The current culinary scene changes and grows so rapidly that it can be difficult for unfamiliar diners to know where to go. It can be even more difficult for a long-established restaurant to stay true to itself, sometimes collapsing under the weight of demands that they keep up with what's trendy.
That's why it's so important to honor the restaurants that don't bow to the pressure – and never have. With a real emphasis on community, authenticity and exceptional cuisine, these restaurants have set a new bar for what it means to be an American classic. It's fitting, then, that they've been honored with the America's Classics award by the James Beard Foundation.
More than restaurants, these locations are pillars of their respective communities, and it's well worth planning a visit to each one.
Bertha's Kitchen | Charleston, S.C.
Look for the bright blue building on North Meeting Street in Charleston, which practically beckons you to explore the Gullah delights within, and you'll be home – at Bertha's Kitchen. Opened in 1980, the legacy of Albertha Grant and her cuisine lives on in her daughters Julia Grant, Linda Pinckney and Sharon Coakley who skillfully serve up the secret recipes that have filled the hearts – and stomachs – of loyal locals for years.
Regulars know to show up for the lunch rush early, as crowds line up for their fill of the incredibly reasonably-priced fare. Portion sizes are so generous that two diners will feel more than satisfied, all for $18. Selections include soul food favorites like fried whiting, fried chicken, fried pork chops, red rice, prioleau rice, stewed chicken neck with gizzards, mac 'n cheese, cornbread and lima beans.
What makes this worth the trip: The traditional food ways in practice here prove that the region's culinary history is not only alive and well, but thriving in a world that yearns for it.
What to try: Fried whiting and red rice, or go for the fried chicken and a helping of the mac 'n cheese.
Gioia's Deli | St. Louis
If you've ever been to St. Louis, you probably know about The Hill neighborhood. It has strong ties to the Italian-American community and is the place to go for the best Italian food. Having been in operation in one form or another for decades, Gioia's Deli is continuing to serve the community in ways that are true to its roots.
Prior to its conversion to a lunch restaurant in 1980, it was a grocery store run by Challie Gioia, who arrived in St. Louis by way of Marcallo, Italy. 99 years later, the deli still serves the same hot salami as Gioia, made from a secret recipe. And it's important to note that the salami is hot in temperature, not in spice.
What makes this worth the trip: This longstanding spot has been diligently committed to serving quality food, and giving back to the community, throughout its many years.
What to try: As you might've guessed, the hot salami is highly recommended. Topped with Provel (a cheese popular with the locals), the sandwich is not only Italian, it's St. Louisan.
La Taqueria | San Francisco
If you crave Mexican food in San Francisco, there's only one place to go: the Mission district. Taqueria after taqueria offer their unique takes on burritos, and it's hotly contested among aficionados which eatery has the best one. That brings us to La Taqueria.
Like a beacon in a sea of options, La Taqueria has stood tall offering quality burritos, the origins of which cannot be traced to any specific regional style in Mexico. The owner, Miguel Jara, is from Jalisco but spent his formative years in Tijuana. He's made his own way and style in the world of burritos, eschewing rice in favor of more meat, because the meat is just that good. The long lines that form daily, and weave out the door, prove it.
What makes it worth the trip: You'll be sampling a burrito that was famous before the phrase "mission-style burrito" even existed. Plus, Jara is so welcoming and friendly that you'll feel like a regular.
What to try: You've got to get the carne asada burrito, and try to sample the chorizo too.
Sahadi's | Brooklyn, N.Y.
In 1898, Abrahim Sahadi opened a market in downtown Manhattan. That business has been passed down through generations, and it has since made a move to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, but the commitment to quality hasn't changed. Surrounded by other Middle Eastern groceries, restaurants and bakeries, Sahadi's is the mainstay.
More of an experience than an ordinary shopping trip, you could wander the aisles for hours, sifting through pistachios, spices, coffee, olives and 150 different cheeses. In the deli, you'll find creamy hummus, while Middle Eastern breads and baklava await in its bakery. You might even meet Mr. Sahadi as he patrols the store, making sure that everyone is satisfied.
What makes it worth the trip: A real family affair, you can see the passion of the owners come through in the quality and wide assortment of their inventory. Not to mention, everything is crazy fresh thanks in part to the loyal shoppers who clear the shelves on a regular basis.
What to try: Don't leave without trying the hummus and baklava. And be sure to stock up on nuts and candy while you're there. The selection is unmatched, as are the prices.
Schultz's Crab House | Essex, Md.
Situated just outside Baltimore, Schultz's Crab House has been operating since 1950. It might feel a bit retro as you walk into the dining room, adorned with wood paneling, nautical decor and tables covered in white paper. It's a signal that the restaurant remains unchanged and steady, both in the quality of their food and their character.
Packed with locals, especially during Maryland crab season, Schultz's maintains a menu with a regional focus, along with expected seafood restaurant staples. You'll find crab served multiple ways, including soft crab, lump crab cakes, crab fluff (a fried crab cake) and crab bisque, as well as seafood platters and steaks.
What makes it worth the trip: The staff here are so helpful and attentive that you'll feel as if you're a regular at this neighborhood joint. Furthermore, the food is consistently fantastic and has been for years.
What to try: The crab here is well-seasoned, setting it apart from other local spots and making it a must-try – especially during summer and fall. Locals also swear by the sour beef, which is available September through March.