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The 12 Top Bucket List Restaurants in America

Here are NiC's picks for the dozen most "wow" restaurant dining experiences in the U.S. with food so good, one meal is worth the price of the entire vacation. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
10/10/2014 06:19pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Here are a dozen of the best restaurants in the U.S. you absolutely, positively have to experience. You only live once, right?

Some tourists are always grabbing a quick bite while taking in the sights. And then there are the rest of us, who are apt to plan entire trips around what we're going to eat. Looking for that one to-die-for meal to celebrate a special occasion? Here are NiC's picks for the dozen most "wow" restaurant dining experiences in the U.S. with food so good, one meal is worth the price of the entire vacation. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

At Alinea, dinner really is a show, from the entry tickets you purchase ahead of time (like at the theater), to the creative dishes. When you sit down for your meal, be prepared for anything--from courses you eat right off the table to gimmicks such as an apple-flavored "balloon" made of sugar, which you can suck the helium out of to sound like a chipmunk. It's all amazing.

Located in one of the oldest wineries in Napa, local resident, television host, Top Chef Master and vintner Michael Chiarello wins raves with his artisanal Italian fare. His risotto just may be the best on the planet, and his reduced sauces will have you licking your plate.

The one that started the national obsession with savory New Orleans restaurants (and propelled Emeril Lagasse to stardom) is still the best. They also offer the greatest brunch experience around, with weekends serving up only-in-New-Orleans jazz with heaping plates of local favorites such as whiskey-soaked peaches, beef brisket and zesty barbecued shrimp over mascarpone grits.

What dining should look, feel and taste like, the tasting menu-only Eleven Madison is old-school opulence personified. Before dinner at this bastion of modern American cuisine, check the health of your Google Images results, as the maitre d' famously researches all reservations ahead of time, so he can address guests by name.

In a town so filled with trendy gastronomic musts, Gary Danko takes it old school in the best possible way, from impeccable timing on his three-, four- and five-course meals, to iconic favorites such as lobster and caviar. Oh, and the legendary cheese cart is a must: Choose an array from the gorgeous display, and then indulge on pieces of just-sweet-enough raisin bread.

Jean George Vongerichten has internationally famous restaurants all over the planet, but the winner is his three Michelin-starred location on Manhattan's Central Park West, the city the French-born chef now calls home. Jean-George is an ode to minimalism, its dishes boasting an every-bite-counts precision you have to experience to believe. Save room for dessert--I'm not kidding.

Every dish in the 16-course degustation menu is a work of art at Joel Robuchon's The Mansion at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. As the name suggests, the restaurant is reminiscent of an extremely ornate private home, down to the gold-accented dishes. A bread cart that is nothing less than a masterpiece, three plates of delicious desserts and a meal for the memory books in between--this all-night- event is what destination food travel is all about. Perfection.

The single best ambassador for all that is great about Miami Beach, this no-fuss eatery is legendary for many, many reasons. First, who could resist a meal of perfect stone crabs after a day in the sun on South Beach? Every celebrity in the world (Tom Cruise once lived nearby) has eaten at this hot spot, which now has a bustling to go off-post for those who prefer to eat their seafood at a private picnic.

Widely deemed the best seafood restaurant in the world, dapper Executive Chef Eric Ripert is also famous for ensuring the most incredible service. Spring for the Chef's Tasting; it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience of his infamous "almost raw," "barely touched" and "lightly looked" courses. This is an absolute must on your next trip to Gotham. You'll be dreaming of this meal for years to come.

Mr. Chow is easy to dismiss for its Hollywood A-List crowd and paparazzi hovering outside, but the meal from top to bottom is a sumptuous feast of modern Chinese dishes. Don't have time for a sit-down meal? Take in the scene at the small, but lively (celebrity-filled) bar.

No serious food person can claim that title without experiencing the magic that is Thomas Keller's Per Se. You'll be raving about your meal for months. Forgoing meat? No problem--Keller is one of very few French-American chefs who offers a (mouth-watering) vegetarian tasting menu option.

There's something magical about taking in the rolling green hills of The French Laundry's magnificent gardens before walking into the famous brick building in Yountville. From the famous salmon cornet greeting to the melt-in-your-mouth desserts, the ingredients and flavor profiles are out of this world. This is what Heaven must be serving for dinner.

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