Food & Drink

Who Will Win This Year’s Top Restaurant Honors?

Running the numbers on the Southern crop of 2020 James Beard Award semifinalists—the first step in earning the hospitality industry’s highest accolade

photo: Jack Sorokins, Scott Suchman, Andrew Thomas Lee

2020 James Beard semifinalists include: Ashleigh Shanti of Asheville’s Benne on Eagle (Rising Star Chef); Evrim & Evin Dogu of Richmond’s Sub Rosa Bakery (Outstanding Baker); Bryan Furman of Atlanta’s B’s Cracklin’ BBQ (Best Chef: Southeast).

LSU may have taken home the NCAA national championship trophy and Texans Renée Zellweger and Tanya Tucker their respective Oscar and Grammys, but awards season is far from over. The James Beard Foundation Awards—the hospitality industry’s highest honor—are just getting started. Last week, the foundation announced this year’s entries into its “America’s Classics” hall of fame (you can read more about the two Southern designees here). And this week, the real race begins with the announcement of this year’s semifinalists in a dozen best restaurant, bar, and chef categories. For the past several years, Southern chefs have fared especially well when the list of semifinalists is whittled down to the official nominees and then winners (which will occur this year on March 25 and May 4, respectively). From a purely numerical standpoint, this year’s odds favor Southern chefs in several of the big, nationwide categories.

Eleven of the thirty Rising Star Chef semifinalists hail from Southern establishments, and nine of the chefs are women, including Ashleigh Shanti of Benne on Eagle in Asheville, Marciela Vega of 8ARM in Atlanta, and Ana Castro of Thalia in New Orleans. One-third of this year’s thirty Best New Restaurant semifinalists are Southern—several of whom might be familiar to G&G readers. And of the twenty Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalists, seven are Southern, including Ouita Michel, of Kentucky’s beloved Holly Hill Inn and Midway Bakery and Café, among others, who returns to the category this year. Six of the twenty Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer semifinalists are Southern, including Charleston’s High Wire Distilling (a four-time semifinalist and G&G Made in the South Awards winner). Further boosting the regional firepower: This year marks the first time that Texas has been given its own geographic “Best Chef” category.

photo: PEter Frank Edwards
From left: Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall of Charleston’s High Wire Distilling Co.

The odds for a Southern win in the Outstanding Restaurant category diminish slightly—of the twenty semifinalists, five are Southern, including Charleston’s FIG (though it’s the restaurant’s second consecutive appearance, and the team took home the medal for Outstanding Wine Program in 2018). The same odds apply to Outstanding Chef, where three of the five Southerners—Asheville’s John Fleer, New Orleans’s Donald Link, and Washington D.C.’s Vikram Sunderam—are repeat semifinalists, and Ann Cashion of D.C.’s Johnny’s Half Shell and Justin Yu of Houston’s Theodore Rex are new to the category this year.

One Southerner who’s not new to the Beard list: Cindy Wolf, of Baltimore’s Charleston restaurant, who is now a thirteen-time nominee or semifinalist in the Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic category—the most in Beard history. Wolf has joked about being the Susan Lucci of the awards—a nod to the soap opera actress who was famously nominated nineteen times before finally taking home an Emmy award.

Find the full list here. It represents culinary talent from all across the country, which also makes it a pretty useful guide if you’re planning a trip and want to know where to make reservations.