Best New Restaurants 2023 // No. 1 Wright's Tavern
Owner Matt McGuire and executive chef Cary McDowell’s initial motivation for Wright’s Tavern was to create a restaurant that served the kind of food they wanted to eat. McGuire and McDowell built themselves a place to enjoy a great steak and a Caesar salad, but more importantly, their Clayton steakhouse also tapped into a communal longing: for delicious food and drinks, genuine hospitality, and the unbridled enjoyment that a really lovely restaurant can deliver.
McGuire believes Wright’s Tavern has proved itself a perfect fit for this moment in time. “For this time, for that neighborhood, for that space,” he said. “You never know until you do it, but I think it's hit all of those things for sure.” Wright’s promises – and delivers – consistency, certainty and comfort in an era lacking those qualities.
McGuire never reads the reviews of Wright’s, positive or negative, but he can take a guess at what irks its critics. “The negative reviews are probably that it lacks exoticism: It's a French dip roast beef sandwich, a hamburger, steak frites, halibut, salmon, whatever,” he said. “Those criticisms, if you can consider them to be criticisms, are true. But I celebrate the straightforwardness of it. It personally makes me feel very at ease when I'm there.”
People dress up to go to Wright’s, and the servers are sharply attired, but it’s never stuffy: You’re here to feel good, not to feel judged or observed. You’re never far from other diners, and conversation between tables comes easily. This isn’t everyone’s style, and that’s fine, but we love a restaurant where a civilized meal feels like it could imminently spill over into a rambunctious party.
Wright’s is driven by the conviction that the simple food is the best; its ambition is to cook the best version of that food you’ve ever had. The greatest hits collection at Wright’s already includes the shrimp scampi with its addictive garlic-and-chile sauce, the wedge salad with blue cheese and smoked bacon, the perfectly flaky potato-crusted halibut with lemon beurre blanc, and the salt and cream of the heady dauphinoise potatoes. McGuire said the simplicity and familiarity of these dishes creates its own challenges. “You can't hide behind anything with some notions of novelty,” he said.
Sourcing and execution make all the difference here. Take Wright’s baked crab cake for example, which features colossal lump crab from Fortune Fish & Gourmet in Chicago. “Colossal is just basically the largest pieces of blue crab that you can get,” McGuire said. “There’s not any filler in there.” The crab cake is seasoned with salt and pepper, has just enough egg and dairy for binding, and is plated atop a delicious red pepper remoulade. It’s one of the very best dishes we’ve had this year, and no visit to Wright’s is complete without it.
McDowell has worked in the kitchens of some genuinely top-tier restaurants in New York City; he knows and respects the value of creative, innovative cooking. But at Wright’s, he embraces the pursuit of metronomic consistency and excellence. “I enjoy the discipline and the challenge of staying excited about what are seemingly simple things,” he said.
It’s difficult to rally a kitchen crew’s enthusiasm for making a roasted chicken every day, but McDowell said consistency flows from the application of fundamental principles. He tastes everything, every day. As a result, the cooks know the ingredients are right – and that simplifies the act of cooking. “It was drilled into me years ago, at the very beginning, that was the key,” McDowell said. “Most people are flippant and don’t take the time to do simple things.” McDowell estimates that he’s made every creme brulee that Wright’s has produced to date. So far, only two have failed the taste test. “That’s not bad, if you play the odds,” he said.
The kitchen invests the same level of care in each item, regardless of price or perceived significance. For McDowell, the butter served with your bread deserves as much attention as the rib-eye sourced from Iowa Premium, a co-op run by several family farms producing corn-fed Black Angus beef. “It may not be expensive butter, but it's good butter, with great salt and great olive oil, done correctly at the right temperature and the right composition, with a really good piece of bread,” he said.
“Variance is not rewarded,” McGuire said. “If you come in and you have something and you enjoy it, and hopefully you do, the way that the business works is that you bring your friend in the next time and it has to be the exact same way that you had it when you were there, otherwise the business doesn't work.” He puts the restaurant’s pommes frites forward as an example of the rigorous processes the kitchen repeats, day after day: Russet potatoes are cut, soaked in ice cold water, then blanched. The blanched potatoes are chilled again before finally being fried during service. “It’s an arduous process and it’s a little bit of a pain, but it’s also what adds up to be a really good chip [in the British sense],” McGuire said.
As a customer, it’s easy to take a well-oiled restaurant operation for granted – as some do at McGuire’s other restaurant, Louie – but what looks effortless to the untrained eye is the result of years of experience, untold hours of hard work and a diligent, gifted team that includes capable lieutenants. McGuire oversees operations on the restaurant floor, but gives credit to Sean Thomas and Rickey Whalen for leading the front-of-house team, while Sam DeClue and Josh Poletti run the kitchen under McDowell’s overall guidance.
McDowell said being present in the restaurant is another simple but critical part of his, and McGuire’s, contribution to Wright’s success. “I'm confident that I don't have to be here on any given day, because these guys are prepared, but I also see the benefit of me being here every day,” McDowell said. He talks about his “daily dialogue” with McGuire, aided by the wealth of experience they bring to the table, their understanding of the other’s role, and the deep respect and friendship between them. It’s rare to find a restaurant where the front and back of house are so finely balanced, and the diner reaps the rewards.
Wright’s is earnest about the things that really matter, but isn’t averse to a dash of mischievous fun in the appropriate places. From the indulgent martini (with accompanying sidecar) to the riotous ice cream sundae, the moments of jaw-dropping awe and delight are the cherry on top of a rich feast, served with charismatic aplomb. Whether it’s your place for special occasions, or a weekly haunt, Wright’s Tavern was the restaurant we all wanted to eat at in 2023, and there’s really no debate: It’s this year’s Best New Restaurant.