The National 38

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Yesterday, while my plane from Vegas was somewhere over the Great Plains, the first-ever National 38 debuted on Eater. This is a big deal: it’s the first time that Eater has endeavored to name a best-of list for the whole country, and the culmination of several years of thinking about how best to do that.

The idea of a roving critic for Eater first came to Amanda Kludt and me during a trip to the Pacific Northwest in September 2012. We were dining at Canlis, arguably Seattle’s best fine dining restaurant, and the Canlis brothers joined our table, where talked turned to the lack of professional restaurant coverage in their city. What if, Amanda and I wondered, Eater could employ a critic to roam around the country, essentially doing for the best restaurants in America what Pete Wells does for New York City at the Times?

The idea, of course, required big resources — much bigger resources than Eater had at that time. A year later, though, when the company was acquired by Vox Media, we suddenly had a mandate from Vox CEO Jim Bankoff to think larger about what Eater could accomplish. Our thoughts returned to the roving critic idea. We’d need not just a well salaried position, but a travel and dining budget to match the ambitions. And then we’d need to find someone crazy enough to spend 40 weeks on the road, eating everywhere and anywhere the burgeoning restaurant world took them.

We found that man in Atlanta, in Bill Addison. Bill started at Eater in April, and from then through year-end 2014, by his own math, ate 263 on-the-clock meals in 29 cities during 147 days in the field. I’m not sure there’s ever been a dining binge of this magnitude, at least not one chronicled in realtime as Bill did with The Road to the 38.

When the road work was finished, it was time for the final summation. We didn’t want the National 38 to be a list just of fancy tasting menu places, as the Pellegrino 50 Best list largely is. We also didn’t want to rank the restaurants in order, because all Eater 38s are unordered. I think Bill did a brilliant job threading that needle in compiling the final list, including restaurants from Alinea in Chicago to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, broken into several useful categories.

It’s the definitive dining roadmap to 2015. Get after it.