While the idea of a restaurant group may conjure images of mediocre (but unlimited) soup, salad and bread sticks at the Olive Garden, there are a handful of established and emerging restaurant groups that are bringing world-class food, across a variety of concepts and cuisines, to multiple locations around the world or in one city. Restaurant groups have become a place for talented chefs to experiment and innovate. Chefs often find that the extra resources of a group can be empowering rather than encumbering (it helps that many of the groups are owned by chefs or former chefs). “I think we are careful not forget that at its core, what we do is feed people,” said Kevin Boehm, co-owner of Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago. And in terms of risk and resources, it’s easier for a group to helm an audacious project than a single owner. “I think it’s easier for groups to negotiate, and finance restaurant openings,” John Besh, head of Besh Restaurant Group, told us.
We’ve selected 10 restaurant groups that are helping shape dining through masterful cooking, an appreciation for hospitality and the experience of dining, and a dedication to innovation. Some are led by culinary giants and employ thousands of people; some are a group of neighborhood favorites that happen to share the same owners. These 10 restaurant groups are driving food forward, from corner cafe to Michelin star.
Restaurants in Multiple Cities and States (and Countries)
Union Square Hospitality Group
Location(s): Based in New York City
Key Restaurants: Union Square Cafe, Maialino, Gramercy Tavern, Shake Shack, The Modern
Notable Awards: 25 James Beard Awards, Favorite NYC Restaurant (Zagat), Michelin star, Three Stars (New York Times)
Key Players: Danny Meyer, Nick Anderer
Notable Dish: Maialino al Forno (roasted suckling pig and rosemary potatoes) at Maialino; Shack Burger at Shake Shack
Why You Should Care: Union Square Hospitality is in many ways the quintessential restaurant group. Besides creating many of NYC’s most beloved restaurants, they’ve always been ahead of the curve. Union Square Cafe was one of the first restaurants to relax fine dining. Gramercy Tavern helped redefine American cuisine when it launched in 1994. Both restaurants have followings typically reserved for religious figures. They were doing fast casual before it was cool, starting Shake Shack in 2004. Offerings include Southern restaurants (Blue Smoke & Jazz Standard), a Michelin-starred eatery at the Museum of Modern Art (The Modern), and a trattoria (Malialino). 2015 saw three new concepts, a Southern cocktail bar (Porchlight) and a restaurant and cafe in the Whitney (The new Untitled & Studio Cafe).
Future Projects: They’ve announced that they will eliminate tipping at their restaurants; Union Square Cafe is relocating to 19th Street.
Location(s): Philadelphia, New York City, Atlantic City, Florida, Washington, D.C.
Key Restaurants: Morimoto, Buddakan, Upland
Notable Awards: Restaurateur of the Year (Bon Appétit, Zagat), 50 Best Places to Eat (Philadelphia magazine)
Key Players: Stephen Starr
Notable Dish: Morimoto Omakase, a seasonal tasting menu at the eponymous restaurant.
Why You Should Care: Restaurateur Stephen Starr got his start at 21 with a diner that also hosted comedy acts and moved on to create big concert venues. With that background, it’s no surprise that his company’s restaurants emphasize the experience of dining, whether you’re dining under the watchful eye of a giant Buddha at Morimoto or the glow of an olive-shaped lamp at the martini bar, the Continental. Starr’s venues are less stuffy than their contemporaries, with no qualms about opening an upscale taco place (El Rey) or a diner (Shake, Burger, and Roll).
Besh Restaurant Group
Location(s): New Orleans, Baltimore, San Antonio
Key Restaurants: Shaya, Besh Steak, Borgne, August
Notable Awards: “Best Chef: South” (James Beard Foundation), Top Restaurant 2012 (Food and Wine), Three-Bean Award (Times-Picayune)
Key Players: John Besh
Notable Dish: Shrimp Cavatelli Etouffee at Luke New Orleans
Why You Should Care: Celebrity chef John Besh may be a regular on the reality show circuit, but that doesn’t weaken his culinary credentials. The group’s fist restaurant, August, now their flagship, gave the Big Easy world-class French cuisine with a Creole soul and reminded the world why New Orleans is a cultural capital of the Americas. “August became our incubator for talent…the nucleus of our company,” Besh said.
His restaurants are now perennial favorites of the New Orleans and national press. Esquire Magazine just named his restaurant — Shaya, a joint effort between John Besh and Chef John Shaya which serves Israeli cuisine — the best new restaurant of 2015. “In general we don’t open concepts but rather restaurants that reflect the passions of our chefs,” Besh said. “Superior food or service without soul is feckless.” The group’s restaurants emphasize a fresh spin on traditional cooking, whether it’s pizza (Domenica), falafel (Shaya), or tacos (Johnny Sanchez), made lovingly, served with Southern hospitality, and preferably located in a landmark they helped revitalize.
Future Projects: Look for four new eateries inside the iconic Pontchartrain Hotel, which Besh Restaurant Group is helping renovate, as well as philanthropic projects that involve food. “We have plans to grow in business, but not girth.”
Location(s): NYC; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Las Vegas; Montreal; Toronto; London; Singapore
Key Restaurants: Daniel, db Bistro Moderne
Notable Awards: James Beard Awards, Three Michelin Stars (Daniel), Four Stars for Daniel (New York Times)
Key Players: Daniel Boulud
Notable Dish: Quail Galantine at Daniel
Why You Should Care: Daniel, the 1993 brainchild of French chef Daniel Boulud, shot him to international culinary stardom, and he’s been opening restaurants ever since in places from Singapore to London. The group focuses on contemporary high-end French cuisine, although it has Mediterranean (Boulud Sud) and American fare (DBGB Kitchen & Bar) as well.
Future Projects: Look for more restaurants like DBGB Kitchen and Bar, a New York and D.C. restaurant that serves American dishes made with French technique.
Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group
Location(s): New Orleans, Las Vegas, New York City, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Los Angeles
Key Restaurants: Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, Eataly
Significant Awards: Best New Restaurant (New York Times, James Beard Foundation), New York Times 3 Stars
Key Players: Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, Lydia Bastianich
Notable Dish: Beef Cheek Ravioli with Black Truffles and Castelmagno (Babbo)
Why You Should care: Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe Bastianich are all Italian food superstars. Their company has an almost myopic focus on Italian food, but that focus has resulted in some of the best Italian restaurants in the country. The trio’s first effort, Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, was met with rapturous reviews, and they’ve followed success with success. Eataly was B&B’s attempt to recreate an authentic Italian market experience in New York. It’s now the largest Italian market in the world.
Future Projects: More Eataly locations and a new restaurant in the Maritime Hotel called La Sirena, which will open any day now.
Restaurants in One City or Region
Happy Cooking Hospitality
Location(s): New York City
Key Restaurants: Joseph Leonard’s, Montmartre
Notable Awards: Restaurateur of The Year 2012 (Esquire)
Key Players: Gabriel & Gina Stulman
Notable Dish: Egg in a Hole at Fedora
Why You Should Care: The group portray themselves as people who love food, and their reliable eats and unpretentious service have won Happy Cooking Hospitality a cult following. Starting with Joseph Leonard, a restaurant in the West Village that serves “rustic American Food,” they’ve kept growing with the goal of having their restaurants become institutions in the neighborhood. Their food is as diverse as other, larger groups on the list (although they “hope they feel similar”) — from Perla, an Italian eatery with a “hip-hop spirit,” to Jeffrey’s Grocery, an oyster bar.
Future Projects: Montmartre will close in early 2016 and they’ll focus on their existing locations for the time being.
Mcguire Moorman Hospitality
Key Restaurants: Jeffrey’s, Josephine House
Notable Awards: Top 10 Best New Restaurants 2013 (Bon Appétit)
Key Players: Larry McGuire, Tom Moorman
Notable Dish: Texas Porterhouse (Jeffrey’s)
Why You Should Care: Austin food group McGuire Moorman has six restaurants, all in Texas. The group’s origins are quintessentially Austin — a couple of friends starting an upscale barbecue place in the heart of the city. “Lamberts started with just me roping in a couple of friends and the chef I had been working for for years,” CEO Larry McGuire said. “Three of us were 25 or under when it opened. We thought we knew what we were doing but really had no idea and those first two years were super hard.” Besides local favorite Jeffrey’s, duo Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman have opened a cafe (Elizabeth St. Cafe), seafood restaurants (Perla’s & Clarks Oyster Bar) and steakhouses.
Future Projects: The group is working on projects as diverse as an ice cream truck, a cafe for Austin retail store ByGeorge, and an unnamed neighborhood restaurant with a bar program designed by June Rodil, a master sommelier.
Barbara Lynch Gruppo
Key Restaurants: Menton, B&G Oysters, No. 9 Park
Notable Awards: Relais & Chateux Designation, Best of Boston (Boston Magazine), AAA Four Diamond, Five Stars (Forbes)
Key Players: Barbara Lynch
Notable Dish: Tart of Foie Gras (Menton)
Why You Should Care: The Barbara Lynch Restaurant Gruppo owns some of Boston’s best restaurants, including the eatery at its only Releais & Chateaux hotel property, Menton. The group emphasizes their relationship with local farmers and growers, and their most interesting project right now may be Stir, a demonstration kitchen and store aimed at turning food lovers into better chefs.
Location(s): San Diego
Key Restaurants: Craft & Commerce, El Dorado, Soda & Swine
Notable Awards: 2011 Top 50 Bars in the Country (Food & Wine), 2012 Best Bar Food in the US (Food & Wine)
Key Players: Arsalun Tafazoli, Nathan Stanton
Notable Dish: Burgers, without ketchup, at Craft & Commerce
Why You Should Care: CH Projects’ strong standards have created controversy before. Vodka, ketchup, and televisions have been banished from all of their locations. Their goal is to create community, not feed people, so projects include a barbershop, a retro drug store that serves food and a number of cocktail lounges. Their restaurants and bars are designed to create conversation and encourage community. “What you’re left with is a renewed focus on human contact and connection, and that’s the philosophy that’s dictated our 12 concepts so far,” co-founder Arsalun Tafazoli said.
Future Projects: CH Projects is doing a total physical and menu overhaul of Craft and Commerce; opening a tiki bar, False Idol, in 2016; and working on an unnamed project for summer 2016. All are in San Diego.
Boka Restaraunt Group
Key Restaurants: Boka, Girl & the Goat
Notable Awards: 4 Diamond AAA, Chef of the Year (Eater), Best New Restaurant (James Beard Foundation, Chicago Tribune), Michelin star
Key Players: Rob Katz, Kevin Boehm
Notable Dish: Goat Liver Mousse (Girl & the Goat)
Why You Should Care: The duo behind Boka Restaurant Group, Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm, have been creating some of America’s best restaurants for years. Their secret? They collaborate with some of America’s best chefs, such as Mark Hellyar. “It usually starts with a concept or a chef, and a long discussion about what we are trying to create,” said Kevin Boehm, co-owner of Boka. “That discussion will be the foundation for finding a piece of real estate and what neighborhood fits the concept.” The result of this process is an almost unparalleled pedigree, with a Michelin star for Boka, James Beard awards, perennial status atop “best of” Chicago lists, and general international acclaim. Even the PB&J at their coffee place has an award (it’s one of the Chicago Tribune‘s 50 Best Sandwiches in Chicago).
Future Projects: “We are opening Duck Duck Goat in March of 2016, GT Prime in June of 2016, and have another restaurant planned for the summer of 2017,” Boehm said.