Best Restaurants

2012 Best Restaurants: Tastemakers

Here's to four bright lights of this year's dining scenes



The owners of Blue Plate have redefined the mom and pop diner, just as our society has redefined the vision of the typical American family. Instead of the mister flipping pancakes in the back as the missus chats up the regulars, the mister is a large bald Aussie going a million miles an hour, and the missus is a firecracker, hugging the mayor and sitting on media panels. And they aren’t even married. Anymore.

David Burley and Stephanie Shimp married shortly after starting the company and, remarkably, kept it going after they split. Shimp’s brother Luke came aboard, and the three of them set about building an empire. From the original Highland Grill grew seven successful restaurants, with two opening last year. These urban diners/eateries have all the modern trappings—the right ingredients and the perfect balance of sass and comfort. But the key that keeps this company flourishing and will do so for the next 20 years is downright old-fashioned: the owners’ involvement in community.

It’s not about how many charity events you cook for or how many gift cards you dole out. Plenty are great at that. For the Blue Plate gang, it’s more about actually being in the mix. The owners don’t sit in some cushy corporate office, and they don’t eat from their kitchens alone. They are out supporting other restaurant openings and working with other owners to get community kitchens built. They know the names of the people who work for them, like Jim the line cook who just got a mortgage, because they think, “Oh, man, I have a responsibility to these people to keep it all going.” The owners have funded their growth entirely on their own, but they see their employees as their investors. This year is a year of internal cultivation for them. There won’t be any rapid growth that might explode what they’ve built. Their model for success, it seems, needs no redefining.