not only) Matt Goodman, Aileen Jimenez, Nataly Keomoungkhoun, and Kathy Wise. This was not a solo effort. All the dumb judgment errors you see on the list are, however, entirely my own.
Restaurants must have been open for six months to make the updated list. Brand-new openings, like El Carlos Elegante, will be eligible next time. As hard as it is to resist a trendy new restaurant that just opened its doors, those first few weeks are often the worst time to visit. The best, most worthy places get better and better with age. The spots that suddenly drop in quality after the first six months are the ones you’ll soon forget.
Ready to plunge into our new 50 Best Restaurants list? Here it is. Our next update will arrive in late summer.